Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Proverbial Light at the End of the Tunnel

A cell phone rings loudly in front of me, its owner scrambling frantically to silence the silly ringtone as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassment. A couple of guys at a desk to my right try to subdue their laughter as they watch a video on YouTube, their efforts as futile as mine as I attempt to tune out the pained, awkward flirting I hear in the background. For a second I wonder if the past year and a half has been a dream, am I still in college? But then reality comes crashing down on me as always. I’ve left the world of academia behind me for now, and I actually have a job, like a real one with money and everything. Maybe working as a writer on contract with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration isn’t all that different from college? There are still assignments, lots of reading, I’m learning new things, and I still feel like the dumbest person in the room. Maybe college did prepare me for the real world.

“Well, good for you,” you might sneer sarcastically, “I’m glad you have a job, but I don’t have one and certainly won’t get one with a liberal arts education and a degree in environmental studies, not with this economy!” And you’d be right of course, at least partially. You most likely won’t find a good job that you like right out of college, I didn’t. If you do please feel free to contact me and rub your success in my face. I won’t be jealous, I’ll be happy for you. What I found, and what you can find too are unpaid internships. Yes, the “unpaid” part of that doesn’t sound too appealing, but we’ll get to that later. The “internship” part sounds good though, and everyone will tell you that you’re “getting your foot in the door” and “building your resume” and “gaining valuable job experience,” etc. And they’re right of course, at least partially. Unpaid internships can be valuable tools with the potential to set you off on a course to bigger and better things, but you’re going to have to work for it. If you work hard you’ll start to stand out and presumably someone will notice you and presumably this person knows people who know people who would like you to do more work but can’t pay you yet. This process may continue for some time, but if you make yourself indispensible enough someone in a position of authority may one day break this cycle and start paying you. That’s the plan anyway…

“Fine,” you say, “that sounds like a good plan, and it worked for you, but I don’t have any job skills. I have a liberal arts education and a degree in environmental studies, remember?” Wrong, you do have job skills; you just don’t know it. Can you write well, communicate effectively, work in groups, and use Microsoft office? Are you familiar with the concept of time management? Have you honed your critical thinking skills to a razor-sharp edge and do have a firm grasp of the social, political, and environmental issues affecting your community, your country, and your world? If you answered yes to all of those questions (and let’s be honest, if you’re a senior about to write your thesis then you better have) then congratulations, you have job skills!

“Ok,” you say, “so I have enough job skills to maybe get an unpaid internship that might start paying me eventually. In the meantime, I would like to eat and sleep under a roof but I can’t do that because I don’t have any money because I can’t find a job.” Wrong again, you can find a job; you just can’t find one that you want to do. Notice that I said “job” not “career” or “successful, well-paid dream job,” I just said “job.” They’re out there. I worked at a pizzeria for a year before NOAA started paying me enough that I could quit, and I have friends who did all kinds of stuff before getting a good job or going to grad school. Would you like to wait tables, bag groceries, babysit, or do weird landscaping work that you found on craigslist? No? Shocking, neither did my friends and I, but we did it anyway because we had to pay for ramen and PBR somehow. Plus, these jobs are rarely full time, so you can spend your free hours looking for better (un)paid internships!

I don’t say any of this to discourage you, but rather to assure you that everything is going to be ok. I’m not saying that the unpaid internship combined with crappy, menial job formula is guaranteed to work for everyone, but don’t get discouraged before at least giving it a shot. All joking aside, unpaid internships are actually incredibly valuable. The experience you gain and the connections you make will someday be worth more than you could ever imagine.

So enjoy the rest of college. Work hard but not too hard, and most importantly don’t worry too much. You’ll be just fine.

Written by Andrew Coggiola, '09