My friend has a son who is an exceptional musician, and was recently accepted to one of the most prestigious college music programs in the country. The other weekend my friend went to visit his son, who took him to the music lab to show his dad what he was learning about the science of harmonization, and how music that sounds spontaneous is actually the result of complex scientific principles.
Like any parent would be, my friend is immensely proud of his son. And, like any good parent would be, he wonders how his son will take what he learns in school and translate that to a lucrative career—or at least one that pays the bills, and opens even the possibility of supporting my friend’s hoped-for future grandchildren.
It’s a scary thing if you’ve invested a significant amount of money in an education other people label “useless”. But as someone who has hired people for a long time now, I don’t believe any degree is “useless”.
If I can’t see the value of someone who understands the science of harmonization could bring to my organization, then I am doing a poor job as a hiring manager. And I’m missing the chance to bring some outside of the box thinking and potential for innovation into my business.
That said, it’s still the job candidate’s responsibility to find a way to demonstrate how their education has increased their ability to think critically and bring a fresh perspective.
Job Training vs. Education
The infamous “underwater basket weaving degree” doesn’t exist. Next to that, art history might be the most dismissed major, at least in pop culture. However, art history is defined as “the study of art in its historical development and context”. Remove the word art, and think of that sentence in a different way. If someone can understand historical development and context, they can surely be taught the more practical aspects of most jobs.
Our tendency to conflate job training and education is a mistake. If we really believe in the power of the free market and creative destruction, than by definition most jobs people get trained for are in the process of becoming obsolete.
People do need to be trained to do whatever it is they are going to do for a living, but they also need to know how to think critically, observe and understand patterns, and be forward thinking – among many other things. If they don’t know how to do those things not only will the workforce leave them behind, but the companies that hire them will eventually be left behind as well.
Those qualities can be developed in a variety of places, but a liberal arts degree is one of those places. And, as Walter Isaacson said in this post, we do need engineers and computer scientists, but we also need people who understand what it means to be human.
All of that aside, if you are someone with a degree that others may dismiss, and you aren’t becoming a curator or a musician, you face an uphill climb. Hiring managers are short on time and long on candidates, and it’s on you to show how your education impacted the way you think, not just what you know–because, for the vast majority of professions, how you think is more important than what you know.
That’s true for any recent college grad, but it’s especially true if you just spent a significant amount of money on a degree that others don’t always view favorably. Finding ways to demonstrate your value, critical thinking skills, and entrepreneurial drive is not easy, but it is easier than it used to be. Write a blog, design an app, start a nonprofit—do something that shows you are more than just a piece of paper and that what you learned actually gave you a skill set that others may find valuable.
The only thing useless is accepting a paradigm that doesn’t have to be true.
I am the Vice President of First Resource, an association management, economic development, and public policy consulting firm with roots in the manufacturing sector, and a proud member of LinkedIn’s Publishers and Bloggers Group. You can find me on Twitter @DMcKissen.