Email us questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “businesslady.” Previous installments can be found here.
I am set to graduate on the Annual Dean’s List in June. I will have a B.A. my major being Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences: Politics, Philosophy, & Economics, with a double major in IAS: Law & Policy. These are rather open ended, more general-skills degrees. I can research and write well, and I have some basic proficiency in economics.
What do I do??? Everyone I know says “do what you like” (which is literally zero help) or “What does your degree give you?” (some toilet paper). Should I just bite the bullet and work at McDonald’s for the next ten years? Is there a way I can look for jobs I would be at all good at?
I’m so confused!
I’m glad you wrote to me, because the answer is yes.
Yes, you will have to work at McDonald’s for the next ten years, at least. On the plus side, you’ll save money on toilet paper now that you have that diploma!
Okay, I’m teasing you a little bit, but that’s because you remind me a lot of myself when I was finishing up college—young, full of enthusiasm, totally at a loss as to how one gets into a career…and privileged.
I realize that engaging with privilege at the outset of every single advice column would render it an incredibly tedious genre. (“My sister broke my cell phone and won’t apologize!” “You know, some people don’t even have cell phones.”) But before I launch into my how-to manual on career-starting and job-applying, I feel like some kind of caveat is necessary. For every person who uses “McDonald’s” as an example as an undesirable job, there’s someone who actually works there and someone else who submitted an application but never got a call back. For every person who rolls their eyes at the uselessness of their degree, there’s someone who never got to finish college and someone else who never attended it at all
I’m not trying to shame you for what is clearly a lighthearted shorthand, but I want to stress that everyone’s experience is different. Plus, spending some time in the trenches of unglamorous work is pretty much an inevitability regardless of your background. Almost everyone in my circle of friends has a postgraduate degree (except me!), and almost all of them also held retail and/or foodservice jobs at some point (including me). It’s hard out there for a pawn in the capitalist system, folks.
Finally, because I’m coming at this from my own particular perspective, which is just one of many paths into the professional world, I’d like to solicit supplemental advice from the commenters. Did you get into a corporate job without a college degree? Did you work your way up in a less office-y industry, like running a restaurant or making a living as an artist? Does your field have drastically different norms than what I describe below? The more voices we have in this conversation, the more useful ideas we’ll be able to offer one another.
But now, without further ado:
Businesslady’s Finding-a-Job Primer
How Do I Career??
Like Confused above, I graduated college without a clear route to The Job I Would Now Obtain, and my degrees were even more humanities-focused than theirs. But I could also research and write reasonably well, and that—plus being a quick learner with a good attitude—was enough for me to get hired in an administrative role.
My own journey since then has been: admin role at place I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about conceptually→promotion into better admin role→admin role at place I was much more enthusiastic about conceptually→promotion into better admin role→promotion into what I’m doing now (a job I actually really enjoy). This took literally years. And I didn’t just throw “good attitude” in there as a throwaway: paying your dues in a less-exciting job can be your ticket to bigger and better things, but that won’t happen if you radiate palpable disdain.
“Do what you like” makes more sense in theory than in practice, and if everyone took that approach our entire social infrastructure would collapse. Work is, you know, work, and there are going to be times when you have to grit your teeth and get through it. Even if your job was to watch Netflix for a living, you’d find a way to feel annoyed that you weren’t allowed to go outside until you’d finished binge-watching Lost (although if anyone’s hiring for that position, please write to me; I’ve got an excellent work ethic).
First of all, you have to apply. Apply, apply, apply. I’m old enough that I actually bought a newspaper and circled classified ads when I was job-hunting, which felt like the practice of a bygone age even way back then. While we’re in a mostly virtual realm these days, that’s only diversified the range of places where you can find postings. Check Craigslist, Monster, CareerBuilder, Idealist (for nonprofits), Jobing, Indeed, your local newspapers(’s website; sorry print journalism), and the individual sites for places you might like to work.
Apply for any job with qualifications that remotely align with yours, and don’t be choosy. You have my permission to skip places whose ideologies are overtly incompatible with your own, but beyond that, cast your net as wide as possible. (You might have the option of being a bit pickier further along in your career, but the same principle still stands: the more applications you send out, the more likely it is that one of them is going to generate interest.)
The odds of you of landing a position—or even an interview—right away are slim; the odds of you finding something that’s in an industry you’re super excited about are even slimmer. Think of each application you submit as a coin tossed into a wishing well; if it turns out the way you’ve hoped, you’re lucky; if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But just because you’re carpet-bombing prospective employers with your materials, that doesn’t mean you can send the same thing to everyone.
Your resume (more on that later) can stay fairly consistent across multiple opportunities, but even there, you should be paying some attention to the skills you’re highlighting and the ones they’re looking for. If your core strengths are in A, B, C, and D, and a position is mainly looking for D and B with a little bit of C, then your skills should be arranged accordingly: D, B, C, A. Once you’ve made these tweaks enough times, you should eventually have an A-highlighted resume, a B-highlighted resume, and so on, which you can use for future applications with similar specs (but the file you submit should never reveal your secrets; call it something straightforward that doesn’t call attention to its malleability).
You should also submit a tailored cover letter with each application—yes, even if the job ad doesn’t explicitly require it. (If they explicitly say “do not send us a cover letter,” then fine, you’re off the hook. But that’s pretty rare.) I’ll go into more detail on how to approach that further on, but for now: do not fear the cover letter. Anytime I’ve been impressed by a job candidate before meeting with them, that’s been the thing that does it—resumes can only tell you so much, however useful they may be. And the point of your application materials is to make the hiring manager think, “I want to talk to this person and see if they’re right for us.”
If you’re fresh out of college, your resume probably shouldn’t be more than a page long unless you’ve got an unusually robust work history. But as soon as you’ve got some experience under your belt, don’t be afraid of going to two pages—and really make the most of that second page. One of my biggest pet peeves is a two-page resume that’s short on details, with a second page that’s only a line or two long. (Conversely, three pages is probably too much at any stage of your career; if you’re struggling to keep things under two pages, it’s probably a sign that you need to drop your earlier positions that are no longer relevant to your current candidacy).
You can pick a style and format that feels right to you, but stay away from anything colorful, gimmicky, or aggressively themed. Not everyone will share your aesthetic, and the goal is to produce a highly readable document that gives hiring managers the info they want with minimal effort on their part. You can narrow the margins (up to about ½”) if that helps you fit everything you want to include, but don’t cram the text together so closely that it’s taxing to the reader’s eye.
After your name and contact info, it’s helpful to have a “skills summary” that lists everything you’re capable of in 3–4 thematically organized bullet points. As I mentioned above, you can reorder these (and/or adjust the language in them as necessary) in response to particular job ads.
From there, list all of your relevant work experience, including titles, dates, and duties. In addition to what you officially handled in each position, you’ll be well-served by including an “accomplishments” section where you highlight things you did particularly well—compliments you received, improvements you made, and so on. If you’re struggling for ideas, think about what you were most proud of, or times when you got good feedback on your work. (It’s cheesy, but I actually have an email folder where I copy things like that, and it’s a really useful resource when I have to do a self-evaluation of my performance: “hmm, what awesome things did I do in the past year?” You’d be surprised how quickly you can forget those little details.)
When you’re writing things up, stay away from obvious filler terms like “team player” (no one’s going to self-identify as a misanthrope in a resume) and unnecessary verbiage. To this latter point, avoid “responsible for” and similar language—instead of “Responsible for managing staff calendars,” just say “Manage staff calendars.” This isn’t just about being concise (although brevity is always your friend in this context); it’s about placing as much emphasis as possible on what you actually did, as opposed to just transcribing your job description. As a friend once put it: “My teenage daughter is responsible for cleaning her room every day. But that doesn’t mean that her room is currently clean.” Don’t just say what was expected of you—explain what you got done.
A lot of people hate writing cover letters, and I get it—it’s a super-weird genre. But it’s also a chance for you to show some personality and provide a fuller picture of yourself beyond what your resume says, while also drawing direct connections between your experience and the specific job you’re applying for. You’re essentially telling a story to the hiring manager that addresses their questions about you: Why would I like working with this person? More importantly, why might I be interested in talking with them more to see if they’d fit in well here? What do they bring to the table that other candidates don’t?
It’s common to approach cover letters in a stiff, overly formal way, and/or limit the content to “I’m applying for This Particular Position” followed by a resume summary. Doing that essentially wastes an opportunity to explain what you, as an individual, are all about.
I like the Ask a Manager suggestion of “pretend you’re writing to a good friend” (all the tips at that link are stellar, by the way), but keep the audience in mind. It’s frustrating to see cover letters that focus on things like “this job would allow me to get experience in _____”; while that might inform why you’re interested in the position, hiring managers don’t care about the personal growth they can offer you—they want to know what you can offer them. So even as you talk about your enthusiasm for the organization or the work you’d be doing, keep the thesis “…and that’s why you’d be smart to hire me” firmly in mind. Anything that doesn’t support the idea that you’re an excellent candidate (e.g., the office’s proximity to your favorite restaurant or tangential details about your personal life) is superfluous and should be cut.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
All of the above advice remains relatively consistent regardless of the stage you’re at in your career. Sure, your resume gets longer over time, and you can make a more compelling case for your own expertise once you’ve logged more hours in the workplace. But applying for a job means distilling your entire professional persona into a couple of documents, which you then send out, hopefully, into the ether.
The job-search process is about making concessions, and sometimes (all too often) about finding some kind of income-generating position as quickly as possible before you suffer dire financial consequences. But in a perfect world—and sometimes, even, in the real world—the job-search process is about finding a gig that makes the most of your particular talents, where you get along well with your coworkers and actually enjoy the work that you do.
You can’t guarantee that prospective employers will respond well to your application materials, and you can’t guarantee that a job that seems great in theory will be as enjoyable in practice. But the more thoughtful attention you give to your resume and cover letter, the more likely it is that you’ll eventually find your way into a position that’s a good fit—for you, not some hypothetical ideal candidate.
To Confused, and to all the other class-of-’15 grads out there (god I’m old), and to anyone else on the prowl for a new and better position—good luck!! May the road rise up to meet you, I hope you dance, etc. etc. etc.
Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.