Kevin Nguyen Pulled His Colleagues Together and Produced a Book

The Thin Reads Interview with the Editor of “The Graduates”

Kevin Nguyen had the misfortune of graduating college in 2009, one of the worst job markets ever for college graduates. The world back then was not exactly looking for recent grads with a BA in English and International Political Economy. But rather than sit around and feel sorry for himself, he devoted himself to his new venture The Bygone Bureau a blog that examines modern life through essays, cultural criticism and comics. It’s a great website that does everything well except for one small thing: it produces no revenue. So Nguyen had to find less-than-ideal fulltime work, but it helped pay the bills and kept him learning. The writers he met at The Bygone Bureau had similar job-hunting experiences, so he pulled them together to write essays for the e-book single “The Graduates,” which was just published by the Thought Catalog. Nguyen functioned as the editor. He’s had another major success in his post-graduate career. Nguyen found a great fulltime job at….well, you’re going to have to read the following Thin Reads interview to discover how his story turns out.

Thin Reads: “The Graduates” is quite a chronicle of the struggles of young adults trying to enter the professional work force. What led you to engage in this project?

We wrote “The Graduates” as a response to all of these half-hearted pieces about how screwed Millennials are, how they were living with their parents and how there was no work. It’s true that graduating in 2009 didn’t provide the best job market, but in a lot of ways, those struggles have actually led to more interesting experiences and opportunities. And we wanted to capture that optimism. Sure, a lot of us struggled to find a first job—even a mediocre one—but it’s not like a college degree entitles you to your dream job the moment you graduate.

Thin Reads: You’ve assembled the essays from well over a dozen smart and thoughtful writers. How did you find so many people to write about their problems finding meaningful work?

A lot of the contributors in “The Graduates” are people who’ve written for The Bygone Bureau but we also wanted to make sure we represented a breadth of experiences, locations, and people. So it was a lot of asking around, but we had a surprisingly easy time finding a wide variety of post-grad experiences. Everyone seems to have a great story about graduating during a recession.

Thin Reads: Did your writers get paid for contributing to “The Graduates” or is this just another example where content is a low-wage (or no-wage) commodity?

Oh yeah, we definitely paid our contributors. We aren’t able to pay writers on The Bygone Bureau because the site doesn’t generate any revenue. The editors don’t get paid either—it’s a true labor of love. But with “The Graduates,” which we are selling, there’s a moral obligation to make sure writers are compensated. It also feels pretty good to send out checks, which I’d never been able to do before.

Thin Reads: Your bio describes you as working for a major Internet retailer. You graduated from University of Puget Sound so we’re guessing that it’s….well, we’re not going to push you. But why can’t you disclose where you work? You sound like one of the rare success stories in the book.

Haha, yes I work at Amazon. At the time we penned the book, there was a corporate policy about not mentioning Amazon in non-Amazon-related projects, which seems reasonable to me. I’ve moved into a more public-facing role at the company – editor/book reviewer – so I’m less shy about mentioning my employer these days.

In “The Graduates,” we wanted to capture the stress, panic, and uncertainty of life immediately after graduation and talk about how that is an absolutely normal, reasonable way to feel. I applied for 40 different jobs before I got my first one, working for just above minimum wage at a startup that made money off photos of cats and videos of guys getting hit in the groin. It was so far from what I had imagined my life would be like, but eventually I got a better second job, then Amazon, which is the first place I’ve worked that has brought me the kind of satisfaction I’ve wanted.

A lot of the writers in the book are now doing great things, but we focused on the part of their life that was a little more turbulent. Stories of people struggling turns out to be more compelling reading.

Thin Reads: What’s the best city for a 2013 college grad to seek work keeping in mind job opportunities and reasonable cost of living (that might rule out Williamsburg)?

I think there’s a balance to every city: places with lower costs of living tend to have fewer opportunities. The flip side of that is obviously New York, where the cost of living could not be higher, but it’s the center of so many industries and communities.

That’s a tough question! I went to school in Tacoma, WA, so Seattle was a natural place to move after college. The cost of living there is pretty reasonable and it helps that there’s no income tax in Washington too. But I think more importantly, it was where my friends were. Move somewhere where there are people you care about.

Thin Reads: Considering the challenges your contributors had finding jobs, do you think a college degree is worth it these days?

Oh definitely. I’m a strong believer in the liberal arts education—the way it teaches you to think critically, to pursue your passions. There are a lot of people who think that college students need more “practical” skills or need to specialize. I disagree with this. More and more jobs, especially when you look at growing fields like tech, demand a versatile skill set.

I think the big problem is that a lot of students think that their four-year degree entitles them to a job. Maybe for some brief glimpses of the past two decades, finding work was so easy that it seemed that way. But now, you’re going to have to earn a job. And honestly it might be better that way.

Buy “The Graduates” at: Amazon, iBookstore