Correction appended: A correction has been made to Adam Benson’s position with John Dingle, and his employment at ABC.
Business School alum Ajay Anand thought he was destined to buy and sell securities. Like countless other students, Anand had set his sights on the most glamorous and well compensated career path he could think of – investment banking.
“I applied for the Business School for no reason other than a friend told me I can make six figures right out of graduation,” he said. “I really didn’t know a lot about other career options or what investment banking was, except you could make X amount of money.”
But even the promise of a mammoth paycheck couldn’t bring him to go into the field after hearing about a friend’s internship and the 90 hour work weeks that are standard for fledgling bankers.
And after completing pre-med requirements in addition to the Business School curriculum, Anand decided he didn’t want to be a doctor either.
It was at a month-long acting camp he attended in India that he discovered his dream job was in creative performance.
Right now, he’s saving the money he earns at a consulting job so he can return to India in a few years to pursue film and music projects he said are waiting for him.
While Anand’s story may sound unusual, it’s not uncommon for students who think they’ve got it all figured out to switch careers midstream. According to a recent study conducted by The New York Times, only 59 percent of University of Michigan graduates from 2002 are employed in the field they studied in college.
That doesn’t mean their educations went to waste. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed also said their undergraduate education prepared them for the work they’re doing.
That’s part of the beauty of a liberal arts education, said Greg Poggi, chair of the University’s Department of Theatre and Drama. Even though students in his department earn specialized degrees, University graduation requirements mandate that they round out their education. This means that even students who spent their college years learning how to breathe deeply and project are competitive candidates for careers in law or business, which Poggi said are popular for theatre students, along with producing, directing and other entertainment-related fields.
“The degree you get at Michigan is very flexible,” he said.
Some students are able to bend their credentials with greater ease than others.
Business School alum, Jason Cooper, a former Michigan Daily photo editor, also has his sights set on the entertainment industry after turning away from investment banking. Cooper works as an executive assistant at a talent agency in Los Angeles, a job he compares to that of the maltreated secretary Lloyd in the HBO series “Entourage.”
“It’s incredibly low-paying, demeaning work,” Cooper said
He spends his 12-hour workdays answering phone calls and listening in on meetings at a company that pairs the producers of reality TV shows with networks looking for the next “Survivor.”
Cooper said assistants at the agency are often yelled at, made scapegoats and sent out for too-personal errands by the entertainment tycoons they work for, but that people who hang on for two to three years are thought to have what it takes to cut it in showbiz.
“It’s a crash course in the entertainment industry,” he said. “It’s the most valuable education I’ve gotten.”
Senior year was complete with investment banking interviews for Cooper, but after writing his senior thesis on documentary film production, he decided to move to Los Angeles and work his way up to film producer. Cooper said he was one of the only Business School seniors he knew who didn’t have a job lined up after graduation.
Cooper was lucky in the sense that despite the stiff competition for entertainment jobs, he managed to find one with prospects for promotion soon after graduation. Not all graduates are so fortunate. Especially in competitive and popular fields, many people find themselves pursuing careers only tangentially related to their major out of necessity – not choice.
Brian Spitulnick, who graduated from the University in 2005 with a concentration in musical theatre, found himself straying from the traditional path, but not voluntarily. When he moved to New York after graduation, Spitulnik, who dreams of writing and starring in his own shows, found himself taking a variety of bizarre jobs to make ends meet as he auditioned.
He sprayed perfume on passersby at Macy’s and handed out fliers for Freezer Aid at a gay pride parade. There was also a stint playing in the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” to a restaurant audience who was “sipping blue cocktails and chewing steak,” Spitulnik recalled. He worked as a personal assistant for a while, helping a famous Broadway face whom he asked not be named. He sorted his taxes, coordinated meals and even convinced him to try out a dating site. Later, he found himself in the hit show “Beauty and the Beast” – playing a knife.
“I remember being dressed as a knife, doing that kickline at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and thinking, is this what I’m going to do with my life?”
As it turned out, it isn’t. In June, Spitulnik landed a part in the long-running and wildly popular musical “Chicago” on Broadway. Of course, that’s not in the cards for every grad: Some talented people will never perform on Broadway and some will wait years before they get a reliable performance paycheck. Even though the University’s musical theatre department is one of the best in the country, with many graduates going on to star in, produce and write Broadway hits, there are certainly musical theatre majors, who find themselves in a less-than-glamorous performance jobs. Several people have spent time on cruise ships, which are purportedly fun, and at least one graduate stripped to make a little extra cash.
This is where double majors, which Poggi says are common among theatre students, comes in handy. It can hardly hurt to have a fall-back plan. Many students discover early that their passion lies outside their major, but just as often, whether it’s a midlife crisis or the prospect of spending life on a chorus line dressed as a piece of cutlery, people switch careers midstream. Without a double major, some go back to school for an extra degree, but most often, a specialized education isn’t necessary.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the average 30-something will have held nine full- or part-time jobs. So while many LSA parents might despair that their child’s major is too vague, a well-rounded education might be just what graduates need to stay competitive when they switch careers.
Adam Benson, a former Daily sports editor, graduated in 1990 with a degree in political science. Afterward, he interned at the Los Angeles Times and then worked at CNN and WXYZ, Detroit’s ABC affiliate. He liked broadcast journalism but said the life of a broadcaster – the moving around, the unusual hours – got old for him. So Benson made a switch that actually took him closer to his undergraduate education, and he became the press secretary for U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn).
“Television is kind of a young person’s game,” he said. “You know, you do that for a while, you move around a lot. You keep odd hours and you get to a point where you’re like, you know, I need something a little bit different. I felt a real need to do something that had deeper meaning to me.”
Benson is doing something he likes, which means that, statistically speaking, he lucked out. Once they settle in, it seems that many people are hesitant to give up their prospects for a pension, even if they don’t like the work. In a 2004 study conducted by the University of Chicago, 51 percent of Americans reported low job satisfaction.
Some people think switching fields is harder than it actually is.
“Journalism is a great example because we don’t have a journalism major, but we have plenty of students who go into that field,” said Lynne Sebille-White, an assistant director at the Career Center.
She said students’ majors generally only loosely pertain to their careers. There’s nothing wrong with that she said, so long as students are able to prepare themselves in other ways.
It takes a lot of research though, she said, and “getting tapped into the network that you want to become part of.”
Angie Justian knew she wouldn’t be putting her degree in business to its conventional uses when she graduated in 2007. So right out of college, instead of pursuing riches or fame, she started work at a non-profit organization, Teach for America.
Now Justian works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., providing a math education to seventh graders in New York City, many of whom haven’t mastered English or pre-algebra.
The job lets participants earn a master’s in education for free, but the compensation falls far short of the paychecks commonly associated with a Business School degree. That doesn’t bother her, though. She’d rather be in the ranks of the people who like their job.
“Right out of graduation, I didn’t really see myself at a desk all day typing in Excel,” she said.