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January 13, 2014

Defending My Degree

In the past few years, I have heard a lot of advice about exiting college and entering the business world. It shows up on career fair handouts and business websites and uses a lot of big words and a muted yet powerful color scheme (I don’t know who decided taupe is the de facto color of the professional business world, but they must be making a killing). Advice on how to succeed. How to set yourself up for future career opportunities. How to build your professional network and leverage your advantages and build a strategic plan. How to save money and avoid student loan debt and become a Functioning Member of Society. 
According to them I’m doing it all wrong. 
I went to a private liberal arts college. It was very small and very expensive. I did not major in business or a STEM field. On paper, I did many of the things that smart, savvy young people should not do. And I am doing just fine.
Most advice I’ve heard revolves around money and how to save it. Let’s be honest. That’s pretty important. The economy might not be in freefall anymore, but it isn’t getting better very quickly either. Student loan debt is tough to get out from under. These are very valid concerns and I do not mean to belittle them in any way.
I also had options and advantages that many people did not have. I am a white male who grew up in a stable, middle-class, two-parent home, and I’m trying to be as aware as I possibly can of the privileges that my race, class and gender give me. I understand that many people made different choices than I did and had very good reasons for making those choices the way they did. This is just about what I did with the situation I found myself in. It is not another advice column. It is just a story. My story. One of many. 
So these are the things that smart young people should do, according to Them (that wonderful amorphous blob of an identifier). Go to community college. Save money. Get your associates degree, maybe transfer to a bigger school once you know what you want to do, or maybe stay and save more money. Have a plan. Work part-time. Live at home. Go to a state school. Don’t waste time and money studying things that won’t help you. Know what you want to do. Have a plan. Don’t go to college at all. It’s a racket anyway. Trade school. Union labor. Become a plumber. Fix pipes for 40 dollars an hour. Put money in a savings account. Invest. Buy a house. Meet a nice girl, have two-point-five kids and retire at 65. Golf on the weekends. 
All in all, I have to admit it’s pretty good advice. I like my toilet working and I respect the people who can fix it for me. I am very happy that some people choose to be plumbers. But I do not want to be a plumber. I liked to learn and to study and I wanted to go to college. I started to get annoyed when people told me that that was wrong. My problem isn’t that career advice is bad. My problem is that you often get judged for not following it. That there is one right answer and you are being irresponsible or just plain stupid if you don’t follow along. 
I was lucky in many ways, and I admit that that may have prejudiced me. I had a family that was willing and able to contribute to my education and would support me in whatever choice I made. I was able to chose the school I liked best. It was not a business decision. It was a decision based on where I wanted to spend the next four years of my life. The school I chose was very expensive, but I qualified for several scholarships that reduced my tuition to an amount that wasn’t cheap, but was manageable. I graduated debt-free and am more grateful for this than words can properly describe. Because of these things, I did not need to choose a school or a major based on its projected mid-career income. Instead, I listened to a professor from my freshman year, who told me to figure out what engaged me as a person and make the rest of my life work around that. 
I understand that not everyone has those options. $40,000 a year is a whole lot of money and I’m not arguing for being naïve. Some people might be better served by following some of that career advice. Like I said, it’s good advice. But no one is making you do it. Be smart. Know the risks. Weigh them. Make an informed decision about what you want to do with your own life. And if other people tell you it’s not the “right” decision, give them the finger and keep on going. You won’t know unless you try. And you are not wrong to try.
Of course, if you find engineering engaging you’ll have an easier time finding jobs and make more money than if you study late 18th century French artwork or early postmodern literary expression. I’m not arguing that. But if you like early postmodern literary expression and are able to study it without incurring huge levels of pain and suffering, then I don’t see anything wrong with doing it. Here’s a secret. We young people know what we’re getting ourselves into. We’ve had career materials stuffed into our brains by the Internet and helicopter parents and overenthusiastic guidance counselors since we were 10. My classmates who were studying philosophy or anthropology or gender studies were perfectly realistic about what they were doing. No one expected the universe to offer him or her the perfect job right after graduation. I guess they saw college as more than a job-training program. Fancy that. 
Problem number two. Career advice is obsessed with plans. It assumes that you know what you want to do with your life. And not everyone does. Some do (and I shake my fist at them in jealous rage), but plenty don’t. I talked to my boss a few days ago and he said he still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. He’s 50 years old and the food service manager for an entire college, so he’s doing pretty well for not having a plan. Before that he was a bartender in Maui. Made plenty of money (tips are a wonderful thing), served plenty of famous people and only switched to management for the dental. Made it up as he went along. That’s not to say I don’t like plans. I love them. My desk has layer upon layer of “To-Do” lists that go back months, if not years. Plans help. If you want to be a doctor or an actress, to get that job or that house or that career, a plan will probably help you get there. But if we get too wrapped up in our plans that we can’t even admit the possibility of change, then we run into problems. Uncertainty is everywhere. We can’t control it all. Let’s not pretend that we can. 
I know that this is teetering on the edge of entitled and I want to take a minute to try and tip it back the other way. Look at us, the rich young people who can afford to waste our time and our parent’s money with useless degrees and then move back home for the next couple years while we “find ourselves.” I’m living quite comfortably in my own apartment that I pay for from my own paycheck, thank you very much. But I understand your point. I know a few of those people. But I know far more people who put what they wanted to do ahead of what other people told them they should do. Plenty of my fellow graduates are gainfully employed; we have overachievers and perfectionists and slackers and screw-ups in about the same percentages as every other generation before us. And I think it’s overwhelmingly arrogant for “them” to sit back 30 years removed from college and the uncertainty of life at 22 and tell me that what I’m doing with my life is wrong because it’s different from what they did with theirs. And maybe it’s just idealism or youth or the fact that the world hasn’t crushed my hopes and dreams yet. But I don’t think it is. There are lots of different 20Somethings out there with a lot of different dreams, goals and definitions of success. 
I think there’s room for lots of different paths to get there.