Career Advice To A History Major Who Loves Playing Guitar

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Kyle Moyer wrote an open letter to AOL Jobs readers lamenting his having accumulated $132,452.96 in debt obtaining his bachelor's in history from Belmont University and that now, the best job he's been able to find is cooking in a hospital cafeteria, including graveyard shift. On his limited income and $1,470 minimum required payment on his student loan, not surprisingly, he's back living with his parents to save expenses.

He's asking for advice. Laurie Petersen, editor-in-chief at AOL Jobs, asked me to offer mine. Here it is.

Dear Kyle,

Of course, first, my condolences on joining the half of college graduates under 25 who are unemployed or doing jobs they could have done without a degree. As you wrote, it's really not your fault. Colleges' marketing machines have been very successful in manipulating students and the media into trumpeting such misleading messages as that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime.

That's misleading in at least two ways. The pool of college graduates started out brighter, more motivated, and with better family connections than the pool of non college graduates. You could lock college grads in a closet for those four to six years and they would earn more money.

The second reason the statistic is misleading is that it's retrospective. Today, with the most people ever earning college degrees, employers don't have to pay much to hire a degree holder, especially those with a "soft" major, among which, alas, your major, history, is perceived.

While the above may help you not beat yourself up about your college decision, what's important now, of course, is for you to become well and happily employed. Based on what you wrote, here are some thoughts.

I infer from your having aspired to be a professional guitarist, excited about being a guitar major, but then switching to history, that you bucked up against the tough reality that it's very difficult to make even a survival living as a pro musician. (I wish colleges were more candid with prospective students about their odds of finding professional employment before they enrolled them in their $200,000+ degree programs.)

The possible career clue there is that you like performing. That inference is reinforced by your having minored in education and by the fact that you wanted to and were chosen to speak at a conference.

So perhaps a performance-centric career that integrates your music interest? Here are some options.

The most obvious option is, of course, history teacher. The key to your succeeding and having fun with that is to remind yourself that most teachers are borrrrrrring. Use that performance urge of yours to make yourself one of those memorable history teachers. Doing a unit on the Civil War? Come in wearing a Civil War soldier's uniform (or at least hat.) Have the class act out key scenes -- for example, Lincoln debating with his cabinet whether to come out against slavery. Bring your music into the act. Even though it's irrelevant contentwise, no one will object to your introducing a lesson by playing a related piece on the guitar or even recorded music.

If you want to be a teacher, especially if you want to teach in public school, you'll need to get licensed. The good news is that you may not need to attend a university-based program--They're often longer on theory than on what works in the classroom. For example, your state, Colorado, offers a path to licensure in which a school district provides the training. And once in such a program, if the trainers like you, you may have an "in" to be hired by that district. HERE is a link to information on alternative teacher licensing in Colorado.

Whether you opt for traditional university-based or school-district based training, it's important that you do fieldwork and student teaching under a true master teacher who'd enjoy mentoring you. Your training program may assign you to someone but it may be wise to dig up a great person--for example the best teacher you ever had--and propose that you be allowed to use that person. Or, at minimum, if you don't like the teacher assigned to you, request you be assigned to someone else.

Key to getting hired as a new teacher is to send video of you teaching. So, during your student teaching, have someone video you teaching a lesson. Have it edited down to two minutes of your best five-to-20-second clips and submit that with your applications as well as a compelling letter to the principal of schools at which you'd like to teach but which may not be advertising a job.

Some people may suggest you start as a substitute teacher but that is teaching's most difficult job and so it's difficult to excel, especially as a beginner. Indeed, substitute teaching is more likely to make you illegitimately feel you'll always be a lousy teacher than to lead to a full-time job.

Less obvious options:

Music concert and festival executive. With recorded music ever more pirated, artists and labels rely on live concerts to earn a living, so they're proliferating. Concert and festival executives spend a lot of time performing: pitching your plan to a city council to get permission to hold the event, giving pep talks to your staff and volunteers, even introducing the performers on stage.

How to get there? Intern with a high-quality organization that mounts such events. Try to get your internship to be at the elbow of someone who's pulling the strings. Even if you have to make copies and coffee, you'll learn a lot from being where the decisions are made. And if you make a good impression, that pooh-bah can help you get a real job. To get you started, here are a couple of festival production companies: AEG. and Festival Production Company.

Corporate trainer. Every company, including music companies from Gibson Guitar to Sony Music, trains its employees on everything from communication skills to customer service. To bolster your public speaking skills, start by reading Toastmasters 10 Tips for Public Speaking. Then watch TED Talks, 18-minute presentations by some of the world's best speakers. HERE is a link to some of the most popular TED Talks. We learn best from watching the best.

Then take a course or two on corporate training from the American Society for Training and Development. Finally, try to land a job with a corporation, either through the front door (answering ads) or the backdoor (through real or LinkedIn connections) or, if you have guts, by emailing or, better, phoning companies' directors of training. (If you can't find their name and contact info by Googling, try phoning the corporate main number and ask the operator to connect you.)

With so many young adults back on their parents' sofa, it's easy to get despondent, but the truth is -- at the risk of sounding like your parent -- that with persistent, focused effort, you'll likely prevail.

Marty Nemko

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.
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