As she pours extra buffalo sauce on the customer’s cheese-steak sandwich, Jenna Marie is not exactly doing the work that is expected of someone with a political science degree.
Although Marie’s ambitions go further than making sandwiches her entire life, she has become one out of every six graduates with a bachelor’s degree who was underemployed in the U.S. last year, a trend that continues to grow, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.
With the job market’s demand shifting to require more than a four-year degree, graduates are either embracing that demand by applying to graduate school or accepting a less-than-ideal job in order to pay off their student loans, which is now estimated at over $1-trillion by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in its 2015 Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit.
“I needed to start paying back in November. I had to pay around $300 a month and I didn’t even dorm,” said Marie, one of the few people in her family to earn a four-year degree.
In order to begin both paying off her debt and saving money for graduate school, Marie began looking for any paying job that would hire her, yet she found herself unemployed for a three-month period that she spent jumping around from interview to interview with no avail.
“I wasn’t worried in the beginning, but I did feel relieved when she finally found something,” said Marie’s mother Adriene O’Toole, 59.
The first job she found was at a nearby branch of the make-up production company Estee Lauder in Melville, NY.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she works for the office’s safety department as she distributes and sorts employee questionnaires, often creating graphs based on the results. According to Marie, most of her work is made up on the spot by the department’s administrators.
“It’s really based on their whim,” she said.
But because she decided to take on her debt and savings plan by herself, Marie needed two jobs to reach her financial goal.
After replying to a Craigslist posting and a short interview, Marie found herself a second job working at Charleys Philly Steaks inside Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, NY.
Now she wears a black cap and apron every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday as she stands for hours beside a red wall that reads “100% Certified Awesomeness.”
“Toppings make the day go by fast,” Marie said half-jokingly as she sorted the tomatoes and stared at the almost empty food court that was typical of a Thursday afternoon.
In order to distract herself during slow days, Marie immerses herself into any task delegated to her, and she tries to do as much as she can by herself.
“She doesn’t like it when people take her job,” said Alysa Descetto, a fellow employee at Charleys. “She’ll want to broom and do toppings and not let you do any of it.”
When the monotony of working six days a week gets too tiring, Marie finds motivation in her eventual entry into graduate school.
“At least I know I’m working towards something. It’s not an endless abysmal at Charleys [Philly] Steaks,” she said.
It’s about to be a year since Marie graduated from Stony Brook University and started working, and she is now financially stable and has been accepted into the University of Glasgow in Scotland to study international relations and global security. When she starts attending classes there, her student loans will go back on deferment, but she will now be taking out even more loans to pay for her new tuition.
According to the New America Education Department Policy Program, the typical graduate student borrowed over $57,000 last year. On the other hand, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people with graduate degrees earned about $300 a week more than those with a four year degree.
When Marie initially searched the job market after graduation, she noticed the significant pay gap between jobs in the field of political science that required a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, which further convinced her that a master’s degree was the way to go.
Yet employment can still be elusive to those who have attended graduate school. According to Raynee Gutting, a Stony Brook University teaching assistant who earned her political science Ph.D. this May, several of her fellow students who graduated this year applied to nearly 45 jobs before finding any form of employment.
“Entering the job market is a stressful endeavor even with a higher degree,” said Gutting, who was recently hired as a visiting assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
With Marie’s leave scheduled for September 10, the realization of being one step closer to her master’s degree created a mix of excitement and anxiety within her.
“It’ll be a challenge, but If you don’t do stuff that scares you, then what’s the point,” she said.