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The True Value of a "Worthless" Degree

   Posted On: March 6, 2017  |    Posted In: Career  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

Wedged into a two-seater chairlift in Ellicottville, New York the anonymous skier to my right decided to strike up conversation during our three-minute commute to the top of the mountain. The conversation soon turned to what we did, as superficial conversations with strangers are wont to do.

“I’m a junior at St. Bonaventure,” I told him.  

“Oh, what are you studying?” he asked, naturally.

“Journalism and theatre,” I responded.

“And what exactly do you plan to do with that?”

It wasn’t the first time (and wouldn’t be the last) someone implied my course of study would more-or-less leave me another overeducated, underemployed millennial with a worthless degree.

“I’d like to be a broadcast journalist,” I told him.

“That’s a hard field to break into,” he said, with that undertone of “What makes you think you’re going to make it?”

“Well, someone has to make it. So why not me?” I told him, just in time for the chairlift to reach the peak and me to make a quick exit.

Seven years later and that conversation still comes to mind on occasion.

***

Yesterday, as I pulled together all my tax documents for 2016, I typed out how much I’d earned from:

  • freelancing
  • a portion of my book advance and
  • the salary from being employed-full time for eight months and then part-time for two months of the year.

Hitting auto-sum, I sat dumbstruck for a moment before yelling, “Peach!”

$96,795.22 sat on the screen in front of me.

That’s when the random man from the ski lift popped into my mind, “And what exactly do you plan to do with that?”

***

Nearly six years ago I moved to New York City to work as a page at The Late Show with David Letterman. I hustled and picked up jobs as a Starbucks barista and babysitting. The tax year of 2012 was my first one that reflected a full year living as a New Yorker. It even included switching to a more lucrative — if we can call it that — desk job, first as an intern and later an account coordinator at a public relations firm in June of 2012.

In 2012, I grossed $23,244. (Of that, $11,400 went to rent.)

In 2013, I started Broke Millennial and began to dabble in freelance writing. I grossed $39,291.

In 2014, I switched jobs to work at MagnifyMoney, a startup, and freelancing picked up a bit. I grossed $55, 375.

In 2015, my freelance income increased 5x and I still worked full-time at MagnifyMoney. I grossed $85,424.

In 2016, I quit my stable job in August to try my hand at freelancing full-time. I also got a book deal. I grossed $96,795.22.

This is the first time I’ve so openly shared numbers on my blog. I’m doing so to quantify how a “worthless” degree (or two) isn’t always what it seems.

***

I’m not a broadcast journalist by profession, but I’ve been on CBS Sunday Morning and CNBC. My writing is regularly featured on Forbes and my opinions have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Refinery29, Playboy, NBCNews, MarketWatch and plenty of other outlets. A major publishing house paid me to write a book.

A journalism degree trained me to write well and think critically. A theatre degree taught me to speak without vocal fry, or too many filler words (um, uh, like), and how to be quick with a dash of wit.

So, to the stranger on a chairlift all those years ago: I’m using my degrees to forge my own, lucrative path in the world. To help others get their financial lives together. To craft a life on my terms instead of opting into how it “should” be lived. All because I was willing to take a risk and invest in myself.

Oh, and I’m making decent money along the way.

And for reference, if I’d stayed with that  job in PR and risen through the ranks, I still wouldn’t be grossing nearly $100,000 yet.

Image from Unsplash

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36 responses to “The True Value of a "Worthless" Degree

  1. Congrats! That’s a really impressive amount of growth in a really short period of time.

    And I am with you on the “worthless degree” conversations. As someone who majored in Classical Humanities, I can tell you that I have had quite a few of those 🙂

  2. I love this! I’ve heard parents tell their kids not to get a “worthless” degree, but in my mind EVERY degree has value. In the end, it’s not the degree that defines your path, it’s you.

    1. Yes, so much to it being YOU that defines your path. I’m grateful my parents were supportive of my choices, but amazing how many strangers want to give you input about how to live your life.

  3. Inspiring story! I love how you have slowly built your income. I think it’s important for people to see that success doesn’t happen overnight, but that it’s a process of little success after little success.

    1. It’s absolutely all about the slow build and I’m glad sharing numbers can help people see it too.

  4. That’s very awesome that you have opened yourself up with the numbers. Congrats on increasing your income and putting your degrees to good use!!! So excited for you.

    1. Thanks, Michelle! I’m not sure how often I’ll share the real numbers, but this seemed like too good a chance to make a point. 🙂

  5. Great article Broke Millennial! It’s clear how hard work has paid off for you. Not to mention how sweet it is to be so close to that 100K!

  6. Love it! It’s all about those who doubt your abilities that help drive you forward.

    Having great communication skills is wonderful and I witnessed yours first hand. I didn’t realize it was called vocal fry.

    You being on CNBC is a great example recently. Nobody ever asked me to be on TV or my opinion on anything. Partly because i stay faceless I would imagine. But it also is because I’m sure you demonstrate good communication skills.

    Best of luck for 2017!

    1. Thanks, Sam!

      I heard about vocal fry pretty recently, but I’d certainly noticed it in conversations prior to knowing what it’s called. Incredibly annoying vocal tic.

      And I agree a big part of the reason I get some media traction is both having my face on the brand and links to prove that I’ve done it before. I certainly would love to see you in more of a speaker role!

  7. Ayyyyyyy! Erin! GET. IT.

    My parents were so scared for me when I told them I wanted to go into journalism, but I really think it takes drive and inner ambition, because you can major in anything and be a flop. Or you could major in nothing and be a BALLER! LIKE YOU!

    Thanks for the bit of inspiration today and forget the haters!!

    1. And you!!! Another perfect case study that it’s not the degree but the person! (And maybe a little bit that we had a solid education 😉 )

  8. Yesssssssssss. Excited to see your income growth!!! Did our awesome podcast convo on breaking down money taboos and radical transparency inspire this? Probably the taxes! I was so stoked to see this. Congrats Erin. Good vibes.

    1. Maaaaaybe! A little good timing and a little the push from you! Not ready to share net worth though.

  9. Awesome to see your career journey. Mark Cuban recently said that a major in liberal arts will be in greater demand than programming/engineering in the future. He says “because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker” I sometimes think like that ski stranger about majors, but ultimately, colleges teach you to think…what you do with those skills is up to you.

    1. That’s a refreshing way to position the liberal arts degree. I’ve said over and over that two of the greatest skills are learning to write well and learning to speak well. They can be taught, but many people don’t take the time.

  10. Thanks for sharing this. I graduated with a degree in Social Studies and Psychology to be a teacher. I didn’t end up becoming a teacher, but it has been foundational in my personal life (I met my wife in college and that alone makes it worth it) and professional career as a UX Designer – you have to understand people and what motivates them.

  11. Every degree has it’s pros and cons, but it’s the person taking that degree or with the degree has the choice to take it on the next level. I think if you like your degree and you’re passionate about, just push it and go after it.

  12. My degree is in Communications but I wanted to either be a History or English major. I listened to those naysayers who constantly asked what I would do with an English or History degree and changed my major, ugh… So glad to hear you are doing well Erin! 🙂 Also, I had no idea what vocal fry was. Lol, many people here in Southern California speak that way, ha, ha…

  13. My degree was in Language & Multi-Cultural Literature (my school’s fancy way of referring to an English degree) and I go those kinds of questions all the time. Everyone assumed I was either going to be a teacher or bust because an English degree wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Well 8 years later I’m earning a very comfortable salary and I got my first job out of college because my boss figured since I was an English major I would be able to communicate effectively with clients and my emails would be professionally written. The industry had absolutely nothing to do with my degree but I made it work to my advantage.

  14. This is awesome! I initially went to school for marketing. That didn’t work out, and I switched majors to work in a less lucrative field. I loved it, honestly, but when this online thing ended up being more profitable, I suddenly realized I *was* in marketing, even if that’s not what it says on my piece of paper. Can’t wait to see what 2017 holds for you and your “worthless” degree!

    Also, <3 Holiday Valley. THE WALL!

  15. I think the field that you choose to study in college is given too much attention. Your college degree will only limit you if you let it limit you. Drive, perseverance, expertise, and intelligence will always be more important.

    Plus, to add on to what Living Rich Cheaply said, if artificial intelligence evolves to the degree that it takes over any profession that’s heavily rule-based, those jobs won’t exist at all.

    I’m studying for a degree in Integrated Language Arts with a TEFL certificate. I’m betting on the fact that, if robots become as intelligent as we think they will, people are still going to be uncomfortable with having an automaton teach their kid Shakespeare.

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