Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Advice to PhDs in the Humanities

Last week I was invited by the Career Services office at Rutgers University to be part of a panel speaking to humanities PhD candidates about careers outside of academia. I was at the receiving end of a similar panel discussion many years ago, when my PhD degree was new, so I was happy to pay back the debt I owed. I’ll give you the gist of what I said last week.

Your career will change many times during your working lifetime, and you will find ways to pursue interests you don’t expect to pursue. You also will find the need to develop new abilities and use abilities you don’t realize you have. But your immediate need is to find a job that matches the interests and abilities that you can identify now. You should start by clarifying these interests and abilities.

The panelists I listened to when I was a new PhD referred to a career-development book that helped me but that now is definitely showing its age. I’d rather you buy my books, but I’ll explain to you what specific career-development exercise in that book helped me. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. In the leftmost column, write the names of some jobs you have held or work-relevant accomplishments. In my case, I had done some college teaching and had written my dissertation. In the middle column, write the major tasks that you did in these jobs. Regarding the dissertation, I mentioned settling on a topic, identifying research resources, taking notes on research, organizing the notes, organizing what I wanted to write, and so forth. In the rightmost column, identify the skills you used to accomplish these tasks. Then notice which skills turn up most often and decide which you enjoyed using most. That should point toward your goals for your next job.

In my case, I realized for the first time that teaching did not satisfy me as much as researching and writing. That became my job target. At this time, my wife was working at Educational Testing Service and was passing on to me the job postings that she considered relevant to my background. I rejected two of these because they didn’t fit this new career goal, but the third was for a job researching and writing about careers for the SIGI computer-based career information system. I’ve been doing variations on this job ever since.

However, I’ve had to develop many new skills along the way. One of these is working with technology. In the early days of the SIGI system, we typed up information and handed the paper to the person who operated the ridiculously complex mainframe text-entry program. After a couple of years, I was given the responsibility of developing a database about college majors and learned a crude text-editing program. But the technical specifications for the database kept changing, and I needed an efficient way to be able to manipulate the text to match. My boss convinced me to take a computer-based course in BASIC to learn the skills to do this. Several years later I took three one-day courses, paid for by ETS, to learn Microsoft Access, a skill I still use almost every workday. I taught myself Excel from a manual.

I had struggled with math in high school and had avoided it in college, so I had assumed I’d never find a workplace use for my interest in technology. But now I was able to find an outlet for this interest and develop the appropriate skills. I’ve also needed to develop my writing skills in ways that I didn’t expect. Writing the narrative screens (as opposed to career information) to develop the SIGI PLUS system, I had to find ways to get my points across and extract input from users in an interactive format with highly limited space. Once ETS decided to get out of the career development business, I had to learn a different style to write books for JIST, my current employer. Actually, writing for JIST demands not one style but several. My recent book 2011 Career Plan called for a pushy style quite different from what I’d used previously, and I needed to use a simplified style for the Quick Green Jobs Guide and other booklets in that series.

As a JIST author, I also have needed to develop skills related to promoting my writing, such as the ability to make a good impression in a television interview.

Our economy does not have many obvious career paths for humanities PhDs, or in some cases the obvious careers don’t have a good outlook. When you look for work, it probably will help you to think not in terms of occupations but in terms of skills you want to use. I was not looking for “career information developer” as a job, and I would have missed the opportunity at ETS if I had confined my job-hunting to the obvious research-and-writing occupations such as journalist. You can increase your options if you avoid stereotyping yourself with a pat occupational label.

Because your career path is not obvious, your career is going to have many ups and downs. When you encounter adversity, don’t lose faith in your long-term prospects. When I was downsized from ETS, my 16-year-old daughter said to me, “Think of this as an adventure, Dad.” And it does help to put your career downturns into the larger context of the narrative arc of your life. Think of your immediate career difficulties as a plot complication and not as a tragic denouement.

The other really important lesson to take away is the importance of networking for finding jobs. Although I found my job at ETS through a job posting, this is no longer the most effective method. I found my job at JIST through networking with a JIST author whom I knew from a professional association. I started as a consultant, preparing the data-intense content for books, and I gradually increased the amount of prose I wrote and the number of hours I worked for JIST.

In my panel presentation at Rutgers, I discussed networking at greater length, but I’m not going to discuss that here because it would duplicate other blog entries.

My story was not greatly different from what the other panelists had to say. Although the specifics of their careers differed from mine, we all pursued new interests and developed new skills over the course of our careers, and we got hired for almost all of our jobs through networking. Humanities PhDs have tremendous potential for rewarding careers if they are willing to do the work (which never ends) of discovering and fulfilling their potential.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Classroom Subjects versus Workplace Skills

Education is supposed to prepare us for our careers, but sometimes there appears to be a disconnect between the two. While in college, we are often forced to take certain required courses although we can’t see how they can ever help us in our careers.

Some of these courses may contribute to noncareer goals in life, such as being good citizens. History and political science courses obviously serve this purpose, and I wish that some of the people who are presently shouting about the Constitution had a better grounding in those subjects. Courses in the arts and literature may contribute to our leisure-time enjoyment of these fields.

But let’s set aside these “area requirements,” as they are often called, and focus on the required courses within college majors. Even some of these seem to contribute little to preparing for the putative career goals of your major.

This is true for math courses in particular. Sometimes it seems as if everyone studies more math in college than they ever will use in their careers. I was struck by this thought as I worked on Panicked Student's Guide to Choosing a College Major: How to Confidently Pick Your Ideal Path, which is due out in April of next year.

However, there are good reasons why so many math courses are required.

The curriculum developers who design the majors want you to be able to understand the people you’ll work with. In many jobs, you do not use a lot of math but work with people who do, so with a background in mathematical concepts you can understand how these other workers produce their results and can tell the difference between meaningful and misleading results. You can challenge the output of those workers and ask them intelligent questions. For example, market research managers need to understand the procedures of the statisticians who design market surveys. Physicians need to understand the procedures of the medical science researchers who make new discoveries about disease processes and pharmaceuticals. Many different kinds of workers need to understand how to interpret statistics about their field, and you can’t really understand the meaning of a statistic unless you know how it was derived, including the sampling method that was used. (I’ve blogged elsewhere about the importance of the sample in studies.)

Another consideration is the hard-to-predict outcomes of your career. While you’re still in college, you may not know that you’re going to specialize in research, which requires quite a lot of math in most industries. Or you may not realize that you’re going to change careers 10 years out and will be able to retrain much faster if you have a good command of math.

Math is not the only subject that college students need more than they may realize. Employers often find that new hires are woefully deficient in verbal skills. A 2007 report (PDF) by the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed several recent studies and found “simple, consistent, and alarming” indications that the reading and writing abilities of workers are not meeting the needs of employers. A 2004 survey by The College Board of 120 corporations in the Business Roundtable found that one-third of workers fall short of employer’s expectations for writing skills. The survey also found that writing is a regular part of the job for two-thirds of all employees. So if you think that your major requires you to take more English courses than are necessary, maybe you’re not aware of what level of writing skill your career goal actually will demand. And, as with math skills, the success of an unanticipated future change in your career may hinge on your verbal skills.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Inside Look at Your Skills

Imagine this scenario: You are being interviewed for a job, and after the usual questions about where you see yourself in five years and what your biggest weakness is, you are given a referral slip and told to report to a hospital for an MRI scan of your brain. The results of the scan will determine whether or not you get the job. What’s at issue is not your health; they’re not looking for a tumor or aneurism. Instead, they’re looking at the condition of your brain in order to decide whether you have the abilities and temperament to do the job.

This may seem bizarre, but it appears to be the logical consequence of some recent research. One study (PDF), by a team at the University of California, Irvine, found significant correlations between the shape of the gray matter in people’s brains and the scores those same people received on a battery of tests that are sometimes used in vocational guidance to measure work-related competencies. (The test battery was developed by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.) Another team of researchers, at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, used brain scans to identify people’s tendencies toward career-damaging psychological states. One of these researchers predicted that brain scans will become routine in job interviews within five years.

I’m very skeptical about such claims. The research of both teams was able to predict only a small number of factors related to work. Human beings are more than the sum of our parts, especially in social situations such as work. It’s unlikely that in our lifetimes brain scans will be able to predict how a person will perform in the detailed aspects of an actual work environment.

On the other hand, it’s only fair to note that the traditional job interview also does not have a very good track record. What does the interviewer really learn by asking you what kind of car you consider yourself to be? (An article in Psychology Today demolishes this and other wacky interview questions.)

In fairness, I should add that bad interviewing is a two-way street. Most job-seekers probably concentrate excessively on responding to the interviewer’s questions and thus forget to ask important questions that would get at the suitability of the job. Why not ask where the interviewer sees the company in five years? CareerBuilder has several suggestions for questions such as this.

Who knows, maybe in Holland they really will be scanning job recruits’ brains five years from now. In Europe, handwriting analysis is already widely used in hiring decisions.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Too Many College Grads?

This week’s blog is inspired by my friend Rich Feller, who wrote to ask for my reaction to an opinion piece that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article, called “Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?” argues that too many people are getting bachelor’s degrees. It touches on some issues I discuss in my book about the pluses and minuses of various kinds of postsecondary education and training: Quick Education and Training Options Guide: Choose the Route That’s Right for You.

The heart of the article is a table (below) showing 20 occupations that normally require considerably less preparation than a college degree. For example, Parking Lot Attendants typically need only short-term on-the-job training to do the work. The table shows, for each occupation, the number and percentage of workers with a bachelor’s degree (or higher). (For convenience, I’ll refer to “a bachelor’s or higher” here as “a college degree.”)

table from article

The numbers are disturbing. For example, 14% of Parking Lot Attendants have a college degree. Among Bartenders, 16% do. The author of the article goes on to argue that our society is putting too many people through college, including many who should not be there.

I have many objections to the methodology and implications of the article. First, a certain number of artists and other aspirants to highly competitive fields will always be working in occupations for which they are overqualified. This is also true of recent immigrants, who lack English skills or recognized credentials, as one comment on the Web page noted.

Second, the table is based on figures from 2008, a period of great job loss. Many people, out of desperation, were taking jobs for which they were overqualified. I looked at older figures and found that the percentage of college grads in the same 20 occupations had increased by 3% from 2004 to 2008. I acknowledge that even the 2004 percentages were much too high. But this entire past decade has been an era of tepid job growth. In an economy with normal job growth, we won’t see this level of overqualification. And how are we going to get to a better economy without a good supply of highly skilled workers?

The figures in the article don’t necessarily demonstrate that a college degree is not worthwhile. At best, you may judge from the evidence that some college degrees are not worthwhile. Everyone has heard stories about liberal arts graduates who have trouble getting hired in a college-level job. It’s likely that many of these overqualified workers chose an academic specialization that holds little appeal for hiring managers. But, as someone who holds only liberal arts degrees, I maintain that many of the overqualified workers with the “wrong” degree simply aren’t savvy about how to position themselves for employment in fields for which they supposedly are not equipped. I’d argue that what we need is not fewer college grads, or even fewer college grads in the liberal arts, but rather more help with career development and job-hunting.

I can counter the figures in this article with a different set of figures, from a chart (below) maintained by the Department of Labor at a site called “Education Pays.” The chart shows that people with a bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate of 5.2% in 2009, at a time when the overall rate was 7.9%. Certainly, some of these employed college grads were in overqualified situations, but overall their average weekly earnings were $1,025, compared to $626 for those with only high school. I have followed this chart for many years, and the advantages of the bachelor’s degree are actually growing. So college does seem to be preparing people for good jobs.

Education Pays

Now, let’s switch the perspective. Instead of looking at policy decisions about what’s good for society as a whole, let’s look at career decisions that individuals must make. This is the perspective from which I write my books.

Seen from this point of view, getting a college degree is often an excellent choice. (It’s certainly not the only excellent choice, as I make clear in the Quick Education and Training Options Guide.) One of the people who commented on the article said it very well:

“I work in human resources now for a public university, and I can tell you that college degrees are basically an arms race. No, you may not need a degree to perform the task at hand, but you’re competing against people who have degrees. If you don’t have one too, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Ditto raises and promotions, in which education level is a significant factor. This is true across multiple industries, not just higher ed employment.”