Laid Off at 51, She Wrote a Book, Got Her Degree, and Found the Staff Job She Wanted
Marcelle Karp, who received her master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies this year and recently presented her YA novel at a Graduate Center event, struggled through a six-year job search after losing her position as a broadcast executive.
Last summer Marcelle Karp wrote a viral essay for the Huffington Post about getting laid off at the age of 51 and the six years it took her to find a staff job. Karp was exceptionally busy during those years, and not just with her job search. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Baruch College — after learning, via a hiring manager, that she hadn’t really graduated from Queens College in her early 20s, as she’d thought — and went on to earn her master’s from the Graduate Center’s Women’s and Gender Studies program.
She also wrote a young adult novel, Getting Over Max Cooper, featured in a recent event co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women and Society and the Center for the Humanities. Considering her role as a ’90s publishing trailblazer — she is a co-founder of the feminist zine BUST — and years working in broadcast, it isn’t surprising that she wound up with a staff job in the media realm, though in a different sector. Karp is now an associate creative director at an audio brand, where she oversees ad campaigns from conception to execution. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her advice for job seekers of any age.
The Graduate Center: Your essay described how you asserted yourself in a rather Gen X, defiant way toward the end of your job search. How did your perspective change over your years of interviews, and how did that help?
Karp: There’s a lot of pressure on women as we age to look younger. And one of the things I refused to do was to try to fit into that. This is my natural hair color. I don’t wear a lot of makeup. I really wanted a job, but I also wanted the grace to age into the body and the face that I have. This is the face that I've been working with for all these years.
Also, when I first lost my job at the age of 51, I was an executive, I was a vice president. Initially, those were the jobs I was looking for, and also for senior vice president jobs, because I had been up for jobs like that while I still had a job. But then I realized I wasn’t getting in the door at that level. So I had to look at creative director jobs and associate creative director jobs and even copywriter jobs.
I wasn’t a copywriter anymore, but I insisted on applying to them, because I wasn’t looking to make the kind of money I made when I was an executive. I was just looking to have a steady paycheck, a place to go every day, and health insurance. I wanted a staff job. Those were my parameters. I was freelancing, and I was very lucky to be freelancing, but I wanted a staff job.
For six years, I was rejected and ghosted and ignored, and people I mentored were not even making space to even talk to me — people who I hired over and over again, who were now in positions to hire me. And they weren’t doing that.
And I said, I’m just going to keep working this. The people who ended up hiring me weren’t my friends or people I’d ever known. They were people who met me and saw my value and said, Let’s make this happen. But it took six years to get there.
GC: You’ve described your current employer as embracing a multi-generational, diverse work culture. Did you find in your search that companies often excluded age from their DE&I mindset?
Karp: At the company I work at now, DE&I is taken seriously — in hiring practices, who we work with, and how we talk to each other. Their spaces are very intergenerational.
When I was searching, there was a woman I had worked with in broadcast who is now working for a nonprofit music event company, and she needed a creative director. She called me in twice, a year apart, to talk to me about being her creative director. She would say stuff like, You don’t really want this job. It’s no money, it’s only it's only $130,000. And in my mind I’m saying, Do you understand what a $130,000 salary is? That’s a lot of money.
She ended up hiring somebody who was 27 years old. Even though she is my age, she wanted someone young.
GC: How did you motivate yourself to keep going after receiving rejections like that?
Karp: I don’t have a partner. I was doing this financially on my own. But I had the advantage of being someone who had worked her whole life. I wasn’t in my 20s and new to the work force. And so when I got to my 50s and I was unemployed, I had some savings.
I had to make sure I had a roof over my head and that my daughter had a place to sleep when she came home from school. That was the motivation. And if I have to pivot, I will. And I did, essentially. I left broadcast and I went into a different kind of industry, doing the same type of job, but a very different industry.
I was not in a position to retire or to give up. I could have gone to Florida and moved in with my mother, but I didn’t want that to be the way my story went. There are those of us who are really struggling financially, there are those of us who are really struggling emotionally, who are dealing with depression and anxiety. And I’m part of that legion. But it was very important for me not to not to drown. It was very important for me to stay on my feet.
I was freelancing a little bit, and I kind of blew through a lot of my savings. And then the pandemic happened. Right before the pandemic hit, I had sold Getting Over Max Cooper. When my editor and the rest of us came up for air, after six months of pandemic life, I started working on shaping that book. And that took about six months.
During the pandemic, I was able to go back to college and get my bachelor’s by taking four classes a semester and doing the summer session and then the winter session. Because I’d gone to CUNY Queens, I was able to get my credits transferred over. And then I was able to go to grad school.
When papers were due, I spent my weekends at the GC library. I was really fastidious about them.
The hardest part about writing a paper was trying to figure out how to be in conversation with other texts. But I think school really helped me mentally hold it together. Because I was just like, How do I solve these puzzles?
GC: Why did you decide to earn your master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies after you earned your bachelor’s — which, unlike an M.A., you needed to be considered for jobs?
Karp: I wanted to create a second legacy for myself, which is to teach gender studies on the college level. I had called some schools way before any of this started, saying, Can I come teach? You know, I co-founded this feminist magazine, and here are all the other things I’ve done. And they were like, That is so cool. But do you have a master’s or Ph.D.? I was like, Nope. And they said they couldn’t do anything with me.
Ultimately, I want to teach women and gender studies on the college level. One lesson I learned in my career is that finding jobs is a lot about who you know and how you interact with them. I tell my daughter this all the time. Don’t burn any bridges. Be nice to everybody, because you never know when that person is going to show back up on your timeline, and you’re going to need something for them, or they’re only going to need something from you.
And what I learned at the Graduate Center is that there’s a community willing to lift and support like-minded people.
GC: You’re also a long-time mentor for women. How is that meaningful for you?
Karp: Right now I’m part of this mentorship program called Unlock Her Potential. It’s a mentorship program for women of color. I could have really benefited from somebody who was ahead of me in terms of their career to give me advice like, Don’t burn bridges. I wish someone had told me that when I was 25.
A lot of mentoring is being present for the person who’s looking to be heard and seen and given some guidance. I’m present for my mentees, and it’s really fulfilling to see someone put a book proposal together or get a promotion. And this is all very career-specific. It’s very gratifying to see women thrive.
GC: Do you have any other advice for people who might be experiencing a career setback?
Karp: I really hate clichés like, You’ve got to fail to succeed. Failure sucks. A setback is hard. I live with two people who are 23 and I watch them go through setbacks and their thought processes as they go through this.
The advice is: Recognize the setback, and then try to come up with solutions that sound like a pivot or are another way in. If you’re early in your academic career, and you’ve applied to 15 colleges and you’ve been turned down or gotten no response, you’ve got to think: What’s the B plan?
To me, it was always very important to just go, Okay, I’ve been turned down, where’s the other door in? How do I get into this place where I want to be? It’s a no for now. So what does that yes look like?
Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing