The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Success With a Writing Major

The list of majors with the lowest unemployment figures might be completely different four years from now. What's a college student, specifically one who wants to pursue a non-technical field, to do?
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Creative Writing majors are an interesting lot. About a third of them cruise through our program focused entirely and intensely on the workshops and forms courses we provide in a number of genres (fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, illustrated narrative: the list is quite long) and then panic once they graduate, declaring that they are "prepared for nothing," as if they have suddenly realized that one does not simply fill out a form or tailor a resume for a job as a poet or a novelist the way one does for say a position in accounting or chemical engineering. Some of these students even insist, despite faculty attempts to pursuade them otherwise, that it will only be a matter of time before they'll be supporting themselves on book sales and advances and that reaching for anything less would be "settling." Another third love to say that they "know they won't get a job with their degree," so why bother trying to position themselves to do so, they might as well just have fun, right?

The last third, however, are a determined lot. They want to work in the creative industries when they graduate; they realize that even if "novelist" or "poet" is a long term goal, they want to enjoy sustaining, rewarding work in the meantime and so they are shrewd and smart about their career path. They actively pursue the additional coursework in editing, publishing, digital media and creative entrepreneurship that will expand their skill sets. They look for every opportunity they can to tap into the regional arts community, volunteering for literary events, founding journals, writing for local start ups. They line up internship after internship, building their resume. Once they graduate, they patiently pursue this satisfying work in an extremely trying job market, realizing that unlike more vocational fields, finding a position in creative industry is an extended process during which they may have to support themselves through temp work or waiting tables until the right entry level break comes along. They don't give up after six months, a year or even two if they don't find the right job out of the gate.

Five or even ten years later, guess who's faring best?

Well, that was a loaded question, but nonetheless, the point needs to be made. It's been on my mind ever since Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce report, "Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings," came out last week, making a number of fairly obvious points. 1. It's an extremely tough job market out there, no matter how you slice it. 2. Certain majors fare better than others in this job market. 3. Non-technical majors tend to take longer to find positions than technical majors. At the moment, the jobs with the lowest unemployment rates for first time job seekers include Nursing, Elementary Education, Physical Fitness, Chemistry and Finance, while those with the highest rates included Political Science, Film, Video and Photography, Anthropology, Architecture and Information Systems.

What is the lesson here? That everyone should major in a technical field or scope out the hottest majors regardless of their interest in the field? This might be a short-term solution but it won't succeed in the long run. As famed employment trend-spotter Daniel Pink reminds us, work that fits both our strengths and our interests and that we find meaning in is far more likely to sustain us over the long haul of our careers than work we force ourself to pursue because it's "hot" right now. Moreover "hotness" is notoriously difficult to predict, as it waxes and wanes, especially in a world with such a rapidly changing technological landscape as ours: the list of majors with the lowest unemployment figures might be completely different four years from now. What's a college student, specifically one who wants to pursue a non-technical field, to do?

The answer is relatively simple. Practice the habits of the most successful third I described to you, all of which (except the first) can be applied to success in any field:

1.Understand that you will not support yourself as a poet, novelist, essayist, or dramatist for a very long time. The creative writing apprenticeship is a an extended one, during which you will need to find other rewarding work while you write in the margins of your life. You need to prepare yourself for this marketplace reality throughout your college career.
2.Prepare for this marketplace reality by treating college as if it really is a career, not just four years of extended high school. Take a range of courses, even a few outside your comfort zone (coding, anyone?) to prepare you for the kinds of work you see yourself doing when you graduate. This includes not only workshop courses but courses in teaching, editing, digital media and creative entrepreneurship.
3.Keep your eye peeled for any and every opportunity to expand your experience and skills set in the local and regional arts community. Does the state arts weekly need writers? Pitch some articles to them. Chances are you'll have to write for free, but you'll make contacts and expand your portfolio. Does the campus literary magazine need editors and staff? Volunteer! Have you noticed your department could use an improved social media profile? Design your own independent study course around researching and addressing this problem and then offer yourself--through an internship--as the solution. Which leads me finally, to,
4.Internships. Forty years ago, in the iconic film, The Graduate the infamous answer to Benjamin Braddock's worries about his future was "one word: plastics." Today, clichéd as it may sound, that one word is internships. Debate about the ethics of requiring free labor to precede success in the workplace aside, you simply must do internships in your field. Multiple internships, not just one; the average I'm seeing for the most successful students is four. Yes, four. Internships are how you truly expand both your experience and your connections in the field. They're also how you experiment with the kinds of work you're best suited for. Internships are no longer an option, if they ever were; they are a requirement. Ignore them at your peril.
5.Be patient. Don't give up. The risk of giving up, of course, is that you never know if you might have been on the verge of success when you threw in the towel.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Another cliché: nothing worth having ever comes easily. The good news is, it's hard work that you enjoy, which is always the point. And from where I stand, after watching decades of students walk off waving their college diplomas, it will eventually lead you where you want to be. I promise.

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