Saturday, November 15, 2014

What are You Going to Do with That?

Dear Anthropology Students and Liberal Artsy-Folks of all Kinds,

Thanksgiving break is coming. For many of you, this means a delightful feast of turkey, prayers of thanksgiving shared around the table, and an unending, and seemingly incomprehensible conversation that goes like this:

Aunt Hilda: Anthropology? Is that dinosaurs?
Student: No, that would be paleontology. "Anthro" means people, so ANTHROpology is..
AH:  Do you go on digs?
S: No, that's "archaeology," which is part of anthro…
AH: [Now with conspicuous side-eye to the foolish parents who allowed such a major] So what are you going to DO with that?

There is it.

"What are you going to do with that?"  Bring on the McDonald's-themed "Do you want fries with that?" liberal arts jokes.  Commence sad head shakes and worried adults-who-know-the-world expressions. No, I'm not going to be a college professor.  No, I don't have a business minor to "fall back on."  Yes, the job market is scary but not because I'm majoring in anthropology; it's because wealth inequalities have ruined the economy and limit opportunities in the middle class. [OK, leave out that last one unless you want a Thanksgiving food fight to break out with your uncle passing out the pumpkin pie.]

There are a lot of ways to answer this question about what you're going to do with your liberal arts education.  Good, thoughtful answers about the relevance of liberal arts skills to the wider job market.  Good responses based on the sorts of things anthropology majors learn to do and ways they learn to think that allow them to address the most commonly sought-after abilities named by employers.

But let's be honest: you rarely get to these thoughtful discussions. Most people - people who love you and just want to know you won't be living in a van down by the river - want to know what job you are being groomed to land in that month following graduation.

The problem is most of you don't know what job you want yet, and, unless you're a second-semester senior, you haven't thought too much about it. (For the record, you should start thinking a bit more specifically now. Come by my office hours. We'll talk.)

So given that you don't have your ten year plan worked out yet, here's the answer I recommend. When Aunt Hilda asks "What are you going to DO with that?", you get a kind of wistful look on your face and say, "I haven't decided yet.  There are so many options that I'm still trying to narrow down the choices."

Because it's true. You just haven't decided yet.

It's hard to pick a job if you're not actually in the job market.   What I have heard from many students - anthropology majors, biology majors, piano performance majors - is that their first job or two reveals a lot of things they couldn't see this side of graduation. They figured out how importance geography was.  Others discovered how much schedule, flexibility, or camaraderie meant in their job. Still others figured out what they needed (or didn't need) in a salary (see "geography" above). All these are very difficult criteria to measure out before actually having a full-time job and living life on your own.

So what should you be doing now before you get those first few jobs?

Talk to people with jobs. Network with alumni, parents' friends, friends' parents' friends, and anyone else living on their own with a job. Do an internship to see some work-a-day life in person (but don't expect that this is really like having a full-time job.) Study abroad in a way that helps you experience life as a grown-up-type person.  If you're in college now, take advantage of the mock interviews, job fairs, and career center activities early in your time in college to help you visualize various possibilities. Recognize that this won't always provide clarity - it might muddy the waters - but it will help you discover options out there.

What are the options for an anthropology major? Pretty much the same as the history major, English major, biology major, and international relations major.  You're going to figure out what is important to you in your work life, and you're going to work towards a job that meets those criteria. You'll likely need further education; most careers today have built in limits if you don't have a master's degree, or professional credential of some sort. You'll change jobs. Perhaps a lot. Some jobs will satisfy few of your criteria, but you'll gain skills and contacts that move you further along. Most of all, you'll make decisions about what you're good at, what you love, where you want to live, how important proximity to family is, and which opportunities you should take.

So, what are you going to do with that?

You're going to make some decisions.

But not just yet. Please pass the potatoes, Aunt Hilda. We're hungry.


Chris Armstrong said...

Delighted to see your reflection on vocation here - amen and amen to this good advice.

Renee Carl said...

What is this cultural anthropology major doing today and how did I get here in 30 words or less? I can't do the 30 words or less part, but I can say all the different careers I've had - wedding photographer, educator, PR, lobbyist - and now, genealogist, ALL rely on the skills I learned as a liberal arts student. Solid writing, careful analysis and observing and adapting to my environment. In my present career iteration, thinking about how people acted and how people and communities interacted helps me to solve family mysteries and write their histories.

Brian Howell said...

Thanks Renee! OK, I'm flexible on the 30 words. :-) That's excellent! I love telling my students some of the directions people have gone.