Going to school and taking on student loans can often seem like an investment in your education. You go to school, work hard, and get a job, right? That’s what I thought, at least. But what if you’re saddled with serious student loan debt and can’t find a job with your degree after you graduate? Unfortunately, that’s a common reality for many people. A survey by CareerBuilder found that only about half of employed 2014 grads had jobs related to their degrees.
I ended up pursuing my dreams and getting a master’s degree in performance studies from New York University. I knew that I was taking on a lot of student debt, but I was convinced that I’d find a fabulous career in New York to help pay back my loans.
After graduating in May 2011, still owing $68,000 in student loans, I spent six months trying to find my dream arts-related job in New York. It didn’t happen.
I ended up moving to Portland, Oregon to lower my cost of living and be with my partner. Portland had next to nothing in terms of full-time arts jobs, so I took on whatever temp work I could find.
Not only was I stressed about debt and finding a job, but I also felt ashamed.
I got myself into so much debt for this very specific thing, only to veer off course.
Though my journey into debt has led to my current career writing about finance, sometimes I do feel a pang of regret for having spent so much money on a degree that I don’t technically use.
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Can't Find a Job With Your Degree? It's a Common Reality
Many others have invested a lot of money into their education only to end up not using their degree, either because they can’t find work in their respective fields or because they've had a shift in interest.
For 27-year-old Danielle Burger, who lives in Alberta, Canada, pursuing a master’s degree in Neuroscience didn’t end well. She worked hard in school, even obtaining a 4.0 GPA. But as she went into the real world with approximately $80,000 in student loan debt, she struggled not just to find work in her field, but to find any work at all.
“I've been struggling to find employment ever since, despite targeted résumés, work with employment agencies, and really positive interview feedback,” she says.
Burger notes that employers either feel she has little “real world” experience or think she is overqualified for the job.
Since then, she’s cobbled work together. But faces challenges paying back student loans and finding full-time employment. While she is grateful for the education that she got, she says that if she had to do it all over again, she’d focus on becoming more well-rounded as a professional, rather than only focusing on grades.
Still, it seems that the message that many graduates have heard is starkly misaligned with the reality that we face.
“A lot of us blindly took out student loans because we were told over and over that we would leave post-secondary with all these employers just begging us to work for them and all these successful careers at our fingertips,” Burger says.
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I Can't Find a Job With My Degree — What Now?
If you're saddled with student loans and can’t find work in your field, you're not alone. While it is not an ideal situation and can be depressing at times, there are proactive steps that you can take to use your degree in any job.
The first is to evaluate your transferable skills. What did your degree teach you that you can transfer to other fields?
For example, Athena Lent of Money Smart Latina majored in criminal justice, but ended up working in the nonprofit sector after assessing the opportunities in her area.
“I think my degree helped me become a manager and actually made me more suited for my position,” Lent says.
“I am able to come into nonprofit work with a social capital and socialization point of view because of my criminology courses, which is something my employers have never even thought of.”
If you can’t use what you learned in school, see how you can apply some of those skills in your new job. Though I am no longer working in theater, my intensive, philosophy-based master’s degree helped me to hone my writing abilities.
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Second, connect with people in your field and find a mentor. After all, it’s about who you know, not what you know. You may even want to see how you can use your skills and degree to start your own business. If the jobs won’t come to you, why not create a job for yourself?
Lastly, realize that whatever you do in life, your job and your debt don’t define you. Our young adult lives may have built us up to believe that, but you are so much more than that.