Posts filed under 'Grad school'

Q&A: How’d you score THAT gig?

gig_big.jpgIf you or someone you know is graduating this year or thinking about changing careers, check out Alexandra Levit‘s brand-spanking-new book, How’d You Score That Gig? A Guide to the Coolest Jobs — and How to Get Them. Reading this book is like going on 60 informational interviews for some of the most coveted careers out there — boutique owner, inventor, video game designer, archaelogist, landscape architect, futurist, classic-car restorer, and on and on and on. Happily for us, Alexandra answered a few of my questions about writing this book and some of its most important take-aways.

Q. What prompted you to write this book?

A. The idea originated as a result of several conversations I overheard at friends’ dinner parties. It seemed that someone at every event always had a job that totally intrigued the rest of the group. People were completely captivated by this individual, and were always curious to know how s/he scored the gig, and what exactly it entailed.

Q. In doing your research for all these careers, what did you unearth that surprised you most?

A. First of all, because I tend to caution people against going to graduate school to prepare for a career they have no experience in and don’t know if they even like, I was encouraged to discover that so many of the dream jobs didn’t require a master’s degree for entry into the field.

Second, it was interesting to find that so many of the jobs I was profiling attracted similar types of people. For example, documentary photographers, travel journalists, news correspondents, and oceanographers are all rather spontaneous and thrive on new and varied experiences. This led me to develop my seven “passion profiles” — adventurer, creator, data-head, entrepreneur, investigator, networker, and nurturer — and place my 60 cool jobs into the appropriate categories. Readers can take a quiz at the beginning of the book to see what passion profile and corresponding jobs best suit them.

Q. Was there one refrain you kept hearing over and over in the interviews you did with these dream careerists?

A. It’s not about talent, it’s about persistence. Most of these careers are tough to penetrate, but not impossible. If you take the right steps and push hard enough, for long enough, you will eventually break through the wall.

Q. Were there any dream careers you once mythologized that now have you thinking, “Ugh, I could never ever do that!”? Any that you’d initially looked down on that now have you raising an eyebrow?

A. I used to think that it would be amazing to own my own business, but after speaking with dozens of entrepreneurs, I’ve realized that it’s incredibly hard work. You have to sacrifice your personal life for a long time to get things off the ground, and frankly, I don’t know if I have what it takes. I didn’t exactly look down on any of the top careers per se, but I was pretty surprised when school teacher ranked so highly in the survey. I wouldn’t have personally considered this a dream job, but the teachers I interviewed were some of the happiest, most satisfied people in the entire book.

Q. What are the top three things a newbie with no experience in their dream field can do to break in (aside from applying to grad school)?

A. This tends to vary by field, and How’d You Score That Gig? provides specific guidance on how to break into different ones, but here is some general advice:

  1. Join an appropriate professional organization and attend events regularly.
  2. Seek out volunteer opportunities.
  3. Research individuals doing your dream job, and set up informational interviews with them.

Q. Give us your best informational interviewing tips.

A. Use the Net, your contacts, and your college’s career center to set up informational interviews with people already working in your career of choice so that you can learn more about what the job actually encompasses. In these meetings, which will usually take place via the phone, don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about training requirements, responsibilities, salary, work environment, and opportunities for advancement. As long as you are polite, no one will fault you for wanting the real scoop, and if a job is not as glamorous as it sounds, you want to know that before investing your time and energy.

Q. How do you account for a complete career 180 in a resume and cover letter, say if you’re applying for an internship or entry-level gig in a field you have zero experience in? What do you say (especially if you’re in your mid-thirties and above)?

A. Instead of writing a resume that lists your previous and unrelated jobs, which might have your potential new employer questioning the relevance, create a functional one that’s organized by transferable skills that would be applicable in your new career, such as client relations, project management, and budgeting. This will turn their attention to what you know already as opposed to what you might be missing because you haven’t worked in the field before.

Q. So many people choose miserable complacency in a career they loathe because they’re worried about the financial ramifications of starting at the bottom again. Or they’re scared of change. What advice can you give to light a fire under their butts?

A. First, ease into a new career one foot at a time. Perhaps this means earning a paycheck at your current job while doing a part-time internship in your new field or taking an adult education class or workshop on the weekend. The only way to find out if you’re passionate about something is to try it, and to do so risk-free will make it less daunting.

Also, remember that any progress is good progress. As you say, even confident people stay in unsatisfying jobs because they feel safe, and because they’re afraid of making a bad decision. But in the quest to uncover a source of meaningful work, your worst enemy is inertia.

Q. Were there any careers you’d initially planned to put in the book that landed on the cutting room floor? Why?

A. There was only one — astronaut. This career made the Top 50, but I couldn’t include it because NASA refused to grant me an interview. I pursued their PR department for weeks to no avail. I feel they missed a terrific opportunity to promote their field to the public.

4 comments April 16th, 2008

Grad school, round two: Q&A with PayScale reporter Kristina Cowan

We had ourselves such a lively conversation about grad school last month, I thought the topic deserved another look. I recently did a Q&A about all things higher ed with Kristina Cowan, aka The Salary Reporter, at Kristina has more than a decade of experience reporting on education and the workforce. Here’s her take on higher ed, community college, trade school, and recession-proof gigs.

Q. I’m a big fan of not using grad school as the “I don’t know what else to do next” default. In the The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, I suggest auditing classes and talking to students in programs you covet before enrolling. Can you offer other tips for weighing a program you’re interested in?

A. It’s a good idea to interview others in the field you’re exploring. Talk to a professor at the school you’re considering, as well as professionals working in the industry. Request informational interviews by phone or, ideally, in person, and prepare a set of questions. A good one to ask is: Will a master’s degree help speed me along the career path and boost my paychecks? I did this when I was exploring a master’s degree in journalism, and found it very helpful.

Ultimately, you should determine the pricetag of graduate school, and whether the advanced degree will truly advance your career and increase your pay enough to justify the expense. Do as much research and talk to as many people as possible so you make a well-informed decision.

Q. When grad school isn’t required for making strides in a particular career path (for example, writing) what are the most compelling reasons to go?

A. I chased a master’s degree in journalism for two reasons I thought were compelling: I knew I could get hands-on experience from the school I picked (Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism). I’d get a chance to write and report for real publications in both the Chicago and Washington, D.C. areas, while getting guidance from professors with plenty of journalism experience. I also knew I’d come away with clips I could use when interviewing for jobs.

The other reason was networking. Medill’s alumni and professors form a strong circle of seasoned journalists at every level and in every medium; they’re individuals on fire for the Fourth Estate. I owe much of the last eight years of my journalism career to that network and my Medill experience.

Q. More and more career paths don’t require a college degree, and more and more students can’t afford a college education at all. If a person is clear on the career path they want to pursue and it doesn’t require a four-year university degree, would you advise them to save themselves the cost and skip the diploma? Go to a more affordable community college instead?

A. I always argue in favor of a bachelor’s degree. I’ve read a slew of studies and talked to countless career and education experts who say a bachelor’s degree these days is what a high-school diploma was years ago: almost essential if you want to make it in this world. I wrote a story for exploring the value of a bachelor’s degree, where I report that earnings tend to rise as education levels increase.

That said, higher ed’s skyrocketing costs are scary and disheartening, but they shouldn’t be a deterrent. Community colleges are an excellent, inexpensive option, and they’re incredibly accessible: according to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,195 in the United States. Students should consider spending their freshman and sophomore years at a two-year school, and then transferring to a four-year school. To help pay the bills, they can do work-study or find off-campus jobs.

At the end of the day, college teaches young people about accountability, responsibility, and organization — essentially, what it means to be an adult. I don’t remember much about the facts I learned or the essays I wrote as an undergrad, but I do remember learning how to fend for myself, pay bills, and take responsibility for my future. It was my first taste of independence, and I’ve never looked back!

Q. I’ve interviewed a number of women over the years who’ve rejected the corporate grind from the get-go — or rejected it after a decade or two — for work in the trades (firefighting, bus driving, construction). Do you think trade school is the new graduate school?

A. Trade school can be invaluable. It provides real-world experience you can’t get in a classroom or through a book. I think it’s especially useful for career-changers who want to gain skills and put them to use relatively quickly.

Q. Any tips for a person with a traditional college education who’s considering embarking on a one-year or two-year trade school program? What might they find different in their new program, and what perceptions do they need to let go of?

A. Depending on the person’s age, re-entering anything associated with the word “school” can be daunting. But the truth is, we all should approach learning as something we do throughout our lives. There is no right or wrong age to attend a trade school, community college, or a four-year institution. Demographics in our country are shifting swiftly, as baby boomers retire or change careers and Generation Y comes of age. We must let go of the dated notion that school is for kids. School is for us all.

Q. Do you think there are there any truly recession-proof jobs?

A. It’s important to remember nothing in life is guaranteed — except death and taxes, as the saying goes — and that includes careers and jobs.

Still, some career paths are more fail-safe than others, such as health care, information technology, education, and jobs with the U.S. government. So-called green jobs are another option. The green arena, which includes energy and environmental industries, is growing quickly and there’s high demand for workers in a variety of positions. You can see my recession stories here and here.

Want more Kristina? Visit The Salary Reporter on

1 comment March 4th, 2008

Four reasons to skip grad school

Yesterday, I was on a panel of working writers/editors/authors/screenwriters, talking to students in the undergrad English department at the University of Washington for the school’s Career Discovery Week. One student asked whether we’d recommend getting a grad degree to those hoping to work full time as a journalist, novelist, or any other type of writer (or editor). I’m happy to report that the answer across the panel of five gainfully employed full-time or freelance wordsmiths was a resounding “Hell, no!”

Here’s why:

1. It’s not a job requirement. Take it from someone who’s applied for a heck of a lot of journalism and publishing gigs. It’s never on the list of job requirements. Also, I have hired many a subcontractor to write and edit for my clients. Experience in the task at hand (technical editing, marketing writing, whatever) is always my number one requirement; I don’t care whether they have letters after their name. And neither do my clients.

2. Everything relevant I learned in my undergrad journalism program you could learn in one class. Yep, I took countless classes on how to write a story about a city council meeting and avoid landing my employer a libel suit. But all those lectures and homework assignments were nothing compared to the (far more educational) real-world experience I got at my internships and first couple of newspaper jobs. In other words, take your undergrad classes, then get your on-the-job experience as an intern, volunteer, and rookie writer or editor. It’s the best training around. And in case you were wondering, all the college credits in the world won’t teach you how to write a book. The first time you do it, you still have to flounder around and figure it out like everyone else.

3. All the great contacts I’ve made over the years I made on the job. I hate the argument that you need to go to grad school to get to know the key players in the publishing industry. No you don’t. Save your money and get paid to learn as an entry-level writer or editor. Much cheaper, and gets you two years ahead of your grad school counterparts in the job market. If you want to network, join a professional association like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. Go to writers conferences, events like Blogher’s annual conference, and the readings/lecture series at your local community arts center (like Richard Hugo House in Seattle). Get out in the real world and meet other working writers, editors, bloggers, and publishing pros in any of the many professional settings they congregate — which, by the way, unless they’re a professor, isn’t at your local university.

4. It’s a dang expensive way to avoid working. As one twentysomething on yesterday’s panel said, don’t be afraid to leave college and enter the workforce. She fearlessly dove into the world of work two years ago, and now she’s the managing editor at a diversity consulting firm. And as the guidance counselor running the panel said, if you don’t know what to do next, get out there and get some work experience. Don’t risk burning out on too many consecutive years of schooling. Instead, sample the various types of writing and editing jobs and industries to see what you do and don’t like. To that I’ll add: You ain’t gonna “find yourself” in law school. Better to flit around Asia, help rebuild New Orleans, or take up any other adventure that gives you the time and space to figure out what’s really important to you.

There is of course one reason to get a graduate degree in a field that doesn’t require it:

You love the topic, can’t wait to learn more about it, and want to do so in a group setting. In How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, Ariel Gore advises getting an advanced degree not in writing, but in a topic that really turns you on, be it medieval lit, comparative religion, or the history of clogging in America. That way, you’ll always have something to write about. I couldn’t agree more.

My boyfriend got a grad degree in medieval literature a decade ago. He didn’t want to go into academia, which is what you have to if you want to work in medieval lit, so now he works in the software industry. As far as I know, he’s still paying off his student loans. But I asked him last night if he’d do the degree all over again, even though I knew what he was going to say. (“Absolutely!”)

That’s when you know you’re making the right decision to go to grad school — when it’s something you want to do as much as that summer roadtrip you’re planning, that craft business you’ve been nursing on the side, or that volunteer gig you do at your local pet shelter.

23 comments February 2nd, 2008

Who I am

Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

Books I've written

My other blog

Popular articles

My Twitter handle

Posts by category