What color is my parachute?

I have an English degree. Should I be a journalist or a ditch digger?

Cary Tennis
April 14, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

As a writer, you might have an interesting take on this. I graduated from a good school two years ago with an undergraduate degree in English and student loan debt. I have stumbled in and out of temporary work since that time. I also write, but I have never counted on that being my "money-making" job. I just thought that having any college degree would be enough to help me find a niche. Yes, you can scoff now.


I've decided it is past time for me to develop financial independence (i.e., grow up). I toyed with the idea of a journalism or library science degree, but those seem to promise more debt with the same slim job chances. My career priorities are a decent wage and job security. If I want personal fulfillment I can get that in my private life and writing.

So what do I do? My skills are strongly slanted toward the liberal arts and I have little real-life job experience. Do I go to law school or business school? Do I become a paralegal? Do I get a master's in education? Not great pay, but this country does need teachers. My latest twist on this decision is getting a certificate in medical coding, a growing field.

The problem is making the decision. I'm your classic procrastinating indecisive type and I know that I can weigh my options forever and come out with no clearer idea of what I want. I picked my university by eeny meeny miny moe. Should I do this now? Do I scramble for the few liberal arts jobs I'm qualified for and hope for the best? Do I dig ditches? My live-in boyfriend is going to be going back to school soon, so finances have to go into these considerations. I need to start heading in a direction, even if it is the wrong one. I would love to have your insight and any personal wisdom you've gained from your experiences.


Dithery Liberal Arts Major

Dear Dithery,

If you are stumbling in and out of temporary work, you are probably drinking too much. I suggest you straighten out your lifestyle so you stop stumbling. Those clean young people in business suits that don't fit right who work at the temp agency, if they hear back that you're stumbling in and out of work, you don't get called again. I've had that problem. Believe, me, the temp jobs dry up if they know you're drunk. So stand up straight and don't talk. If they hear you talking, they'll know you're drunk. Walk as fast as you can while not stumbling, and always carry several papers in your hand. If anyone speaks to you, say, "That's my top priority." Or say, "I've got to get these papers signed." If someone hands you more papers, go to the copier, make three copies, and hand the papers back.


Seriously -- now that you've sobered up -- my advice would be to concentrate on journalism or teaching. Do not under any circumstances become a medical coder.

I just had a conversation with my wife the other morning about how she worked some 10 years in an independent bookstore. When you look at the time she spent there, sometimes it seems as though she should have been doing something more skirt-ensemble-oriented. And after a time it did become a bit of a burden to her not to have some shinier emblem of usefulness for parties where people ask you what you do and expect to hear something international. She's now much shinier and that is nice, and she is "using her skills" and all that, but were those 10-plus years wasted? Not at all; the bookstore was the richest cultural environment available. It was where she had to be. It's still the best place in town if you've just stumbled out of a temp job drunk.


As for me, I'm a complete idiot. I got out of graduate school in creative writing and worked in a mailroom. Then later I pulled staples -- literally -- and stuffed envelopes. (I actually did some medical coding, too, which is why I say don't do that under any circumstances.) My best stupid job was bike messenger; I least regret that, of all my stupid jobs. Next-least-regretted job is the three years at Chevron learning about oil tankers -- and learning to copy-edit, which got me my job at Salon. Believe me, it wasn't my cleverness and knowledge of current events that got me the Salon job. They needed another copy editor and couldn't find anybody else. Everybody else already had a job -- it was that kind of economy.

It worked out well in the end. I'm happy at Salon. But it's taken a long time to find a job that isn't hammerhead stupid. Believe me, I'm under no illusions about how hard and fucked up it is. So what can I tell you?

Teaching and journalism are two honorable trades. The rest is just more good reasons to bang your head against the wall. And how many good reasons do you need?


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Cary Tennis

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