Monday, July 19, 2004

Career Advising

Over at Cliopatra, Hugo Schwyzer writes about the consequences of advising students to pursue a liberal arts degree. I, of course, am 27 years old, have given far more advice to friends than students, and have only two years as an intern in a fraternal benefit society's PR/activities department to list as non-academic experience on my resume. That said, I do have a few thoughts on this.

I think the simple aphorism "study what you love" is a bit naive. After all, you're going to be in college for four years, but your career will last for 40. I advise students to prioritize the latter. After all, if you get a job, you can still try to learn stuff on your own, assuming you're really interested. That said, however, it is true that you can get a good job with a liberal arts degree. The key is to know what you're getting into and have a plan.

If they're planning on going to law school or teach, they're probably fine. Otherwise, they need to take a look at ways to get other sorts of experiences. I was very lucky that QU had a strong internship program, which allowed me to get the experience mentioned above, and in fact when I left that company they felt like I could easily get a job in the field if I wanted. Some people also used involvement in student organizations such as the newspaper or campus activities board as a stepping-stone. Matthew Yglesias, a philosophy major who worked for the Harvard Crimson, is a noteworthy example of this in the blogosphere.

If you're at a different sort of school, you have a much tougher slog. Here at UW, I don't think any of my undergraduate friends has had any internship experience whatsoever. And to be honest, those who didn't go to grad school had huge problems which were only partly caused by the job market. In these cases, I think it's important to note that you may never use your degree when you find your job. It may be one you worked your way up to from an entry-level position in a department store by taking some night classes to earn an MBA or Masters in Communications. Yet another option is doing some sort of volunteer work, such as with Americorps, and gain job skills that way, though I don't know anyone who's done that in a way that helped them find a job.

Does that mean getting a liberal arts degree is generally not worth it? I think this is ultimately a personal decision to be made by each student, and to be honest, the computer science types I know have had a rough employment market, too. The value of a history or English degree remains partly non-commercial, and I would find it a shame if we ever gave up on that. But in the real world, it's not something you want to jump into life with blindly and without having a realistic sense of where you might end up.

UPDATE: One more point - liberal arts degrees have the advantage of being broad. If you major in library science, you're going to work in a library. If you major in English, you can adapt to a library, publishing, teaching, public relations, journalism, and a number of other things. But it's all about having a plan and cultivating career skills beyond just job training.


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