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Maia Ferdman: Humanities majors’ post-grad fears are unwarranted

Victoria Chang/Daily Bruin

By Maia Ferdman

Oct. 21, 2013 12:00 a.m.

As a global studies student with an English minor, I shudder at my prospects after graduation.

Friends, family and even people I’ve just met ask me how I am going to turn my degree into something useful – in other words, how I am going to make money.

A fair question, to be sure. Humanities students tend not to move through a linear career path like that of a doctor, engineer or lawyer.

From day one, our society drills into our liberal arts mind the need for an everlasting internship or obligatory graduate school. Often our parents, professors and pundits warn us to be rational. To train in a technical skill. To go into business.

But increasingly, this line of thinking instills in humanities students the presumption that our bachelor’s degree is somehow lacking – that only upon graduation does our real, applicable learning begin.

Students should refuse to subscribe to this presumption, which often stops smart and capable humanitarians, world travelers and avid readers from jumping into the job market at full throttle.

While scrolling through job listings, I realized just how limiting this notion has become. I brushed off my strengths as irrelevant and disregarded all sorts of options, under the impression that they were unattainable to my un-interned, undergraduate self.

In reality, humanities and social science majors provide broad-based skills that are applicable to any job, said Barbara Van Nostrand, an academic adviser based in the Department of Musicology.

She has heard of an English student who went on to be a comedian, one in applied linguistics who works for Google and an Italian major who worked for the Obama campaign.

Recent surveys commissioned by Northeastern University reveal that skills like critical thinking, effective and clear communication and problem solving are in high demand among employers. Humanities students happen to excel at those very skills, compelled as we are to read closely, micro-analyze and debate profusely.

“There are very good, rational reasons for devoting a lot of energy to the humanities,” said David Schaberg, the UCLA dean of humanities.

Schaberg said studying the humanities not only gives more meaning to a student’s life, but it also makes them culturally literate and able to communicate.

Herein lies the irony. This resourcefulness, these marketable skills, are exactly what humanities majors impart. But without the confidence that these skills are practical, we will not be so inclined to use them.

In that vein, Jim Stigler, a psychology professor, co-founded a program called Startup UCLA, which is geared towards providing humanities and social science students with the resources they need to create businesses of their own.

“The stuff you learn in humanities and social sciences is useful in coming up with ideas for startup companies that can float,” Stigler said. “Often engineers are connected to the technology, but not as much to society’s needs.”

Humanities students should reject the idea that the limbo of an unpaid internship or graduate school is a necessary step toward employment, and instead learn to identify the specific, practical skills we already glean from our coursework.

We have all the ingredients to succeed in today’s marketplace, but in order to tap into their potential, we must first recognize and embrace them.

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