I’ve been at my new job for almost three weeks and love getting to know people on campus. I’m often asked how I ended up in my new position. Did I last work somewhere else at the university? Am I a student? (Even though I work for a graduate program, this question is pretty flattering.) When I say I’m a career changer some ask what prompted me to make the switch.
Here’s one reason: It’s getting harder every day for freelance writers to make a living. I grew sick of dealing with it.
Back in 2011 I pitched a story idea to several publications that turned it down. Then I pitched it to Main Line Parent, a new local publication that was interested in the idea. The pay: $25 for the piece.
You read that correctly.
I asked the editor if she could offer me a higher rate more in line than what I usually get paid. She said that wasn’t possible because the magazine was a startup. But I was in a slow period, and $25 is $25. So even though that was my absolute lowest acceptable rate. I accepted and signed a contract. Sometimes freelancing means relaxing your standards if necessary to keep money flowing in.
I didn’t write for that magazine again. But I kept quiet about its paltry pay rate. I knew that as a freelancer I had to be prepared for my work someday drying up so I’d need those $25 checks.
Now I have a full-time, salaried job. I no longer have to keep quiet.
A few days ago a photographer tweeted that her photos were in the latest edition of Main Line Parent. So I tweeted back, saying I hoped it paid photographers better than it paid writers.
Let’s just say the magazine’s founder, Sarah Bond, wasn’t happy with me.
She sent me an angry email about my “inflammatory remark.” She said she was committed to paying writers for their work, and that in 2011 her budgets were conservative because it was a self-funded startup.
She asked me to delete the tweet and threatened legal action if I didn’t.
I did. Not because I was afraid. (I’m no attorney, but I remember from my communications law class in college that you can’t be successfully sued for libel if you don’t lie.) But Main Line Parent had heard my message, and I don’t have time to deal with a lawyer right now.
I regret complying with Bond’s request. More writers are publicizing outlets that want their work for little or no money, and non-writers are hearing about it.
Here’s part of the email I sent in response to Bond’s:
I respectfully ask that you think about the time that I spent on that article. Let’s place a conservative estimate of three hours. That works out to $8.33 per hour – barely above minimum wage. Then consider that as an independent contractor I have to pay taxes out of my own pocket. I ask rhetorically: Do you really think this is fair compensation? Is payment that works out to about one dollar above minimum wage respectable for someone who is helping you build an organization from the ground up?
You get what you pay for. Main Line Parent didn’t get my best work. Consumers of media would benefit from keeping this in mind.
In her email Bond said that at least I got paid, while some publications don’t pay at all. True, but paying me a pathetic rate was just a twinge less insulting.
As more (for-profit, natch) companies set their rates so pitifully low, even more can get away with doing the same. Take this ad from a magazine claiming more than 2 million readers nationwide:
Parents magazine is looking for a full-time freelance editorial assistant for the lifestyles department, working closely with editors on beauty, home, craft, toys and other lifestyle stories. The job involves writing, editing, blogging, and maybe even video editing as well as helping to cover the lifestyle market, attending shoots, PR events, and organizing products for run-throughs. If you are a creative person who loves kids, this is the perfect job for you! Pay is $10/hour.
And recently I was asked to submit ideas for blog entries on a national parenting website. I was told this when I asked to clarify the payment terms:
It’s great exposure for you and in exchange great content for us and our readers. There is no contract and if you found it wasn’t working for you you could stop at any time (but we hope you’d love it of course!) We have a fun incentive where any post that gets into the top 5 each month gets a $100 visa gift card.
I declined. I prefer the “fun incentive” in which I spend my time providing a service that helps you make money, and in return you send me a check. Not to mention that I can’t pay for my son’s diapers with “great exposure.”
In almost four years of full-time freelancing I worked for some fantastic clients who I truly enjoyed working for. (I sent them cards each December.) I’m grateful for the opportunities they gave me and will continue to work for them as much as I can.
But this new job is the change I needed. The work environment is far more suited to my goals and personality. And my employer compensates me for my work with a respectable wage.
It’s no secret that I’ve spent many months looking for a new job. I started the process of switching careers about two years ago. Now I’m happy, and excited, and relieved, and I’ll admit a bit shocked, to say that I finally got hired for a real full-time job at a university!
I start my new job at the end of March. I admire the school. I like the people I’ll be working with. The reasonable commute is a bonus.
But as nearly anyone who’s searched for a job since the beginning of the Great Recession can tell you, the time before you get hired can feel like running into a concrete wall at speeds fit for a NASCAR race. The hours, days, weeks, months, of filling out online application forms and emailing customized resumes and cover letters into what seems like a black hole. The frustration upon not getting interviewed for reasons you don’t understand. Sure, it’s not personal. Sure, one of those open positions is the right one and it will be a great fit. Everything works out for a reason.
Problem is, the “right job” isn’t clear in the beginning — otherwise, you’d just apply for that one and save yourself the trouble.
What frustrated me the most was being interviewed and not hired. I landed quite a few interviews. I was rejected after all but one of them. Most hiring managers did a decent job of it. They’d send nice emails thanking me for my time, saying my qualifications were impressive but someone else just worked out better for them, and best of luck. I wasn’t happy about any of those messages, but at least the people who sent them tried to be kind. I respect that.
Then there were those who made the rejection worse. If I’m ever in a position to hire I’ll remember how poorly they treated me.
Here are four ways not to tell job candidates they didn’t make the cut. They are actual examples from my just-concluded job search. Employers are unnamed to protect the clueless.
4. Changing the job description, then requiring a new application post-interview. I interviewed for one job when it was a part-time position. After the interviews were completed it was changed to a full-time position. To be considered for the full-time role I had to re-apply. I was not selected to be interviewed for the new position. Someone else was hired. To be fair, I did receive regular e-mail updates about what was going on. Much appreciated.
Once I get used to employment in the world of higher education I might gain insight into what happened here. But the whole process seems silly and inefficient from my viewpoint as an applicant. Why should I have to re-apply for the new iteration of a job I was already interviewed for? Why not just bring in all the interviewees again and ask more questions targeted at the newly defined position? I’m guessing at least one of us would have fit the bill since we were already promising enough to be interviewed once. If none of the interviewees for the part-time position were fit for it as a full-time job, then another round of applications would have made sense. But the way this process went appears to have created lots of unnecessary work for a bunch of people, including the hiring manager who had enough to do already.
3. A form letter. I understand sending automated emails to the dozens or hundreds of people who apply for a position and don’t get interviewed. But if you asked me to put on a suit and drive to campus to meet you and your colleagues in person, can’t you send me a rejection note that isn’t an obvious template?
2. An email that begins, “Good afternoon!” It was. Until I checked my inbox.
1. Silence. After arranging an interview on one campus I spent about two hours scrambling for a babysitter, finally stumbling upon a lady in my apartment complex who watches kids. After she agreed to take my son for the morning I hastily queried parents of her other charges, Googled her and checked for her name in the state Megan’s Law database. I also researched my potential new employer and mapped out my route. Then there was the drive to the interview, the interview itself and the drive home, after which I paid the babysitter out of my own pocket. Then I wrote and mailed personalized thank-you notes to each member of the search committee.
How did I find out that I wasn’t hired? By checking the staff listing on the department’s website. Three months later.
I spent hours preparing for this interview. I was apparently not worth the five minutes it would have taken you to email me after the fact.
When I was working on my bachelor’s degree various schools within my university would host “networking receptions.” I never went.
I’m sure it would have been valuable to meet graduates of my college. But I despised the idea of networking events. I thought the whole purpose was to say to successful alumni, “Hi, you don’t know me but we have the same major. You have a job. I want a job. Can you get me a job?” Sort of like those snobby girls from high school who only talked to me if they were asking for a piece of gum from my purse.
I couldn’t stand the girls who only liked me for my Trident. And I didn’t want to “network.” (Apparently this is a common thing among students like me, who are the first in their families to go to college.)
As I progressed through my career I learned that networking isn’t as contrived as I thought. In fact, I was networking in high school when my friend Betsy offered to help me get a job at the pizza place she worked at part-time. A few years ago I wrote an article about networking so other college students could be less intimidated by the whole idea.
Now I’m in the midst of switching careers, so what advice do I come across all the time?
Build up a network.
I think I now have a better idea of how to go about it.
Yesterday I attended a workshop held by the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling. Its purpose was to give counselors a chance to learn more about current issues in college admissions. The opportunity to learn more about the professional lives of secondary school counselors and college admission representatives was more than worth the hours of sleep I lost to catch a train to Philadelphia. But the main reason I went, and the main reason the workshop was worthwhile, was the chance to network.
Building connections with other attendees and speakers was easy. After interesting speakers gave their talks, I asked them questions and explained my circuitous professional path. Two of them were high school counselors who work near my home. I told both of them (paraphrasing), “I work at home, and I’m always looking for reasons to leave my office. If you give me an excuse to leave my apartment I’ll buy you lunch.” Both invited me to email them and meet in person later. They seemed genuinely interested in talking with me, probably because I was genuinely interested in getting to know them.
After the workshop, one of its organizers mentioned that she lived near me and was taking the same train back to the suburbs. We grabbed lunch together and spent the train ride talking about college admissions, pets and babies. It was a good conversation. I learned a lot.
That’s how I network. I didn’t beg a single person for a job, although I did mention to one admissions official that I’d applied to the opening on his campus.
But who knows? Maybe one of the people I met during the workshop will help me get a job someday.
On the advice of a few professionals currently working in college admissions, I recently started volunteering at student recruitment and outreach events for my alma mater. So far I’ve interviewed a few students who’ve sent in their college applications, and soon I will represent the university at some college fairs in my region.
The interviews were fun. I met some remarkable high school seniors. I’m looking forward to the college fairs, even though I’ve heard counselors find these showcases exhausting after awhile.
Volunteering is providing me with valuable experience. I always enjoy getting to talk to new people. Most importantly, I get to play at least a small role in guiding students toward colleges that fit them well.
But the idea of working without pay in my future line of work still bothers me. It’s not the unpaid work per se, but the idea of unpaid work.
The opportunity to work without getting a paycheck is only available to me because my husband’s (paid) position allows it. I had to cut back on my freelance writing assignments to have time to send out resumes and volunteer for an admissions office, and he earns enough that I can afford to do that. I can afford to join professional organizations without the dues cutting into our grocery bills. He works from home and has a flexible schedule, so he can usually take a few hours to watch our son. (Attention hiring managers: His new job is a virtual position, so I have no geographic restrictions for my next job. We just need access to a fast Internet connection.)
So why does this bug me?
I come to higher education from journalism, in which unpaid internships are a common practice. These internships are a tremendous obstacle for aspiring writers who have to earn their own money. An essay by Canadian writer Alexandra Kimball details her struggles while trying to secure a full-time writing job in Toronto and attain a standard of living above her working-class background.
There was no way I could do an unpaid internship. Three months of unpaid work would cost at least $4,000; after a B.A. and a Master’s, my student loan debt already totalled $50,000. My monthly payments were $600, and rent in Toronto would be the same—I was avoiding the latter burden for the time being by living with my mother, but she was a receptionist, and couldn’t reasonably support me for much longer. Plus, there was no way I could ask her to get on board with my taking a job with no salary, especially when it didn’t promise a real position—just a chance to apply for one.
I am a first-generation college graduate from a working-class family. In college I worked two summer internships. One paid $25 per day (yes, you read that correctly). The other paid nothing. I paid the bills through part-time retail jobs and savings from the school year, when I had a work-study job on campus — the reason I only interned in the summers. This experience was valuable and prepared me for my first job after college. It also increased my student loan debt.
I find a particular irony in volunteering as part of a career change into college admissions. In articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, in chats on Twitter, in conversations with those in the profession, a trend in the field has become clear: Colleges want to find and recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds who would be assets to their institutions. Admissions offices want to reach out to ethnic minorities, lower-income students, promising kids from far-flung locales.
The college admission profession sees the need to judge prospective students based on their talents, merit and potential, not just their finances. Yet breaking into it requires unpaid work that’s only possible for those whose socioeconomic standing can support it.
How many talented career changers are kept from their goals because they can’t afford to pursue them?
I’m a frequent contributor to Keystone Edge, a website that covers Pennsylvania’s creative economy. The site often covers the process of bringing new jobs to the commonwealth and preparing residents to be qualified for technical jobs that already exist here. So recently my editor sent me to tag along while a few education and workforce development professionals toured the Lehigh Career & Technical Institute near Allentown. The article I wrote went online today.
This school has a reputation for giving students excellent training for real careers. It serves about 2,600 local high school students and about 1,500 adult learners. The teens come during the school day and the adults have more flexible schedules.
During our visit we saw student-built solar cells. We dined on salad, chicken and pastries in the student-run restaurant. We met teens who spent their summers working as welders.
“We end up with kids who have an artistic side to their personality. They are drawn to this because it’s an artistic process,” welding instructor David Marks told us. “For some kids, this is a passion.”
Some students at my high school attended a career and technical school similar to LCTI. I’m sorry to say that I looked down on those kids. I thought they weren’t good enough for the AP and honors classes I took, so they may as well learn how to cut hair. (Never mind the fact that at 15 I did such a disastrous job cutting my own bangs that a professional had to step in and fix it. We all have different talents.)
Sandra Himes, executive director of LCTI, says this is a misperception school officials like her fight all the time. In fact, one of her school’s major goals is to prepare students to go on to community college (there’s one right next door) and more advanced degrees. They’re just learning a different set of skills on the way to higher education.
I briefly spoke with Jeryd Kern, a senior who helped build the solar cells. I asked him whether he ever came across classmates who thought students at LCTI weren’t as smart as their peers. He said he did, but that just made him work harder. He said he’s proud to be in the program he is and more focused on his future because of it. And he plans to study nanofabrication or electrical engineering in college.
He’s built a solar cell that powers an LED light bulb and worked in a professional-level clean room for manufacturing.
“I’m working towards a career,” Kern says. “I already know what I’m going to do after high school.”
If you enjoy a dose of swagger with your tweets about education, follow Akil Bello on Twitter. Do it now.
I recently got into a spirited discussion with Bello, co-founder of the test-prep company Bell Curves. Here’s a sampling:
It seems as if Bello was talking about creating a college-going culture at home. That means my husband and I need to set high expectations for our little boy as he grows up. We need to show him the importance of lifelong learning. We have to push him to do well in school.
But I don’t think that means we have to talk about “when” he goes to college. If (and when) he does, I want that to be a decision he makes. I don’t want him to feel like he has to. He will have other options.
Chances are he will go to college. In 2012, the year he was born, research found that college graduates have survived the down economy far more easily than those with no degree. A college education is the most common ticket to a comfortable adult life. This will surely be even truer when he graduates from high school circa 2030.
Still, I do my best to keep an open mind about what his future holds – sometimes to the point of being ridiculous.
A few hours before my conversation with Bello, my mother-in-law remarked to me that she hopes her grandson will have the perfect life partner someday.
“If he wants a partner,” I said. “What if he wants to be a monk?”
Still, he’s already growing up in a college-going culture.
My husband and I have diplomas hanging on the wall of our home office. Our bookshelves contain the textbooks we’ve opted to keep. Our son hasn’t hit his first birthday and he’s already heard tales about crazy roommates, enthralling courses, summer internships and ACT scores. He visited at least seven campuses in utero. He watches college football with his dad. My mother-in-law just took him to a basketball game at her alma mater.
This boy will grow up hearing a lot about the value of a higher education. I’m sure of that.
But we want him to know that we’ll be happy and proud of whatever he decides to do as he gets older, as long as he fully uses his gifts and talents — whatever they turn out to be.
I’m always inspired when I meet someone who truly loves his work.
Recently I had that privilege while interviewing food writer Ian Knauer for two magazine articles. (They haven’t been published yet, but I plan to post at least one of them in my online portfolio.) He’s the author of a cookbook published in April and the star of an educational cooking show that is expected to debut on PBS stations around the U.S. in 2013. He told me to come to his family’s 18th-century farm while one episode of the show happened to be filming. Then he asked me to stay for dinner with his parents because someone had to eat the ribs, carrots and sweet potatoes he’d prepared on the show.
When a former food editor from Gourmet magazine invites you to stay for dinner, you stay for dinner.
Knauer lights up when he talks about cooking. He loves farmers who feed scraps to their pigs. He forages for salad greens between the rows of his vegetable garden. He raises bees and roasts pigs in the backyard.
Like many people I interview about their jobs, Knauer’s career path had its share of detours. He was an international business major at Hofstra University (he liked languages and was good at math) and worked as a stockbroker after graduating until he realized he hated the lifestyle.
But Knauer’s life held clues that pointed to his eventual career. He told me that as a kid, he would read cookbooks. He cooked dinner for his suitemates at Hofstra.
In the book I used to confirm my suspicions about my own perfect job, author Nicholas Lore says to look for clues like these in a search for the right career path.
In high school I thought I was destined for life as a reporter for a big-name newspaper or magazine. That made sense because I was intensely curious, a good writer and devoured The Grand Rapids Press every day after school. However, it turned out that several clues in my own life demonstrated that I should have gone straight into college admissions.
I knew I would need a lot of financial aid for college, so I spent hours scouring the Internet for scholarships. I found one scholarship for couples who wore duct-tape outfits to the prom. I wasn’t up for that one but told one of my friends about it. She wore a duct-tape dress to our senior prom and her boyfriend donned a duct-tape tux. They didn’t win, but they sure got a lot of attention at the dance.
As a junior I’d read that colleges in Canada are less expensive than in the U.S. I investigated schools in the Great White North but didn’t find any that looked worth applying to (looking back, an indication that I didn’t check them out very well). I told my friends about my Canadian college search. One of them ended up at McGill University in Montreal.
As a sophomore at American University I volunteered as a tour guide and overnight host for prospective students. I knew as a freshman that I wanted to do that, but figured I would have more credibility with teens once I wasn’t new to AU myself. I had a lot of fun. My favorite tours were with small groups of one or two families. Then I could personalize their hour being shown around campus. (“Oh, you want to be a business major? Let’s pop into the business school.”)
I stepped down from my admissions work because my classes, work-study job and duties as a section editor of the campus newspaper took up too much of my time already. What’s that thing they say about hindsight being 20/20?
Over Thanksgiving weekend I had a chance to catch up on some reading, including a Time magazine whose cover story about reinventing higher education had been beckoning me for weeks.
The main article was on massive open online courses. Thousands all over the world sign up to take these free college-level classes taught entirely over the Internet.
The idea of MOOCs is intriguing. (Disclosure: I’ve never signed up for one of these courses. I’ve never taken an online course in any form, for that matter.) Their existence addresses some of the most intractable problems in higher education today. It costs too much. It’s not easily accessed by a lot of people. More students are seeking higher education while they work at regular jobs and raise families, so it’s hard for them to get to class.
Different people head to college for different reasons. Some are there to learn a specific skill. Some want to explore interesting subjects. Many want to improve their job prospects. In short, some students care about the education itself and some just want the diploma.
Depending on your reasons for pursuing higher education, maybe MOOCs are perfect for you. The price is definitely right. Different types of online education programs are great for people in certain situations. One size does not fit all.
However, traditional on-campus courses still have their own strengths. They are still the best option for many people.
While I don’t have experience taking a class online, I can compare the two Spanish courses I took at a local community college a few years ago. The first was a traditional on-campus course. The second was a distance-learning course in which students had to watch videos, complete readings and turn in assignments for a grade.
The instructor was the same for both. I did well in each class. I learned more on campus.
I see two main reasons why:
Accountability: I am self-motivated, ambitious, Type A person. Even so, I found myself doing much of the work for my distance-learning course in the final weeks of the semester. It was easier to stay on task while taking the traditional course because I had to show up on campus a few times a week. It’s the same idea behind getting a workout buddy if you want to exercise more.
Interaction: Students learn from their classmates. Social media have shown us that people can have conversations online, but online conversation still seems less authentic than talking in real life.
The traditional college experience isn’t right for everyone. But on-campus learning in an environment dedicated to education does transform lives. After all, any college student or graduate will tell you that most learning takes place outside of the classroom.
Or take it from Khadijah Niazi, an 11-year-old Pakistani girl soaking up knowledge through MOOCs offered by Udacity. As she told Time:
“I would still want to go to Oxford or Stanford,” she said. “I would love to really meet my teachers in person and learn with the whole class and make friends—instead of being there in spirit.”
Trick-or-treating at the Romanian embassy in Washington, D.C., 2001.
The combination of a poor economy and astronomical price tag of higher education are leading many to ask if a college degree is worth the cost.
In some ways, my own life reflects those doubts. After more than a year of searching, I have yet to land a job in college admissions, my desired line of work. I still have student loans to pay off. It’s a manageable expense, but were it not for those loans I might have been able to buy a house by now.
But I have no regrets about having gone to college. Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to reflect on the ways American University improved my life.
Here are seven:
1. Friends. Where did I meet some of my closest friends? In class. Randomly assigned to the dorm room next door. On staff at the student newspaper.
2. Networking. In college I hated the idea of “networking.” It sounded so self-centered and fake. But I now understand that networking simply means connecting with other people. In time you’ll find ways to help each other. For example, I recently opened a new line of business helping students with their college application essays. A friend from college is a lawyer and wrote the contract for clients to sign.
3. Professional skills. An August report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce compared college diplomas to umbrellas that protect people from economic storms. That’s certainly the case in my life. None of my editors seem to care where I went to college, but they do care about my skills as a professional writer. I developed those skills in college. Now I use them to help support my family.
4. Experiences. I have wonderful memories of exploring Washington, D.C. My friends and I went trick-or-treating at embassies. We went sledding on Capitol Hill. I helped cover a T-ball game on the White House lawn. One of my classes toured the CNN Washington bureau and we met Larry King during a commercial break. And that was just my freshman year.
5. Independence. In college I didn’t have a curfew. On Saturdays I slept in as late as I wanted. Being away from my parents also meant taking on certain responsibilities, like grocery shopping and laundry. I got a credit card because I wanted to buy my own textbooks and airline tickets. I proudly paid off the whole balance every month.
6. Life in a new place. Sure, moving from the Midwest to the East Coast is less dramatic than moving overseas. But living in a different part of the country, and meeting people from all over, taught me about the subtle regional differences that make the United States so fascinating. I came to accept that a carbonated beverage is called “soda,” not “pop.” At least one friend learned from me that no one can live in Wisconsin and work at Cedar Point.
7. Understanding where I came from. I wasn’t aware of my Michigan accent until I moved east and started picking up mid-Atlantic speech patterns. And I didn’t truly understand the gravity of being the first member of my family to attend college until I became immersed in an environment in which I was in the minority. I couldn’t afford to take on a much-hyped Washington internship during school because I needed a paying job. I was intimidated by classmates’ tales of vacations abroad and nights at cultural events. Their new dorm gear came from Target. Mine came from thrift stores.
Given my background, working through school and pinching pennies were facts of life that I took for granted. Surrounded by privilege, I spied a more comfortable life. I was jealous of classmates who had all the advantages and didn’t have to work so hard to survive. I still am, a little bit. But I’m grateful for the strength I’ve gained. Having climbed the rungs of social class, I’m equipped to show bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the way to a better future.
Most students go to college because they want good jobs. So what makes a job good?
A respectable paycheck, for one thing. While the adage says money can’t buy happiness, it can buy a comfortable living.
A good job also gives you the opportunity to work in a field you’re interested in. That’s why the choice of a college major is not to be taken lightly.
Those who have good jobs also say their work provides them with a chance to do something they’re good at. That helps make a good job feel less like work.
But I think one factor matters above all else. When a person says she has a good job, it means she does work that she finds meaningful. A blog post from the Harvard Business Review, which recently came across my Twitter feed, beautifully conveys why people need to feel as if their work matters. Those who find meaning in their work are more engaged, productive and satisfied with their jobs.
Meaning can be found in any line of work. As Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer write in their piece,
When one of us (Teresa) went to get an annual blood test, she noticed that the woman who was about to draw her blood was smiling broadly. Teresa remarked, “You certainly look happy today.” The phlebotomist replied that she was happy, because there were lots of tubes lined up waiting to be filled with blood; that meant that she would be drawing lots of blood. No, she was not some kind of sadist. Rather, she went on to explain that the vast majority of illnesses are first detected by simple blood tests, and having lots of test tubes lined up meant that she had the opportunity to help lots of people.
In the TED talk Amabile and Kramer link to, hotelier Chip Conley discusses the measurement of happiness. One question he poses is, “How do you feel about how you spend your time each day?”
Where do you find meaning in your daily life? Why is it meaningful to you? The answers to these questions can point you toward the educational path you should follow –- and what sort of job you will find fulfilling.