Finding a Career Outside Your Major

by Judge Josh on October 1, 2010

Emma’s note is a great way to start a Friday for me, because it’s 180 degrees from what I normally get. When it comes to jobs, most of you guys want to know how you can find jobs related to your major and doing what you went to school to do.

But Emma wants to know how to find a job that has nothing to do with her major. Different, eh? This is gonna require the activation of new brain cells on my part.

career outside major

Dear Judge Josh,

I’ve always read your advice even though I’ve never really had an issue with school or loans.

Thanks! I appreciate you a ton, all of you guys who keep on reading every week. I’ll keep writing as long as you keep reading!

I hoped that my question would come up eventually, but it seems like nobody else is having this problem? So, I’m hoping to hear other people’s advice in the comment section.

Excellent. As you know, we have excellent commenters. Our commenters are so good that I’ve actually considered removing the moderation function so that people see the comments quicker, but occasionally we do get the virulent racist or Nigerian money scammer, so I’m leaving it off for now. Maybe someday…

I recently graduated from Emerson college with a BFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing, mostly debt free (about $10k), and two years early.

Impressive! Congrats to you, on both the degree and the paltry debt!

I went to Emerson because I’m really passionate about Creative Writing, but while there, I realized I wanted my writing life to be a separate thing from my career (i.e. making money). I also did a couple publishing internships, and realized that I didn’t want to pursue a job in publishing like a lot of my peers did. I don’t want to be a starving artist like my peers, and I’ve noticed that writers with separate careers are often much more fulfilled.


I’ve never heard the part about the writers with separate careers being more fulfilled, but now that you mention it, I guess I can see that — when something you love becomes the thing that you do for work to survive, then it’s easy to stop loving it after a while.

So, here’s the issue, I’m 20, I have a degree, but I don’t know what to do next to have a career. I had always planned on just…writing. Turns out, that doesn’t pay the bills (or the student loans).

Right, frequently it does not. Especially when you’re 20. There’s a silver lining here that’s worth at least a quick mention, and that’s the fact that there are VERY few 20-year-olds making a full-time living with their writing alone.

And I don’t mean that as if to say, “Hey, you’re screwed!” I mean it as, “Hey, this is not an abnormal situation, so don’t feel alone.”

I’m living at home, which is fine for now, but I really want a career of my own, some sort of skill that I can always fall back on.

Absolutely, and highly recommended.

Now that I’ve decided to earn money in a different way, I’m not sure what to do. I know that when I’m a bit more experienced as a writer, I want to get an M.F.A. in writing, but those are free

Huh? No they’re not! They’re expensive! :)

and more for people in their late twenties, early thirties, who have been living the writing life for a while. That’s also more of a personal enrichment goal, then a career motivated goal.

Yeah, as for the MFA, I think those who pursue them break down into the following categories:

a) “Serious” (literary) writers who want to polish/perfect their craft (sounds to me like you would fall into this category);

b) People who would like to teach writing at the community- or small-college level who know that an MFA is the educational minimum requirement for those positions.

c) Writers who aren’t getting published and don’t know what the hell to do with their lives at the moment, for whom a grad program seems like an appropriate purgatory.

Now, because you’re a bit precocious, you may seem like a fast-forwarded version of “C,” but of course you’re brand new and haven’t actually *tried* much to get published (I assume), so I’d resist the inclination to group yourself with those folks just yet.

Before going to Emerson, I had seriously considered going to school for Sexology and Human Sexuality.

Probably a good choice not to — your job prospects would be even worse, I think. An interesting topic, to be sure, but I’m guessing not a great employment outlook.

I also planned on double majoring in Italian, until I found out Emerson didn’t offer it. I’ve had a couple jobs that had to do with publicity and marketing, and I think I might pursue that, but I’d probably have to get a MBA to get a job.

Well, I have some good news: you definitely will NOT need an MBA to get a  publicity or marketing job. Neither of those fields requires an MBA, especially for entry-level jobs.

And as someone who has worked in advertising and marketing for 10 years, let me tell you — we are NOT picky about what you majored in. If you can write well and communicate well with other people, then you’ll be just fine.

I know an advertising rep with the biggest agency in my town who has a degree in sculpture.

I personally hired a Mexican mechanical engineer to do some of my Spanish-language marketing, because he’s a very personable guy and an excellent communicator. And by the way, his degree is in *mechanical engineeering*. :)

Another successful advertising guy in his late 20s that I know doesn’t even have a B.A. at all — he went to some podunk regional community college five years ago.

My point: In this particular industry, degrees aren’t terribly important. If you do good work, you’re welcome.

Emerson is so arts specific, they don’t really teach you how to get a career, unless it’s arts related.

They should really do more of that, considering what you pay to attend.

Let me simplify my question:

Should I go to grad school now for a “trade” or career skill, like publicity, marketing, etc., and what factors should I consider when making that decision?

NO. Completely unnecessary. And even if you spend the time and expense pursuing such a degree, you’d be offered pretty much the same entry-level jobs that you can get right now with your BFA.

Or, should I just use the experience that I’ve got so far to try and get a job (maybe for less pay)?

Yes! And the pay won’t be that much lower in absolute dollars. In relative dollars (after you factor in the expense of grad school and the opportunity cost of not working during that time), you’ll actually be miles ahead financially by finding work now.

I’ve always just followed my heart when it came to making education decisions, and it always led to writing, so making a more financial or logical decision re. education that doesn’t involve writing is new to me. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Understood. Well, I would say that you’re probably very lucky that you made it all the way through college with a degree and only $10k in debt *without* really examining the practical side of what you’re studying. There are a lot artsy students who followed their hearts and have $100,000+ of student loan debt.

I think you’re also lucky if you actually enjoy marketing and publicity, because that’s an entirely different type of writing/communication that sometimes doesn’t appeal to creative/fiction writers.

And every organization — nonprofits, for-profits, and everything in between — needs marketing of some kind. And if you’re even a halfway decent writer and communicator, then you can feed yourself with marketing jobs until your creative works start selling and making you serious cash. Let’s hope, anyway. :)

— I think that’s all I’ve got for today. Anyone else have thoughts for Emma on how to get a job outside your major? Let us know in the comments below.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Katie October 1, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Emma, never fear! I was going to school to be an Environmental Impact Reports writer, but found it just wasn’t my thing. After a lot of soul-searching, I found I do well with numbers. I am now earning almost 40k working for my local government in a junior accounting position. I had no training for this, but just sort of “picked it up”. Anywhoo, to make a point, I see jobs needed for grant writers, administrative assistants who can communicate clearly, and a host of other jobs someone who knows how to write could very much benefit from in the local government sector. You might look around there as it has steady hours, great benefits, and will allow you ample time for your beloved hobby of writing. My job has allowed me to find out what my dream is, and how to go about attaining it! Best of luck to you.

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Kim October 1, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I have had the same questions, and I have found that education isnt really what gets people the jobs. It is either the experience or the “it’s who you know” factor. Since I graduated with my English major, I have not found a job. That was a year ago. The things I apply for are just so competitive. So, I decided to volunteer ion my community. This move has been the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. I am meeting like minded people, learning news skills, and learning more about myself than I thought I ever could. I am finding out what I love to do. I am lucky that I am married and we have at least one income and have been doing okay so far with me not working. But the pressure is still on. I feel pretty positive that the organization I am with, if I can hold out long enough, will be where my career begins. If not, I have gained invaluable skills I can take with me anywhere I decide to go.

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Zabrina October 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Congrats on the degree and your low debt, that’s awesome! I just wanted to chime in and say that it *is* possible to make a full-time living writing. I’ve done it, though I’m transitioning into another related line of business (information product creation) because I want to expand to a 6-figure-a-year business.

Check out my website for some samples of the writing I’ve done for cash, and if it sounds like something you could stomach to pay the bills, start doing a lot of research on freelance writing jobs, a site called Freelance Writing Gigs, and so on.

I’ve managed to strike a balance: writing non-fiction for money, fiction for pleasure and relaxation, so it’s possible you can too.

Just wanted you to be aware of the career option (which would require no further “formal” education, though a free, time-intensive crash course in internet marketing helps) since so very many promising writers aren’t. :)

Best of luck with whatever you choose!

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Cori K. October 3, 2010 at 12:12 am

If you’re okay with separating “creative” from “practical” writing, you have a TON of opportunities ahead of you. Look at the industries that are business- or numbers-focused for positions: you’d be surprised at how much they need those strong writing skills for marketing and other purposes. If you can write well and communicate clearly, there are companies who’ll put you to work. I worked in a research center at my previous university, and their focus was on insurance. All the other student employees were in accounting or finance–I was the only English student.

But it didn’t matter that I didn’t know an actuary from a hole in the ground because I could write well and communicate exactly what the boss needed done. I proofread faculty papers for publication, I created more promotional materials than I can count, and I even have editing credit on a major research report published overseas. All without knowing a blessed thing about insurance when I was hired.

So go looking in business, finance, economics, real estate, whatever. Your skills are in demand, but you’ve got to go looking for those positions in places you’d never have considered before. I wish you the best of luck.

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Colum_Alum October 3, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Hi Emma,

As a recent MFA writing grad who didn’t even get interviewed for a writing position that went to a 22 year old with one year of work experience, I can tell you the degree would mean squat if you don’t have connections or clips. Meanwhile, I see TONS of marketing jobs, especially requiring social marketing, but I don’t have enough experience. I did some stuff through my leadership activities in undergrad and grad school, but nothing professional.

That you have held jobs in this area, would certainly give you a leg up. Due to my level of loans (almost $200k), I need a job at a non-profit, school or govt agency. If you’re not tied to that, you could probably find an entry level marketing job in any major metropolitan area and even some smaller cities/towns.

BTW, most people in my MFA program were straight from undergrad, so alas your assumption is incorrect. I wish more people had your outlook — very few people going straight from K-grad school have had enough life experience and perspective to write good fiction (not to mention non-fiction). Usually only the main character has 3 dimensions. My favorite writer advises against getting an MFA and getting life experience instead. I wish I’d listened to her! Find a job that isn’t too soul/time-sucking and make time for your writing. I found that I wrote more when I was NOT in school for writing (because my schools were $35k/year each and in very expensive locations, major screw up on my part). When I worked, I got up at 5 or 6 am, so that I had at least an hour to myself to write, no distractions, etc. That way, you have done the writing for yourSELF, regardless of what happens the rest of your day. It’s the creative equivalent to the old saw, “Pay yourself first.” Do NaNoWriMo and keep submitting your work to journals.

BTW #2 – Judge Josh, an MFA doesn’t lock one into teaching at the community college level. While there are a few Ph.D programs in creative writing or English or Lit with a Creative Writing emphasis, the MFA is considered a terminal degree (kind of like how a JD is only 3 years, but terminal).

The REAL head scratcher is finding yourself in an MFA program being taught by people who don’t hold an MFA. Or, sometimes, a BA. Having a book published is a major qualification to teach writing. For example Sam Lipsyte taught in the undergraduate and graduate writing programs at Columbia (and ran the undergrad program for several years) with only a BA. Honestly, that’s probably far more useful to students than someone with an MFA who hasn’t written or published a book.

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Jane October 5, 2010 at 7:39 am

Hi Emma,

My parents have always said: ?Unless you want to perform neurosurgery or build the next space station, your degree doesn?t matter; and even if you want to perform neurosurgery, the only thing important about your undergraduate degree is that you have one.?

I have to say I have found that to be absolutely true. I have met aerospace engineers working for NASA who got undergraduate degrees in history, neurosurgeons and doctors who majored in German, and Generals for the US Army leading engineering battalions who majored in art history. I have also met writers who majored in engineering, artists who majored in physics, and psychologists who majored in chemistry. I have a friend who got into Johns Hopkins Medical School on an art degree. My point is: simply having a BS, BA, or BFA is enough to qualify you for a plethora of jobs; even if you don?t feel you qualify.

My dad majored in historic writing, and his first job was as an accountant for the government. He loved it, and the government paid for the 30 credits to get his accounting degree; not because he needed the degree, but because he wanted it. After that he made a carrier in program management and human resources. Now that he is retired, he is finally using his initial degree and teaching history to high school students.

Life is a crazy winding road, and just because you studied for something, doesn?t mean you will do it for the rest of your life. What your bachelor?s degree is in doesn?t really matter even half as much as experience and attitude no matter what you want to be when you grow up. And just because you feel like you want to be a writer now doesn?t mean you won?t also want to be a fireman next week. That is allowed to change too.

I hope you find a carrier that makes you happy. Good Luck.

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