MARY THOMAS: Graduates face challenge of peanut butter – or better



When I graduated from college in 1983, all my friends and I landed jobs tied closely to our fields. We were nurses, teachers, sport managers, paralegals, and journalists who packed up our dorm rooms and fanned out across the state to begin our careers.

For a year following graduation, I stayed on campus and worked as a writer in the university’s public relations department. It was a good decision. At the time, I didn’t have money to pay for moving expenses and utility deposits, and I needed another year to hone my skills.

I inherited an apartment lease from my brother, who was moving on to greener pastures. My monthly rent for a one bedroom was $170, which sounds great. But I only made $10,000 a year – before taxes. I was paid monthly. Let me tell you, those were some lean times, but I learned to budget (translated, that means eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches and becoming creative with a threadbare wardrobe). But at least I was doing what I loved. Today’s college graduates are not so lucky.

This past fall, US News and World Report did a story titled “100 Best Jobs for 2014”. Nail Technicians made the list. Writers did not. If someone entering college in the fall wants a good chance at employment in four years, think computers or medicine – software developers, dentists, nurses, physical therapists, doctors. If predictions pan out, that’s where the jobs will be.

This creates quite a dilemma for parents of children whose passion may be in the arts or in any field where jobs are scarce. We want them to follow their hearts. We want them to be excited about a career, but passion alone won’t put food on the table.

I have one child who hopes to work in the field of medicine. According to the US News list, that works. I have another who feels pulled to work in the area of service – not as in “appliance repair service,” which made the Top 100, but nonprofit service, which means she will learn never to bypass lost change on the sidewalk.

A part of me wants to tell her to stay within the confines of “the list”. Her life with a steady paycheck would be easier, more predictable. She could buy a more reliable car, a better wardrobe, start planning for retirement. She could go out with friends without having to count pennies. More doors would open if she majored in a field that offered a stable salary. But this is her life. Her journey. Her calling. If she doesn’t mind peanut butter sandwiches, she’ll be happy.

As parents we want our children to have a good foundation in life. But we need to be careful about how we define that. If we define it only in terms of a paycheck, essentially we may be asking our children to trade happiness for the almighty dollar. And, in the long run, that never works. On the other hand, racking up $50,000 in student loans for a major that won’t pay the rent doesn’t work, either.

This spring, as college graduates prepare to enter the workforce, only 27 percent will find jobs related to their majors. Instead, many will find themselves waiting tables and answering phones. Some will be forced to move back home with their parents with hopes their resume will land on the right desk and in the right hands.

If I could magically transport myself back to college and had, in my possession, US News Top 100 Careers, would I have chosen a different path? Would I have become a computer support specialist or programmer? Would I have ignored my love for writing and my disdain for science and chosen, instead, nursing or phlebotomy?

Starting out, I would have been richer. But, in the end, would I have been happier?

Mary Thomas is an independent journalist who resides in Tupelo. Contact her at