Day #116: Eric Prydz VS Pink Floyd – “Proper Education”
If prospective college students were browsing major news sites in the last year or so, they may be convinced that the only professions worth pursing are computer programming, nursing, engineering, public relations, and doing whatever it is that an MBA does. Politicians and their appointees placed in charge of the American curricula would probably be nodding in adamant agreement, touting the importance of the maths and natural sciences, while ignoring or dismissing the value of everything else.
Ignorant as it may be, it makes perfect sense. These are the ones that translate easily into jobs and job skills. And, they typically pay well. The ones that don’t meet those criteria are often the most criteria. The humanities. The liberal arts. The social sciences. If you get a degree in English, chances are the first thing that everyone will ask you is “What can you do with that?” These are the kind of programs that require a good deal of forethought about what you want to do (as any program should) and figuring out ways of going about it. Unfortunately, the perceived marketability of graduates in these disciplines have been tainted by the fact that no one can find a job… in teaching. In state of the academic job market has come to shadow everything else, which may make others hesitant about going into certain jobs. But, you have to have some flexibility about how and where you apply your skills. And these fields, and sub-fields, are broad enough to accommodate.
When I was in graduate school, our department invited its alumni to speak to our class about their experiences with applying to PhD programs. The director of the department, who sat in on the discussion, more or less told us not to bother. “People don’t want to know anything,” she said, with such remarkable and unrestrained cynicism that it stuck with me. Research was her profession! It wasn’t until years later, when I was working, that I understood why she felt that way. At the old job, our organization faced a never-ending battle of funding cuts for social science programs. At the same time, we were having to defend the legitimacy of the social sciences. Particularly sociology. Sometimes, we even had to defend the social sciences to consortium of other science disciplines who never thought us to be scientific enough. Those days made me want to pull out my hair. Did no one see the value of studying human behavior and interaction, goddammit?!!
Well, yes. Actually, there are quite a lot of people who rely on what the social sciences offer (it isn’t just conducting research). So my advice to you, dear undergraduates who have not yet decided upon a major: if the social sciences interest you, pursue a degree in it. It is worth it, and assuming you want to do more than just get a degree to do college-level teaching, then you will find no shortage of opportunities out there, nor capacities to apply your knowledge and skills.
That probably begs the question, “what knowledge and skills will I have to apply?” At the old job, we did several longitudinal surveys of graduating social students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and looked at the kind of professional and education paths they pursued after they got their degrees. We could tell you what kind of fields the majority of them wound up working in two or three years out of school. The kind of graduate programs they entered. The kind of things they did on the job. But I don’t think we ever really answered the question we set out to answer. The one that a lot of prospective students ask: “What can I do with my degree?”
How do you sell sociology, must less any of the other social sciences to students? To their parents? To deans and provosts? Or anyone else, for that matter. Whatever the answer, your case has to be twice as solid to hold up under the dreadful scrutiny that departments face when we’re not only in a bad economy, but a bad economy coupled with rising tuition. One of the worst things for the newly ordained college graduate is to feel like you have zero skills to offer the world. That there is nothing but an anxious-inducing stack of loans to show for the last few years there. That’s how people eventually wind up in law school.
But, there is incredible difficulty in trying to explain to someone what they can do with a degree in sociology especially because the field is so broad. Sociology means the scientific study of society. Human society. Can you imagine all the ways this is done? You would have an easier time trying to measure the depth of a black hole than come to the end of that list. The subject matter is endless. I was baffled when I saw things like, the sociological study of food. One professor even wrote a sociological analysis of the spatial layout of bathrooms. It’s easier to think in narrow terms. Political science, economics, anthropology, criminal justice, psychology, communications, media studies, and so forth. Those all encompass some manner of human behavior and interaction. And they’re more attractive because they’re easier to define, and therefore, easier to translate into specific roles. Right from the start, somebody has an idea where they can go with that.
But when we used to get this question, “What can I do with my degree?” I used to cringe. It hinted at this expectation that by completing a degree, you automatically achieved a certain set of skills the way the way you might when you finish a vocation program or get a professional degree. A law student probably should be able to write legal memorandum, and a medical student should probably be able to perform basic procedures upon finishing. But, what should a social science graduate be able to do?
The better question is, what do you want to do?
There are so many places for social science majors and graduates to wind up. Government. Educational institutions. Non-profits. Even corporations have an obvious need for those who know people (and I don’t mean by association). And, the positions which they’re hired to serve are infinite. Conducting research isn’t the only thing social scientists do. Hell, I just met a team of programmers yesterday that specialize in developing software to assist criminal justice professionals with designing and implementing victim services programs.
Don’t spend all of your time in theory classes. Learn the concrete skills that will get you where you want to go. If you like research, take a statistics component. Learn the art of conducting surveys and polling. If you’re more comfortable with administration and management tasks, writing grants and being able to manage projects teams are skills in high demand. If you’re creative person, maybe you’d be interested in documentary filmmaking. Or writing. I’ve seen young, ambitious folks do some pretty amazing things with technology in the last few years. Especially, addressing problems through open source. Corporations even hire social marketers and those with behavioral studies backgrounds to improve upon their products and services, whether in the design stages, or in sales.
Remember that your education will always be what you make of it. You don’t gain anything by just signing up and taking one class after another. Take classes in other departments. Find relevant internships that are going to give you real experience, even if they don’t award college credit. Talk to your professors. Chances are, they’ve done more than just taught year after year. Read about things going on in the field. Really get to know whatever it is you want to do.
Keep in mind, however, that where you end up in life, and especially in your career, is almost never something you plan. In fact, you have my permission to find those perky high school seniors who have all of their ambitious post-high school plans mapped out for the next 40 years and laugh right in their faces. You will probably undergo several job changes. Career changes. Hell, even life changes. Your education gets you to some point, and the experiences thereafter shape you and push you into something else. It’s a constant evolution. Think about what you need to get you started.