I’ve had more than a few college students reach out to me over the past few years looking for career advice. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by them — they have all been very talented and well spoken. I enjoy talking to students over the phone but I always feel like I forgot to mention a bunch of important things or I feel like I’m blabbing on about something when maybe they wanted to know about something else. To avoid that, I’m going to write a series of blog posts answering commonly-asked questions right here. Here we go:
Question 1: How did you land your first writing job after graduation?
My journalism school at the University of Wisconsin always sent out Monday Morning Updates with industry news and internship listings. A few weeks before my May 2006 graduation, I decided to open the aforementioned e-mail (even though I was looking for JOBS not LOWLY INTERNSHIPS) and saw a paid public relations internship listing from American Girl. I instantly applied. Even though I wasn’t a strategic communications major (I was on the reporting side), I had held a PR/marketing internship previously at Madison Magazine. I ended up landing the internship and starting the day after graduation.
I considered it a good summer job (I was making $11/hour!) while I was waiting tables at night and — oh yeah — looking for a real job. But low and behold, a full-time Associate Editor position was posted for American Girl magazine that July. The company releases available positions to internal candidates first, then opens it up to the public one week later. I saw the flyer posted by the cafe, immediately ran to my desk, and applied. My PR boss recommended me, I went through an intense group interview, and was eventually offered the position. I started in August. It was glorious.
That same day, I was also offered a job at Chicago Magazine. When it rains, it pours! I had been having informational lunches with people in advertising in Chicago and someone had passed along the name of someone in HR at the Tribune Company. She really loved me and hooked me up with an interview at Chicago Magazine. The position was located in the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue with views of the entire city. But, um, it wasn’t even in the editorial department! And it paid $30,000 per year. And this was 2006.
Multiple times during the interview, they said, “You know this job only pays $30,000, right?” That’s a big hint that the salary they are offering you is completely unrealistic. Some employers just assume that parents are going to support new graduates, which is a load of crap. You can barely live in a city on $30,000 per year unless you have multiple roommates and you’re a bartender at night. It’s doable, but you won’t be enjoying all the awesome perks the city has to offer because you won’t be able to afford them! Not to mention the fact that lunches out, public transportation, higher grocery bills, and expensive bar tabs will add up fast. And your student loan debt payments are going to kick in before you’re ready.
Needless to say, the position at American Girl paid significantly higher — because American Girl is classy like that! — and it was in editorial at a national magazine. And the cost of living in Madison is much lower. I accepted the American Girl offer immediately. DUH. Then the Tribune Company HR lady called me and was ecstatic to offer me the position — but I had to keep my cool and tell her that I literally just accepted an offer an hour before. She was PISSED. But, honestly, who cares? I had a job! And soon a loft apartment all to myself. I was officially an adult.
Morals of the story:
1. Organize informational lunches or coffee dates with people in the industry. Even if it involves driving 2.5 hours to Chicago from Madison and then turning around and coming right back home. Find out the secrets and find out the truth — you might learn that it really is impossible to get a job at a certain company and that they’re not hiring any time soon. That discussion wasn’t a waste of your time. It means that you can cross that company off your list and move on! Always end the conversation by asking if that person can put you in touch with someone else.
2. Don’t accept a shitty salary. I know we’re all writers here, but honestly, there are writing jobs out there that pay money. Your journalism degree is valuable. Try copywriting jobs or PR jobs or communications jobs in health care or higher education. I’ve even heard of some social media jobs paying well. Remember that you can always freelance for your favorite magazines and blogs.
3. Don’t veer from your path. I was having informational interviews with people in advertising in Chicago because those are the kind of jobs my journalism school liked to talk about. And I wanted to move to Chicago. But those jobs have nothing to do with writing. The entry-level jobs are for account managers. If you accept one of those jobs, kiss your writing career goodbye. You’re veering off the track, and you’re getting paid equally as shitty. Don’t do it! Stay strong! Something will come up.
4. Consider your quality of life. Everyone wants to move to the big city after graduating. It killed me to stay in Middleton, Wisconsin while friends of mine got to walk around the streets of Manhattan and Chicago and Minneapolis and Los Angeles. But I had a two-minute commute to work. I could go home for lunch. I had a nice gym in my apartment building. I didn’t need roommates to afford my rent. I could pay more than my student loan payment minimum. I was getting WAY better experience in a smaller town as a real editor than I would have as a nobody in a big city. And I knew that someday I’d make it to the city — and now I’m here! Happy ending!
Aubre Andrus is a freelance writer in Chicago who specializes in copywriting, blogging, reporting, and social media consulting. View her website and portfolio at www.aubreandrus.com or find her on Twitter @aubreandrus.