Right around September, a lot of last year’s graduates from liberal arts colleges are discovering that they appear to be qualified for approximately none of the jobs that they might actually want to have. There are exceptions: students who have graduated with very strong, specific technical competencies (usually science and engineering majors) tend to find that there are at least some interesting or financially rewarding jobs to be had.
There are also big companies that passed through last spring hiring graduating seniors into reasonably well-paid entry positions in sales, marketing, investment banking and so on. Those jobs aren’t probably particularly fun or intellectually engaging for a lot of the graduates who get them, but they can pay fairly well and often lead to more interesting opportunities in management and business.
But this is the point where a lot of graduates, particularly those with strong interests in the humanities, start to get restless and think that maybe going to graduate school in the coming year will give them some kind of definitive direction. I think my view on that subject is pretty well known.
The problem on the other side of things, though, is that just about every Cool Job that appeals to folks with interests in the humanities and social sciences seems completely impossible to obtain. When you quiz people you know who have Cool Jobs, they seem to have gotten them in ways that are utterly impossible to duplicate–they were in the right place at the right time, or had a good social/familial network, or had a mentor that they happened to click with. The stuff you see in the newspaper want ads, for the most part, is the Nasty Leftovers.
The bad news, and I’m not sure liberal arts institutions are always as forthright about saying this as they could be to their current undergraduates, is that the significant majority of immediately post-graduate employment experiences are going to suck. Dilbert’s office would be an improvement over quite a few of the ones I’ve heard about. I think my favorite job experience I’ve heard about in the last six years was the non-profit community group that paid $15,000 a year for a 55/hr week with no benefits or vacation time and was run by a near-psychotic incompetent. But there’s lots like that to go around. I do think we promise payoffs in the longer term from “critical thinking” and the like, so any student who’s listening carefully probably understands the implicit point being made when that’s said.
Thinking about people I know with Cool Jobs who are not academics, broadly speaking I can identify a couple of ways that they got there.
Route 1 to a Cool Job is applying to a Nasty Leftover job and then proving yourself with diligence and creativity to be a Cool Person and being promoted upwards to the stuff in the same workplace or organization that’s satisfying and interesting.
Route 2 to a Cool Job is going to graduate school but in a specific professional field, aimed at very specific technical proficiencies, skills and credentials, NOT a doctoral program aimed at becoming an academic. You’re looking for something that goes straight into a profession or field of employment outside of academia, preferably a program with a strong, proven track record of placing its graduates in employment. The shorter the program, the better.
Route 3 to a Cool Job is making a nuisance out of yourself in a way that feels very very difficult for a lot of folks (including myself)–basically exploiting your family and social networks, writing to strangers, showing up at lots of events and aggrandizing yourself in various ways, brownnosing if necessary, being gutsy and unafraid, jumping into strange situations without looking. The problem with this is not just that it is difficult to do, but that it takes a certain kind of personality and judicious ability to size up social situations to do it successfully. Somebody with the wrong personality or with a consistent inability to judge when and how the moment has arrived is going to do themselves way more harm than good following this strategy.
Route 4 is hanging out your own shingle in some fashion–if you’ve got a serious technical skill, some special area of knowledge, some ability to do creative writing, anything of that kind, you go into business or do consulting or sit down and write. Anything that either produces a concrete output (artwork, writing, programming, technology, a successful small business) or that serves as an effective entree to some larger institution by proving yourself is a good thing. That is, providing what you’re doing doesn’t suck–bad art, lame writing, or technically incompetent independent work isn’t going to help you any, and parasitic just-one-step-above-confidence-man kinds of consulting work may alienate rather than ingratiate. May require a significant other and/or parents you can sponge off of for a while.
Route 5 is basically paying lots and lots of dues, about ten to fifteen years of painfully bad or frustrating jobs where the next job is somewhat higher paying or more responsible than the last job, but not really a Cool Job or even a particularly good one–and then taking the accumulated reputational and professional capital from that and cashing it in to grab a Cool Job.