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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Working Full-Time as a Part-Time Employee

I’ve been interviewing prospective freshmen for my alma mater, and I don’t wish I was them, but I wonder if I used to be that hopeful. I know the college process is beyond stressful now, and where you go and what your GPA is will determine whether you get that entry level analyst jobs, or end up flipping burgers at Burger King, a position that now requires a college degree. I don’t want to be a college freshman and know that, I like how I was thinking that college was about exploring my interests, as naive as that was. It was less stressful.

So these students, or at least most of them, were very ambitions. They talked about contributing to the greater good by working for non-profits or the Peace Corps, they talked about unifying countries, and creating their own businesses. I remember on one of my scholarship applications, to Wake Forest actually, where I wrote about wanting to start a homeless shelter that was self-sustainable, and served as like a transition house out of homelessness. I saw a similar concept on 60 minutes. I could put the business plan together and start fundraising, but seeing as no one thinks I’m fit for a full-time job, would they really invest in this goodwill endeavor? And then how can I even help the homeless when the only reason I wasn’t homeless was because I moved back home for about 15 months? A side note: I did not receive any scholarship offer from Wake Forest, and they wanted me to pay just as much to attend their school over a top 10 school, so pretty much, that’s why I said “no” to their admissions offer.

So I used to be just as hopeful as those students were when I was their age. It was refreshing to see that, and I believe that they can accomplish their goals. Most of them were guys, all of them were white, so they had that going for them. They would get into good schools, and all they needed to do is get an A- GPA. I probably would still like to open that homeless shelter eventually. Deep down inside I still feel the desire to help others, and hope for the future, if I didn’t I probably would have already committed suicide, because that’s when it usually happens, at the very end when all other options have been exhausted.

Right now, my focus is being content in the space that I am in. I am trying to stay in the present, and not plan or think too far ahead. I am also working on being less ambitious, because when your expectations aren’t as high, the fall is not as great.

Over the summer I temped for a little bit, which helped me to realize that I could make the money I needed without working full-time. It’s all about the profit margin: hire someone who’s more than qualified as a temp, and you can save a lot of money while getting a more than qualified employee. Funny story: for one job I did, I was calling parents reminding them to submit applications for a new school. I got to speak in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, so that was nice. (My coworkers were impressed too.) I also thought the school was pretty interesting and liked being able to speak with parents about it. I absolutely did not like being on the phone all day. Some hiring manager there took me aside and suggested I apply to the Office Manger position. I asked her what type of commitment she was looking for, and she said about 2 years, and I said I would think about it. She was a bit shocked, and my mother said she was probably wondering why a temp would turn down a full-time job. I had plans to move to Florida, and as I said I did not like being on the phone all day.

I considered it, but it wasn’t the job I was looking for, or the right location, so there are two strikes. I would have to apply, it’s not like they were offering me the job even though they already had my resume, and by that point thinking about having to write another job application would literally make me sick to my stomach. Also, what would be the benefits? In thinking about it now, I guess I could’ve just applied, got it, and then quit when I wanted to, but I liked them so I didn’t want to do that. The pay would’ve been decent, not really enough to maintain a good work life balance (the cost of living in Boston is well above the nations average). I would’ve had benefits, but I can get that on my own with ObamaCare. I was living rent free too, so I didn’t need to show any income to qualify for housing. In hindsight, I should’ve just applied and if I got it just quit when I wanted, but pretended to be interested career development and growing within the organization, blah, blah, blah.

My contact at the temp agency was really good this time around. She would call pretty frequently. I had tried them out for a month or so before grad school and never heard from anybody. So this person even called me when I was out of the state on “vacation”. I got a two week job as a Teaching Assistant, and I just didn’t know how my having another job would impact my relationship with the temp agency, so I kept it to myself. Again, I was working with bright-eyed, hopeful teenagers, and that was refreshing. I did it because I do enjoy teaching, I would like it on the side in some way, which I am working on a bit now. To be honest, it feels nice also to be appreciated for the things i am passionate about and for people to at least occasionally think it has some merit. I mean I’m not looking for praise, but to be grouped together with someone who thinks the singular of “españoles” is “españole” and to be passed over for a job with the State Department that was given to someone who majored in Public Diplomacy and claims fluency in Spanish, but who could not converse in the language in Cuba and is one of the most culturally insensitive people I have ever known, but then have an attentive audience, even if it’s just kids, gives me a moment to appreciate again what I have accomplished.

So back in Boston, I went back with a consulting firm that I had started with in the spring. It was an on-call position and there was a lot of cold-calling. I wasn’t enjoying it and I wasn’t cutting it. They met my asking price, and I got paid more for my languages, but the hours weren’t consistent. So I had a temp job with the local government, and left the consulting firm for benefits, and consistent hours. That’s probably when it started to be more about the money.

The temp job with the state government turned into a seasonal position to go through until the end of winter. I was processing unemployment insurance as a glorified customer service representative. (Note: the demographics of those applying is not what people would think, and certain people actually don’t apply because of fear of the government.) What I learned from that experience: the local government will hire anyone and they’d rather higher internally than recruit, probably to save money, but some people are being overpaid. What I also learned: there are stupid people in this world, plenty of customer services reps do not know what they’re talking about, I loathe headsets and will never wear one again in my life. To sum it up: I hated my job. I did enjoy using Spanish and Portuguese, and even providing the written translations that the Mass government failed to provide. I got paid well, I guess, less than with the consulting firm, but I got overtime and benefits, but picking up trash for $7/hour was more enjoyable. Management was horrendous, my manager would sigh whenever anyone asked him a question. Oh, and I had tried to negotiate my salary and was denied, lol. We were getting $14/hr as temps, so I think the assumption there was $21.57 was a step up for people who had been temping for years maybe and don’t have a college degree. I had actually applied for the full-time equivalent of the position and never heard anything. While I was there I applied to two different positions within the state government, one in legal, primarily because it was interesting, and another in health because it paid more. I interviewed with the one in health pretty much because they were told to interview me, but I failed at it because I talked about analysis, which was in the job description, but all they do is data entry.

But the highlight of my time there was when I left. I think the next time I will be this happy might be when China becomes the world’s largest economy. So in the call center, where I was working, we had “phone police”. You had to press a certain button depending on what you were doing. I wasn’t bothered at first, I think because all they cared about was numbers, and I was meeting the numbers in English and Spanish. I might have been applying for jobs at the same time, but doing what I did did not required a lot of brain power. One time the guy came around and asked about why I wasn’t on a call. I said I was doing a translation and he went away. This was like a week or so before I left. I had just applied for a job that was hiring immediately in a location far from the disappointment of Boston. I got a call on a Friday. I recognized the number, put myself on lunch at 10:30, and was told I go the job! I could not contain myself. I confirmed the salary, now since it’s about the money I should at least make more than what I did before, but I hated my job at the time, and being in Boston, so I was somewhat flexible. The salary, er, hourly rate, was perfect. I had found out I got accepted to school for the summer, so the timing was perfect too, the job ends just before then. Of course the phone police comes over. He said what he said. I said ok, and logged off the box. He was a nice guy, took his job way too seriously, and could’ve been focusing on the people who clearly weren’t doing their work, so I let it go. I went to my “wonderful” manager, and said I’m moving. I had thought about telling him what I thought of him, but that would’ve been a waste of my breath, and that’s who he is and he probably won’t ever change. I was giving him my badge, and he said I might want to keep it if I come in on Monday. I said nope, I’ll just use my vacation time. He let me put it in for that Friday. He asked for an email to send to HR, and there I explained that I got another job, which probably explains the hold up with transferring my retirement funds, that and not giving 2 weeks notice. But what did they expect with hiring all the temps in my group, even the ones who were surprising failing at the job by low and high standards, not letting me negotiate my salary, the horrible management, and harassing me with the phone police. I left and I breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to move the following week.

My job now is great. It’s in DC. I am completely against the cost of living here, even though it is better than Boston. It’s capitalist at it’s best. Southerners are fascinated by DC and northerners feel they can fix the government, so everyone, but me, really wants to be here, and that helps to drive rent up because of the demand, then the jobs, and the new apartments also help drive the rent prices up, and then even the cheaply made becomes ridiculously expensive. I though, am happy to be out of Boston, further south, better compensated for my work, and without a headset.

As I said, this is just a temporary position. I’ve come to grips with that. I have been looking at full-time positions near my new school, which is in a state far from DC, and have remained somewhat hopeful. Based on my experiences in the past year, I know that I can survive on just temporary assignments, so I’m wondering what I would actually gain from working full-time. It would pretty much be the job security, at least on paper, because I’m done with the government and non-profits, so the private sector can let you go whenever they want. That security would be nice, but again at this point I become sick when I think about writing another job application. I actually applied for some temp positions and internships for the summer. One place got back to me, about a full-time position in the DC area, that I didn’t even apply to. The money’s nice, so I guess I would be stupid not to stay for that. I had applied to them right out of grad school I think, unless I’m confusing them with another company, and was hesitant about applying to them again, never heard anything, and thought it would be nice to string them along. So I haven’t heard from them yet, it’s only been a day, but I’m not holding my breath. Even thinking about the possibility that something could come of that is a waste of energy that I’d rather use for something else. And at this point I don’t need the job. I have money coming in, loans are deferred, I was able to get rid of all ties to Bank of America finally, and I happen to have a decent investment portfolio. I would very much love to tell the companies/organizations that overlooked me just because my degree doesn’t end in “S” or say “Economics” to: [insert expletive here].

So that brings me to the title of this message. I keep thinking I’ve been out of school for a while. It has been a good amount of time, but it hasn’t even been 2 years yet, and I have not gone without money. I think what probably threw me was the expectation that degrees from more than good programs, an above 3.0 GPA, foreign language skills, work experience, a book, and some decent networking would have led to a full-time job by now, and having to live at home or be homeless. I’m glad the living at home is done with. Plan C/D is unemployment insurance, and I can actually give people decent advice on how to “handle” that process. So I can get what I need by doing part-time, investing some of what I earn, and going back to school if the job market is a bust yet again. I am actually moving to Florida which is where I need to be to work on my languages. I want to be in a place where people look at you sideways because you don’t know Spanish and not because you actually know it well. And I do think about the loans, and other people think about the loans, but I’m convinced that no one owes more than me, and actually, putting my undervalued intelligence to good use, there are completely legal ways around that. So right now, I’ll just coast and be. I’m off the depressants so I have to be more mindful of my highs and lows, and I have what I need. It’s not ideal, but it could be worse, and it has been worse.