6 career myths you shouldn’t fall for

You’ve probably heard the same bits of career advice tossed around over and over from well-meaning friends, relatives, and even bosses. But plenty of the maxims that we hear repeated actually aren’t true. Here are six of the most popular career myths that you shouldn’t fall for.

1. A college degree will get you a job. Generations of students have been told that if they get a college degree, they’ll easily find a job afterwards. Unfortunately, it’s no longer so clear-cut. Degrees no longer open doors the way they used to, and too many new graduates are remaining unemployed or under-employed for months or even years, as employers opt for more experienced candidates. This is frustrating and confusing for graduates, who often feel that they did everything they were supposed to and they’re not getting the pay-off they were promised would come.

2. Do what you’re passionate about and the money will follow. In reality, not all passions match up with the realities of the job market. If you’re passionate about poetry or painting, you’re going to find very limited job opportunities for those things. In fact, the people who get to do what they love for a job are the lucky ones; they’re not the majority. A better goal is to find work that you can do reasonably happily; it doesn’t need to be your passion.

3. If you can’t find a job, just start your own business. Starting your own business is hard, and it’s not for everyone. It’s not as easy as just having a skill and selling it. You have to have something that buy people to buy from you more than they want to be it from your competitors, be able to market yourself, deal with financial uncertainty, have some savings as a launch pad, and overcome plenty of other challenges. It’s not a cure-all for anyone who can’t find a job or is unhappy in their career.

4. Your major in college will lead to your career. Students often come out of school thinking that their major will lead them directly to their life-long career path, but it’s very often not the case – especially for majors in the liberal arts. You might have an English degree but end up in HR, or a sociology degree but end up selling ads, or a music degree but end up as a professional fundraiser. On the other hand, degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math are more likely to end up pointing you toward a more defined career path.

5. If you’re not sure what you want to do, go to grad school. Grad school makes sense when you want to follow a career path that requires an advanced degree. But it’s a bad use of time and money if you’re hoping it will somehow point you down a career path, or if you’re going because you’re not sure what else to do. Many people who go to grad school for lack of a better option come out a few years later saddled with large student loans, and not any better positioned than they were before they enrolled. Which leads us to…

6. Grad school will always make you more marketable. Grad school generally will not make you more marketable unless you’re going into a field that specifically requires a graduate degree. In fact, it can make you lesscompetitive, by keeping you from getting work experience for that much longer and requiring you to find a higher-paying job than you might otherwise need because you need to pay back school loans – and even worse, if you apply for jobs that have nothing to do with your graduate degree, many employers will think you don’t really want the job you’re applying for, since it’s not in “your field.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 102 comments… read them below }

  1. Noelle

    All great points. I was thinking about some of these the other day (particularly the college leading to career and doing what you’re passionate about). I’m a performance arts major but I work in a completely different field that I never had any interest in prior to college. I’ve been able to advance and have found a lot about my work that I love, so even though it isn’t a passion it’s still something I’m good at and enjoy. What’s ironic is that most of the people I know from college who studied in my field have not gotten jobs in it, and I get contacted a lot from current students who are studying in my field and want to know how I got a job in it. As unhelpful as it sounds, I really just got an entry level job after college, worked there a few years, decided what parts of the job I liked and what I hated, and at my next job tried to find one that had more things I liked. It’s a really slow process to break into a field, and a lot of the time it’s easier to find a career path when you aren’t set on one thing only.

    1. EM

      That’s actually really great advice for new grads. I think there’s also another misconception that breaking into any particular field involves something special. Usually the answer is that one starts at the bottom, puts in their dues, and then moves up to more interesting things. In my field, it’s crappy fieldwork. In others it’s a boring data entry or customer service position or what have you. I think people really want the answer to be something different than, “It took a lot of hard, sometimes crappy work, and a long time.”

      1. Noelle

        Exactly! I feel bad because they always seem to assume there’s some magic thing you can do to get a job in the field you want. My field is incredibly competitive (although it was less so when I first began working 5 years ago) and it just take a long long time to get ahead.

      2. Laura L

        not just crappy work, but boring, non-challenging work. The hardest part for me in my first two jobs after college was not being intellectually challenged at all. Luckily, I learned to buckle down anyway and am slowly working on getting into more interesting jobs, but I wish I’d known that from the beginning.

  2. Dan

    AAM,

    I have a math/science degree, so education has generally defined career paths for me. I can’t speak for lib arts types.

    I would like to “second” your advice on grad school. I have a math degree from a business school, and it’s worked out well for me. But, and a big “but”, I had a plan when I started school. I had blue-collar industry experience that I wanted to parlay into a better white-collar analytic type job. When I got out of school, I networked at conferences and ended up getting two offers from companies who wanted both my blue-collar and academic experiences. (Oddly, I got no offers from other companies.) Part of me thinks I got lucky, (this was in ’08) and part of me thinks that’s what happens when you have a reasonable plan and work towards it. I’m not sure what would have happened if I went to grad school “just ’cause.”

    1. Noelle

      As a liberal arts type, I would be unemployed and living with my parents if I had tried to get a job in my field. I got an entry level job in a completely unrelated field and then went to grad school to study in that area after I was sure I liked that career path. I would never have just gone to grad school as a way of prolonging my job search or without knowing it would be useful in my job.

  3. Kelly O

    You have no idea how frustrating #3 can be – if you can’t find a job, just make your own. It’s presented as this easy, one-size-fits-all solution that anyone can do. All you need is a copy of the E-Myth and Doing Your Own Business Taxes for Dummies and you’re set, right?

    The truth of the matter is, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, and that’s okay. It’s not because I don’t “want it bad enough” it’s just that I don’t want that.

    I see #5 and #6 playing out for some friends now – they are having a tough time finding a job, and so the solution is “let’s go to grad/law school!” I mentioned this on another thread, but a friend of mine graduated from law school a few years ago. It was her dream, she talked of nothing else as long as I’ve known her. She’s struggling with loan repayments, craptastic hours and pay that is not as high as it was in the past because there are so many new law grads and the supply is starting to outpace demand (especially at good firms/companies.)

    I’m speaking particularly to business schools – MBA programs and that sort of thing – I just am not seeing people getting the dividends they used to from it. In other fields, advanced degrees are required, and I’m certainly not talking specifically about medicine or education, which are their own particular beasts. But I do see 22 year old students who can’t find a job and go get that MBA and think that they’re not only now more qualified but should be making more… almost always disappointed.

    As an aside, I worked at a grocery store in college for a while. The department manager I worked with had two Masters degrees in art and art history. He was managing the produce department at a regional grocery store and trying to repay student loans.

      1. Mike C.

        That’s an especially glutted market, christ. And yet they’re all fed the line that they’ll all be making 200k/year when they’re done. False advertising if you ask me.

        1. mh_76

          No kidding. My little brother is a lawyer and he makes maybe 1/5 that, working for a family friend’s firm because his hard-core job search* didn’t pan into a job (few interviews, no offers that I know of). On the + side, he loves his boss, the fam. friends are still fam. friends, they’re busy, and he’s learning OTJ what he didn’t learn in law school…the best way to learn. He also has a seasonal job as a HS coach.
          *(I tried to talk him out of resume-bombing for anything even non-legal stuff, I really did)

          Schools in general are guilty of such false advertising…sigh…

        2. Rana

          I have to admit that the thought of one job for every two graduates as being “especially glutted” makes me laugh, ruefully. I wish I’d had such good odds when I’d graduated, with my doctorate in history…

      2. AG

        It’s true. I’ve worked for Big Law and boutique firms since the 2008 crash, and considered going back to law school myself for awhile. But the hours are long, the pay is about half what it used to be for the average graduate, and the price of law school hasn’t adjusted to that reality. There’s a huge bubble in law school education. Every state but Wyoming and the District of Columbia is graduating 2x the number of new lawyers it can actually support. I’ll keep my admin job and work on increased training, skills, and certifications as it will actually make me MORE marketable than a new lawyer, go figure.

        Supporting articles:
        http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/the-lawyer-surplus-state-by-state/

        http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/an-existential-crisis-for-law-schools.html?_r=0

        http://abovethelaw.com/2011/06/the-oversupply-of-lawyers-in-america/

    1. Mike C.

      You know, I’m really, really wondering how much of the business school stuff is actually useful, and how much of it is nothing more than a social class membership card or networking opportunity.

        1. Sasha

          Me as well, I used to develop online courses and a large chunk of what I developed was for MBA programs. A lot of it was just plain common sense to me. There were certainly things that were not common knowledge, but it seems like if I really wanted to be a “business” person or an entreprenuer I’d be better served getting a mentor.

          1. The IT Manager

            Mee too! I’m biased because I think I have no desire to run my own or anyone else’s business. But I don’t think many MBA programs are essentially useful – especially those night-school programs. (I question the usefulness of pretty much all of those night-school programs whether they are for profit or non-profit schools.)

            I have a friend getting her MBA now and I was worried for her because she was a full-time student/unemployeed when she started. She now has a full-time job so I hope she can keep it. In this case, though, if she does it just proves that she did not need the MBA to get the job in the first place.

        2. Jamie

          I’ve seen it as a requirement mostly in higher level accounting. Yes, in my state you can sit for the CPA/CMA tests with a BS/BA – but you need 24 hours of accounting classes so it often means adding to undergrad anyway – or you can get an MBA with an emphasis in accounting.

          That said, there are plenty of jobs in the accounting wheelhouse not requiring a CPA/CMA – but you might hit the ceiling before CFO in many firms without one.

          My experience is manufacturing where emphasis is always on what have you done (and what have you done lately) as opposed to what did you learn in school so my experience isn’t all encompassing – but I will say I don’t see an MBA listed as a requirement for any position very often in my field.

          That said – some of the best networkers I’ve ever known have been MBA’s. The ones that go on sports outings, vacations together, give each other business…usually met in B-School. It wouldn’t be worth it to me, personally, but they are teaching some serious networking skills in their super secret club meetings.

          1. Kelly O

            I know a few accountants who have their Masters’ in Accountancy, but they all chose to go that route rather than the MBA, and it seems to have paid off for each of them. (They are all also CPAs, in the spirit of full disclosure.) They also all got their M.A. in the evenings while working in the day, too.

            The thing that I hear a ton is “well, if you get your MBA you get all these great networking opportunities!” which on the surface just feels like an excuse to stand around some really nice art gallery/museum/new office, drink wine and beer and commiserate about how hard it is for them to find jobs. I realize it may be more than that, but when you talk about what happened, and see the pictures, that looks like about it. A bunch of vaguely attractive twenty somethings sipping a drink and posing for pictures.

            The law grads are almost worse, because there remains this fallacy that lawyers are all practically rolling in cash, and that paying off law school is nothing. Most of the lawyers I know struggle as much as the next person (with a couple of notable trust-fund examples we’ll exclude on principle.) Yes, there are some that score very well-paying jobs but they’re fewer and farther between than they used to be.

            My friend I mentioned? She wound up losing her first job because the firm decided to hire two part-time paralegals rather than one full-time junior. Saved a ton of money. So not only are some students competing against all the other law grads, but also increasing responsibilities as far as research and prep goes to administrative paraprofessionals.

            I know I’m rambling, I just hate seeing people make these very expensive decisions based on partially true/mostly false information, and then complaining loudly that they can’t find anything.

            1. Laura L

              Yeah, my dad has a master’s in accountancy. I’m considering becoming an accountant and his first piece of advice was “do not get an MBA.”

              I looked into some MBA programs and they don’t have much focus on accounting at all.

        3. anon

          I just finished my MBA last May, and I wouldn’t have my current job without having developed the skills in business school. Though I agree that it may not be the best use of time or money for many people.

      1. Lynn

        My husband has an MBA from a well-regarded school, and in his opinion it’s mostly the latter. He is one of those people who is naturally entrepreneurial and has a successful business, so a lot of budding entrepreneurs ask him if it is worth getting an MBA to learn how to run your own company better. He always tells them, “take all the money you were going to spend on tuition, books, etc, and instead start your business right now. You’ll learn more about business running one than you would in school, and at the end of two years, all the money might not be gone.”

      2. DA

        I have a MBA from a school just below the Ivy League level and all it is good for is a piece of paper looking great on the wall.

  4. Mike C.

    I just want to stress something on #4 – those STEM courses are incredibly useful even if it isn’t your favorite thing to so. The sciences teach you how to examine something from a rigorous/analytical perspective.

    More importantly, taking those math courses will give you the tools to not only analyze data, but will allow you to become more confident in an area that most folks are simply scared of.

    1. Jamie

      This. I am convinced that the problem most people have with math is that they are afraid of it.

      I don’t have Mike’s math degree – but I’m very comfortable with math and I swear when I go to explain something like a weighted average to someone I can HEAR myself turning into Charlie Brown’s teacher in their head. wah wah wah wah wahaaaa.

      Once I convince them to let me walk them through it a lot of times we make progress…but the time it takes to coax someone into learning when they are fully convinced that “it’s too hard” and “I’m not good at that” drives me crazy.

      Math won’t hurt you – I promise it doesn’t bite.

      But the pragmatic side of me knows that this is reality so strong math skills come in handy in a lot of positions – because so many people won’t touch it.

      1. Sasha

        I agree, and the same can be said of some of the liberal arts classes, like writing. Knowing how to speak and write concisely and concretely, as well as formulate a logical argument, are invaluable skills.

        I think my point is that you should be well-rounded and don’t automatically exclude certain subjects just because they aren’t your forte or part of your degree. Work hard on your general ed. courses, you can get value from them.

        1. Jamie

          I’ll tell you a secret – I’ve never used anything learned in Art Appreciation. Not once. Or Music Appreciation. Or English Lit beyond comparing a vendor to Mr. Darcy – but not to his face. Although I did love lit classes personally – I was always a voracious reader up until the last year or so – I’ve just never had it come in handy at work.

          In truth I think I would have been better off without the humanity requirements – but that’s just me…I think the part of my brain that can appreciate non-written art forms is severely underdeveloped.

          1. perrik

            English lit can be surprisingly useful. In one class we discussed the concept of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management which emphasizes, among other things, the necessity of matching the employee’s capacity to the job’s requirements. The original writings on the topic wouldn’t exactly be acceptable business writing today, as Taylor suggested that certain ethnicities tended to be strong & dumb and thus ideally suited for certain types of labor when the job was structured to optimize their physical capacity without requiring the mental capacity they lacked. Oh, thought I, this must have influenced Aldous Huxley as this capacity-job matching was a key element in the economic structure of Brave New World.

            Oh, no, I don’t want to play with Delta children… er, but I digress.

          2. Ask a Manager Post author

            I think this gets into some fundamental questions about what college is supposed to be for — and, more importantly, the disconnect between what colleges think the answer to that question is and what everyone else things. Colleges have traditionally seen themselves NOT as preparing students for the workforce, but instead teaching you how to think and giving you a general education. Students and their parents, on the other hand, tend to see college as preparing you for the work world. These two views clash quite a bit, and it explains why so many people come out of school not at all prepared for work.

            1. GeekChic

              I wonder when students and parents started to feel that way about college / university. I definitely didn’t feel that my undergrad (during the late Jurassic) was supposed to prepare me for work and I honestly don’t know many that did outside of very specific programs like nursing and engineering.

              I was a History / Biology double major and even my science-specialist friends didn’t think that way about undergrad back then. Neither did my Dad (don’t know about any other parents).

              Then again, I didn’t attend university in the U.S. so maybe that has something to do with it as well…. I’m not sure.

              1. Katie in Ed

                I went to university in the states, and I didn’t grow up with the myth that a college degree is a de facto ticket to a job. My parents got their degrees from University of Midwestern States at Random Commuter Campuses in the 80s/90s, and both of them cursed the myth all the way to the unemployment line, which heavily influenced my thoughts on higher ed. I’m starting to wonder if this puts me in the minority, however.

                1. AnotherAlison

                  I took the question of Geekchic to be more towards the attitude that college is for Broader Education, not Job Preparation, not whether or not college would guarantee a job, but I see where you’re coming from too.

                  Being a mom, I *do* want college to be job preparation for my kids, although I don’t necessarily believe it will guarantee a job. I look at it like I want my kid to know how to do something the business world finds useful when he graduates, but just because he knows something concrete and marketable in the I am a __ sense (programming, accounting, physical therapy, whatever), doesn’t mean I expect jobs to be sitting there for his taking. I just have even lower expectations for his job outcomes with a softer major, based on what I’ve seen happening to others lately. Design-thinking is nice in theory, but I haven’t seen this return to hiring Arts grads actually materialize yet.

              2. AnotherAlison

                As a parent of a high-schooler, I think the hike in tuition costs really sealed the idea for parents that college should prep you for a j-o-b.

                Even at our local state university, I’ll be looking at $80,000 in tuition+room/board for my son. When I went to school, $20,000 total might have been closer to the norm. I can afford $80K, but I can also buy rental property & make a good ROI with that kind of money. You really have to consider opportunity costs with that kind of expense. With a few votech courses, my son could be qualified for a blue-collar job that pays better than many of the entry-level degree-required jobs. (My husband’s an electrician & my dad’s a truck driver, so I’m know both paths well.) I think there are more long-term opportunities (not necessarily better, but more choices) with a college degree than a trade, but I’m also not going to throw money out the window if it doesn’t seem like the best fit for my kids.

                1. GeekChic

                  That makes sense to me. It also makes me shake my head at the cost of college / university in the U.S.

                  I did three degrees for less than what you quoted for yourself – let alone for your son (granted I had some scholarships but not that many)! I checked with a friend who has a child in university here and they are paying $3,500 / year – and that has people grumbling.

                2. FreeThinkerTX

                  Cost of college: I watched a movie made in 1963 last night. Jimmy Stewart, the father character, complained that his daughter was wasting her elite college education; an education that was incredibly expensive: $2500/year.

                  I almost choked on my tea! That’s the cost of just ONE COURSE in a single semester in many programs in the US.

          3. Xay

            I’ve never used Calculus or Trigonometry in any job I have ever held. But learning how to research, defend and support a position as well as analyze other people’s research and positions (as I learned in my humanities and social sciences courses) has been incredibly valuable in my personal and professional life. So, different strokes for different folks.

            1. KayDay

              This has been my experience as well. The social science classes really emphasize analysis, secondary research, and explaining your position clearly.

              However, I would also argue that the general education requires were very humanities/social sciences heavy and very light on the math/hard science–more balance is definitely needed at my school.

              1. Xay

                My undergrad was pretty balanced with their requirements – I had to take 3 math/science courses for my general requirements hence the Calculus that I never use. I freely admit that I use what I learned in my major specific statistics courses almost every day.

            2. Jamie

              I haven’t either, really, I’m more talking about people having a comfort level with basic jr. high level math and algebra. Averages, ratios, basic stats – percentages – that kind of thing.

              I actually found sociology really fascinating – and I learned so much about applied statistics in that class as well as being opened up to different motivations and the whole concept of demographics. I.e. it was one of those light bulb moments where I realized everyone wasn’t exactly like me with my experiences and it might be nice if I learned something about life outside of my little bubble.

              I also agree that learning how to research, defend, and support a position is invaluable and can be channeled in any career. I don’t think that was something I learned in school – in my family logical and fierce negotiating was a survival skill…but I agree that everyone can benefit from that.

          4. Elizabeth

            Do you never have to write a verbal report to explain the data you pulled out of a system, or write an overview of a large change to a process?

            I’ve had to write an alegbraic equation to give to a vendor for the formula for our reimbursement by Medicare, then write a verbal summary of why we needed programming changed to accommodate the formula change. Being able to understand algebra was critical to write the equation, but being able to translate that equation into something that applications specialists and managers could understand just as important.

            The former took knowledge from my intermediate algebra class from the summer between high school & college; the latter took the skills learned in a series of writing & literature analysis classes my sophomore & junior years of college.

        2. Mike C.

          I would say the most valuable course I took was one on public speaking. Given the multidisciplinary direction of research today, and the amount of attention pseudoscience receives, communications should be a focus of STEM majors.

          1. Jamie

            I had to take a public speaking class in high school. First time I had to get up I couldn’t speak. Stuttered an apology and ran out of the room to vomit.

            I took an F in that class – absolutely refused to get behind the podium ever again.

            I still think about that sometimes, when I’m preparing a presentation for my whole company and I’m annoyed I can’t foist it off on someone else not because I’m nervous – but because it’s boring.

            I would never in a million years have believed I’d ever overcome that particular fear and it’s gone. I may not be the most scintillating speaker you’ve ever heard, but there’s 100% less trembling and throwing up.

      2. Elizabeth West

        Not me; I have a learning disability in math. Which sucks, because as a kid I wanted to be a medical examiner (forensic science). It has really limited me in what I can do. Were I able to do math, I would so be a scientist or would have done computers.

        Unfortunately, I’m good at stuff that doesn’t pay anything (writing). So one more round of school, tech writing this time. Hopefully I will at least be able to make a living so I can do my “passion” on the side. I’m getting really sick of starting from scratch again and again.

      3. Chaucer

        I had to drop out of my pre-med program in college, even with going to office hours, countless studying and completing all the study guides we were given. Trust me, I tried. It’s something that still haunts me to this day, especially as I am now currently underemployed with my liberal arts degrees.

        Some of us just don’t have that aptitude to complete programs like that effectively

      4. Natalie

        I am not a math person (the only math I took in college was basic stats and formal logic), but I’ve been surprised at how few people are willing to use basic math skills in their work. I use middle-school level algebra *constantly*, but I’ve had to walk a surprising amount people through how I came up with simple equations.

        1. Chinook

          This! Working in an office has shown me how useful a lot of what I learned in high school and junior high math and english in an office environment. I can even tell which people went to grade 9 in Alberta due to the fact that they actually know how to address an envelope (because that has been on the grade 9 provincial exam for at least 20 years) and which ones don’t. When I tutor in the evenings, I can point out that what they are doing for homework is exactly what I am doing at my job. It puts the need for basic algebra, proofreading and explaining your opinion in a completely different light.

          1. Laura L

            Yeah, most people don’t need college math to get along in life, but middle- and high-school algebra is incredibly useful.

        2. KayDay

          Ditto this! I use basic algebra all the time, and often in really unexpected ways (proportions, in particular, come up a lot). Fortunately, I was really good at algebra, and didn’t become a hard core not-a-math-person until calc kicked my ass.

  5. ChristineH

    I can definitely vouch for #6. In fact, my Masters degree IS required in the field of work I was aiming for (social work), and look where I’m at now! For me, I think my problem was that I probably had blinders on. I wanted so desperately to eventually do social work with people with disabilities or rehabilitation, I ignored some of the obstacles that I knew deep down might hinder me: 1) that I can’t drive (social work often requires fieldwork) and 2) that I have some social anxiety (mainly concerns around saying the right things and not missing certain nonverbal cues). I’ve come to love the social work field for its values and breadth of career options, but I really wish I’d thought it through more.

    So in short, even if you are going into a field requiring a Masters degree, make sure that the field is indeed the right fit for you. (My saving grace is that I don’t have any debt thanks to a very generous family member.)

  6. perrik

    Regarding #4: I wish liberal arts programs were more proactive about helping their students find the right markets for their skills. My master’s program centered around workplace performance, and in every class I kept thinking how insanely useful a background in anthropology or sociology would be in this field! In fact, there’s a small but growing sub-field in both disciplines as anthropologists and sociologists apply their skills in observing and analyzing group behavior to corporate settings.

    Oh yes, I remember reading about the overabundance of law graduates. It doesn’t help that a lot of universities hopped on the law school bandwagon, and now there are tons of graduates from East Podunk State University’s fourth-tier law school trying to compete with the Harvard/Chicago/Georgetown grads… who also can’t land positions at law firms.

    1. Mike C.

      Seriously. I always hear people complain about “people who can’t write” and in the same breath make fun of liberal arts majors “working as baristas”.

        1. Chaucer

          Agreed as well. In general, can people please stop mocking college graduates who are stuck working at Starbucks, retail or at any other low-wage job that doesn’t require the skills learned in college? Why do people do that in the first place? Does it make them feel better about their own successes?

          I just don’t understand that; it’s why I can’t read the news about unemployed graduates, because in the comments section there will always be those who will say, “lolololol you went to college and you’re working at Starbucks, now make sure my latte has two shots.”

          1. Chinook

            I agree. Having a job in this economy is as much about being born at the right time as it is about real skill.

            1. Katie in Ed

              Or being born to the right family. The NYT just ran a great chilling article illustrating how contrary to popular myth, education does more to solidify economic and class boundaries than rectify them. You can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/education/poor-students-struggle-as-class-plays-a-greater-role-in-success.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

              I don’t regret my liberal arts major, and I have been able to find work relevant to my degree for most of my career. I am talented, but I am also lucky, and have had advantages that other folks don’t have. Still, I’m ambivalent. At that tender age of 18, I really needed the opportunity to emotionally and intellectually explore something I really cared about – to invest in myself in that way. I fit into the university setting nicely and grew there in ways I never thought I could. But the cold, hard economic reality is that many middle class people can’t afford the luxury to invest six figures in their personal development by means of higher education. It breaks my heart that so many young people’s talents go undeveloped due to circumstances completely out of their control.

              1. Mike C.

                Doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. The best predictor of someone’s wealth is the wealth of their parents.

              2. EM

                That was a tough article to read. As a college student, I could definitely tell I was better off than some students because my parents were paying for my (state) school, and I only worked summers. This really puts it into perspective how my parents had focused their efforts on supporting me through college. My only worries were grades. I had the luxury of being able to study with few work obligations. I had jobs being a research assistant where my primary goal was getting experience, not paying my bills. My husband and I are are planning on paying for our son’s college education, and so the cycle repeats.

          2. Mike C.

            They’re basically the folks who’ve never had a hardship in their life – they’ve never failed at anything, they’ve never had something not work through or if they did, they had someone else to help them out.

            Some folks just don’t understand the power of having a good support structure, and claim that they did everything on their own. If that was the case, then why is networking so dang important?

    2. Xay

      I agree as far as liberal arts programs helping their students find their market. I took so much crap for choosing to major in Psychology, but I wound up in a career where that background is not only useful but valued and welcomed. So now, I’m working with my undergraduate college career center to mentor students and understand how they can apply their skills/majors in the real world.

  7. Sam

    Lots of good advice here.

    I remember my own disappointment when I realized that the “college promise” was a myth. Despite what I heard repeated ad nauseum in school, there is no guarantee that a degree will get you a job. And there is no guarantee that you will get a real return on your investment. I can’t tell you how many millennials I know who will regret ever believing that a college degree (and by extension, all the associated debt) is a surefire way to get a good paying job. Fact is, the return on college is way, way down. And for the average student, it can be a very, very bad investment.

  8. mh_76

    My own experiences/commentary:
    1. So true, so true. I was told this in 1994-5 when I was applying to colleges. Maybe it was/n’t true then but it sure wasn’t true when I finished college in 1999. It took me 7 months to get my first FTE (at X Univ, because I figured that they’d hire their alums…I had to put in the general application twice because the first one “expired”). When the time came to start looking for the next FTE, an 18 month search ensued (after a year of looking externally, I gave up and looked for 6 months at X Univ). After that one ended (eliminated…org chart changes), well, the search for an FTE continues but I’ve been going between looking & contract jobs for the past few years. HS Guidance Counselors and colleges/universities still promote that myth, “come to our school, go through ___ program, get a job afterwards!” Um…yeah…doesn’t work that way for either a Bachelor’s degree or a professional cert (I got one of those a year after the last FTE ended and shelved that search a year or 2 after that).

    2. I agree with AAM. And what if you haven’t found your passions?

    3. Trying to convince my folks of that one…. I don’t have any specialized skills and they haven’t come up with any product/other ideas that are remotely marketable.

    4. I was told by my HS GC that I should major in Liberal Arts because it’s marketable (well, it was in the mid-1990’s), had no idea that the people majoring in things other than Music/pre-Law/pre-Med (believed that they) wanted to pursue the area of their major after college, didn’t even know that there were related fields for most of the majors out there. I suppose that I was less of a letdown because I never wanted to pursue the Liberal Art (Classics…minus the Latin) that I majored in in college. It’s been so many years now that I just have “Bachelor’s Degree” on my resume – I became weary of people asking “What’s Classics? Shakespeare & stuff?”…um, no, Shakespeare is English Lit…even in 1999.

    5 & 6. What about going to grad school part-time (evening/weekend or online programs)? Yes, it’s expensive and I can’t afford it but it does allow people to continue working / be available for work.

    Adding a #7.
    Take any ol’ job at any ol’ company doing any ol’ thing. Do a good job, be professional, be reliable, be a “yes” wo/man, dress to impress them… [and a bunch of other old outdated BS advice] …and you’ll be promoted through the ranks / rise to the top. Um, BS. I’ve taken that advice to no avail. I know plenty people who’ve also taken that advice to no avail. I could go on and on and on but this comment’s long enough :)

  9. Rachel

    For some reason viewing this site in Firefox looks really small and funky, but on Internet Esplorer it’s fine. Weird!

    Anyway, all great advice, especially the higher education. I wish I knew that 10 years ago, because man what a slap in the face that was! How naive I was to think that college degree in American Studies = a high paying job. Wrong!

    1. Rana

      Maybe you have your defaults set wrong in FF? (Try, under “View” selecting “Zoom” and then “Reset”)

  10. AnotherAlison

    I’m laughing a little after reading this because everything has actually been true for me (or my husband for #3). Ah well, I am a weird one & what worked for me going to college 15 yrs ago may not work today.

    1. A college degree did get me a job. Engineering requires one.
    2. I didn’t have a passion out of HS, but I did want to get into “strategy” after my MBA. . .and I did.
    3. My husband had a job, but it was changing to night shift, so he did start his own business and has done it for 10 yrs.
    4. Again, engineering is the exception, but my BSME led to a mechanical engineering career. Even though I’m out of engineering now, I still am in the industry.
    5. I didn’t love engineering work in corporate practice, so I started an MBA after 1 yr in the work force (night school — gasp!). I thought it might be useful for um, something, but had no clue what upon starting the program. It didn’t pay off immediately, but I did help me find my “passion” for strategy.
    6. Grad school *did* make me more marketable, because even with a podunk MBA, I was able to make internal moves from engineering to business-side jobs that I wouldn’t have been considered for without the MBA*.

    *Upthread, there were questions about the intrinsic value of MBAs. If you want to work in corporate development, strategy, finance, or business development, I see the value. I never saw a financial statement in engineering school & didn’t know squat about business. I think what would have been most useful would have been to wait and do an Exec MBA program at a better school, but I wasn’t very patient in my 20s. However, if you don’t really want to be in business (I’m in a Strategy & Development group now), don’t do it. Something tailored to your goals is probably better, whether that’s a PM certificate or extra technical coursework.

  11. FormerManager

    I have a master’s degree from what many consider a prestigious university. That being said, it’s a professional degree from a satellite campus. I took the courses at night while working full time during the day (I was fortunate in that my employer paid for some of it).

    Has it been beneficial? To some extent. I’ve had opportunities to network and expand my skills. That being said, I received the degree at the tail end of ’08–right before I was laid off. For my next two jobs, I didn’t even put it on the resume to avoid the over-qualified label (since these were night classes I didn’t have a gap).

    It may have helped me get my current position but I really got this position due to cultivating a relationship with an employer (who, btw, hadn’t even heard of my graduate program).

    Would I do it again? Probably but with the expectation that it wouldn’t magically open doors for me. I had to open the doors myself.

  12. JT

    Could we please get some accurate terminology about fields of study. I went to a college where *every*undergrad studied liberal arts, including those majoring in math, computer science and physics. And my college had world-class professors in those fields, as well as excellent students.

    “Liberal arts” means a variety of topics studied in a way that is designed to make one a good scholar/citizen and appreciate learning. It can be viewed in contrast with studies toward a particular profession or occupation. Liberal arts does not mean just English or poetry or painting but no sciences – a proper liberal arts education must have some hard sciences and math as a component, as well as humanities (language, literature, art, history) and social science (economics, sociology, etc – plus history sometimes falls here as well).

    There are undergraduate programs that are not liberal arts – for example, some focused on business or perhaps other things. But there can be students studying liberal arts who major in computer science or statistics, just as examples.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      And further complicating things, there are some colleges that have “liberal arts” as a major, and people get degrees in “liberal arts” — like literally, a BA in liberal arts. (Which I strongly recommend against, by the way — it comes across as something the football jock does because he needs to have a major in something.)

      1. Jamie

        This is what I thought were were referring to when talking about a liberal arts major.

        I majored in Marketing and motored in Finance – my major and minor were under the umbrella of Business Administration.

        The people I know who have Liberal Arts degrees actually majored in liberal arts which seems (to my understanding) to be a more diverse education without a specific focus. The people I know with BAs in English don’t consider themselves to have LA degrees – perhaps thats regional?

        1. Jamie

          Minored in finance…I motored in a Grand National. :)

          I really need to get in to the optometrist…

        2. Ask a Manager Post author

          I’m never sure if people mean the degree called “liberal arts” or if they mean “degrees that are in the liberal arts category, like English or history.”

        3. JT

          It probably depends on the school.

          My school listed degrees as a BA or sometimes BS in every major – that is bachelors in English, math, applied math, social studies (really – very hard-core at the time), fine arts, etc. with all being liberal in the sense that we had to study in a range of other fields as well.

          A degree that is not liberal arts but just in English seems weird – very focused on one topic (not “liberal” , so not producing a well-rounded scholar) and yet not oriented towards a job as a far as I can tell.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            To be clear, I’m talking about what your major was, which then generally becomes what your degree is in. But some schools have a major that’s literally called “liberal arts.”

            1. Rana

              Although, my understanding is that, strictly speaking, you don’t actually have a “BA/BS in Topic.” You have a Bachelors of Arts, or a Bachelors of Science, period. The English/History/Biology/Math part is your major (or minor) but it’s not actually part of the degree itself.

              So both the person who majored in English and the person who majored in History have a BA, and the person who majored in Biology and the person who majored in Physics both have a BS, and the person who double-majored in Chemistry and Theater may well emerge with both a BA and a BS. But they don’t graduate with a “Bachelors in Chemistry and Theater.”

              That said, I understand why people use the shorthand of “I have a Bachelor’s in Anthropology”.

              1. Anonicorn

                I actually have a BS in English. The way it worked for my degree was you either did a language component (BA) or not (BS).

          2. Laura L

            I went to a small liberal arts college (aka a SLAC), so I’d say I have a liberal arts education, but my degree was in psychology.

            Which I also don’t consider a liberal arts subject in the way some people use it because it was in the science department at my college and involved a lot of quantitative, scientific psychology research.

            So, as the kid who sat next to me at graduation indignantly said “I majored in biochem and my degree says the exact same thing as the sociology majors’ degrees?” Yes, yes it does. (I have no problem with sociology, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.)

            I don’t know if this viewpoint clarifies or confuses, but I wanted to put it out there.

    2. EM

      Exactly, I went to a private liberal arts university, and I have a BS and a MS from STEM fields. I was able to take Shakespeare and anthropology and poli sci as a science major. I really enjoyed it.

  13. Miss C

    Such good advice! As someone who has chosen to follow my passion, and am actually doing well financially (completely against all my expectations), if you DO choose to follow your passion, do so with eyes completely open. That means seeking advice from people who are actually in that field, both those who are doing well and those who are doing something else to make it work. It is so frustrating to read career advice from corporate experts and/or recruiters about which degrees are desirable and which aren’t, when they are clearly not knowledgeable about other fields. For example, there was one on yahoo recently where people were advised to seek an MBA instead of an Architecture degree….or choose criminal justice instead of an archaeology major…not even close to being relevant or helpful!

  14. Jubilance

    My degrees are in chemistry, so like most STEM fields, its required to get a job. I will say though at the pickings have gotten very slim since 2008. I (luckily) left my PhD program in 2006 & found it relatively easy to find a job; by the time my friends finished their PhDs in 2008-09, it was much harder to find a corporate research position or even a postdoc. I’d say that an advanced degree is also required for fields like chemistry or biology – with just a BS you’re basically just a lab technician.

    Being a chemistry student, I always assumed I’d just be a chemist, but I’ve recently transitioned to a new career & I’m still amazed at how much of my training from my chemical career I use as a data analyst. Sure I don’t work in a lab anymore, but chemistry taught me how to be analytical, how to look at data logically, etc & I use those skills everyday, just with a different set of data.

    1. EM

      This is why I got a masters in a related STEM field; I looked for jobs after getting my BS in biology, and I really didn’t want to be a lab tech or a pharma sales rep. So I went to grad school. I did have an assitantship, so it was paid for.

      I really think that STEM is an exception to the new advice against grad school. Unless one is able to get a full ride for their JD or MBA.

  15. Elizabeth

    Do you feel the same way about graduate school if you’re not paying for it? I’m 2/3rds through a Ph.D. program in a field that I like, but don’t love. I’m not positive I’ll use the degree for its most typical positions, although I’m sure I’ll use some of the skills and knowledge I’ve gained.

    But I’m not paying for it- I’m fully funded by assistantships at the University, and my husband and I make a comfortable living while paying minimal money for our education. I initially started graduate school because we moved to a rural area for him to attend graduate school, and there are not many jobs out here.

    Do you see any problem with this? I could be gaining full-time work experience, but I do have two skilled (though part-time) jobs, one in research and one in coordinating and training for a program for undergraduate students. For me, grad school was in part a way to buy some time to figure out what I really wanted to do. Now, I’m mostly trying to figure out how I want to use my degree. I’m curious whether anyone thinks this was a mistake.

    1. fposte

      Not if you’re satisfied with it. Even if you’re not paying money, you’re paying a considerable amount of time. If it’s worth that time to you, then you’re getting what you want out of it.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s hard to say without knowing more about your field and what you want to do, but sometimes graduate degrees — especially PhD’s — can work against people, in that employers assume that any job they apply for that isn’t in the field of the degree isn’t really what they want to be doing. You won’t necessarily have that problem, and even if you do, you may value what you’re getting from your program enough that it trumps that, but if you’re asking about downsides, that’s one to be aware of.

      1. Henning Makholm

        On the other hand, Elizabeth’s choice is not between a PhD and no PhD, but between PhD and an aborted PhD program on her resume. That tends to tip the balance in favor of completing, I think.

        It’s true that a fresh PhD can have negative value with regard to some employers, but so can a dropping out of a program. At least, the fact of completing a dissertation tells about tells something about the abstract ability to take a project that looks hopeless (it will have looked hopeless somewhere along the way) and turning it into something workable nevertheless.

    3. Katie in Ed

      I’m surprised no one has mentioned lost earnings here. “Fully funded” can mean a whole lot of things, but it’s usually not much more than just enough money to live on, if that. Elizabeth, you say you live comfortably, and there’s certainly something to be said for a more or less guaranteed income for a few years. But you might be missing out on better earnings elsewhere that could be compounded over time. Also, I know many a sad ABD whose funding ran out as they wrestled with a dissertation. The burden of trying to finish while working to support oneself is tremendous.

    4. Elizabeth

      Thanks, everyone, for your input. I appreciate the different viewpoints. My broader field tends not to be put off by Ph.D.’s, and often they are viewed as either a bonus as it means you have additional closely supervised clinical experience. I think it may also open some doors to career paths (should I decide to pursue them….) that would have been inaccessible with a master’s degree.

      Lost income is the biggest downside, I think. I could certainly earn more in a full time job, as opposed to a half-time job. However, the wage that I earn as a graduate student employee is high compared to what I would likely make in this area as a regular employee with a bachelor’s degree. We are far from rich, but we are able to save for retirement and travel some, which I think makes us incredibly lucky students. We will be geographically limited until my husband finishes his Ph.D., so I figured I might as well get a degree too while we’re here.

      I don’t think I’ll regret the time I spent in school, assuming I don’t burn out during my thesis. I’m terrified of debt, so if I were taking out loans, it would be a whole different story.

  16. jesicka309

    I’m currently pursuing a second degree (partly to help transition into marketing, partly because I love learning and my brain was dying at my current job) – however, a few interviewers have questioned why I’m back at university so soon after graduating (graduated 2010, started new degree end of 2011).
    How do I address this? I don’t want to seem overqualified (like the grad school point), but I genuinely enjoy learning. I’ve said this in interviews and they look skeptical about this. I haven’t dropped my comms degree off my resume, as most openings require tertiary education, so I need it to show I’m qualified enough, but once I obtain my marketing degree, should I drop it then? :( I hate the idea you can be overqualified when sometimes you just like learning new things, and if it gets you a new job, you’ll take that too.

    1. EM

      If you want a job in marketing and have a new degree in marketing, I think it’s unnecessary to include a degree in chocolate teapot making. It’s the same thing as leaving off irrelevant jobs.

      I love learning too, that’s why I read a lot. :)

      1. jesicka309

        Haha that’s a good point. My first degree is communications majoring in media – I did do some public relations and marketing as part of that course, so I think I’d only keep it depending on the job I went for (eg. with TV stations, radio etc.)

  17. Meg

    I work at a large federal campus in DC metro area (those in the area may be able to guess) and when I went to my contractor’s holiday party and got to meet my fellow contractors who work in other institutions at the same campus, I learned that there are people out there with PhDs and Master’s that are struggling at getting jobs. This one guy I was talking to, his friend has $100Ks of debt from grad school and all that, and still can’t get anything beyond a fellowship or something.

    Yet here I am, a college dropout – twice – very comfortably employed in a specialized field, less than $10,000 in student loans without an undergrad, let alone a graduate degree. At the same time, I do have the SKILLS. I went to a vocational high school that taught at a viable workplace skill or trade alongside your general education, with a program called “co-op” where 11th and 12th graders could go to work in their field for part of the school day for class credit AND a paycheck. Like an internship, but better.

    Granted, I didn’t major in the field I’m working in, but the skills I got from that and the work experience definitely played a role (I take that back – I helped introduce web development into the major as we were responsible for school news – the major was TV/Media with a heavy concentration on journalism – and we converted our school print newspaper into an online paper and I was the webmaster and sole developer… which is what I do now professionally).

    I am a firm believer that you need a skill set beyond “I can do math” or “I can read and write paragraphs using proper grammar.” Nothing against English majors or History majors or the other liberal arts, I’ve just found that our current education system doesn’t teach you “How to properly research” or “how to problem-solve” in general, but rather “how to research Specific Topic for This Assignment” or “How to Solve This Specific Problem.” It’s akin to learning how to take tests vs learning how to take THIS test.

    1. Jamie

      I knew you were in IT before I got to “developer.”

      Like letters of references are different in academia than the rest of the work world, and everything is an exception in California, IT is really removed from this whole grad school thing.

      If there is a field where it’s all about what have you done lately and fewer people give a rat’s ass about formal training it’s IT. I know whereof I speak – I didn’t finish college either (almost – but no cigar) and I too make a comfortable living behind a bank of monitors.

      I think it’s because in web development like in other facets of the IT world – the proof of what you can do is immediate so you need fewer external vetting processes. Web development – if you can do what you say you can do you can easily prove that…if not, it doesn’t matter if you have a PhD from MIT – they will get someone in who can make the page load. In other areas there is a larger investment of time before you realize someone totally sucks – so there is more reliance on formal credentials.

      Just my theory, anyway.

      1. Meg

        Yeah, I’m just making a statement about how… I don’t know the right word for it… how big the dichotomy is certain fields. I am certainly blessed that I have an ability to learn and pick up new skills rapidly in the growing field of web development, but at the same time… is a college degree really the answer to the work force, and we’ve seen countless times that it’s really not. I mean, certain professional fields definitely need more training than a typical 3-day to a week long course, for sure, but is general education really needed beyond a high school education?

        I’m making this comparison to other countries’ post-secondary education, really. Too bad more schools aren’t a combination of the “for-profit” training schools that have the right idea but awful execution, and post-sec school models that focus only on the classes and skills needed for a particular major. It’d cut degree time down, ultimately be cheaper by that model alone, and more people would be able and willing to further education if that’s what they wanted so the schools still make their monies.

    2. mh_76

      Nothing against English majors or History majors or the other liberal arts, I’ve just found that our current education system doesn’t teach you “How to properly research” or “how to problem-solve” in general, but rather “how to research Specific Topic for This Assignment” or “How to Solve This Specific Problem.” It’s akin to learning how to take tests vs learning how to take THIS test.

      THIS Liberal Arts* grad agrees. In the program that I went through, we didn’t really have to solve any problems or do a lot of research, was mostly trying to remember a myriad of historical/mythical dates and trying to read the Prof’s mind & parrot back the supposed symbolism that s/he believed existed in some book or tale…um, yeah… I didn’t realize that I could write until I got to courses about factual things that weren’t a ton of hist/myth dates and BS symbolism (note that I otherwise liked most of my Prof’s in college)… those courses were Bio, Archaeology, maybe a couple of things that I’ve forgotten about, and the biz/tech classes that I took a few years after college.
      *(here, L.A. is defined as having a B.A. in subject matter considered to be a Liberal Art…as opposed to the handful of other definitions)

    3. Laura L

      “I’ve just found that our current education system doesn’t teach you “How to properly research” or “how to problem-solve” in general, but rather “how to research Specific Topic for This Assignment” or “How to Solve This Specific Problem.” It’s akin to learning how to take tests vs learning how to take THIS test.”

      Interesting. This wasn’t the case with my college education at all, but maybe I’m one of the rare lucky ones?

      Granted, I did go to library school, but I was a pretty good researcher before that. Library school just refined the skills. :-)

  18. Former

    In case anyone running this site reads comments, I want to let them know I’m removing this site from my RSS feed. Not only is listicle writing facile and predictable, but forcing people to click through to your site, just in order to read said listicle? Not worth it.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. Lots of people like the lists (which are less than 10% of what’s published here), and writing articles for outside publications that pay for them is part of what allows me to do Ask a Manager for free.

      But just in case anyone is confused, you can absolutely click through to the article from the RSS without coming here first. (Although I certainly appreciate it when people come here, because that financially supports the site, which people read for free — your call though, obviously.)

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