The Most Useless Job Advice in the World
“If you can imagine doing anything else but X, do it.” or “Don’t do X unless……”
I have heard this piece of advice numerous times and for numerous careers and options. X in these statements has been lawyer and law school, graduate school, be any kind of artist, an intellectual/academic, etc. Maybe there are also people who talk about it for engineering, the sciences, and business, but I have not heard that.
I am probably being too harsh when I call this the most useless job advice in the world. All these careers are hard or have always been hard to break into or have suffered serious set backs in the past few years of massive oversupply as compared to demand. Law went from being the fail safe of many liberal arts students to being disrupted by computers that can scan through evidence faster than any human ever code and find great evidence using predictive coding software. Law now revolves around a lot of contingent and contract labor like academia. Being an artist was always tough and likely a hand and mouth existence for all but the very lucky or those born into a large amount of wealth and privilege.
I also don’t get the idea of why grad school is supposed to be the psychologically traumatic and permanently damaging horror that everyone says it is. I did not love every experience in grad school but for three years most of my life was spent studying, talking about, and doing theatre and that was pretty damn cool. No one ever paid me to do theatre full time. Even law school was not the cringe inducing trauma that people made it out to be. There is also the possibility that an MFA in theatre is the grad school equivalent of summer camp.
The advice is still rather useless to the point of being smug and condescending for the following reasons.
1. It does not tell young people what they should do instead. If you told me at 18 that my chances of becoming a professional theatre director were slim to none and how many artists live a destitute and hand in mouth existence, I might have paused at becoming a drama major. This does not mean I would have switched from going to a small liberal arts college (SALC) with no business program to a large state university and majoring in STEM or Business though. There is a kind of student I call “the somewhat impractical student.” These are people who really like school and learning but know deep down that the chances of themselves of being an artist or academic are not very realistic or they decide living in a particular area is more important than becoming an acadmeic. My uncle did his All But Dissertation because he decided living in the Bay Area was more important than being a professor at the University of Whereever You Are Hired.
I made a similar choice in choosing against academia or getting a PhD. However, this would not have made me anymore likely to be a business major at 18 and my intellectual capacity is not STEM-based. I probably would have ended up as a lit or history major instead. I imagine many students are in this boat. In my mind it is these people who should go to college instead of business majors. Business is something you can teach as an apprenticeship. I still marvel at the over-whelming practicality of people I meet at networking events in the city. So many people who just went to large state U and majored in business or engineering for utilitarian reasons. To be fair, they marvel when I say I was a drama major. The marvel often manifests as “Your parents let you major in drama,” and/or “Your parents let you go to a SALC without engineering or business majors.”
I was 28 when I discovered that I could do something besides theatre for a living or became realistic enough to give up on theatre. There were times before then that I tried to break into other careers. I spent just as much time in my 20s looking for entry level jobs in advertising, publishing, journalism, and other fields without much success.
2. For better or for worse, I am a romantic who believes that is a sign of a civilized and wealthy society that thinks it is perfectly normal and acceptable for young people to study something of relatively economic value in a strictly utilitarian sense. I don’t see why English majors are less desirable to companies than someone who majored in Marketing. I also come from a family where I was expected to get an advanced degree in a subject because my parents both think it is very important to show formal academic mastery of a subject. Not necessarily at the PhD level but at least at the Masters level. When I’ve told people that I was expected to go to graduate school, I’ve received comments that this is among the worst things they have ever heard a parent expect of a child.
President Obama recently caught flack for joking that students would be better off studying plumbing or another trade instead of majoring in art history. He is correct on strictly economic terms but the kid who would major in art history was shaped by forces long before college into choosing art history over a trade. They were probably the children of a college-educated couple and was taken to museums and other art events as a child. He or she was also probably always really good at school and probably grew up in a college bound track or told that they would go to school. Is there a way to encourage a love and study of art while also gently encouraging the same person to a trade? Is there a way to get a bookish type to reconsider college and go into a trade instead? There are plenty or many tradesmen who love to read and are into art but I can’t think of an educational system that has done so or taken the children of college educated people and turned them into tradespeople.
I don’t doubt that universities have been producing more PhDs than necessary for demand for decades. We also seem to produce more law students than necessary for demand. I have also heard people question whether there really is a STEM shortage or raise the point that STEM desirability move in cycles. Computer science and petroleum fields might be hot now but might not be hot in a decade or two or less. There is a part of me that thinks with 300 million people in the US, we might have more supply than there is for jobs over all.
It is unconscionable to ask someone to go into significant debt for just the chance of a middle-class life. Yet we would probably have a revolt if you told all the parents college-aged kids that only X percent of their kids would need a college education for a career and we still have no idea what to do with the huge amount of kids who are really good at school but not geared towards STEM or business, and not suited for academia either or able to join academia because of a lack of demand. What do we do with these kids?