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An Ivy grad in a dead-end job asked for some advice. This is the second part of the email thread (you can view the first part here):

“Hey Clayton,
Thank you so much for your answer. I had the impression that you were much to busy to answer me so in depth, so I really appreciate that.

As for further questions… I’m assuming you’ve experienced this as well.

It’s the crushing guilt that comes with seeing what other ivy leaguers have accomplished only a couple of years after graduation, and feeling so so far behind. I have a sense of inferiority and put so much pressure on myself. Now that I feel like I’m not learning any real transferrable skills at my current job I’ve been itching to get out. If you’ve dealt with this, how do you cope? I want to drop the job and pursue skills that are in high demand and that will lead to a comfortable pay. Since I’m still living at home with my parents, rent cost isn’t an issue. But at the same time, if I don’t hold a job I’ll feel like a failure, and I won’t have the courage to face anyone and say that I don’t have a job. So I’m basically questioning every decision I’ve made in the past few years so far.  I feel like I should be much farther ahead than where I am right now.

Again, any advice would be appreciated!

Best,
[redacted]”

My response:

“Hey [redacted],
I know exactly what you mean – the guilt and sense of failure can be really painful, especially since you attended a prestigious school. Friends, family, advisers, and society in general set the expectation that an Ivy League degree must lead to success, and that if you fail, it must be your fault. But this expectation is fundamentally unreasonable, and reflects a profound disconnect between academia and the “real world.” In the end, what matters most in industry (i.e. when you apply for a job) is what you studied, not where you studied it. Contrary to what your academic advisers might have said, if there are no jobs available in the field you studied, then you’re not going to find a job, end of story. A Harvard diploma is not a “get out of jail free” card and it won’t cause job openings to materialize out of thin air. In the ten years since I graduated from Duke, I’ve been through dozens if not hundreds of job interviews for various types of positions, and the prestige of my alma mater has almost never come up, and it certainly never landed me a job where I wouldn’t have been hired otherwise. Most people simply don’t care, or at least don’t care enough to mention it. I’m guessing that your peers who have been successful post-graduation studied a more marketable degree like computer science. All of my classmates at Duke who studied CS found good jobs and are well off today; some are now running their own companies. But many others who studied less practical subjects have been left to wallow in unemployment, disappointment, and debt.

I coped with the same frustration and sense of failure for years, but the best thing you can do is let it go. Try not to obsess over your current circumstances (a mistake that I made) because it will only stand in the way of making a change. I struggled for a long time to find work in biology research, not because I was passionate about the work (it’s tedious and pays about as much as delivering pizzas), but because it’s about the only thing you can do with a biology degree and I was bent on making use of my education. It took me years to accept that this was a dead-end career path, and I wish I had changed gears sooner.

It’s also important not to blame yourself for circumstances which are out of your control. As a student, you presumably tried to make responsible decisions about your future, and the reason it hasn’t gone according to plan is probably that you didn’t have enough information when you made these decisions. You didn’t really know what to expect in the long run (and no one told you), and now you’re being punished for your ignorance. In my view, universities have a responsibility to make their students aware of the reality that lies ahead, and to help them make decisions that they won’t regret later. This advice could be relatively simple details that anyone who’s worked in industry would know – what sorts of jobs you’ll be able to apply for with a given degree, what they pay, and how stiff the competition is. But in my experience, this sort of information typically isn’t provided to students. Instead, graduates are simply thrown to the wolves and forced to figure everything out the hard way. By this point, many grads have exhausted their financial resources (and may be afraid of borrowing more money) and have no easy way to recover. And after investing a lot of time and effort in a line of study, it can be difficult to bring oneself to abandon it.

In my case, I chose my degree based on personal interests, family pressures, and a notion of how I would apply the knowledge I gained in a future career. My academic advisers always encouraged my decisions and told me biology was a good field of study. They never suggested that a biology degree was impractical or that it might lead to financial difficulties later. The issue of career was rarely mentioned, and I wasn’t encouraged to think about it, but instead was told to focus on choosing courses I thought I’d enjoy, on getting good grades, and on organizing my schedule so that I would finish all required courses and graduate on time. Throughout this whole experience, I had no idea that I was standing on the precipice of a total disaster as soon as I left the university. When I graduated, the reality suddenly hit me, and I felt helpless and totally unprepared. In the midst of unemployment, I went back to my academic and career advisers, and asked what I was doing wrong. Why I couldn’t find a job with a degree from a prestigious school? Were there were other positions or lines of work that I had overlooked which could make use of my knowledge of biology? The most irksome response that I received was simply that “Duke is not a vocational school” – which I interpreted to mean, “We take no responsibility for the professional success of our students or the utility of their degrees.”

This sickening reality is the essence of the “Ivy Lie” and the fundamental reason why I created the blog. In my view, it is the responsibility of universities to equip their students with knowledge and skills which will enable their success not only in the classroom, but for a lifetime. People who have worked in industry know the realities of the adult world and have a responsibility to pass this information onto students, who having spent their lives in the classroom and being supported by their parents can’t possibly know on their own what to expect of life as an independent professional. (And working outside academia should be a prerequisite for career advisers, although I have a feeling it isn’t.) Those who know what lies beyond college ought to communicate this information to students and ought to include considerations of employment when advising students what to study, but in my experience, they don’t. Instead, students are unfairly expected to make major life decisions in a vacuum, and are then held responsible for the consequences later, even though there was no way for them to know that their choices would end in disappointment or even disaster.

This problem is not unique to highly ranked private schools, but in my view they are particularly culpable because they typically require their students to make far greater sacrifices, both financial and personal, than their public university counterparts. If you invest a few thousand dollars in a community college degree and it doesn’t pan out, it’s not the end of the world. But if you’ve had to borrow $200,000 and spent 4 years working your ass off to get your diploma (not to mention potentially another several years of dedicated preparation in high school for the SAT, AP exams, college applications, extracurriculars, etc.) then the sting of failure is far more acute, and it’s much more difficult to come to terms with the reality of post-graduation hardship.

I spent years wallowing in denial, stubbornly insisting that my Duke degree must be worth something, and pointlessly applying for job after job with the expectation that there must be something available, and the sense that I was entitled to a taste of success in exchange for all my efforts. In hindsight, this expectation was stupid, it was arrogant, but it was established externally by my parents, my professors and advisers, my peers, and by general social perceptions of what elite education looks like and of how successful top-tier graduates should be. When the reality finally set in, I felt violated, lied to, let down, and abandoned by a supposedly prestigious institution, and it struck me that the entire draw of elite education – and the competitive mania it induces in many students and their families – was based on a misguided collective assumption that certain universities form a sort of Holy Grail of education, and come with a promise of success. They don’t: they’re just universities, with all the flaws and shortcomings one might expect of a run-of-the-mill public school… but they come with a much higher price tag, and they inspire unreasonable expectations.

The best advice I can give to you is to be proactive and move forward. Try to accept the reality of where you are (without judging yourself for it), and let go of the past as best you can. I can tell you from first-hand experience that the software industry is good, and that you should have no trouble finding a job with a community college degree in computer science. If holding down a job gives you a sense of satisfaction (which is totally understandable), then consider staying in your current position while going back to school in the evenings. Most community colleges have night-time schedules which cater specifically to people working 9-to-5 jobs who aren’t in a position to quit and become full-time students. Once you get your degree, you can even apply for a new job while still doing your old one. When you get an offer – which shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks – you can submit your resignation and start fresh with no gap in employment.

Anyway, best of luck to you, and stay positive.

Cheers,
Clayton”

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