The Michigan difference...in career paths

Tuesday, September 17, 2019 - 9:58am

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Danyel Tharakan, Design by Kate Glad and Elizabeth Bigham

The subway screeched to a stop at Sixth Avenue and I stepped onto the muggy platform. Walking up the stairs, the skyscraper sentinels of New York City loomed over me. The sidewalk of the “Avenue of the Americas” was crowded with urbanites — talented, successful individuals who were “making it” in the Big Apple. Surrounded by these veteran New Yorkers in their suits and pencil skirts, I could almost pretend I was one of them.  

Even after memorizing the subway map and avoiding tourist traps, I felt out of place. I was the Midwestern girl in the big city, but instead of falling in love with it, my insecurities simmered. It wasn’t that I was lost or on my own, but that everyone seemed so professional and self-assured, incapable of making a wrong decision. 

***

Like 17,149 other University of Michigan students, I’m in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. While the college offers 90 majors and sub majors, a mix of sciences and liberal arts, I am pursuing a Bachelor of Arts as an English major with two minors in history and political science. I had never questioned my academic choices until I scrolled through the countless job postings on Handshake and saw the missing check mark indicating that my major did not match the “employer’s preferences.” 

When will I stop having to defend my major? When will I stop second guessing what I’m passionate about? What, exactly, can I do with a liberal arts degree from LSA after I graduate? 

The University of Michigan started with LSA in 1817, and the original college has since remained the largest of the 19 colleges on campus. The LSA website boasts an “employed or continuing education” rate of 96 percent, accompanied by an interactive graphic titled  “What Will You Do with an LSA Degree.” Like colorful spokes of a bicycle wheel, the English Literature career path spans a wide breadth of disciplines — including Medicine/Health, Technology and Engineering.  

However, the University Career Center depicts a slightly different post-graduation narrative. Every year the Career Center publishes a First Destination Profile, outlining the employment statistics of the most recent graduating class. According to them, only 89.8 percent of LSA graduates are employed or continuing their education.  

Another survey question asks students whether they think their new job has “clear career potential.” This felt very open-ended to me and difficult to answer, especially if a student hasn’t even started working yet. When I asked UCC Senior Associate Director Terri LaMarco to explain what qualifies as “clear potential” she responded, “We do not define that … so, that could be defined differently by the person completing the survey. Which is fine with us because what we’re after is, ‘Are you satisfied with the position that you have?’” The survey indicated only 60.5 percent of LSA respondent’s jobs have clear potential.  

In an email after our interview, LaMarco showed that the survey for the First Destination Survey has an average response rate of 32 percent and is issued three times a year in December, May and August to account for the varying student graduation and job recruitment timelines.

“The response rate is low, and that’s also pretty common for surveys like this. But we’re at a percent that does make it generalizable... A lot of data suggests that liberal arts students are more likely to be employed three to six months after graduation” LaMarco said. 

Perhaps sensing my panic as I began the all-important job search, LSA published this on their website, “LSA has offered generations of students broad and deep programs of study and … has provided a foundation for successful lives and meaningful careers. Today, this transformative approach … attract(s) growing numbers of students who recognize the value of a liberal arts education.” 

Is it the intrinsic nature of liberal arts degree that enables English majors to become engineers or environmental science majors to be CEOs? Or is it a sheer force of will to prove our place in the increasingly professional world of work?  

***

University alum Erika Shevchek graduated in December 2018 with an English degree. After not being admitted to graduate school, she decided to stay in Ann Arbor for the summer and work three jobs while applying for writing jobs.  

“I've always wanted to be a writer, I know that sounds really cliché,” Shevchek said.  

Despite graduating a semester early, Shevchek was the last of her friends to “figure it out.”

“I was never upset that I chose English,” she said. “I don't think me being an English major lowered my chances of getting a job, which everyone believes, but I don’t think that's true.”  

Shevchek still plans on going to graduate school eventually, but for now she’s excited to start an editorial assistant internship in Philadelphia while also working in a restaurant to “pay the bills.” When we talked, her first day of work was the following Tuesday.  

“I’m excited not to work a 9-6 job and have a salary and go to bed at 9:30,” she said. “It's this idea that you think you have to do the right thing at 22, and you have this pressure from your family, and you have to make the salary. Dude, you don’t at all. This is your one time in your life you are so free. You can literally work wherever, you can move wherever, you can do whatever. It doesn't matter what I do at 22, because as long as I have some form of income and a story to tell, that can make me a writer.”

Shevchek was the only other English alum I talked with. Immediately, I felt a sense of camaraderie — that we were “in this together.” She unapologetically embraced her major and her choices, never wavering in her decision to choose liberal arts and work as a waitress. I listened to her story with admiration and clung to her parting words of advice. 

“Do what you want, live your life,” she said. “You’re going to be 21 when you graduate? Oh my god, dude, you got the whole world in your hands. If it’s meant to work, it’ll work.”  

***

University alum Pat Ray received a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science through LSA in 2018. He now works for Domino’s Pizza Corporate Team in their I.T. department.

“Yeah, it’s kinda funny, a lot of people, when I say I work at Domino’s, they’re like ‘Aw stick with it, man,’” Ray said.

Logically, I know it’s the company and not the major, but I couldn’t help but compare this comment to the ones I receive when I tell people I’m an English major. “What are you going to do with that, live in your parents' basement?” I guess even computer science majors can’t escape the stigma of a liberal arts school. 

At his side gig, however, Ray leads a very different life than the one at work. When he’s not at the office, he can be found splitting his time playing in five different bands and running a concert booking company out of his bedroom.  

Because he received a degree through LSA, Ray had to fulfill the 30-credit distribution requirement, including courses in humanities, math and quantitative reasoning. Ray largely credits these classes for giving him the skills he needed to navigate life after college.  

“I was able to use some of the stuff I learned in creative writing to help with writing songs. It’s been nice having math and statistics to help with finances, too,” Ray said.   

Ray seems to have embraced his diverging career paths. In explained how he guilts his boss and co-workers into going to shows. When I asked him about cutting back on his I.T. career and focusing more on music, it felt like I struck a chord.  

“That’s something I’d like to do; I’ve thought about it a lot. I want to, at some point, maybe in a year or two, save up some money from work, take a year off and focus on the booking group and my band,” he said. 

While talking with Ray, I couldn’t help but feel envious. A directly applicable job right after graduation and a money-making hobby on the side? It sounded ideal to me. I asked Ray if he ever imagined himself doing what he is doing now.  

“It’s definitely what I wanted to do. I think I’m kinda surprised with myself, that I’ve been able to pull it off,” he replied.   

Can that be attributed to personal skills like organization, time management or even luck? Or can liberal arts take the credit — preparing Ray with a broad range of classes and topics from EECS 281 to “Video Game Music.” Ray’s path after college is reflected in his final bits of advice to me.  

“I’d say work hard and don’t be afraid to take chances. … Prove that you’re a hard worker, and trust in what you’re doing, and don’t be afraid to take a risk,” Ray said.

***

Both Shevchek and Ray used the University Career Center while they were at Michigan, with varying degrees of success. At career fairs, Shevchek confessed she felt out of place as a liberal arts major, while Ray learned about his current I.T. role by meeting with a Domino’s recruiter at one. 

UCC Director Kerin Borland, sat down with me for an interview and offered a different perspective on undergraduate majors.  

“The major is a field of study; the person is the one who’s going to be doing the job,” Borland said. There is no unmarketable major; there might be some unmarketable people, but most times that’s correctable.”

Before I talked with Borland, I had a chip on my shoulder. I badly wanted her to confirm my notion that liberal arts majors have a more diverse skill sets than other pre-professional majors like engineering or nursing. Instead, she corrected my prejudices.

“See, we don’t think like that. There are skills that are going to be transferable to a professional setting that are gotten through every academic experience,” Borland said. “The type of skill may be different, but each academic discipline is going to provide transferable skills.”

When I told her my goal of securing a job before Christmas break, she cautioned me against setting a deadline.   

“Don’t put that pressure on yourself,” Borland said. “We’re not looking for the perfect job, we’re looking for a really great opportunity that capitalizes on existing interests and skills and allows for growth to be a stepping stone to the next great opportunity. That’s how careers are built — one great opportunity after another.”  

The LSA Opportunity Hub is another source for internship and career advice. Created specifically for LSA students, the Hub aims to work with students throughout their time in undergrad. Kierra Trotter, director of student engagement at the Hub, talked me through her perspective on liberal arts. 

Trotter feels that liberal arts is truly an education, not training. “If someone is looking for a broader education that is not going to prepare them just for one particular job, but prepare them for a lifetime of multiple careers, then an LSA degree really can be a way for someone to go,” she said.  

During our interview, Trotter was careful not to downplay the other colleges on campus. She said she’s always surprised to see what students do with their major after they graduate, in a good way. “The degree that you’re getting here, regardless of the major, sets you up to be able to exercise so many different skills and areas of knowledge,” Trotter said. 

I unloaded all my worries and anxiety about finding a job after I graduate. “Sometimes half the battle … is to figure out what is it that you want," she said.

***

Dylan Lange, however, knew exactly what he wanted. Graduating in 2019 with a BBA from the Ross Business School and a minor in global media studies, Lange did not follow the traditional Ross recruiting route. After graduation, Lange moved to Los Angeles and spent two-and-a-half months applying for jobs before landing a role as an assistant to a talent agent at Paradigm Talent Agency. 

Over those 75 days, Lange interviewed at five of the seven major agencies, and with each rejection he found himself wondering if he had made a mistake.  

“There were definitely times where I was like, ‘Yeah, totally, let’s go down a different route. If I wanna get back to this down the road then I will.’ It was something I was thinking about, for sure,” Lange said.  

“Well, it sounds like you’re happy with what you’re doing now,” I said. “Are you?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he said. “No, I’m so not happy with what I’m doing.” Think scheduling meetings, answering phones and getting yelled at every day by a very intense boss. Lange went on to explain that in Hollywood “everyone starts out as an assistant, unless your uncle is George Clooney.”  

To me, the idea of moving across the country without a job or place to stay sounds terrifying. The instability! And to hate your job after months of searching and years of education feels like some sort of sick joke. But maybe that’s what people think when I tell them I’m an English major. Or maybe it reminds them of their first job after graduating.  

“I think (with) any job, and especially entry-level, you’re gonna have great things that you’re excited about, and you’re going to have things you’re not excited about, things you’re gonna have to work harder on,” Lange said. 

Lange’s advice was refreshingly simple: “Stay positive. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. If you don’t find the perfect job for your first job, you’re gonna find a job that you love eventually. Whatever you do, make it a step forward for you in some way.” 

***

At the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, Louise Jackson, associate director of the Alumni Career Program, Louise Jackson, oversees the career program available to the more than 600,000 living alumni. 

“We try to serve all our alumni as much as we can, as well as in concert with our colleagues on campus,” says Jackson.  

Jackson stated in an email that there are over 100,000 members of the University Alumni Association. Despite the push for membership, the career programs are open to any University graduate.

“Our job seekers are typically underemployed, unemployed,” Jackson wrote. “They’re, in many cases, under significant financial restraint. As a result of that, we have made the very intentional decision to make all of our programs available to all alumni, with only one or two member benefits.” 

One program the association provides is a virtual Career Change program that guides alumni through identifying strengths and skills, defining their ideal career, finding new career possibilities and creating an action plan. This program also serves as a metric for measuring how often alumni are changing the course of their careers. 

“We have seen, as a result of that program, that our alumni are pivoting careers earlier than they were in the past,” Jackson said. “(Millenials and Gen Z) are only in jobs for 2-3 years versus the typical ‘old-school’ where you’re at a job for 10-15 yrs.” 

Jackson attributes this change to a shift in employee expectations. 

“There’s less of a focus on loyalty for the specific employer and less dependence on the employer for determining the career path,” she said. “A lot of alumni and individuals are realizing that … they’re the people who have to create their future. As such, they’re not depending on their employer to provide that career development.”

***

University alum John Wang is still searching for his passion. Wang graduated in 2003 with a triple major in Philosophy, Biopsychology and Cognitive Science, and Mathematical Physics. The summer after graduation, he took car mechanic courses at Washtenaw Community College and later moved to Texas. He made money gambling online, playing pool and going door-to-door selling water.  

In 2005, he enrolled at Yale Law School and graduated with a dual degree in law and business. He confessed to me, “To be frank, I’m not a very great student in some ways. I really hate classes.”  

After working at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan for a couple of years, Wang quit to run a marathon in Paris. Fast forward through a couple of failed start-ups and business partnerships to today, Wang now operates Queens International Night Market in New York. QINM attracts 10,000 people every Saturday and celebrates the cultural diversity of New York and Queens with independent vendors selling food, art and merchandise along with small-scale performances.  

Given his employment history, I asked if he thinks he’ll stick with Queens Night Market.  

“I have no idea. I’ve been telling everyone every year, half-jokingly, that, ‘This is my last year. I can’t do it anymore.’”  This fall will mark the end of Queen Night Market’s fifth season. “There’s always this question in the back of my head which is ‘What am I gonna do when I grow up,’ and I realize I’m nearly forty now,” Wang said. 

I wondered aloud if Philosophy, Biopsychology and Cognitive Science, and Mathematical Physics have any use in his day-to-day life. He laughed and said maybe in some abstract way, but “to be quite frank, I’ve forgotten to how to do 99 percent of what I was doing in theoretical mathematical physics.” 

He followed up by saying he uses his Washtenaw Community College car mechanic training more than anything else. His parting words to me were peppered with “I don’t knows” and long pauses. He joked that he probably wasn’t the best person to be giving career advice, but I disagree. 

“Life is long,” he said. “If you’re happy, great; if not, take risks. Who cares if it’s related to your major or not?”

***

In a way, I’m comforted by these stories. Even more reassuring is the beautiful block ‘M’ soon to be stamped on my diploma — a symbol that represents my work ethic and the universal gold standard of all University graduates. Yet, as with many of my peers, the question of what life holds after I throw my graduation cap remains unanswered.  

When I set out to answer this question, I was searching for validation. I wanted to know that deciding on a liberal arts degree was the right choice. Now, I recognize my bias as an English major — it was my own self-doubt that made me desperate to prove liberal arts was worthy of respect.  

After talking to the alumni, not one of them voiced regret about pursuing a liberal arts degree from the University. All of them admitted to doubting themselves or feeling lost at one point or another. But is that particular to the experience of a liberal arts major, or is it just being human? When I think back to all those New Yorkers, radiating confidence, I have to believe there’s some part of them that questions their path. That “making it” in NYC isn’t perfectly linear.