Columns

Newlon ’14: Little senior lost

By
Opinions Columnist

I’m a senior and I already regret everything I ever studied at college.

“A history major, eh,” says my uncle. We’re at a family event over winter break, and I’m getting quizzed on my future. “Sounds like a recipe for law school to me.”

I gulp and start to chew on a loose strand of my hair. “Well, you know I majored in literary arts, too.” My weak attempt at humor.

“You know, there’s a special field for the economics of history.” My uncle just won’t quit. “Econometrics. Very marketable.”

When we first arrived at Brown as wide-eyed first-years, Ruth Simmons told us that we should follow our passions, enjoy our time here, take the little quiet moments between classes to sit on the green to pursue our private projects — the short film, the future bestselling novel, the nonprofit for inner-city high school kids. Follow our dreams. It’s not a new message. Heck, we’ve been told that everyone is special since Barney.

But lately I’ve begun to feel like following my dreams is going to land me on the streets of New York, penniless, without even a gutter boyfriend to comfort me. I studied the liberal arts, and now it’s coming back to bite me in the ass. I should have majored in engineering or computer science or economics.

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” said President Obama at a Wisconsin General Electric Plant Jan. 30.

ET TU, OBAMA? I already have to deal with obnoxious questions from family. Whatever happened to the hope?

Yes, engineering and tech degrees pay more directly out of college, but a recent study by the Association of American Colleges indicated that overall average salary outcomes for humanities and social sciences majors are around the same in peak earning ages — from 56 to 60. Moreover, 93 percent of employers surveyed indicated that a candidate’s critical thinking and social skills were more important than their major. The notion that a concentration determines your destiny is farcical.

At Brown, we’re encouraged to study what we love and follow our dreams from day one. But nobody gave us an answer about what to do if we didn’t discover our dream, or if that passion didn’t find us. And the options that the CareerLAB offers us are extremely limited: Last week’s general career fair featured 25 technology companies out of 35 recruiting businesses. For the liberal arts-minded, that’s slim pickings. And our career advisers, expert at reorganizing our resumes, offer little more help for finding jobs than, “Use LinkedIn and Twitter.”

Increasingly, I’ve noticed my peers strive for jobs they would have scoffed at our first year: management consulting, finance, lawyerdom. Brown students go directly from college to medical school without ever working in a clinic, and burn out booking 80-plus hours a week on Wall Street.

Some people like consulting, finance and law school. That’s fine. It’s more than fine, it’s great! They’re prestigious, challenging fields with a huge payoff. But I get the sense that my fellow students enter them not out of some great passion or interest, but for the sense of security that comes with a six-figure salary and a two-year plan.

We’re lost. So instead, we turn to the casework books.

I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing any more than the next person. But sometimes I wonder: Why are we selling out for high-paying jobs with questionable social value? What happened to those first-years interested in art and altruism?

I understand the lure of Wall Street, the attraction of Bain, JP Morgan Chase and McKinsey. This isn’t the ’90s. People are struggling.

But Brown students are among the most — here’s that obnoxious Brown buzzword — privileged in the world. Most of us financially, yes, but all of us privileged by virtue of the talent and intelligence that allowed us to attend an institution like Brown in the first place. If we can’t afford to take some time to try different careers post-college and fight for something we love, who can?

I’m a senior and I’m terrified. I’m terrified of waking up in May and being forced out of my comfortable bubble, without my friends and my teachers and Health Services to treat every nervous tickle in the back of my throat. I don’t want to worry about rent, insurance and online dating. I love Brown. And I know my fellow seniors are also scared. We’re struggling to find what we want from life.

But I know I don’t want a boring life. I want to have an interesting job, one that I wake up in the morning and feel excited about. If it turns out that’s consulting or finance, so be it. But I don’t want to pigeonhole myself with graduate school or consulting or Wall Street prematurely. I don’t want to look back 20 years from now and have regrets. We’re so terribly young. We can do anything. We shouldn’t sell out.

Let’s wait until we’re 25 to do that.

 

Cara Newlon ’14 is a little to completely lost, but hoping for the best.

  • Adam A

    I’m just a junior, so not exactly in the same boat, but nice to know I’m not the only one questioning diving into a lucrative career field for the sake of its being lucrative. Nice piece!

  • Humanities ’13

    Humanities concentrators don’t follow the same hiring schedule as the money markets and cohort consulting hiring waves. As a deeply dyed humanities concentrator, I finalized my plans late in the spring semester simply due to the fact that jobs become available at the end of the academic year. Get your networking on, let everyone know what kind of jobs your looking for, and the odds are better that you’ll be fine (though feel free to kiss that six-digit salary goodbye:- looking at you: Sun-Lab graduates…)

    • Humanities ’13

      you’re*

  • DM

    You go girl! Find a job you actually enjoy! It is so, so important. (PS – Trove is hiring! You’d be awesome for our journalism internship… which has turned into a full-time job for past interns. http://info.trove.com/careers)

  • Screwmouth

    I was a History and Lit Arts double-concentrator from the class of 2013 and I felt the exact same way you did. I’ve jumped from a quick summer job to a more long-term one, neither in what I studied, really, and both of them teaching me plenty of new information, but they’re still soul-sucking and not what I want to do with my life in any way, shape, or form. It’s demoralizing but that’s what this country and its economy are. Its needs have been shaped by people and systems far older than ourselves, and now we have to somehow force ourselves into it without losing the spark and creativity of free-wheeling sentience.

    We are at the bottom of the food chain again when we graduate, functionally. It’s like going from high school to college again, except everybody is competing with completely different levels of experience and the rest of life and your inevitable death are staring down your neck, daring you to do something worthwhile, though we are only given so many set paths wherein we can make a secure living for ourselves.

    I’m in a situation where the only way I’d feel comfortable or secure at all is if I got a masters or Ph.D in something other than what I concentrated in undergrad, but even there the job markets are failing and salaries for educational professionals sagging.

    So it goes.

    • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

      lol sorry about yr existential crisis bro

      sometimes i feel like i’m the only person at brown who has no desire to “do something worthwhile”… i just wanna live comfortably, have a family, have a job i like enough that i don’t dread waking up every day. it’s easier said than done, but: maybe try not to put so much pressure on yourself? you don’t need to do anything grandiose… like you said, death is inevitable; why don’t you just try to end up in a place where you’re enjoying life on a daily basis? no need to be ~*special*~ and do something great for the world or something super impressive or whatever.

    • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

      also: the “set paths” thought in yr second para made me think of this xkcd — not sure how i feel about the overall message, which reeks a bit of “you can do anything rah rah rah dream big don’t just be another cog in the machine”… but i’ve always loved the part about how we forget how many possibilities any given moment holds. we really don’t have to limit our thinking so much 🙂

  • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

    this is an interesting and well-written piece!

    what i’m wondering is whether you’d ever thought before about what you wanted to do after graduation…? you talk about following your dreams and following your interests like they’re the same thing but i don’t really see you talking about any goals you ever had. to be honest i think the “follow your interests” advice is a lot better anyway because LOL at people who think they’re going to write a great novel or whatever (we’re so special!! we can do anything we put our minds to!!). pursuing lofty ambitions pretty much guarantees failure, while following your interests might lead you to a path you like. but yeah i just didn’t really see that distinction drawn so i was kind of wondering at the end, “wait so what did she think was gonna happen?”

    • Cara

      In terms of “following your dreams” and “following your interests,” there is a small distinction- though I would say many students find their dreams by following their interests. One of the things I am grappling with in this piece is that a lot of students-including myself- don’t know what their dream career is or what they’d like their life to look like. The options presented to us by Brown CareerLab are slim for humanities majors, though some (like consulting) are lucrative.

      To that end, I didn’t discuss my personal goals because I think they’re somewhat irrelevant to the larger point: people who might discover something they find more fulfilling tend to pigeonhole themselves early in careers like consulting, lawyering, finance. I think many Brown students don’t learn what exactly they’re going to do (in terms of career path) until they’ve entered the job market and discovered what they’re passionate about. It’s a process.

      Personally, I have held several journalism internships and already have one lined up over the summer. That doesn’t mean I don’t question what I’d like to do with my life every day, and that my peers aren’t doing the same.

      It’s somewhat cynical to “LOL” at people who attempt to follow their dreams, don’t you think? Many Brown students have gone on to “write a great novel or whatever.” If nobody pursued lofty ambitions, nobody would ever be successful. That being said, if you just want to be comfortable and happy with a family, that’s great too! Nobody is FORCING you to be ambitious or driven.

  • TheRationale

    I think some people realize that tuition is $60k/year and that it’s disingenuous to spurn lucrative careers.

  • johnlonergan

    Don’t worry–there IS life after a history degree. I attended Harvard Bus School, and am now a medical device venture capitalist in San Francisco. I believe that history helps you to evaluate a great deal of information with widely varying viewpoints and come to your own conclusions–very helpful in business. Oh, and I still enjoy reading history!

    Brown University is derelict, however, in charging one of the highest tuitions in the world, then leaving you to the wolves when looking for a career. Brown’s relationships with alums are dismal–we’d love to get more exposure to good Brown students.

    Brown’s a bit like a bad relationship: they date you for four years, then drop you like a stone. The only time you hear from them afterwards is when they ask you for money. That’s no way to establish and maintain a relationship!

    • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

      so ur a bus driver or…?

    • Cara

      Thanks for the encouragement! It’s reassuring.