How To Change Jobs: Advice For An Underemployed English Major

Dear Dr. Civitelli:

I live in the Seattle area. I have worked at a bookstore for four years, since I graduated college with an English major. Retail has become more and more stressful for me, and I have told myself many times over the past few years that I should try to find some other job, maybe in copy editing or proofreading. But I do want to go to graduate school in the fall, probably for environmental sciences, so I would not be able to stay at whatever job I take for more than six or seven months. How can I get a non-retail job for that amount of time that is satisfying and hopefully not too stressful?


Underemployed At Bookstore

Dear Hesitant:

Perhaps instead of thinking of a job as temporary for six months, consider which jobs would work well for transitioning to part-time status when you are in school. You could work full-time until school starts and then ask to go to part-time hours. Your employer may decline your request but if they do approve it, you could end up working somewhere for a year or more rather than six months.

Regarding your search for a job that isn’t “too stressful,” my response is that stress happens when a job is a poor fit between your characteristics and the requirements of a job. So what is stressful for someone else might not be stressful for you and vice versa. For example, I know paramedics who would be completely stressed out by a boring desk job but they love the adrenaline rush of helping people in emergency situations. By contrast, many people would find it stressful to be a paramedic! To find a job that is not stressful to you, you first have to know yourself well and to design an action plan for how to build a career that fits your unique interests, personality, strengths, and values.

The same job change principles apply whether you are seeking work in copy editing, proofreading, or environmental services. Job search involves matching what employers want with what you have to offer. If you already have experience in copy editing or proofreading, you may already be marketable for what you want to do and then the task is to persuade employers that you have skills that they need. In that case, you would need to develop a resume that highlights your most relevant experience and education while de-emphasizing the experience you have that isn’t as relevant. Seattle resume writers can assist with creating this type of resume and Seattle employment agencies may be helpful for finding jobs in copy editing or proofreading. Kristen Fife’s blog is also a terrific source of information.

If you don’t already have previous accomplishments in the fields you want to pursue, your best first step would likely be to gain some experience by doing volunteer work for a Seattle nonprofit or taking small freelance jobs while you build a track record. is another way to find organizations for whom to volunteer so you can gain experience. Volunteering can be done while you remain employed in retail if you can’t afford to quit your current job and focus on the new ventures full time. (Most people have to build bridges between current employment and future employment in this way as most of us can’t afford to quit a job until we have lined up a new source of income).

Also to increase marketability and to network, consider joining relevant professional associations. Examples are the Editorial Freelancers Association, American Copy Editors Society, Northwest Independent Editors Guild, and Society of Professional Journalists. The people at these organizations can also help you with identifying the areas in which demand is highest and steer you away from areas where demand is low or the competition is stiff. (Before you invest in graduate school education, it is a good idea to evaluate environmental sciences in this same way).

Please don’t fall into the trap of staying underemployed and stuck because making change happen seems too difficult. Even if you are starting from scratch, building a track record does take time but eventually the experience will add up to make you sufficiently competitive to land a job in a new field.

Hope this helps!

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