How to Make the Most of Working at a Survival Job


Heart. Beating.

Do you dare look?

Your finger hovers over the keyboard, right above the “return” key. The whirring of your laptop is absurdly loud, and it’s hot against your pajama’d legs which are crossed on the air mattress you call a bed.

It’s now or never.

You click.

Sucking in a quick breath, you force your eyes open. You hadn’t realized you’d slammed them shut. Tight. But now they’re open and your stomach twists. The balance of your checking account has dwindled to almost nothing. There’s no way around it. You need a job STAT.

But it seems like the only ones available are entry-level sales positions or retail jobs. These have absolutely nothing to do with your major or what you want to do with the rest of your life. You don’t want to waste your time on a job that won’t advance you on the career path you want.

So what do you do?

Should you apply for a job that has nothing to do with your industry? Or will taking this non-related job hurt your future career?

These are the questions that I’ve mulled over recently after speaking with a friend and recent graduate who is currently looking for work.

It’s been a month or two of job searching and living in a corner of another friend’s room, her savings are starting to dwindle, and she really needs to get a job. BUT she doesn’t want just “any” job. She wants one that relates directly to her interests and what she studied in college.

Now, I know we talk a lot about this at AfterCollege. When applying for jobs, it’s important to have a genuine interest in the company and industry. But what if you are running out of money and need to make ends meet? Should you turn down a “survival job” just to make sure you get into the industry you want to be in?

This article on Ms. Career Girl gives us three reasons why we shouldn’t take just any job after college. The guest author explains that having a job you don’t care about will affect your happiness, will stop you from getting industry-related experience, and may lead to you getting stuck in the non-related field because of its convenience.

She backs up each of these points using real-life examples, and I admit that they all make a lot of sense. But while the examples she gives support her arguments, I notice the people she is referencing had to take these survival jobs in order to, well, survive.

So, even though these situations were not the best, they were necessary. That’s what got me thinking. What can you do to advance your career if you have to take a “survival job” after college? What can you do to make the most of the situation? Are there ways to make sure that you end up in your intended industry after taking this non-related job?

There are if you’re willing to work for it. Here are some suggestions for what you can do to make the most of your situation if you have to take a “survival job” after you graduate.

  • Take note of the skills you’re gaining

Just like the author of the Ms. Career Girl post states, it can be easy to feel discouraged and unhappy if you have to get a job that has nothing to do with your interests. But just because you’re working in a non-related position that doesn’t mean you aren’t picking up related skills.

The author of the post had her heart set on working in the public relations industry. Instead, she got a job as an administrative assistant. Even though there are a lot of differences between these two positions, there are a lot of common necessary skills as well. Think about it. A lot of PR has to do with checking emails, communicating with others, and organizing/documenting things in Excel or other spreadsheets. These are all skills that you can develop and improve upon while working as an administrative assistant.

If you know you’re accepting an offer that isn’t your “dream job,” don’t just surrender. Take a look at some of the job descriptions of the positions you are interested in. Seek out opportunities in your current role that will allow you to develop some of the skills listed. Most employers/managers are happy to give you extra responsibilities, especially if you’re proactive in seeking them out.

Check out this college student who used the skills that she gained while working in retail to boost her pharmacist résumé.

  • Start a side project

Okay, so even though you’re picking up some transferable skills, you also are going to want some industry-related ones as well. That’s why you should consider starting a side project. If we use the example above with the administrative assistant who wants to work in PR, she might help a friend promote their business by reaching out to reporters, developing social media channels, and finding the narrative behind the business.

This recent graduate wanted to break into the health industry but didn’t have any “real” experience. So, he took matters into his own hands and started his own health project (that eventually landed him a job).

  • Volunteer

You can also volunteer and/or work as a freelancer. I’ll be honest, doing either of these things while working full-time at a “survival job” will be really difficult. But, if you’re determined and start organizing your schedule, you can make it happen.

The Ms. Career Girl article mentions that one journalism major wrote a couple of freelance articles while working at her “survival job,” but even with those on her résumé, she couldn’t compete with other recent graduates who had more professional experience. So, if you are planning on going this route, make sure that you’re ready to consider this your second job. Don’t just settle for a couple of volunteer hours or freelance jobs. Keep hustling and finding opportunities.

  • Target and volunteer at industry-related events

Start seeking out industry-related people and events. We all know that one of the best ways to find a job is through a person, not the computer. But people can’t do this if they have never met you.

When this recent graduate wanted to switch from a solar energy company to advertising, it seemed like too big of a leap. But he was determined to make that change. Using Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media platforms, he learned about advertising networking events. He even volunteered to work at art galleries when these events were being held there.

He used these networking opportunities to get his face in front of people in the industry, make sure it was known that he was interested in their companies, and became someone people thought of when job opportunities opened up.

We also love the story of recent graduate Alex Cherin who was so determined to enter the advertising industry he once volunteered to model for W + K just so that he could get in touch with a member of their creative team.

  • Don’t feel bad about applying to entry-level positions

Here’s the other thing. When you do enter into your desired field, you’re probably going to have to start from the bottom. This is one of the things Pete Gibson was warned about when switching from solar energy to advertising. But since he was determined to enter into that industry, he made it clear that it didn’t matter and it really didn’t. He was saving up the entire time he was working at his first job so that he’d be able to work as an intern if that was what it was going to take. Similarly, I saved up while working in a preschool back home so that I could move to San Francisco and work as the Social Media/Editorial intern here at AfterCollege.

So, think about whether or not you’re really okay with this. If you are, then start saving so that you can survive later on when you’re making the transition into the field you really want to work in.

Food for thought: If you can, try to find a job that is related to what you want to do later on. But, don’t feel too discouraged if you have to take a “survival job.” Start identifying transferable skills and then look for ways to develop skills that you can’t get at your current position. Also remember that there are courses both online and at your local community college that can help you develop those other necessary skills. Start doing some research about industry players and events that are going on in your industry. If you want to make that switch into your target industry, you can!


2 Responses to “How to Make the Most of Working at a Survival Job”

  1. Did I Choose the Wrong Major? - AfterCollege

    […] 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, […]


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