Most of us imagine that after graduation, our life will be full of glee and spontaneous dance parties, like this.
But after graduation, it’s not uncommon to feel that, like Gob Bluth, you’ve made a huge mistake.
This sinking feeling is not just because we have to leave the comforts of college behind and start living in the real world. For some of us, like guest writer Zachary Evans, we come to the slow and painful realization that the job search is much more complicated than we anticipated, and we begin to question whether we chose the “wrong major” (or if there is such a thing).
We start to wonder if this is our punishment for choosing a major we were actually interested in instead of something more practical. It can sometimes feel that way.
Zachary shares how he came to terms with his decision to be an English major and how he’s learned to value the experience, even if it didn’t immediately translate to a job after graduation.
College was not an easy journey for me. In the five and a half years it took me to graduate with my bachelor’s degree from Boise State University, I changed majors five times and had four different minors, none of which I completed.
During my first two and a half years, I had absolutely nothing I would consider success. I was in the business program, switching between a few different specific degrees based on what sounded like something I might not hate at that moment. I failed as many classes as I passed, and eventually I was put on academic probation, kicked out of school for having a GPA under 2.0, reinstated after an appeal, and put back onto a last-strike scenario probation.
Despite the tumultuous nature of this period in my academic life, it was the foundation for what has been the most important decision of my life thus far. After being reinstated and talking to an advisor about the classes I would be taking and how I was planning on getting back on track, I came to a striking realization.
I didn’t care about any of the classes I was taking for my major, and looked forward to any electives I got to take, and maybe that was a sign that I needed a change. I thought about what classes I looked forward to, and what subjects I had enjoyed back in high school and there was an obvious choice. I needed to be an English major.
This was a terrifying thought. Everyone has heard the jokes about English or art majors never making money, and when you’re 20 years old and have never made much more than minimum wage, the last thing you want is to resign yourself to a fate of being poor. You want to get a job right after graduation that allows you to be comfortable and buy cool stuff or maybe move out of your parents’ home and not have to come home to do laundry because you already spent the quarters from your coin jar on gas for your car. It was terrifying, but I did it. I made a choice that, in this case, practicality was not worth it and I preferred to pursue enjoyment and happiness instead.
I stood by this decision, even as I drew closer to graduation, and some of the realities of “adult” life drew closer by the day. I had an increasing number of friends graduating and facing the difficulties of finding a job in their field of study.
I left the retail job I had gotten shortly after graduating from high school in order to finish college more quickly without the distraction of a job and was incredibly fortunate to have financial support from my parents to do so. This was a temporary arrangement, however, and was really just enough to cover essentials like gas for my car and maybe the occasional meal, and definitely not enough to partake in many of the fun things my friends participated in. If we went out to a bar or to eat, I would be ordering one of whatever was cheapest on the menu and calling it good or offering to drive in hopes that someone would buy me something in return—though never asking for such an arrangement out of embarrassment.
In December 2013, I had achieved what was inconceivable at one point in my collegiate career. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing from Boise State. It was a momentous occasion in my life and one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced. Regardless of the situations surrounding it, when you receive your degree, I urge you to take a step back, take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself.
However, in my case, this feeling of accomplishment soon gave way to something else, a moment of intense clarity that I had no more excuses for my unemployment.
I started searching for writing jobs, but came to a very quick realization that, for all of its amazing qualities, Boise, Idaho is not exactly a great place for a writer to make a living, especially one with zero journalism, technical writing, teaching, or copywriting experience. Each entry-level writing job I found asked for some level of experience, and even after I started reaching out to these, I still received zero positive leads. I switched tactics and started thinking of the process like a business presentation and tried pitching myself to companies. I even faced some of my biggest social anxieties and attended career fairs, but still had no luck.
It was an incredibly frustrating experience.
This led me to ask some very difficult questions about my choice of majors. For my entire life I had been told that college was a stepping stone toward a career, but it seemed as though this wasn’t true in my case. I had heard all the jokes about starving artists, and I knew that my degree was not a great one if I wanted to be raking in large sums of money, but I still expected something more. Everyone I talked to would tell me that companies needed people to write for them.
According to the University of Southern California, a vast majority of companies are now using social media and online mass communication, which requires someone with writing ability, but these jobs seemed impossible to find. I expected that I would at least be able to make a modest living in the field I had pursued with so much of my time, effort, and money in school.
Was my degree truly worthless? Had I made a terrible mistake by choosing a field I loved instead of a practical one? Would I have to go back to making barely over minimum wage despite having a college degree?
The realization I came to is that “worth” in terms of my degree is not something that’s easily quantifiable. It cannot be based upon anything but my own set of criteria. If I evaluated these questions based on employment or monetary return on investment, then I could say nothing except that yes, I had made a mistake. However, by evaluating it this way, I would be forsaking the most important things I have gotten from my degree, as well as things that came from my time of unemployment.
In my time as a business major, there were very few people I connected with on a personal level or became friends with outside school. The people I met in class were fine people, but there was generally a very large cultural disconnect. I absolutely do not believe it has anything to do with the quality of these people, but was instead based on a lack of common interests or goals. It was very much attached to the reasons I had trouble finding motivation in my business classes. What was important to me wasn’t important to most of the other business majors I met and vice versa.
When I became an English major, however, I found that on a regular basis I connected with people I had classes with. This was not universal, and there were plenty of people that I either disliked or simply did not mesh with among my fellow English majors, but in general I found that my interests were more in line with those around me. Some of these friendships are ones I consider to be my strongest, most important ones even after completing school. As far as personal value goes, these are priceless and things I wouldn’t trade for any type of monetary value that might have been brought on by sticking with a more practical degree.
There is one effect that my decision to change majors and my period of unemployment had that is likely the most important, yet most subjective—personal enlightenment and satisfaction. While I can assign a number to the friendships gained by changing majors, it is a much harder task to somehow rate the changes in myself.
For me, very few things are as satisfying as the opportunity to be creative, and by pursuing a creative writing degree, I was able to study and refine a creative outlet that I loved, but had not spent enough time on. I will forever cherish the feeling that I got from my first writing workshop. It was frustrating to hear my classmates critique my writing, but more than that, it was a freeing and refreshing experience to spend time in school learning about something I cared about deeply.
However, after weighing the benefits, the incredibly frustrating experience I had searching for a job after college still leaves a huge question. Is pursuing a degree in a field that you love worth it, or should you make a more practical choice? I think the only answer to this question is an underwhelming one.
This is not a question that can be answered universally. In other words: it depends.
For some people, the need for financial stability is huge. The number of non-traditional students (e.g. part-time or those enrolled in community colleges) has been steadily increasing for some time now and doesn’t look to be slowing down. These students are more likely to be supporting a family or in a situation where more immediate career advancement takes precedent. These are incredibly legitimate places to be in life, and there should be absolutely zero shame given to anyone who makes this decision. If you find yourself in this situation, I completely understand and I’d simply encourage you to continue to pursue those fields that you have passion for outside of your major. Whether it is a creative outlet or a subject you enjoy studying, find ways to study it in whatever capacity you are able to.
For others, however, I absolutely stress the value of pursuing an “impractical” degree such as my own. College should be, at its absolute best, a place for an individual to better themselves, and I wholeheartedly feel that this is true in my case. While I may have questioned my degree choice during my period of unemployment, at no time was I ever convinced that I had truly made a wrong choice. It was tough at times, but the rewards always outweighed the hardships. To anyone experiencing similarly frustrating post-graduate experiences, I leave you with some simple advice.
Reframe how you think about finding a job. I was incredibly focused on finding a job in my degree field, and didn’t search for jobs outside of it. It’s alright to continue searching for a job in your field while being employed elsewhere. When I finally found a job, it was in a field that I would have never expected myself to work in, but I found that it gave me invaluable experience seeing life through a different lens, and it was a strong addition to my résumé when I applied for my current job doing technical writing. If you feel that your degree is worthless, know that worth is not based solely on monetary return. The pursuit of knowledge and improvement is important, and only you can determine the worth of your degree.
[Editor’s note: Just like Zachary, you might be surprised with how well a job outside your field fits you. Be sure to explore some career options on AfterCollege.]
Now it’s your turn! Did you choose a practical major or one that was more aligned with your interests, like Zachary did? How do you feel about your decision now? If you could go back in time and do it all over again, what would you do differently? Let us know in the comments section below.
Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyMEvans.
Photo of Zachary by Lindsey Morris