Apparently not much has changed, regarding certain kinds of college education, since colonial times. I have been job-hunting, off and on, for the last few days, and it has just driven home this point: my liberal arts education is very nearly useless. Why did I not listen to the voice in my head that said this, back when I was 17 and just entering college?
Those of you who are parents, or who ever plan to be, please, please listen to me: do not tell your children "study what you love." Tell them to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, and then tell them to study whatever it takes to become that. Way too many of us studied something that sounded interesting at the time, and in fact was interesting. But useful? Hardly.
I have an M.A. in Linguistics. I do not know what I'm supposed to do with that. Nobody told me, except to suggest that it would be a good stepping stone towards a Ph.D. in Linguistics. And when you have one of those, you...teach Linguistics in college. Ah, the vicious cycle. Yes, the subject was interesting, definitely. But what do I do now?
I didn't take the route that would have allowed me to teach English as a second language, which is one of the only practical applications, and I wasn't really interested in that anyway. Two more years and another Master's degree could earn me certification in Speech and Hearing Pathology, but I wouldn't have really needed the Linguistics for that. I should have taken computer programming, is what I should have done. Then I could find work as a computational linguist. There aren't many such jobs, but at least they exist. Hell, programming could get me a job practically anywhere. However, as it stands, I do not know Perl, I do not know C++, I do not know Java, I do not even know Prolog or the stupid little functions you can enter in Microsoft Office. I haven't done programming since "10 print '!', 20 run" on that Radio Shack computer from 1983.
And why didn't I take computer science, one of those six years I was either an undergrad or a graduate student? Because I figured what I was studying was enough to keep me busy. I figured, blithely, something would come up when it was time to find a job.
Sure, something will come up. Most likely it will be something with "assistant" in the title, and will require extensive use of a photocopier and a stapler. Good thing I'm so highly educated, or I might not be able to solve those paper jams!
It was so stupid of me. So stupid. Parents, please, take your children aside when they're 10, 12, 15, 18. Find out what they're good at in school; ask them if they would want to do that for the rest of their lives, or at least a good portion of their lives. Good at chemistry? Think you'd be interested in lab work? Good! There are plenty of labs out there. Pays pretty well, too! Like your debate team? Think you might be interested in law school? Great! Pays even better!
But the liberal arts? For those of us who don't want to end up right back in academics, where do we go? Sure, if you chose journalism you're all right – there's an actual industry for that. But let's take a sampling of people I've talked to who have graduated with other liberal arts degrees:
"I majored in History. What was I supposed to do with that?"
"I majored in Russian. (long pause) Yep."
"I majored in Theater, then realized I couldn't find any work."
"I majored in Anthropology, but as I didn't want to dig in the dirt, or sit in third-world countries and record what the people were doing, I had no use for it."
(That last one is mine; Anthro was my undergrad degree.)
Basically: if you're interested in a subject, but you can't think what people actually do with it in the real world, then how about contenting yourself with reading a book about it? Make it a hobby, if you like. But, for the love of heaven, choose a major based on marketability, unless you want to join the ranks of the bitter, overeducated, and practically useless people like me, who have learned to be really good with file folders and post-it notes and have wondered what became of our dreams to be worshipped as gods of knowledge.
Oh, but wait!, I say to myself. Ever since I was about 11, I did know what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. And, lo and behold, I am a writer, at least in the sense that I write stories sometimes, and even have one published as an ebook, and am good at spelling and punctuation and grammar (though, technically, that part just makes me a proofreader). Assuming I keep writing, which I almost certainly will, and assuming the world sits up and takes a little more notice as the years go by, which I hope it will, then won't that be enough? Even though the royalties will not pay the bills (they usually don't, unless you're Stephen King or J.K. Rowling) and therefore even though I will still need a day job, won't the identity of writer be enough to sustain me? And, therefore, won't I be able to say that my day job identity doesn't matter? Can I be happy being X Assistant, making 28 grand a year with a comfy benefits package, merely because of the occasional piece of fan mail awaiting me at home, or the occasional review saying "Molly J. Ringle is a delightful storyteller"?
A lot of the time, I think so. I think that would be enough. But then part of me always has to doubt it: "Yeah, but...wouldn't it be nice, at least, if your day job had something to do with your actual interests and talents?"
Which brings us back to the problem: what talents? Writing? I don't think I want to teach writing; I'm not sure I want to teach at all, or at least not for my entire career. Academia is one screwed-up place; ask any sane person who's worked in it recently. You'd think, perhaps, that writing skills and knowledge of how language works would be a great boon to several industries. But then you'd find it hard to come up with an actual example of one, if I asked you to. I went to an employment agency yesterday and patiently explained my background, education, skills, and interests, and they – they whose job it is to find work for people based on their talents – seemed to be at a loss to come up with the kind of thing I'm ideally suited for. They'd certainly look, and give me a call, they said, but they weren't sure they could find anything that would really exercise my creativity – even after I said I didn't care what industry it was in. I was trying to help by being open to several possibilities, but they still weren't sure.
So. Convinced yet, parents and current students? When it comes time to choose a major, remember the story of poor LemonLye and choose wisely. Or else settle for being That Secretary Who Also Writes Novels/Plays In A Band/Paints Pictures/Does Civil War Reenactments.
P.S. My day definitely was brightened yesterday, however, when I came home, checked LJ, and found it all a-flurry with news of that RotK trailer. I downloaded it from some site in Europe, and I have to say: Sah-weeeeet! I'm a dedicated Frodo/Sam fan, but the Merry/Pippin stuff in that was just gorgeous and heartbreaking. And the winged Nazgul descending upon Minas Tirith was awesome enough to give me goosebumps in 90-degree weather. Ah, New Line and PJ, thank you; my faith is restored. Writer and fangirl: my identity. Yes, it's enough for now.