the worst career advice you ever received

I recently asked readers to share the worst career advice they ever received. I shared my 10 favorite “worsts” over at the Fast Track blog by Intuit QuickBase today — including “major in anything and figure it out later,” “say whatever it takes to close the sale and reset expectations later,” “write your resume in crayon,” and more. You can read it here.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Bjellybean

    The Captain of a Nuclear Submarine suggestion wasn’t as ” out there” as one may think. As an undergrad in history, I was approached by the FBI and Navy. Turns out, the critical thinking skills that you develop in historical studies are very useful to national security.

    1. The IT Manager

      Yes it is because the Captain of a nuclear submarine is a Navy officer who has been in the Navy for about 20 years. It’s not a job you can go get interviewed and hired for right out of college. Also the Captain of a nuclear submarine is a nuclear officer who has graduated nuclear school which includes a good understanding of nuclear physics.

      1. Another Jamie

        Also, it sounds like something you write in a mad lib for “occupation.”

      2. Omne

        Having made it through the the nuke program in the Navy, unless they’ve changed it drastically, it’s not a lot of fun. In my mid 1980’s enlisted class they started with about 440 students and by the end, around 1.5 years later, we were down to just around 50. That included several attempted suicides and at least two complete breakdowns that required extended hospitalization. Not to mention the numerous drops for serious drinking problems that developed. The Officer’s program was easier then the enlisted program but it was still tough. In our officer counterpart class they lost a lot of students too.

        1. Bjellybean

          I’m bothered by this thread, not because any of the replies are necessarily incorrect, but because of the tone of “this is a difficult path to take, therefore it is impossible.” My point is that when the author asked about alternative career paths for a history scholar, they balked at a suggestion that took them down a challenging path. The minimum requirement for the Officer program in the navy is a bachelor’s degree… Not necessarily one in a technical field. Now, that will require more time in a training program, but why limit yourself to the obvious career paths for liberal arts majors? There is really no need to.

          1. Henning Makholm

            That’s not what I’m seeing in the thread. I’m seeing “this advice is so ridiculously specific that it makes no sense at all in the context it was given in”. It would be different if it had been “Hey, with that background you could become a Navy officer”. That may be good advice or bad (I don’t know enough to distinguish here), but at least it would be meaningful advice.

            1. scuppered

              Exactly lol……my class once completed one of those really long in depth career tests in school. To this day I remember 3 of the recommendations for me as they were so specific – Poultry Veterinarian, Concrete shaper and Stage Lighting Technician.

          2. The IT Manager

            The problem and humor with this advice is that it is as realistic as “become a movie star” – not an actor/actress a “star.” It’s impossible without paying dues for years. And the recipient of this advice was looking for skills associated with my history doctorate so I didn’t have to begin again from scratch. Someone else in the original comments mentioned that they got this suggestion from a career interest survey they took through the unemployment office.

            The other area of humor about this advice is that you can volunteer to join the military, decide to join as an officer, and pick the service to join. After that you can only express your desires and the service picks your career field and base/ship of assignment based on their needs not your preferences.

          3. Omne

            My main point was that you can sign up for the program, you may be selected for the program and you may be one of the 10%-15% that complete the program. That doesn’t make you a sub Captain. Twenty or so years after training you might, a remote chance at best, end up as a Captain of a sub. It’s kind of like saying ‘ Ya know, you’d make a good Major General”. Telling someone that thay may be a good candidate for the program is one thing, that’s what I was told. Being told you may be good at one of the top possible positions is kind of ludicrous before you even enter the program.

            BTW unless it’s drastically changed in order to get into the Nuke officer program you do have to have a pretty heavy background in advanced math and physics. All officers that apply for the program are interviewed by an Admiral before being admitted. It used to be Hyman Rickover and from the stories I heard it was pretty brutal.

    2. Evan the College Student

      I’ve actually been contacted by the navy about (IIRC) submarine jobs, as well. Still, Captain of a submarine would be a little out there as anything except an eventual career goal…

    3. Rana

      Well, that was mine, and the problem was that I was trying to figure out how to find employment with a history Ph.D. that wouldn’t require me to go back to school and earn additional credentials. I needed a job right then, and that’s what they suggested…

      (I’d also be a poor fit for military work in a number of ways, but they didn’t ask about those.)

  2. AmyNYC

    While I would certainly appreciate if everyone followed #3, I see why it’s terrible advice if only directed at women.

    1. Jessa

      Yes exactly. It IS generally good advice especially if meetings are during lunch, but geez Louise, it’s NOT advice for females, it’s advice for good corporate practise. That and lunch time meetings are work, you still give your hourly employees their lunch hours darnit.

      1. KellyK

        Abso-freaking-lutely. Well, give them their lunch hour, pay them for an extra hour, or let them go an hour early (or give them their choice of those options). As long as you’re not pretending that the hour they spent in a meeting magically became non-work because they got food.

    2. danr

      At my old company, long meetings were accompanied by snacks and coffee, tea or water… provided by the company. There was a formal break for eating.

  3. Craig

    I disagree with #2.

    The purpose of University is always “to get a job”. Why bother having any faculty beyond Business Admin, Engineering, Medicine and Law if all we are creating are job factories.

    Picking one’s major is supposed to be picking something one likes to learn more about. Hopefully that leads to a career. That’s how we get professors, teachers, scientists etc.

    I could have gone into Accounting as my major because that is where the money was and what was expected of me. But I followed a passion and went into Astrophysics. No, it didn’t lead to an immediate career but I have no regrets.

    The point being, you’re basically telling teenagers that “money is the most important thing” when choosing a major and that is just wrong.

    1. -X-

      You meant “isn’t always” – and I agree with you, if you can afford it.

      My college was fundamentally about teaching us how to think, how to learn, and how to be productive members of society. It was not about job skills per se. Some majors (we called them “concentrations” led more directly to jobs than others, but the education (even for majors such as engineering was fundamentally “liberal.” Oh, and at an undergraduate level we did not have business as a major (though we did have economics). We did not have any strictly professional major at all.

      This was a bit of a luxury insofar as our school, or at least the university it is part of, is usually rated as one of the top in the US and in the world — so most undergrad graduates could have eventually doors open for them even with majors that were not job-related. For people without that luxury it is worth being more careful about how school relates to work.

      1. KellyK

        Yeah, I think it needs to be a balancing act. Ideally, you would study something you enjoy in college *and* it would create career opportunities, *and* you could get a degree without taking on so much debt that you’re SOL if you don’t get a decent-paying job straight out of college. I don’t think it really works that way anymore though.

        I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they get a degree in a field they aren’t interested in just because it’s a potential money-maker. Both because they’re likely to suck at it *and* be miserable, and because it’s hard to predict what *will* be a good job prospect four years or more before you actually have the degree.

        I would recommend to anybody planning a degree in an impractical field (drama, for example) to take a more practical minor (or possibly make the less practical “passion” your minor) and be really careful about the amount of debt they take on.

        1. KellyK

          And “major in anything and figure it out later” used to be good advice, when the job market was good. But “you have a degree, therefore you’ve proven you can learn” stops being much of a qualification when you’re competing with tons of people who also have a degree *and* have more relevant experience.

        2. -X-

          Yeah. Or really supplement the impractical stuff with project that that build a “portfolio” or work skills. Drama PLUS internships or projects on theater management or marketing that could be translated into entry level office work.

          And avoiding much debt is key.

      2. Natalie

        “You meant “isn’t always” – and I agree with you, if you can afford it.”

        I think that’s been the main change between the last couple of graduating classes and those that came before. The NY Times had an editorial this Sunday on adults under 35 and how we’re all essentially screwed. One stat they mentioned is that the cost of college has increased 42% between 2000 and 2011, which is frankly bonkers.

        1. fposte

          Yeah, the ROI has dropped considerably, but at the same time the opportunities for people without the BA have narrowed.

      3. marbar

        So, -X-, which house were you in? I was in the Quad. :)

        I loved attending our mutual undergraduate alma mater, but I’d definitely view it as an outlier in terms of the freedom students should feel to study their passion. When your school is regularly used as the yardstick against which others are compared — and when it has a multi-billion-dollar endowment that allows it to have a substantial proportion of undergrads attend for free or at heavily subsidized rates — the cold equations are going to be somewhat less cold than usual. That having been said, I knew few kids there without trust funds who didn’t have an idea about what they wanted to do post-graduation and at least a halfway-decent idea how to get there. If their concentrations didn’t scream “direct job applicability,” they had extracurriculars and other activities that let them build a portfolio of skills.

        Though…students attending schools with passionately faithful alumni bases probably have a bit more leeway as well. I now live in Texas, and football culture has helped give certain schools extremely devoted alumni bases. I’m not saying that you can major in basket weaving and step right into a six-figure job, but you’re somewhat more likely to be at least interviewed for jobs if the hiring manager is a fellow alum.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Telling students to “major in anything and figure it out later” isn’t good advice. While, yes, you might be in a position where you have the luxury of not being career-minded while in school, that’s a rare luxury that most people don’t have. Most people are going to school because they want to prepare for a career, and they see a degree as an essential step in getting there. Because of that, it would be folly not to think carefully about what your major will prepare you for; for most people, it’s much of the whole point of being there.

      1. Jessa

        Especially since nowadays the bachelors diploma is as required as the old “must have HS diploma used to be.” Some day someone is going to come up with core standards (like they have for the GED) and make people take a college substitute thing because I’ve seen the stupidest reasons for “bachelors required” on job postings for things like clerical workers.

        1. TychaBrahe

          Or we could start making sure kids graduate from high school with basic proficiency in reading, writing, and calculating, so that a high school degree would *mean something* again.

    3. JR

      I disagree with this. There are plenty of jobs outside of business/med/law/eng. I did a BA and I’m working in my field (as are tons of my colleagues). I think it is way harder with a BA to get into your field (probably because they are being pumped out of school like mad, making tons of comp per position), but definitely possible!

      1. Tekoa

        I got the advice “Major in anything” and figure it out from parents, teachers and career advisors. I listened to this advice and seriously regret it. Now I have two degrees in topics that I love, but there are no jobs related to said degrees and I have ghastly student loans. If I hadn’t been deceived I would have gone to trades college.

        I could underline AAM’s entire post as words of awesome truth. ^_^

        1. -X-

          Two degrees? C’mon. Isn’t their an old saying “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

        2. Lisa

          Yeah, I enjoyed my 4 years of college, but took an extra 10 years to get the salary I have now that other majors instantly got at graduation. I should have majored in business or marketing, because communications was stupid. It wasn’t even good communications major, it was one that had rhetoric class and how to identify group think. It was pathetic, and people still think I learned how to build websites, write, and can make a movie. Nope, wish I did marketing.

          1. Miss Displaced

            I just got my master’s in communications!
            For me it was a quite natural step after years of doing graphic design, film, video, web, etc. I really wanted the theory to go with all I had been doing for 15 years.

            Marketing by the way, is WAY overrated. I know. I have to work with them.

    4. Yup

      I read #2 differently than you did. We do a disservice to students if we act as though a college degree by itself is a defacto key to a decent job, or even a living wage. Telling students to study what they love is fine, but they should also be provided with a realistic understanding of what the career opportunities are in that particular field so they can make informed decisions about tuition, post-graduate study, and so on. Way too many young people are graduating with horrific debt and limited experience into a terrible job market, who might have made different decisions if they’d understood more about what’s required to making a living in a given field. It’s not about encouraging people to only choose majors that pay well; it’s about making sure that people understand the long-term pros and cons of (a) taking on debt to attend school, and (b) pursuing particular course of study.

      1. -X-

        “Telling students to study what they love is fine, but they should also be provided with a realistic understanding of what the career opportunities are in that particular field so they can make informed decisions about tuition, post-graduate study, and so on.”

        YES.

        1. Jessa

          Exactly. And some young people need it practically thwapped into their heads with a college catalogue. Because at 17-18, they don’t GET it. Sometimes I think maybe we need to restore the travelling year between HS and College/Uni. Make them do something in the REAL world before going to college.

        2. -X-

          Whatever you study, get good at writing for reality – writing to be read. Plus some mix of skills from things such as such as design, coding, event and project management, marketing, data analysis, statistics, etc. Maybe certain languages. Those are skills that are useful in many many fields.

          If you major in something that appeals to you PLUS you really work to get some of those “universal” skills you’ll have a chance. For example, being a history major who has had summer jobs in an office doing tedious but vital admin work, or had an internship setting up websites for history professors to share their findings – I think you’ll be ahead of the game over a person with a major that seems more directly “job-related” and talks about what they learned in school. Now, if you had a “job-related” major plus killer internships that might be even stronger….

          But building a “portfolio” of skills and experiences you can talk about in a resume, cover letter and interview seems to me the key thing to getting work, at least as much as college major.

          I’m speaking as someone who came out of college with no debt in a moderately bad economy, but nothing as bad as this. Got some blue collar work for a while, then eventually work related to my degree, though I don’t use anything I learned — it just opened doors. And has watched young interns at my place of work get jobs.

          1. Miss Displaced

            Too true.
            I will never understand the new college graduate that cannot seem to understand Microsoft Word or Excel!!!!!

            Come on! This is 2013 already!

        3. College Career Counselor

          Agreed. But this is challenging with those (esp. liberal arts majors) who don’t already know what they want to be when they go to college (I sure didn’t). These students think that they’ll figure it out as they go through college, which at least in the liberal arts world is not particularly geared toward helping them develop and articulate their professional interests in any required way.

          And we’re way beyond “the degree will get you in the door” mentality of 30-40 years ago. The last time I heard of an art major getting a job on Wall Street right out of college? That was in 1985. And arguably, that person got very lucky even then.

          That said, internships, campus work-study, volunteer work, experiential learning, summer jobs, etc. can all be used to gain valuable skills that can assist students with their post-graduate professional goals. If you’re a biology major and you don’t want to do bio research, med school, pharmaceutical development, ecology, or public health, that’s fine with me. But, you do need to figure out what you’re interested in and how to get the appropriate experience and connections to be a viable candidate.

          I was a love-of-learning liberal arts major myself, and I firmly believe in the benefit of that educational model. But I recognize that higher education (skyrocketing costs) and the economy (shrinking employment market) have radically constrained students’ options after graduation. This is why liberal arts institutions need to build internship and other practicum opportunities into the curriculum (students in my experience don’t generally do these things unless they get credit and/or paid for it–even if it’s “good for them”). It’s the degree + industry/field experience that gives you a leg up with employers.

          A

          1. -X-

            I think that if you don’t know what you want to do, it’s actually *easier* to focus on skills and getting jobs or internships than to pick a major with the aim of that major setting you up for a career. If you get a job in an office, become a good writer, know a little graphic design and a whiz with Excel via that office job that will be useful in a lot of entry-level jobs regardless of the direction you want to go in.

            Whereas picking a major with the aim of that somehow relating to a career? That’s a big ask if you’re not sure what you want to do.

      2. Allison

        This! The ideal major is one that makes you happy *and* opens doors to field you want to work in.

        1. Vicki

          My undergrad major (Microbiology with a lot of Computer Science and Biochem sprinkled in) opened to door to grad school. My grad school major (Microbiology with more Computer Science sprinkled in) gave me the chance at a computer analysis thesis. The thesis got me my “first job out of grad school”.

          I loved science (Bio & Chem especially) in HS and College but that was before the personal computer became ubiquitous, before the WWW was an idea in Tim Berners-Lee’s mind.

          So, yes, the ideal major “is one that makes you happy *and* opens doors to field you want to work in”. Even if you don;t know, at the time, what that field might be!

          1. Vicki

            While in grad school, the “worst career advice” I got was “computers will be useful in Biology some day but it hasn’t happened yet.” (It hadn’t happened in _Maryland_ yet. IT was happening in California.)

      3. Liz in the City

        I’m the one who wrote #2 (yay, Alison picked me!), and this is totally what I meant. I didn’t mean that I should have gone to college where the money was (though when I was eating ramen in grad school, I wouldn’t have minded a six-figure salary like some just-out-of-school grads got). I just meant that I, personally, did what I LOVED in college, giving nary a thought to what my life would be like AFTER college, meaning I didn’t want to work nights/weekends for the rest of my life in my chosen industry, which is a dying industry. And I totally freaked out senior year and just applied to grad school as a way to hide out further from the real world. I totally admit it. Brightest decision? Nope. But at least I’ve learned from my mistake. Alison’s question was, to me, a “20/20 hindsight” thing.

    5. SweetPotatoPie

      FWIW, I am smack dab in the middle of raising teenagers, one of whom is finishing up her sophomore year in high school, the other is in 8th grade. While I totally agree that it is wrong to emphasize money alone, it’s also wise to help them choose a field that will allow them to support themselves and their family, while capitalizing on whatever strengths they’ve exhibited so far. I’m trying to be realistic with them, and emphasize both aspects — you have to be able to make money, but you also have to enjoy what you’re doing, and be able to tolerate doing it every day. I think if you start having such conversations with them when they’re young, they begin to start thinking about different career choices that might be a good fit fot them.

    6. Jamie

      The point being, you’re basically telling teenagers that “money is the most important thing” when choosing a major and that is just wrong.

      I didn’t read it that way. It’s not that money is the most important thing, it’s that unless you are one of the rare few who can get a degree without needing to worry about how to use it to support yourself, it needs to be a consideration.

      Being able to support yourself financially is one of the most important things in life. How much money? That depends on the individual – but while money may not buy happiness if you lack the money to cover your basic living expenses lack of money can absolutely make you miserable.

      In fact, the more money you have the less important it is.

    7. Kou

      This isn’t “it’s ok to major in what you want and figure it out later,” though, it’s “don’t even consider employment as a student because all doors are open with all majors with no additional work,” and the later is a big fat crock. It’s also the exact line of logic I had repeatedly thrown at me by every single family member and university advisor/professor when I was a student and said I didn’t want to study something that wouldn’t lead directly to a job, and it’s flat out toxic as far as I’m concerned.

      The distinction is that college and high school students are advised that they can pick any major and find any work with it, with the logic that employers find the general skills of any major (like logic & critical thinking for philosophy, that’s one you’ll hear touted a lot) and apply it to professional skills and hire you for it… And that is just not the case. You certainly CAN major in anything and go anywhere, theoretically, IF you know what you’re doing. But that’s not what they tell you, they say a BA is a magic golden ticket. They accompany this with “And if you volunteer a little, they’ll also know you’re not lazy and BAM! Jobs everywhere!”

  4. Jane

    My parents insisted that I major in something that is considered a discipline (I wanted to do a particular interdisciplinary major). I ended up double-majoring in two majors that didn’t seem like they were particularly useful in the “real world” (although I have plenty of friends who found jobs where these very majors are probably useful or in the very least showed their interest in being engaged with certain global issues). I tried to force myself to be an economics major because it seemed useful, but I was terrible at it and hated the coursework. Through process of elimination, I found two majors that I loved and I have not made use of them at all in my professional life. I don’t regret doing that because it worked out well for me, but I could see how, especially in today’s economy, it might not be a wise choice to just major in whatever you want and figure it out later. Also, I will say that if I were any good at certain sciences, I can say in retrospect it would have been good for my current career to major in one of them because it would make it easier for me to transition in the area of law I would like to practice in. Then again, I also know many people who don’t have a science background and are doing exactly the kind of work I want to do! So it’s really tough to say where a particular major will lead or if it’s a bad idea for a particular person.

  5. Lily in NYC

    I was so surprised to see my entry in the article! I had the friend whose mom told her she was too ugly to be a secretary. I emailed her the link and she cracked up and told me she just found out she’s getting promoted to Partner. So, stuff it, jerky mom!

    1. Jessa

      “It’s a hard thing when your mama don’t think you pretty,” paraphrased from “the Help.”

    1. Kelly L.

      I knew a guy in college who got away with that, but he was applying for a work-study position where the boss was a friend of his (and he knew it would tickle this friend’s sense of humor) and the job involved working with kids, so it was kind of thematic too.

  6. B

    Some of the worst career advice I heard (that I hear repeated constantly) is anytime you get more responsibilities, you need to instantly demand more money. Slowly getting more responsibilities is how you grow in your position and prepare yourself to be promoted. Having said that, there are plenty of companies that will eliminate a manager position and then assign the work to one of her directs. In that situation, I would ask for more money because you are permanently doing more work.

  7. KF

    My parents also told me to major in anything in college and I would get a job. They told me that if I wanted a job to be able to support myself I needed a college degree. Twenty plus years later they told my sons that they just needed to pay the bills and find jobs that make them happy. What?

    My parents and I all attended the same school. I have a degree in Accounting. My dad has a History degree and my mom (who was the loudest and most opinionated) – Theater degree.

  8. Elizabeth West

    #2–major in anything
    >_<

    #5–crayon resume
    Why do people give you advice they would never ever consider if it were them/someone applying to them? This one almost sounds like it might have been an exasperated joke, but a lot of these people are serious! Someone told me to inflate a title on my resume–and it was the same person who told me earlier she had to fire someone who misrepresented herself! I mean WTH!?

    #7–too ugly to be secretary
    Why does this twit get to be a mother? :P

    #10–Sunday paper
    LOL sounds like an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond!

  9. danr

    #10… I did get my job through the want ads in the local paper and yes, it was the Sunday paper. And so did almost everyone who had been there more than 10 years. We always laughed about it. Of course the local paper was the New York Times. (grin).

  10. Rana

    EEEE! You picked mine! (#4, the nuclear sub captain one)

    I’m very honored, since the other ones are really great.

  11. OneoftheMichelles

    #4 Congrats Rana, I love history and am investigating whether I might have a future in that…I also went to college with an ex nuclear sub guy…(come to think of it, he did know some cool history)

    #10 You must be my long, lost sibling, ’cause you just described my Mom!

  12. Katie G

    Love #10. My dad did this recently when my brother was looking for a sublet in a major city where he had an internship. My father insisted that my brother should go to the local colleges and look on their “housing” bulletin boards. My siblings and I tried to explain about Craigslist, but he would have none of it.

    Eventually, since my brother refused to waste his time, my dad took it on himself to visit one of the college student centers. He wandered around for a bit, then finally asked a student, “Where is the housing ad board?”

    She reportedly gave him a weird look, said “What?”, and told him to check Craigslist.

    1. Kerr

      My college had (and, I think, still has) a physical bulletin board for student housing, so they’re still out there!

    2. Tinker

      That’s kind of hilarious, because my alma mater actually does have such bulletin boards — or did as of 2010 or so, at least. IIRC there were housing ads on the general purpose bulletin boards, as well as a designated board somewhere in the student center.

      Maybe the difference is in the “major city” factor — the school is small and relatively close-knit, so housing searches had something of a hyperlocal flavor; meanwhile, the applicable Craigslist covers the entire metro area.

      Then again, I don’t know anyone who got a place using the bulletin boards either — it was all personal connections. So there’s that.

  13. Kou

    My dad was a Sunday paper guy when I was a recent grad– and when I was looking for work in other cities, he repeatedly told me to have my friends there either parse the classifieds for me or mail them to me.

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