College and Post-College Careers 101 – A Letter to my Younger Self

First off let me say, that when I took up drinking as my hobby, I had one of the worst hangovers that I’ve ever had. I let go of the hard drinking for now, and just have a glass when I’m feeling really depressed. I was saving the bottle for a happy occasion, but as I feel myself getting slower mentally and my birthday is approaching, the hope for the happy occasion has long since subsided.

To be more engaged with others when I was in a happier place when I moved back in with my parents, I volunteered to interview high school seniors as a part of my college’s alumni association. Then I was excited for the students and really wanted to encourage them on their pursuits. Now I feel like I have nothing to offer. I have failed. How am I supposed to sit across from them and explain how invaluable a college degree is, the experience, blah, blah, blah? I can’t, but I can offer the truth. I can bring them back to reality and tell them what I wish I would’ve heard at their age:

1. Where you go to college and what you study matters.
People say it doesn’t matter in the long-run, but they completely skip over the fact that a recent graduate needs to first enter the workforce before they can even think about the long-run, not to mention the HUGE amount of debt everyone but the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor will amass. (Not $30K but more like $100K, but in my case $300K when you add graduate school.)

First, where you go to college…

If you want to be able to work in any state in the United States, you’ll need to go to a school that’s respected and known in every state in the United States. You will need to look at the university rankings on USNews, Forbes, etc. This becomes especially important if you want to work on Wall Street or in Consulting, or at any other well-known financial or business institution. If that is your goal, you’ll also want to stay away from getting a graduate degree from any school whose undergraduate program is not in the top 10, with some wiggle room given for the top 20, or top state schools since there is  bitterness towards people who go to top 10 schools and more recognition that the cost of college is ridiculous when compared to the returns. That will bring down your resume and remove opportunities that you could have probably had with just your undergraduate degree.

On the other hand, building off of the bitterness towards the top 10 schools, if you go to a top 10 school do not venture out of the major metropolitan areas. Outside of the major hubs, there is a preference for local candidates from community colleges or local state schools. This preference is very strong in places like Florida which is generally seen to have a weak educational system at all levels, and neither it’s state schools or private universities are highly ranked with the U.S. (In Latin America people will say MIT and FIU in the same sentence, but then people from MIT have no idea when an FIU is, but in Latin America, you get extra points just for attending school in the US.) So if you know you want to live in Florida, go to college in Florida. You must be sure you want to stay in Florida, because your chances of leaving Florida are slim. You can compare that to degrees from state schools in California, North Carolina, or Texas, which have more national regard.

Second, what you study…

Do not major in a qualitative area. People stay study what you enjoy, and follow your dreams. If your dream involves majoring in a qualitative area, go to whatever school you want, as long as you don’t have to take out any loans. The other option is going to law school, but you MUST go to law school. Do not do what I did and delay law school for a lackluster MA degree. If your focus is on law school, you’ll need to get into a top 25 school if you want to eventually work as a lawyer. You can go to a school not in the top 25, but you should NOT take out any loans to do so, because that would be a waste of money. Taking out loans for law school if you get into the top 25 is a safer bet. Yes, it is betting.

The place for your dreams in college, are the electives, minor courses, and you extracurricular activities. You also should not choose an “easy” major so you can get a good GPA. Your GPA matters, yes, but so does your major, not the courses, but your major.

So, major in a quantitative field, especially if you are a minority. Also, learn another language, but only one, so that people do not think you want to be a teacher or a translator. No one likes an overachiever. Top 10 schools generally do not offer a major in business, so if you are looking for national mobility, consider these majors: computer science, economics, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, math, finance, or statistics. You can double major if you want, but having a double major alone is not something to brag about. Do not worry about studying abroad, nobody cares. If your foolish like me and want to live in south Florida or such similar places know for its low intellectual capital thinking that it might not be all that bad, look at the market. The locals are only going to understand what the locals know. Here, the market is tourism, real estate, business, and sales. Majoring in business, hospitality, real estate, or finance is your only option. Absolutely do NOT come to Florida or similar places with a non-standard degree, meaning, at my college, you could create your own degree. That’s not useful for Florida, as it will not be understood. Stick to the basics and what is easily understood.

2. You cannot make an investment with loans.

Going to college is not an investment in your future, it is a necessary evil and a business transition. A friend’s mother when to MIT and I am pretty sure she did not pay more then $11K for her education. Overall, I believe back then, it was a couple thousand per semester. (That’s an amazing ROI for the baby boomers.) She graduated MIT and her starting salary in an engineering role was $20K. (Notice the specific and clear major leading to the job that had the degree/major in the title.) Her starting salary was higher than the cost of her education. That is not going to happen today. I think MIT is about $50K/year, and the starting salary is probably not above $70K with 70K being generous. Total college tuition will always be higher than your starting salary. Accept it, and move on.

That being said, without a college degree, in most places, you will not even be able to be an administrative assistant. I say most places, because in south Florida, you can have a MA and work for some of the best companies in the country and be under-qualified for the role of administrative assistant. Then, in DC many interns are recent graduate school graduates.

I am not going to say do not take out a loan. (shocking) I have $300K in loans. I applied to 9 schools, and got into 8. None of the schools offered me a scholarship, and so I still got to go with my first choice, which happened to be the best out of the ones that I got into. I could’ve gone to a state school, but then my options would’ve been limited as they are now. You can decide whether you prefer to be debt free, or disengaged and always the smartest person in the room. (There’s a saying that if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.)

If you take out a loan that is greater than your expected salary, you have no choice but to major in a quantitative field as mentioned above. After all, you are also getting hands-on financial experience. (That’s a joke, no one cares about how you manage your personal finances expect for when there’s something negative in your background check. I mean, I’ve traveled all around the world, but yet I’m somehow not qualified to arrange other people’s travel… I digress…) Also, BY NO MEANS, should you be taking out a loan greater than your expected initial salary to attend a school that is not ranked in the top 50. I thought this went without saying, but from recent experience I guess it doesn’t, your starting salary will vary based on location, industry, degree type, major, and school.

So schools will tell you that college is an investment. Not true. I thought maybe it could be true, because you invest a little bit now for much more later, but if you personally have nothing when you’re 18 and are relying on credit, you’re gambling, not investing. I’ve made investments with cash, from a part of my actual salary, not based on an expected salary that was not guaranteed. Gamblers use credit to roll the dye and see what happens. With college financial aid, you’re using loans to gamble for and with your livelihood. Also consider mortgages and the housing market… With loans you are gambling. Do NOT get caught up in the word investment. Accept that the loan is a gamble, the Department of Education and Sallie Mae are loan sharks, and move on. (I mean, explain why I can still qualify for an educational loan, although I won’t qualify for a personal loan until I am 60 at the earliest??? I wouldn’t want one by then anyways…)

3. GPA might matter, but it depends.

If you want to go to a top-ranked consulting firm, you will need at least a 3.7. Go anywhere but a community college, and get a 3.7 and you will be fine. Overall, you do not want to get below a 3.2. Do not stress over the GPA, but focus on the coursework, as going about it that way will probably help your grades. Grades are about 50 percent what you actual do and 50 percent what your teacher thinks about you. Attending office hours and getting to know your professor goes a long way. Try to be genuine with it, and you might also want to get to know them a little bit more before you start speaking up more frequently in class less they view you as a challenge or a brown-noser.

For graduate school and professional school: the lower your GPA, the better your standardized test scores have to be.

4. Graduate school.

If you go to a top 10 school, do not go to graduate school right away. If you have undergraduate loans, do not go to graduate school unless they pay you. When applying to graduate school, the ranking of the undergraduate institution matters as you consider wether or not you want to attend. The same principles regarding location and major mentioned above apply to graduate school as well. You can use graduate school to relocate and enter a different field. Unless you are a business or prelaw major, only get a graduate-level degree that COMPLEMENTS your undergraduate degree.

If you go to a top 10/20 undergraduate school, your graduate school should be in the same tier otherwise your skills and aptitude will be questioned. If you attended an undergraduate school that was not ranked as high, attend a graduate-level school of a higher rank to increase your options. Especially, now, doing so will make you appear wise, as it will be assumed that you attended a lower ranked undergraduate institution to save money and that is one instance where what you do in your personal life matters for your career. You will also appear to be a hard-worker who persevered despite less opportunity, etc., etc.

 

So, to wrap this up, college is not about you finding yourself and exploring your interests, it’s about being employable. Some people are lucky enough to go to those places that allow them to be universally employable, but if that is not you, you’ll still have to strategize to make sure that you are employable locally. You’ll need to look a college as a business and adjust your mindset. My “friend” called me a “free spirit” because I said I was moving again even though I said I was moving for a specific job. I was offended, because I think that all she hears is that I am traveling to another location, not relocating to work. But, she was probably right. I had dreams like her and was going by my feelings, which led to ruin. She was the smart one who had dreams and married up. Being practical is all there is, and dreams will follow, maybe. That is the status quo. That’s what people understand. Accept it, and move on.

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From Then Until Now

So many things to say, but where to begin… I just could not bring myself to write for the past month. I had thought I was doing well, but today, with so much on my plate between housework, job applications, and planning for an upcoming trip, I’m feeling a bit unmotivated.

In the past month, I’ve had two jobs and started taking anti-depressants, the social worker I’ve been seeing says that they help to level out my emotions/feelings. I have been using what I learned in AP Bio to process what’s happening to the neurons and I think they have helped. I think with the medication I was able to get out of my head and focus on other things, be happier about life, and be able to encourage others. For a while I did not have crying spells, I cried a little today, but nothing near like what happened before. That reminded me too that the pills cannot solve everything. What they have done is help me to be more open to and accepting of life. I was even able to have a spiritual breakthrough and am glad to report that I no longer have thoughts of suicide. But now where do I go from here…

Now, it’s just a few days over a year since I graduated with my Masters degree. I was actually looking at some pictures with my parents the other day, and we were all so happy. I’m grateful for the accomplishment, the experience, and the people I have met, but I had hoped it would make it easier for me to get a job, which it has not. Statistically speaking, it has made it harder. I have a specialized advanced degree and at most 2 years experience in a market looking for more experienced workers, or people with just a Bachelors. That’s frustrating, and causes some anxiety, but because of the pills, my reaction is more mellowed out.

What boggles my mind is all the steps I took to ensure that by now I would be gainfully employed, with benefits, preparing for another trip to Brazil, to only be at this point and see that those steps taken were in vain.

My senior year in college, I was so sure that I was going to graduate school that I did not start looking for full-time jobs until around March. My peers had interviews setup in the fall and by spring knew where they would be working full time the following fall, with benefits. Most of them went into investment banking and consulting, where they are now, and then there’s me.

I had gone to career fairs on campus since my junior year, maybe even my sophomore year, looking specifically for internships. My senior year I went back to the fair and was just focusing on finding an internship for the summer. So I got a head start on the job search, and was on LinkedIn by senior year if not before, but then I got the graduate school rejections, the scholarships rejections, all at the same time. This was March, and I started looking harder for jobs.

I was saddened by the rejections from graduate school, and especially the scholarship rejections. At this point, I feel like I’m glossing over some things, but I just don’t want to dwell on that time anymore. I didn’t read the fine print on some of the applications that said don’t apply for a Masters in Latin American Studies if you already have an undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies. I was mostly agitated by myself for missing that when I’m usually very good a spotting the fine print, and wasting my money, or should I say opening up a credit card just to pay for those applications. So then I was finally wait-listed at one school, accepted, but broke. I got money for a summer study program, and actually got money for that, and then found out I got a part-time job by the end of that program to help pay for expenses in grad school, so that was definitely the silver lining. At this point, I was definitely optimistic about my future despite the other rejections I had faced. I had more than managed before, so why not now?

I was determined to do better in graduate school: higher GPA and have a jump on the job search. I had a job in government and a 3.5 GPA at the school that waitlisted me. When I graduated and my GPA dropped to a 3.3 because of administrative error and over-ambition on my part, I found out that most of my peers had 3.8 GPAs. What did I do wrong? I took Arabic, a summer course, and worked full-time, and also trusted the wrong administrative person. Some people can juggle a lot of responsibilities, but that is not me. But looking back, it’s kind of funny how the thing that I enjoy, languages, has also led to more anguish. I don’t know if I have already mentioned this, but I have approached the CIA and the NSA, and they are not interested… despite the languages.

But going back to graduate school…

I started looking for jobs either the summer before my last year or the fall of my last year. If it wasn’t the summer, then it was definitely the fall. The big name placed I applied to are: CFR, Brookings, NDI, and the Woodrow Wilson Center. I applied to other places as well, well over a hundred since then. I applied to places that showed up on LinkedIn, and I networked, or tried to network through there. It does irk me when people my own age don’t respond, but then again, they are gainfully employed… And probably not the best people to network with anyways because they have little pull. I got no response from CFR or Brookings. Oh, and I applied to the Freedom House and got no response from them, ever. I found out that they’re a sucky place to work at though, and pretty homogenous for a group interested in equal rights and opportunity, as is the Center for Global Development. I applied to them more recently. The World Affairs Council is also another place that does not respond to people. My thing is, if I can get to the president of a top 10 university, and get a letter from the NSA or JP Morgan saying they’ve picked another candidate, why can’t the World Affairs Council or the Center for Global Development do the same? Limited resources, maybe, but it shouldn’t be that complicated to send a group email.

So the time I spent with NDI was interesting. They contacted me for an interview while I was in Cuba, and then was just after submitting my application online, no networking. I said I was in Cuba, and we set up another time to talk when I got back to the States. My first encounter with them was for an internship just after college. I got to the second to last stage, and they decided to go with someone else. I was cool with that. I ended up studying a language over the summer, and then later getting a job, or jobs, that paid more and lasted more than a summer.

So I interviewed with someone from NDI for a full-time position around January/February of my last year in graduate school. There was a portion in Spanish. Easy. They asked what my availability was, and I said I was writing a thesis, so part-time until May. They said we want someone full-time now, and decided to move on to other candidates. I reached out to that person again when I saw other openings a little before I graduated, as she said I should, and no response. And then I applied for an internship for the fall, in addition to a full-time position. Again, no networking. I got an interview for the internship only.

I saw the interview more as practice, and after conversing with one person in French, I saw it as a joke. My French is advanced and has been better, but the girl who interviewed me, I’d probably put her at intermediate, and she was supposed to judge my ability. I did not trip her up intentionally, but I tend to speak more formally in my interviews and I could tell she was having some challenges. A friend of mine joked that she would intentionally use more complicate French just to get the interview over with. Wow. So I got the internship, but I was waiting to hear back from another job, and I also would not be able to afford rent with what they were providing, it was mostly the later, so I turned them down. I have not looked back. After 2-3 years I’ve had enough of them and other similar international non-profits like Freedom House, and those other two in NDI’s cohort.

So, of course the other job I was hoping for I did not get. I actually ended up connecting with the person who did get it on LinkedIn, before I knew she got the job. They actually changed the title around. She’s a native Chinese speaker too, so I can’t compete with that. I’m being serious here. I had no hard feelings, disappointment? yes, but no animosity. I was still in good spirits and thought I’m good at finding jobs that pay, not the most enjoyable ones, but I can get by, so I went door-to-door and dropped off cards, resumes, and applications.

I interviewed with G by Guess which I was very relaxed about, it was a group interview and I was asked about how honest I was. I have a clearance and my fingerprints are on-file, I will be found out. I interviewed with Sunglasses Hut, the guy was nice, but the interview was poorly structured. I had a great interview at Victoria’s Secret and then worked there for about 3 months until I had enough money to get by and couldn’t deal with it. None of my experience transferred, I was hoping for at least a supervisor position especially given the quality of some of the supervisors and managers there, and there was no room for even just a little growth. I also had interviews coming up for full-time jobs that I had hoped would amount to something, but they didn’t.

After Victoria’s Secret I lived off of some money I earned translating, and then went back looking for a right now job. Wow, that wasn’t really too long ago… I went on LinkedIn and looked for internships, I applied for a MA in Economics at two schools at the last minute. I had to take the GRE again and ended up missing the first one because I tried to cut myself the day before and was taken to the emergency room and was still trying to recover from that on the day of the test. It was after I tried to cut myself that I started seeing the social worker.

I went to visit my brother for a little bit and applied to this contracting job I found on LinkedIn. Thankfully, and to my surprise, I was hired within a week. It’s in management consulting and the company’s actually kind of a big deal, which I didn’t know until after I started. Since it’s contracting though, there are no benefits and I’m hired when there’s a project available. I panicked when I didn’t hear anything for two weeks and took another dead end job. I had to wear a uniform. Most of the people i worked with were nice, but there were some I could do without. Also, there was too much down time, and some silly formalities. I would motivate myself to go to work and then about the perks, but at the end of the day I would just cry as I drove home. I would then sit in the car for a little bit and just cry. I would think about driving off the road, or into a pole, and just cry some more. I should also say that I was misinformed that there were opportunities for growth. They also messed up my paycheck and tried to say it was my fault, after I had left.

I couldn’t get out of bed one day, so I called in a quit. That is not my nature at all, but I had to do it. And then the next day I heard from the management consulting firm and also realized that I should have just called the staffing agency back.

When I couldn’t get out of bed the day I quit my last job, and then was just rocking and crying in my room the next day, I called my doctor’s office to talk about anti-depressants. We had talked about it before, but I just felt that all of my feelings and thoughts were out of control. There was nothing I could do to make myself go numb and just stop feeling, stop hoping, and stop dreaming, so I had hoped the anti-depressants would help to keep me at a more steady state, which they have.

I am in a better state of mind. No more suicidal thoughts because the medication allowed me to be open to a spiritual breakthrough. I had my hopes up over the past few days about jobs I saw, but later found do not exist, and cried just a few hours ago, but I can feel sad. Now, I can also move on. Why? Because life just is. Right now it mostly sucks for me, especially when I think about where I used to be, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I have a trip coming up that I can focus on, and then a 3 week job, and then after that, who knows. I’ll have to do something because I’ll run out of money again, but that’s my life now and I can accept it without breaking down into tears. People are always looking to hire people on a daily basis for less than they are worth, so I can go to the staffing agency and work for anal, incompetent managers stuffing envelopes while making $11/hour. I live with my parents and don’t pay rent, I’m far from my friends, and my loans are in deferral, so I don’t really have any additional expenses. My credit cards will never get paid off though, but that’s more a nuisance because I don’t need the credit right now. And as far as the management consulting job goes, it’s a lot of cold-calling, which I’m not really skilled at. I have tried, and done well at times, and they have been patient with me, but it is not a good fit, so I’m not sure how long it will last. Either way, I have a trip to focus on a maybe meet someone who can rescue me from this, and I’ll just try to get more skilled at living day to day.