Liberal arts and jobs: It is not an either/or situation

I’d like to put my position up front: there is NO schism between liberal arts education and jobs. None. So, when you hear the President of the United States, many governors, policy wonks, talking heads and Peter Thiel say that Liberal Arts are not a good career investment (although to be fair, Thiel argues against college entirely, not just Liberal Arts), they are misguided.

There is an irony in most of these statements, because many of those making them actually *have* Liberal Arts degrees. But, I’d like to argue that there’s more to it than irony and short-sightedness. It may not be explicit, but it is present.

I think there’s classism involved.

Remember our context — we live in a time where college degrees are still quite rare (the Census Bureau says we crossed over the 30% mark only in the past few years). But, even that low-ish number is still greatly expanded over even 20 years ago. And if you’ve studied your Pierre Bourdieu, you know the theory of education being a place that passes on social capital.

While I agree that college tuition costs are increasing rapidly and current costs for some institutions are too high, it seems to me that at least some of the argument we are hearing for “practical majors” is rooted in the idea that perhaps only the wealthy should be able to study humanities, arts and culture. Are these not things for the well-to-do? Shouldn’t the working class be studying something that just simply puts them to work?

No, of course not. And that’s why the irony of so many of these folks arguing for more “jobs ROI” from our colleges and universities, while simultaneously wielding power AND holding a Liberal Arts education, seems so thick.

To my opening point, there is no schism between Liberal Arts education and obtaining a first job or a successful professional life. I’m paraphrasing John Dewey (perhaps poorly) when I say it, but I do believe that an occupation is not the purpose of higher education, but it is a logical outcome. As a career center director, I know first hand that those with Liberal Arts degrees can have both short-term and long-term career success, while also studying arts, culture and humanities. I see it all the time (and the AAUC noted in a recent study that Liberal Arts majors actually make more than those from professional programs during their peak earning years).

We do not need to spend more time steering students into so-called “practical majors.” Students need to pursue academic areas that intrigue them and in which they can do good, hard academic work. We do need to spend more time helping students find contexts to which they can apply their Liberal Arts skills.

Yes, we know that the philosophy major is not going to find an organization to pay him or her to sit around and just think deeply. But, that’s a straw man argument. There are plenty of organizations who would like a student who can critically analyze situations; who can see varying perspectives; and who can write competently. Problem solved, philosophy student. Let’s take those highly desired skills and find a good fit for you!

Our challenge is to have our students tackle these post-college questions earlier. We need to make this a core expectation of the college experience from semester one. Students should not skip over the very important steps of academic exploration. However, they need to undertake this exploration in parallel with examination of potential industries and functional areas of interest. When done together, students have the agency to set a positive academic AND career trajectory for themselves.


Searching for an internship vs. securing an internship

Although it’s not as simple of a dichotomy as this blog post title would imply, I posit that most college students are putting their effort into the former more so than the latter.  Here’s my visual interpretation of how most college students view their internship search:

Search for postings > drop resume > wait > hope for interview

When in fact, the search probably needs to look more like this:

Meet people + have conversations > meet more people > have more conversations > explore for opportunities > circulate resume> do some informational interviews > search for postings > drop resume > meet more people > circulate resume > have more conversations > do more informational interviews….

Students understand the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  They use it to me all the time when I ask them if they understand the importance of networking.  But, where I think many fall short is that it’s not really who you know.  It’s a combination of “who knows you” and “do they know what you’re looking for,” and “will they help you” thrown in for good measure. In a competitive environment, it’s not as simple as finding the right opportunities.  It’s really about maximizing your effort to secure those opportunities, and this is the where the majority of my students fall short.

I understand students are busy.  But, I also know the student who dedicates sincere and consistent energy beyond simply dropping resumes will secure an internship 100 times more frequently than one who only drops resumes.  It’s hard work finding work!  But, energy contributed equals results.  So, my advice to students is this:  be active. As I type this I realize this is all common sense stuff.  But, I can’t begin to count the number of times I ask a student what they’ve done thus far, and the answer is almost always the same:  I’ve submitted my resume to a few places.

I’m here to 100% support and encourage and teach and assist.  But, If you want  that ideal summer internship, prove it to me and go get it!

Online presence vs. personal branding

I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this blog post.  But, I did want to get the idea out into the open.  I’ve been developing a presentation for a conference next month on personal branding for career counselors.  But, as I’ve dug into the content of my presentation,  I’ve developed a few thoughts that have potentially influenced my approach to the subject in everyday use at work with students:

1.  There is a distinction between having a “personal brand” and having an “online presence” (fairly obvious).

2.  While anyone can potentially do either of these effectively, explaining “online presence” to skeptics is easier than “personal branding.”  That is to say, those resistant to the concept of branding an individual can still get behind the value of an online presence.

3.  College students can easily grasp the concept of having an “online presence,” where they have a harder time grasping what their own “personal brand” might look like.

4.  College students can reap many benefits from an “online presence” whether or not that presence is fully branded.

5.  I think I’m going to shift my approach to educating students about these concepts to treat the development of an “online presence” as the baseline and the “personal brand” as a next-step for the more-advanced user.

I know that personal brand advocates will disagree with some of this (esp. #5).  But, this represents my current line of thinking.  Any feedback?

Introversion in student affairs

I had a conversation recently with our graduate intern about life as an introvert career counselor.  He’s just starting his life as an introvert in the world of student affairs, and our conversation lead me to reflection of the earlier years of my professional life.

I told him to be aware and be intentional in his consideration of how his introversion is or is not an issue as he learns to navigate his professional life.  When I first transitioned from registrar-type work into my first counseling role it took me a while to understand my introversion in that generally-extroverted context.  In fact I think for about the two years I did a horrible job of balancing my needs as an introvert and the demands of the work.

As an academic counselor in a setting with ludicrously high advising ratios (try 5500 students to 4.5 counselors!), there was no down time, no time to re-energize, no time to contemplate or rejuvenate.  There was only go, go, go.  Next student, next student – typically 10 per day, in half-hour increments.  My evenings became more solitary.  My outlook, considerably more grumpy.

It took me years to understand why I was (and am) more productive in the morning than in the afternoon; why many of my ideas wouldn’t be pursued because they didn’t feel fully formulated until after the brainstorming session had ended; and why I preferred not to go out to lunch with my colleagues each day.

Now, not every student affairs position will demand this hyper level of interaction and outward-facing energy.  But, they all will have varying degrees of the same, and I believe that even for lower traffic student affairs offices there is a relatively steep on-ramp for the new introverted professional.

New professionals need to understand that these things are okay, while simultaneously learning that being in student affairs sometimes means putting on your “extrovert mask,” even when it doesn’t feel natural (it becomes entirely comfortable for me over time, I’m happy to report).  Here are a few other tips and thoughts for the introverted new student affairs professional:

  • Don’t feel guilty about needing time to yourself.  If that means foregoing lunch with colleagues or occasionally skipping out on that office social, do it.  But of course, you must strike a balance to make sure that you don’t accidentally develop a curmudgeon label.
  • If you know the subject of a particular meeting, make notes and write down some of your thoughts ahead of time. It may help you to feel like you can participate more actively, having thought through the issues ahead of time.
  • Find the ways that are most accommodating for you to “become” an extrovert when it is needed.  Some skills like public speaking or working a room may not be natural, but you need to make them become comfortable. So, practice, practice, practice (then sit quietly for a while!)

As a profession, and indeed as a culture, we tend to prefer extroverts.   Extroverts often make more-immediate impressions and many qualities associated with extroversion are thought of as positive in the workplace.  But, our students are represented across the introversion/extroversion spectrum, as should be our student affairs professionals who will work with them.

Fellow introverts, I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives.

Gary Alan Miller

Cross posted on The Student Affairs Collaborative Blog

The upshot of “teens don’t use twitter”

Update 8/28 at 11:45am:  I’ve just been given some stats by UNC professor Dr. Joe Bob Hester (@jbhester) that entirely undermines the argument that teens and college students aren’t on twitter.  Very timely, as the stats were just posted today!   So, read on if you’d like.  But, these statistics do shade the entire conversation.

It would be most interesting to see these stats broken down by age group.  Perhaps it’s not that Twitter account holders are older (clearly they’re not), but perhaps it’s that those who are most active in the space are older?


I keep hearing comments and reading anecdotes and studies about how teens don’t use Twitter.  And often these arguments are used in a way that suggests that Twitter’s value is bound up in its use by teens.  But, from where I sit, it doesn’t trouble me that teens and college students are not currently using Twitter.  Whether or not they are currently using Twitter is only my concern in as much as it means I need to do more among my own population of students to help them get there.

It doesn’t matter to me if a college student doesn’t want to connect with his or her friends on Twitter.  I hear them all the time — that’s what Facebook is for.  And they’re totally correct in that regard.  But, the value for the college student is exactly in interacting with people that you don’t yet know, and if those folks happen to be a little older and already into their profession, then that’s even BETTER for them.  That’s the missing link for most of the students I work with.

For some reason, those fretting and debating that it’s mostly 30- and 40-somethings on Twitter don’t seem to recognize this.  I hypothesize that it’s because many of them see these teens not as students to educate, but rather as a market to capitalize upon.

But, my goal is to help college students connect with professionals in their fields of choice.  So, my challenge is to help students find the value on Twitter, and it’s clear to me that right now many are missing out.  I did a training earlier in the week for our “career peers” on personal branding and social media.  When Twitter was brought up, several sighed in exasperation.  But, it’s because they only view Twitter as an overblown Facebook status update.  When they’re shown how it really can work, the light bulb turns on.

So, those of you working with students, don’t be concerned if you read that they aren’t on Twitter yet.  For their own professional development it can be useful if they are, and your challenge is to help them understand why and how.

Students: It’s your career, OWN IT!

I gave a talk to a large group of newly minted BSBA students this morning, and my message to them was “OWN IT.” I’m using all caps on purpose here, because my talk to them was a tad bit over the top with volume and energy. But, even if the delivery was a bit over the top and potentially hokey to the jaded among them, the message is true.

Being admitted to a competitive program like Kenan-Flagler’s BSBA program is a tribute to their accomplishments. But, it’s really the start of the race, not the end. Two students could be starting the program at the same time, but if one of them commits to taking advantage of every opportunity and really owning their activities, that individual will be leap years ahead of the other when it comes time to apply for jobs and internships.

I asked the group of roughly 300 who was willing right now to commit to contacting one professional in their field of interest each week for the entire fall semester. Fewer than 10 students out of the 300 raised their hand. Now some of that might have been reluctance to engage with the loud guy at the front of the room. But, hopefully quite a few more than that are willing to take control of their education and really make it their experience.

Barbara De Angelis, a researcher on personal relationships, says, “When you make a commitment to a relationship, you invest your attention and energy in it more profoundly because you now experience ownership of that relationship.” The same can be true of your approach to career and educational activities. OWN IT!

Back to school commitments

As the fall semester draws nearer, I wanted to throw out some considerations for students.  I always talk about maximizing one’s summer experiences.  But, maybe it’s time to talk about also maximizing one’s academic year, as well.  Take these steps, and I can guarantee both your educational experience and your career will be better for it.

  • Commit to making five new professional contacts this fall.
  • Go to faculty office hours just to have conversations and get to know your profs.
  • If you haven’t gone to your career services office, set up an initial meeting.
  • Pay attention to when companies are coming onto campus and reach out to them.
  • Tap into your university’s alumni and learn about what they studied and are doing now.
  • Really consider how your coursework matters to you — new perspective, new way of thinking, new content, etc.

The main point is this:  take control of your education and your career.  Too many students assume that simply  being there is enough.  So, while Woody Allen might have said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” the other 20 percent is really important.  Take control.  Be actively and engaged.

Career coach “buyer’s guide”

In this tough economy there is a feeling that every advantage can help with the job search, and that is generally true.  But, I want to outline a few things you should consider before making a commitment to purchase services from a career coach.

First a global statement:  Caveat emptor — Buyer beware.  Most career coaches are trustworthy professionals.  But, anytime there is a market, there are people who want to take advantage of that market. Be sure that you’re buying quality service, not overnight folks looking to make a buck.  Here are some other considerations and questions to ask:

1.  What makes the person qualified to coach you?   Although certifications are important, look beyond the letters that follow their name and consider their past experience.  Analyze how that experience will be useful to you.  Did the person work as an HR recruiter for 15 years before becoming a coach, or did the person graduate from college two or three years ago? Which is more appropriate for you?

2.  How long has the person been a career coach?  Although there isn’t a direct correlation to quality and length of operation, consider how much experience as a coach they bring to your interaction.  While everyone has to start somewhere, make sure you are not the proverbial guinea pig.

3.  How many clients have they served who are in a similar situation as you?  If you are a new college graduate and the coach has only worked with mid-managers, or if you are an executive and they have historically served less-seasoned clients, will they be the best fit for you?  Maybe, maybe not. But explore it deeply.

4.  Will the coach give you the names of recent similar clients to whom you can speak directly?  Printed references are valuable and you should ask for them.  But, you should also ask to speak directly to other clients whenever possible.

5.  Are you paying for services that are available to you free in other places?  Career coaches can be valuable investments, but analyze what you are purchasing and compare that to services you can get for free in other places (perhaps your university’s career center, your local library or other volunteer professionals).  You may still decide to hire a great career coach, but explore options first.

Final note:  The fact that someone is high profile does not make them automatically worthy of your time or money.  Most coaches are entirely professional and can help their clients in a variety of ways.  But, the prevalence of social media has emboldened some less-experienced individuals to call themselves experts or gurus and market their services to folks who are desperate for every advantage.

So, again, caveat emptor.  Do your due diligence and be a smart consumer!

Gary Alan Miller

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