Career Choices

A recent article on Yahoo News stuck in my craw. Vicki Lynn, the Vice President of Universum, a “global talent recruiting company that works with many Fortune 500 companies,” lists five academic majors she insists are “useless” and will lead invariably to unemployment. The list includes philosophy, of course, so I am deeply invested in this argument as you might guess!

Philosophy is linked with Religious Studies by Ms Lynn and the list also includes Architecture, Anthropology or Archeology, Ethnic Studies, and Information Studies. In each case Lynn recommends alternative fields that she is convinced are more marketable. I cannot speak about the rest of the disciplines in the list except to make the general point that education is not about career choices, it’s about enabling one’s mind and doing what you love to do the rest of your life. How many people “out there” are in deadly dull jobs because they majored in a narrow field where there were job openings at the time and are now stuck in a dead-end with no real chance of any significant change? The data suggest the numbers are very high indeed. In fact, by the time most people have reached their mid-forties they have changed jobs five times. The only thing we know for certain is that things will change: education must prepare young people for change, not for a job.

My advice to my students was always take a variety of courses in their first couple of years in college and find something they really like and major in that — then minor in something useful like business or computer science and the jobs will be out there when they graduate. More importantly they will be happy. My younger son majored in history (not on Lynn’s list, but I daresay she would be happy to include it) and is now a District Sales Manager for a large company. My older son majored in Creative Writing (again not on her list, but I expect she would he happy to add it as well) and he works for a medical insurer as the editor of their in-house publications. They both seem successful and happy. And I have heard from a number of former students who followed my advice, graduated, and are doing very well, thank you very much.

But when it comes to philosophy or religious studies (which Lynn links together for some reason) there are good reasons to major in these fields. For one thing, philosophy majors score high, on average, on the LSAT tests and make successful attorneys. They can also teach or go to Seminary — as can those who major in religious studies. Or they can do any number of jobs that require an active and analytical mind. When I was a tennis pro at a country club West of Chicago I met a very successful investment broker who majored in philosophy and insisted that his college major was invaluable to him in his work. Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury,” reportedly majored in philosophy as did Steve Martin. I wrote a blog not long ago about Phyllis Billington who graduated with a major in philosophy from Northwestern University. She brags about her “useless” major and attests to the fact that it stood her in good stead in what was a remarkably varied and successful career. As she said in an interview: “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.”

But I do realize the data support Lynn’s claims. She doesn’t work with anecdotal evidence and her field of vision is much broader than mine. There may indeed be many a philosophy major out there serving hamburgers at McDonald’s [WHY do you want fries with that?]. But that’s only how they make a living. What about their quality of life? What do they do in their leisure time? I know of a creative writing major who works as a janitor at a local hospital so he can earn enough money to get by as he writes, which is what he loves to do. And that’s what this is all about: finding something you love to do and being happy. It’s not about jobs.

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Finding Meaningful Employment

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by a graduate student in English at the University of Cincinnati bemoans the fact that there simply is no work out there for young doctoral students in the Humanities. The student’s name is Katharine Polak and she says, in part,

For instance, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in the January/February 2010 issue of Academe that “the only thing the Ph.D. now reliably confers is the potential for lifetime poverty and underemployment.” Apparently, though my program is excellent, I will be among the snookered, vagabond English adjunct scholars milling around the countryside, doomed to a life of the vicissitudes of enrollment and discretionary spending. Or, more likely, I will pursue my second career choice: swamp hermit. I will scream my Lacanian analyses at unsuspecting families hiking through my territory. There will be some dignity in my bog.

This is not new, of course. The job market for young people coming out of graduate school in English, history and philosophy, especially, has been bleak for some time. When our university hired an adjunct professor in philosophy some time ago, the man had been selling men’s clothing for a living — after getting his PhD at a prestigious university. That was nearly forty years ago! And more recently, when we advertised a tenure-track position the applications came in the hundreds. It is depressing. And the young woman who writes this article is correct: the professors in the graduate schools need to be honest and open with the students and brace them for the tough road ahead. Further, graduate schools in the Humanities ought to consider limiting the number of students they admit in the first place, though one hesitates to discourage people who want to continue to learn — as long as they know what’s in store for them.

I spoke with a medical doctor recently whose daughter had just completed her PhD at Yale in Art History and had no idea whatever where she would go from there. He was astonished that people could work for 4 or 5 years (or more) at the graduate level getting a degree with no guarantee of work to follow –unlike those in his field who were pretty much guaranteed a job at the outset. But at the risk of sounding unsympathetic (which I am not), I would point out that the object in earning a degree — any degree — is not to get a job. It never was or never should have been. The idea is that we stay in school in order to continue to learn. The degree simply marks stages of intellectual growth along the way. If we get a job, that’s icing on the cake: it’s not the goal of getting the degree in the first place. There’s something to be said for dignifying the bog.

But I fully realize that this is pie-in-the sky idealism. The hard realities are that people need to work, and after spending eight+ years after high school earning a PhD, one really doesn’t want to spend the rest of his or her life working in Walmart (for starvation wages) or dignify the bog with “Lacanian analyses.” But reality also screams out that the on-line universities are gaining speed and, given the rising tuition costs, will make further inroads into enrolments at the college level like nothing we have seen so far. If we think things are bad now, imagine what it will be like when increasing numbers of students earn their degrees online and don’t need to be in contact with live college professors at all!

I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with a fellow-blogger named Jennifer who is very much interested in this situation. There’s no doubt that online “education” is growing and expanding its reach — even in respectable schools like Harvard. And this situation will make it even more difficult for young PhDs to find meaningful work. But I proposed in a comment on Jennifer’s blog that some sort of compromise be worked out to control the monster that threatens to grow large and eradicate real, meaningful education. In this model, online instruction would be restricted to the lower levels of college and students would be required to attend classes on campus with live students and professors in their last two years, preferably in small classes or seminars. In addition, teaching assistants would still be employed in grading and responding to online questions at the lower levels. It is not ideal and the problems listed by the young woman in Cincinnati will continue to get worse. But it is an attempt to restore some sort of order into educational chaos that seems to be getting worse and which also threatens to make the future job market for PhDs in the Humanities even more bleak.