It’s February 1st. My senior thesis is due in two weeks, applications for college funding are due in three, and businesses will stop searching for summer interns at the end of the month. I’ve got a lot on my plate if I want to do well with any of these intentions, let alone all three. As I’ve been working on my resumé and cover letters, I’ve had to ask myself the following questions, and I suggest you do the same.
What am I better at now than when I was a freshman? What am I great at?
There is no doubt that you’ve been changed by all that you’ve done in college. Of course you are a different person, but are you a better, more competent person? What can you do now that you couldn’t before? What have you made significant improvement in? Really try to articulate some answers to yourself, as if you had to write it on your resumé. Because you will have to write these things on your resumé. “Proficient at research and analysis” and “group communication” isn’t going to cut it. Neither is “the ability to read and interpret difficult texts.” Sorry, but these are simply too vague.
We’re in a brand new phase of life. Perhaps you’ve just arrived at college, or perhaps you’re just about to leave. Either way, and even if you’re somewhere in the middle, post-graduate life looms on the horizon. Realizing the difficulty of articulating your liberal arts education now will instantly improve your chances of success once you leave.
We’ve all heard that it’s becoming harder and harder to find jobs after graduation, we’ve heard the stories of graduates who move back home for years before finding an opportunity. The unemployment rates for recent graduates in Philosophy, Literature are all between 9.5-10%. That’s us. But as a whole, nearly half of twenty-somethings with bachelors degrees have no job. We’re part of a huge pool of students and graduates whose futures are looking dim. Don’t let yourself become part of those numbers, because you easily could. Getting ahead just takes a little common sense.
The pleasures of unrestricted contemplation are alluring.
Liberal arts colleges are often valued for promoting education for its own sake. Most of us believe in that, or did. Personally, though I’ve thought of leaving school at times, I wouldn’t have chosen any other degree. Learning for its own sake is a wonderful thing and it’s a huge privilege to be able pursue this fundamental desire for knowledge. But, given that most of us are only in our early twenties, there is a long life ahead of us in which we’ll have to find a way to support ourselves.
If your intention is to spend the rest of your life in academia, stop reading now. This article is not for you. If, on the other hand, you do want to go into the world to find work, but often find yourself thinking “What will I do?” then keep reading.
If you think you should have stopped reading, but didn’t, then be warned: I’m going to say something that might offend you. Life in academia is a passive existence. You’ll do and learn hard things in grad school, of course, but that’s not the point. Unless you know that a graduate degree will open up opportunities for you (only 30-50% of college faculty receive tenure), what you’re really doing is accumulating potential. It feels good to grow like this: “With all that I’m learning, I could do anything!” But to what end? You’ll become a a huge database of knowledge, but one that is only accessed in order to write articles that largely go unread. You’ll be living in your head rather than in the world.
In order to engage with the world you’ll have to start acting more than thinking. But this is hard; the company of your own thoughts is so comfortable. You’ve got intellectual inertia. But don’t use the ivory tower as a way to escape the practical, but seemingly shallow demands of life outside of academia.
Passions will develop once you commit to mastery.
The inability to commit to one career direction is what’s really holding you back from making use of that potential. By not accepting any direction, you aren’t letting yourself take any of the small steps necessary to becoming extraordinary. You are reveling in the fact that you could potentially do anything and be great at it, but there’s a difference between being potentially great and being actually great. If you don’t pick something to commit to, you’ll never succeed in anything. You’re probably hesitant to make any move because you think you’ll become trapped by such a definite choice, but that’s backwards thinking. Once you choose you’ll allow yourself to become passionate and talented, and with those come opportunity.
A lot of you probably think you’re learning a lot of important skills just by being here at school. As if, by osmosis, you’ll graduate and realize that you’re a really great writer, researcher and conversationalist. But are you really? Have you actually put effort into developing these skills? Or, have you only just gotten good enough to get by in classes. College seminars are the only place where you won’t have to earn the right to be listened to. Will you be able to engage the world outside of college? Assuming of course, that you’d rather not work in retail or become a barista, what skills will you claim mastery over when you begin applying for jobs? In what way will you claim to be valuable to an employer?
Let me tell you this: unless you’ve been working while you’ve been in school, you have no skills that will help you land a job. You’re smart, of course, but you’re useless. No business is looking for a resident contemplator.
If you want to be able to get your foot in the door of your dream career, you’d better start working on those skills. College doesn’t demand of you the skills that will be necessary to excel or even be competent in the workplace. You need to reverse engineer the skill-set required by your career path. You need to research and learn the skills that at least make you valuable on the entry-level. Only if you are competent in the most basic of their work can mentors begin teaching you about what they really do. You might not have those skills now, but I know you are smart enough to learn them quickly once you try. So, put in the effort to master something useful while you’re here.
- Writing: You could focus on your writing: read books about writing, grammar, and rhetoric; start your papers weeks in advance and work on them everyday; write even when you don’t have a paper due by starting a blog, writing for a school newspaper, or any platform on which you can write consistently. Edit yourself, visit the writing assistants, and ask mentors for criticism.
- Language: Become amazing at reading and translating a foreign language. Get so good that you could offer your services as a tutor or translator.
- Analysis: What about reading? We read so much, and with such high standards of comprehension, but no one gives us a clue as to how to go about it. This won’t always work, but pretend like you’re analyzing data. Become a rigorous and methodical reader, then express your comprehension in essays and seminar. Check out Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book for ideas.
- Programming: Put some time into learning how to use basic computer programs like Excel, Powerpoint, and Word. Learn how to set-up and maintain a WordPress blog. Get online and take a free course to learn a computer programming language, like Java, Python, or Ruby. While you’re in college these will be extracurricular, but computer literacy is absolutely necessary once you graduate.
Maybe you think you need to align your career with your passion, and none of the above excites you. But consider this: passions fade. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport argues that seeking fulfillment in our passions will only lead to confusion and disappointment. Instead of looking for work according to your current passion, realize that the passion and pleasure that you feel for any activity grows along with your proficiency at it. It hardly even matters what you choose, as long as you commit, you’ll become great and your enthusiasm will follow. Just pick something.
Getting a good job probably seems like a huge task. You’re right, it is a huge achievement, but the process that is necessary to get the job doesn’t need to be a big deal. Just take small steps, accomplish little victories, and always work on getting better. Don’t fall into the trap of just getting by. Make ambition a part a part of your nature and you’ll soon be rid of uncertainty and self-doubt. Just remember, skills are more valuable than knowledge. Put the following four suggestions into practice and you’ll be golden.
- Think in terms of your resume. How can you make it compelling? Difficult and specialized skills, major achievements, relevant experiences.
- Read entry-level job requirements for positions in a field that intrigues you. Learn the skills they need in their employees.
- Apply for one dream job every month. Don’t worry if you don’t get it; figure out why you didn’t, then try again.
- Get an internship every summer. Figure out who the most valuable employee is, then study and imitate them.
It’s a difficult task to convey the definite value of our education. But, if you start now and begin to take serious accountability of what you’re learning and how you’re improving, you won’t have to convince anyone that your education makes you a valuable candidate. Your skills and confidence will speak for themselves.