Dear Penny: I’m a College Grad Making $11 an Hour. How Do I Find a Career?

Top view of an man with acoustic guitar composing music
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Dear Penny,

I am a 26-year-old single male. My issue may be a little different from a typical millennial.

I have a four-year college degree in music performance, and my passion is for music composition. I have not been able to get work in my field, but I have full-time employment at $11 an hour.

I am financially secure with my own condo, paid-off car, no student loans or other debts. I have a savings account with $23,000, and I opened a 401(k) in my current job and put aside 5% (no company match).

My parents are encouraging me to find another profession and are willing to pay for further education. They suggest law school, accounting, cybersecurity, teaching in college, etc., but each time I think of another three years of classroom work, I lose interest. I have no passion for it.

The question swirling in my head is, how do I find a satisfying career?


The Artist

Dear Artist,

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” they tell you.

It sounds great when you’re a kid imagining what you’ll be when you grow up and when you’re picking a college major. Then the realities of adulthood hit, and you realize it was pretty rotten career advice.

You asked how to find a satisfying career, not your dream job — and that’s good. Music composition is your passion, but it doesn’t have to be your career. There are plenty of happily employed people working a job that pays the bills while pursuing their love for music, writing or crafting on the side.

The challenge for you, Artist, is to define what a satisfying career looks like to you. Then you can make a plan for how to get there.

What motivates you? Are you determined to pursue your passion, even at the expense of money? Do you want a job that makes you feel like you’re making the world a little bit better? What kind of work/life balance do you want? And while you shouldn’t base career decisions solely on money, the truth is that salary and benefits are important to the equation, so consider your long-term financial goals, as well.

I’d suggest holding off on going back to school — that is, unless this exercise leads you to the conclusion that your dream job requires a specific degree.

Instead, try meeting with a career counselor who can help you identify potential professions that fit the criteria you’ve laid out. They can also help you tailor your resume to opportunities that interest you, and find ways to get the experience you may need to get them, be it through taking on new opportunities at work, volunteering, taking on a side gig or getting a certification.

You’re in a good position to change careers. Unemployment is at a near 50-year low, and wages are finally rising. You have a college degree and no student loan debt. (The Nosy Nelly in me wonders how the heck you’ve amassed $23,000 at age 26 while making $11 an hour, but I won’t go down that rabbit hole.) The bottom line is, you’re financially stable, which means you don’t need to make decisions out of desperation.

Don’t be frustrated about not having your life plan all figured out. You’re 26. You have many jobs ahead of you. Some of them, you’ll love. Some you’ll barely tolerate. But every experience will help you better understand what matters to you. And that, Artist, is how you find a truly satisfying career.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Write Dear Penny and you might see your question answered in an upcoming column.