In recent years, parents have been willing to pay the increasing costs of college tuition for one principal reason: they have believed a college degree is their child’s ticket to a better future. Getting a better job after graduation is also the number one reason given by incoming students for attending college.
The current national focus on the cost of a college education and loan default rates has caused many to debate the value of a liberal arts degree.
On one side of the debate are the naysayers, who assume that if the title of your major is not also the name of a career, the degree must be of little use in the real world. On the other side are the educators, who highlight the high-level skills learned through a liberal arts education, but provide no evidence that employers of entry-level graduates actually demand those skills.
In President Obama’s 2014 speech at Knox College, he called the “undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up” in colleges and universities unsustainable, and said he would lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up higher education. A better approach would be for higher education to take the lead and accelerate the pace at which it re-invents itself, while making more effective use of institutional funds.
Re-thinking College to Career
A key place for higher education to start is in re-thinking how students can be better prepared to find work. Most colleges would agree that the perception of job success after graduation from a particular institution is a key driver of matriculation, and that more successful graduates eventually lead to greater philanthropy. But too much of the attention paid to the goal of career preparation is simply lip service, with the blame going to Career Services offices when results are poor. Career Services certainly need to be part of the re-invention process, and take a much more data-driven approach to their work. But they can’t solve their students’ career problems without broad institutional support on the front end.
What Employers Want
All the career assistance in the world is not going to help the student who isn’t qualified. Yet how many of our institutions have any sense of what employers are expecting of students and graduates when they hire them for internships and full time work? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2013 Spring Update, employers rank the most desired skills and characteristics as follows:
#1 Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
#2 Ability to make decisions and solve problems
#3 Ability to obtain and process information
#4 Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
#5 Ability to analyze quantitative data
#6 Technical knowledge related to the job
#7 Proficiency with computer software programs
#8 Ability to create and/or edit written reports
#9 Ability to sell or influence others
Mapping how students can acquire the necessary skills
During the time a student is in college, he or she typically has four ways through which to develop the skills required by employers: The classroom; co-curricular or extracurricular activities; internships or other experiential education; and, the Career Center. The easiest way to become competent in any of these areas is through internships. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly boost many the student’s skill sets and desired characteristics while they are on campus.The following chart illustrates the opportunities:
The graduate skills deficit
As the above chart indicates, there are multiple ways during the time students are in college to help them acquire practical skills. But cross referencing the NACE employer data with data from the Hart Research Associates’ survey of employers conducted for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) illustrates that there is much work still to be done. Of the nine top skill sets identified as important in the NACE survey, six were highlighted in the AACU survey as areas to which higher education should pay more attention.
The three top areas in which employers found students deficient were:
1) verbal communications
2) written communications
3) problem solving and decision making
What can colleges and universities do?
What stands out from a review of employer needs and college graduate deficits is that a new way of preparation from college to career is required. If we want students to acquire the skills sought by employers, we must be clear how, where and why they need to develop them. We can’t just say “go to the Career Center and go there early”. The fact is, skills required by employers take time to develop. Staff in the Career Center don’t have that time, or even, perhaps, the expertise. They are better positioned to concentrate on teaching students the job search strategies and skills they need to be successful in their applications for employment.
One argument against building skill development into classes is that it will somehow diminish the quality of the education. But, integrating such skills into a course is totally consistent with a highly rigorous education–even a liberal arts education. There are plenty of ways, for example, that opportunities to do oral presentations can be built into humanities classes, or white papers required in classes on pressing social issues. Even statistics classes can require students to develop problem solving skills using real world examples, like analyzing baseball scores.
The key is to help students understand what they need to learn, advise them how to learn it, and help them reflect on how to practice and enhance skills in and out of the classroom. There are roles for faculty, administrators, alumni, coaches and career professionals to play. When the entire institution is involved in preparing students for post-graduation success in a very targeted way, we have a much greater chance of making that success happen.
When the employment situation is bleak, thousands of students gravitate towards subjects like business, communications, or economics, turning their backs on liberal arts subjects. Many do so because they perceive it to be the safest way to avoid unemployment at graduation. Few have made the case to students that the pursuit of a broad academic education may be a more effective strategy to achieve the desired result. So it was with great interest that I read a discussion of this topic on my alma mater’s LinkedIn site (Durham University Alumni). The specific question asked was how graduates used subjects like history, science or languages in their day-to-day work.
I found one answer particularly helpful, because it clearly articulated how the author’s knowledge of multiple subjects influenced his success in writing and designing video games. Graeme Davis moved into the games industry after graduating with a degree in archeology. This is an edited version of Graeme’s account, describing how he has used his educational background:
Math: Math is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me – and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!
English: Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised English literature when I was in high school, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a surprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.
History: I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000, during my four years at Games Workshop.
Modern Languages: I studied French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.
Geography: Like history, geography has come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.
Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.
Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”
Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment. What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.
In an Interfolio blog article on November 5, Mike Lovell makes the case that careers offices should pay more attention to their liberal arts majors. He cites a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Katharine Brooks. I applaud Ms. Brooks’ idea of partnering with faculty. I also like the idea of offering students a course through which they identify their transferable skills, whether through a credit or a not-for-credit program. But I’d like to go much further. In the 21st century, when an economic return on tuition investment is so important to both students and parents, it is incumbent upon everyone in a college or university—from the President on down—to be talking about education and graduate success in the same breath, and to do so from the first year on. Because if talking about a student’s future is confined to the upper-class classroom and the occasional visit to the careers office, we will still end up with graduates who can’t make the connection between college and career.
What liberal arts students need is universal support to explore different career fields; stories about alumni and how they found paths to work they love; a great deal of experiential education; and, strategies to make their education relevant to the hiring managers who are considering their applications for employment. Students can’t just jump from a college career course to a job. There is much work that needs to go on in between those two milestones, and it will take the collaboration of university administration as well as alumni, faculty and the careers office to make that happen.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities is engaged in a very interesting initiative called LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), which “champions the value of a liberal education for economic creativity and democratic vitality”. Its Liberal Education Outcomes Report, produced in 2005, does a great job of identifying the intellectual and practical skills obtained through a good liberal arts education. Intuitively, it makes sense that a liberal education would promote quantitative and information literacy, but a student telling the employer that she has these skills is likely to be met with blank stares. We need a different language to help students communicate the value of their education to an employer, and we need to be honest: most employers of entry level graduates don’t really care about a student’s education (as long as he has the educational qualification they seek); they care about whether he can do the job the employer needs to have done, and to do so with very little training. With a pre-professional degree, it is clear what a graduate can do; a liberal arts grad has to work much harder to demonstrate that she has the knowledge and skills to do the job. Almost always, she will need to supplement her education with related work experience.
In Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, a book I coauthored in 2006, we illustrated through the stories of 23 liberal arts grads that the education they received was often extremely useful—but only when they were well on in their career. And, of the top Fortune 100 CEOs, for whom undergraduate degree is known, 35% have degrees in the liberal arts. Clearly a liberal education has value in higher level positions. But what about the 2010 grad whose career aspiration does not coincide with the title of his degree? No amount of fancy language or learning outcomes are going to help him find employment in this market. In fact his liberal arts education may seem totally irrelevant. We need to make our new graduates feel comfortable with the fact that their liberal arts skills and knowledge will not be wasted. Almost certainly, liberal arts grads will find themselves utilizing their liberal arts knowledge and skill sets for decades into the future. But for now, higher education–not just the careers office– must help liberal arts majors simply find a job.
Thousands of high school seniors will apply to Ivy League universities this fall. For most, receiving a fat acceptance package is considered equivalent to winning the financial and career lottery. Rejection, however nicely expressed, is cause for huge disappointment—even despair. But how important is it to get into an Ivy if you want to reach the highest echelons of business? A new survey of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs suggests it may be much less important than you might think.
Consider the following data points from the Fortune 100 CEO survey:
- Thirteen CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. But fourteen received their degrees from international colleges and universities. Not one Fortune 100 CEO graduated from Brown, Columbia or Princeton.
- Five CEOs graduated from Harvard, but another five graduated with an undergraduate degree from a British university.
- Ten Fortune 100 CEOs did receive a graduate degree from Harvard. No other institution came close.
Given the data, it is hard to make the case for going to any particular undergraduate college or university. So do the Fortune 100 CEOs have any educational characteristics in common? Unfortunately, there is no information available about activities while in college, or GPA. What we do know, however, is that 85% of the Fortune 100 CEOs for whom information is available, majored at the undergraduate level in one of four areas: Engineering, Business Administration, Economics/Finance and Accounting. All these areas have a strong quantitative bias. The remaining 15%, studied in a wide variety of areas from history to geology or biology. Two thirds of the CEOs obtained an advanced degree, with about a third of the Fortune 100 choosing to complete an MBA.
Does the quality of education make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Absolutely. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.
Q. I’m a lawyer who’s never taken to the legal profession. Can I look forward to other career options?
A. What your question does not tell me is if you’ve “gone off” the law entirely, or simply don’t want to work in a law firm, where you have to bill in excess of 2,000 hours a year and never see your family.
Let’s assume for the moment, that the mere thought of having “lawyer” or “attorney” in your title (or, for that matter, partner or judge) makes you break out in hives. Are there other options? Absolutely. By definition, you’re smart, you know how to think and reason, and can write well. The trick now is to convince someone to hire you and pay you enough to satisfy the student loan collectors or mortgage company.
Lawyers who are looking for jobs outside the law often believe that they can do anything, if only given a chance. They also tend to look for equivalent salaries to those they would have made in private practice. Here’s where you often have to eat some humble pie. To get your foot in the door, you must convince an employer that you can do the job they need to have done. Sometimes, that means you’ll be promoting skills, such as your marketing ability, that require far fewer brain cells than your legal studies. You may also have to consider a salary substantially lower than your peers in the legal world. Ultimately, your educational background may help you do your work better or more efficiently – and many law-trained graduates reach the pinnacles of industry — but there’s no guarantee that you’ll move ahead more quickly than your peers with bachelor’s degrees or MBAs. The good news is that if you really don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll be much happier in your chosen profession.
The trend now is for students to take off a year or two before attending law school. Given the numbers of lawyers who’d prefer to be doing something other than the law, having time to reflect on what you want to do before jumping into the next stage of education is a great idea!
Question: I’m a recent grad who has not yet found work. I’m looking for an event management position in New York, and employers seem interested, but I don’t get called back after the interview. What am I doing wrong?
Answer: The good news is that you’re getting your foot in the door. So your academics and experience are making the grade. The problem area appears to be your interview. Interviewing is one of the most difficult skills to master. Essentially, you have to sell yourself to a potential employer. After years of letting your academic results speak for you, you have to find ways of letting your personality shine through. And you need to control those sweaty palms and the red flush that appears on your neck when you’re under stress.
Employers look for three things: first, whether your qualifications match the requirements of the position; second, whether you have the personal characteristics that are necessary (such as the ability to take initiative); and third, organizational fit. Interviewers often employ the “2am in Japan test”. Essentially they’re asking themselves “if I were stuck in an airport in Japan at 2am with this person, would I want to talk to them?”! Your potential employer wants you to be competent, but they also want to like you.
Few people are good at interviews without practice. The best way to ace an interview is to find a professional whom you trust to ask you sample questions and give you feedback. Don’t forget to work on your beginnings – the ubiquitous “tell me about yourself” question, and your endings—why you think you’re the best person for the job. Be open to their critique—however harsh it may seem. The more you can practice outside of the interviewing suite, the easier it will be when your ideal job comes along.
Smartest Move #1: Discover where you want to go
If you thought finding a job after graduation was the most difficult thing to do, think again! Far harder than the initial job search is figuring out exactly what you want to do. The difficulty is that when you’re in college you have very little time, and you may not be inclined towards self-reflection. One way to get started is to take the instruments commonly offered by your careers office, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or the Strong Interest Inventory. You won’t magically find direction, but particularly if you work with a career counselor, these instruments can help jumpstart your thought process.
One piece of advice: be willing to jettison preconceived notions about success. It doesn’t take too long when you’re in the real world to discover that no amount of pay will compensate for a miserable work situation. In particular, don’t be swayed in your career direction by those around you as graduation nears. Resist the temptation to follow the pack and forget who you really are. Often, that means remembering who you were, and what you loved as a child.
It’s actually quite normal to graduate from college without being completely sure of your direction. There are a number of reasons for this. First, you may not have been ready to think deeply about your career while you were in school. Second, you may have tried a number of different fields, but still not found direction. And you may just need more time for exploration or reflection. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t sit still. Find a job. Work through a temp agency. Do information interviews. Intern in an interesting company for a few months. The first key is to put yourself in situations where you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The second key is keeping talking to people, especially those who love their jobs. It’s not easy to put in the amount of time necessary to find your passion, but it’s well worth it.
Smartest Move #2: Get experience
Without exception, all the people in Smart Moves, had early work experiences, either on or off-campus. They did co-ops and internships, and played leadership roles in clubs and organizations. Often internships and low-paid clerical or service jobs after graduation offer you the only way to get your foot in the door. That’s particularly true in fields like entertainment, where many recent grads find themselves working in the mailroom. It’s the classic “Catch 22”. You have to have experience to get experience. And often, you simply have to pay your dues.
To make the most of your experiential education, before and after college, it’s worth remembering a few things: First, whatever you’re asked to do, do it well. Second, remember that all experience is good experience, even if it tells you what you don’t want to do ever again. Finally, always be looking around you. Who’s doing the really interesting jobs? How did they get there? Do you like the culture? What do you see that you’d want to avoid in a new job?
While you’re on a short-term assignment, it’s a great time to get into the habit of LUNCH. Invite someone to join you for a brown bag or a sandwich and get to know them. The more people who know you and like you, the easier it is to find career allies who will help you down the road.
Smartest Move #3: Build social and networking relationships
The graduates profiled in Smart Moves could write the book on networking. Networking is important for everyone, but it’s critical if your passion is something unusual like being a stunt actor or working for a major league baseball team. The more outrageous your ambition, the more likely it is you’ll need help getting there. Unfortunately, building social and networking relationships is one of the hardest skills for any young person to master.
Here’s a tip to get you started: In your career toolbox, you need two items. The first is an elevator speech, and the second is an eyeball paragraph. Both seek the same goal, namely to convince the person you’re talking with or writing to that they should spend more time with you. In the case of the elevator speech, you need to prepare a thirty-second response to the question “Who are you and what are you looking for?” For an eyeball paragraph, you need to make sure that the busy person who reads your email has a compelling reason to answer it! Some people, like family friends or graduates of your school, may be pre-disposed to help, but you’ve got to make it easy for them to do so. Your pitch needs to be concise and well thought through.
Building your network is a key skill for graduates at any stage of their careers. Whether they’re former bosses, friends, business acquaintances, faculty, or your hair stylist, people in your corner can make all the difference. They’re great sounding boards, wonderful confidence builders, and above all, probably your best source of job leads. Don’t hide your passion. Let everyone know your career destination, and you won’t travel alone.
Smartest Move #4: Identify your competence gaps
The higher you move in your career, the more likely you’ll be confronted with tasks and responsibilities with which you’re unfamiliar. Knowing what you don’t know is important. But far more important is figuring out how to acquire the knowledge or skills that you lack. In other words, you need to identify and fix your competence gap.
Assessing this shortfall, you need to ask two key questions: “Is the skill necessary for a field in which I want to stay?” and “Would the skill help me to achieve my future goals?” If the answer to either question is yes, you need to find a way to close the gap. The graduates in Smart Moves used the following methods to obtain the knowledge they needed:
1) Pursued further education, e.g., business or law school
2) Identified professional development opportunities offered through their organizations
3) Sought assignments that would help them to practice new skills
4) Found mentors who would act as sounding boards
Most important, you have to be open to assessing what you know and what you don’t. Be open to feedback. Ask for it frequently, and adjust your course based on what you hear.
Smartest move #5: Find your “hook”
Anyone who’s been admitted to a very selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.
The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or a highly risky venture in which you’ve been successful. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.
How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value.
Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.
I met my first helicopter parent in September, 1995. He called demanding specialized career services for his son. No matter that the young man had only just matriculated at Brown University. His problem? The son had met some fellow students who had convinced him to study philosophy instead of computer science. It wasn’t necessary for the parent to tell me what was really on his mind: “What on earth can you do with a degree in philosophy?”
When it comes to liberal arts and careers, there’s a black hole of ignorance that is often filled with myths and assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that you can’t possibly find employment unless you supplement your liberal arts degree with a more practical second major like Economics. But look around. Contrary to what you might believe, there are few cultural anthropology grads driving cabs. And, there are no support groups, to my knowledge, for unemployed history majors. Salary and position after graduation are influenced more by the interests of the liberal arts grad than the subject matter of her degree.
Regardless of actual post-graduation results, it’s a rare liberal arts grad who doesn’t have some trepidation about the future. I had my own encounter with reality when I immigrated to the United States. The temporary agency I approached took one look at my newly-minted degree in Russian and Persian and advised that they might be able to find me a minimum wage job—if I learned to type. Luckily, as experience proves, where you start off bears little relation to where you can end up. The question is, “how do you get from a liberal arts degree to work you love?”
The “Easy” Way
The easiest way for liberal arts grads to find high paying, high prestige jobs is to impress recruiters from the investment banks and consulting companies that recruit on campus at top colleges. But there’s a catch: you have to possess not only a high GPA but also a demonstrated interest in–and talent for–the kind of work you’re pursuing. In addition, you’ll need something that sets you apart from other candidates. The way you distinguish yourself may not necessarily relate to the content of the job. Christina, a history grad from Stanford University, was hired as associate consultant by the consulting firm Bain, Inc. because her work founding an HIV/AIDS organization allowed her to demonstrate creativity, passion and a drive for results.
The “Normal” Way
The on-campus recruiting route usually accounts for fewer than a quarter of the graduating class. Many of their liberal arts peers would have you believe that they had everything figured out—often in the form of more school. They talk convincingly of becoming doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists. But behind their eloquent certainty often lies a deep insecurity about the future. Even at graduation, most liberal arts students are unsure what they really want to do. And if, many years after graduation, you’re still not clear about your direction, you’re not alone.
You may find solace and the advice you need through “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career”, a book which I co-authored with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald. Smart Moves illuminates real career paths through the stories of twenty-three liberal arts graduates from nineteen different schools. Their examples serve as powerful inspiration to anyone who wants to discover a path to career success.
The Smartest Moves to Career Success for Liberal Arts Grads
How do you get from a liberal arts degree to finding work you love? Through the stories of the graduates we interviewed, we discovered five “smartest moves” that were a key factor in everyone’s success: -Figure out who you are and where you want to go -Get experience -Build social and networking relationships -Identify and fill your competence gap -Find your “hook”
Figure out who you are and where you want to go
Easier said than done. And it’s more rare than you might think. In Smart Moves, only Ally identified her passion at an early age. Ironically, she chose a particularly difficult career—actress and director. But the strength of her passion helped her overcome the bumps in her path to success. You can certainly find direction from assessment instruments such as the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. But if you don’t identify an ideal career position through your assessments—and you probably won’t—don’t despair. You’re more likely to find the work you love by starting with smartest move number .
Liberal arts grads can follow just about any career they want to. Unfortunately, the multitude of options can be overwhelming. The solution? Trial runs. It can save time later on if you experience different types of work while you’re still in college. Cara, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, laid the groundwork for her career in marketing by working on the school radio station. Sharon discovered her passion in fashion through internships. Others try on careers by proxy—conducting informational interviews with alumni, parents, friends, or anyone else who will share both smart moves and dumb moves. Luckily, there’s no time limitation on getting experience. If you didn’t explore different career options in college, build time into your schedule to do so now.
Build social and networking relationships
Conventional wisdom says that connections are the best way to find work. But what happens when the career footsteps of family members lead you in an undesirable direction, and you’ve exhausted your external fan base? Don’t balk at talking with people outside your immediate social circle. Sure, you’re most likely to find good connections among the colleagues in your professional association. But you can often find help in the most unlikely places. Ray ultimately found his way to a position as Indiana Jones stunt double through his hair stylist. She didn’t personally know the man who was running the auditions. But she was, in Malcolm Gladwell’s vernacular, a “connector”.
Identify your competence gaps
One of the best ways to get ahead in your career is to look not just one step, but several steps, ahead. Find your ideal job and work backwards. Assess what required skills, abilities and attitudes you already have, and identify the areas in which you need to develop. After seeing a teenage friend die of leukemia, Brad knew he wanted to alleviate unnecessary suffering on a world-wide scale. A lofty goal, indeed. With a degree in biology Brad had a good academic background. But he needed practical experience in a number of areas. Since graduation, Brad has systematically identified and eliminated his competence gaps by working in the pharmaceutical and financial industries, and volunteering in a Foundation that awards funds for health-related projects.
Find your hook
Once you’ve found your ideal position how do you stand out from the crowd? Sometimes simple things will make the difference, like sending handwritten thank you letters immediately after an interview, or researching your interviewer’s background on the Web. Other times, your strategy needs to be a little more creative. All graduates, no matter what their educational background, can benefit from studying the career success of others. But when career direction and the paths to success are less clear, stories take on additional significance. If you’re a liberal arts grad, find stories that have meaning for you. The more you know about the career paths of those you admire, the better able you will be to find your own direction.
First published in BusinessWeek.com
“Career is not what it used to be; it’s much more interesting”
One week into a new term. The message on my voicemail was from a distraught father, claiming that his student son needed intensive career counseling. Returning the call, I inquired, “What year is he?” “Well, actually, he’s a freshman,” replied the father. “In fact he’s still in orientation. But I need your help. You see he’s always loved computer science. He came to Brown because he knows you have a great computer science department. Trouble is, he’s met some wonderful people and now he’s convinced that he should study philosophy instead.” There followed a pause, and then the father said what was really on his mind. “But what can you do with a degree in philosophy?
Actually, you can do just about anything with a liberal arts degree as the stories in this book so vividly attest.
But if you’re like most “millennial” parents, you won’t be satisfied by such vague pronouncements, and maybe not even by statements from Fortune 500 CEOs who say “we love liberal arts graduates.” Wanting the best for your children, you’re eager to know how you can help them make the most of their liberal arts education—while also preparing them to get off the family payroll!
Identifying and happily settling into a career that matches a heartfelt passion isn’t easy for anyone. Think back: how quickly did you identify your own passion? How long thereafter until you brought your career and your passion in synch? Have you yet?
In a recent Duke University survey of its soon-to-graduate seniors, over half claimed that their primary source of career advice after graduation would be their families. But most families are ill-equipped to help with post-graduate career decisions. Your own college or work experiences no longer provide a good enough compass to guide your son or daughter from point A (graduation) to point B (career success). Why? Because in recent years the career landscape has changed dramatically. Choice has exploded, new careers—like “usability specialist” —have been invented, and the Internet has changed everything about the way people look for jobs. Examine the myths in chapter one. Did you think they were true? The reality for today’s liberal arts graduates may be very different from what you expect.
Suzanne Greenwald and I wrote Smart Moves because there’s a black hole of ignorance between graduation and career success. You’ve read in the media what’s “out”: commitment to a single career, a continuous upward financial trajectory, and lifetime employment. You probably even know what’s “in”: managing your career, moving frequently, seizing opportunities. Much less clear is how a liberal arts graduate actually identifies and follows his or her passion. With so much personal happiness riding on this seldom studied but quintessential career imperative, we thought we’d search for answers by looking in depth at the lives of a small but very diverse group of liberal arts graduates.
The stories and voices of these twenty-three graduates fill most of this book. Their lessons are not prescriptive, and don’t come with a money-back guarantee. We can’t tell you a fail-safe formula to conjure up career readiness or a six-figure salary. There isn’t one. So much depends on interests, talent, personality—and luck. But the collective smart moves of our graduates, which we’ve gathered into seven career lessons, do provide a framework for success. As you consider career realities in the twenty-first century, you may be surprised to learn that: •Major doesn’t equal career. •Graduate or professional school may not be the best choice immediately after graduation – if ever. •Your son will probably not get his first job through on-campus recruiting, but he may still benefit greatly from career office resources. •Internships may prove more valuable than a second major, or summer school—and often the most valuable internships are unenjoyable ones. •What happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside. •The best first job after graduation doesn’t have to be the most prestigious, or the most lucrative; ditto the second job and the third. •There truly is a career value to a liberal arts education.
The final chapters of Smart Moves are devoted to stories from some of the most interesting liberal arts graduates you’ll ever meet. Liz, an American studies and art history major, is now the cheese buyer at one of America’s most celebrated cheese shops. Theresa, a philosophy majors, runs her own small non-profit, providing technical support to other non-profits that can’t otherwise afford it. Brad is a human biology major, who’s combining his work in finance with his interest in third world health issues.
If you’re looking for a quick rundown on which colleges and universities our graduates hail from, what undergraduate majors they pursued, and their current position, just turn to the story chart at the back of the book. Perhaps we’ve profiled someone from the college or university that you attended.
And speaking of you, perhaps now, a generation out of college, you’ll discover this book helpful to you as well as your children. We strongly believe that you’re never too old to learn – or to change jobs. You may not be able to go back and re-live your college years, doing everything right this time around. But there are plenty of tips and insight in these stories to inspire you to action—whether you’re contemplating a mid-life job or career change, or battling a full-blown mid-life crisis
Perhaps you intend to give Smart Moves to a son or daughter in need of career direction. Or, you may discover like me, that your wonderfully smart and charming second son has no intention of reading this or any such book until after he’s made his post-graduate career mistakes. If that’s the case, recognize that the best you can probably do for now is to ask the right questions and steer him in the appropriate direction for advice, support and knowledge.
Career planning is like learning to walk and talk. Everyone does it in his or her own time. Those who walk first don’t necessarily grow up to be dancers and sprinters. And those who talk late–well, some of them grow up to be actors and newscasters and virtuoso mezzo-sopranos. Read Smart Moves for your sons and daughters and read it for yourself. There’s enough inspiration to go around.