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What did you do with your degree?
November 25, 2009 4:13 PM   Subscribe

Have you managed to turn an undergrad degree in the humanities/liberal arts into a satisfying and intellectually challenging career? Please tell me about it.

I'm finishing up a social science/humanities degree (philosophy/psychology/cognitive science, if it matters.) I'm considering graduate school, but I'd like a sense for my other options - what can I do with my degree? Standard answers like "education, research, law, academia, marketing, etc" are vague, and of little use in forming a concrete plan. I'd like some specific examples of possible paths (the more details, the better), and some reassurance that my degree is at least somewhat useful.

So I'd like to hear how you turned your liberal arts/humanities/social science degree into an intellectually challenging and reasonably fun career, one that utilizes abilities like:
- writing clear, succinct prose
- research skills
- reading and summarizing abstruse/academic material
- analytical/problem solving skills
(etc.)

I should mention, also, that I've taken some computer science courses - I don't want to become a programmer, but if you have a relevant job that requires some modicum of technical skill, that's fine.

I'm not looking for something particularly lucrative, but extra points if your story doesn't involve a dying industry (e.g. print journalism.)

Extra, extra points if it's a career that I've probably never heard of.
posted by mellifluous to Work & Money (29 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
Graduated with Honours in film studies. BA was film studies and political science.

Both before and after graduation I was a freelance writer for about 5 years. This work encompasses everything from what you'd typically expect a freelancer to do (articles, interviews, reviews) to broadcast work with national radio, contracts with various government departments on internal writing projects and weird, ad hoc kind of stuff that might have been grant-related etc. etc. The perks were phenomenal, but the pressure to be shit was intense, and the pay was usually appalling.

From there I worked in the non-profit advocacy sector for a while, diong communications/marketing stuff like press releases, newsletters, organising events, building or writing content for web sites etc. You can get a lot of responsibility with these kind of jobs, but the pay is again lower than median and the non-profit sector is largely dominated by two types: people who are too shit to work private sector, and crusaders of one sort or another. Crusaders can be nice or terrible. But the combo makes a weird mix. Obviously, as someone just started out, I was in the first category for a couple of years.

Then - whilst unhappy with my job, my girlfriend suggested I apply for her large multi-national company. I was initially worried because I'm a bit of a commie and had never worked in that kind of environment. It's now been two and a bit years working in the communications department for one of the largest companies in the world.

I have done external PR for them, things like organising events, setting up interviews with journalists, recording podcasts, etc. and now work on the internal side, trying to make the workforce feel more engaged and energised about work, and trying to simplify their lives a bit from a comms perspective. I also do a lot of polling and metrics stuff now, which ties in nicely with my pol sci major.

So that's my story, but I just want to point out a couple of crucial things:

1) No one gives a shit about your degree, positive or negative. They want to know you have one, they won't care what it is, and won't believe it qualifies you for anything. (this is for 'soft' degrees. Obviously pharmacy is a different story.)

2) You may not ever find anything as stimulating as uni. You pay to go there cause it's so fun. Jobs pay you money mainly cause they're shit. If they're not shit, everyone wants to do them and they are either super competitive or pay terribly.

3) Following on from points 1 and 2. If you want something good, you need to start thinking about it now. Throughout my degree I was nearly always doing something that would set me apart from the other fifty kabillion graduates of any given year. Concrete skills from things like internships, volunteering or anything.

Your degree won't 'lead' to any kind of job, it is your work that will do that. A degree like ours is only good for teaching you how to think, and frankly, thinking is not rated very highly in the world of jobs, a fact that recent graduates seem largely unable to grasp. Doing, on the other hand, people love doing.
posted by smoke at 4:34 PM on November 25, 2009 [19 favorites]


I have a degree in voice performance. I also did enough undergrad coursework to fulfill the requirements for the music history option. After five years of working for the university in public relations (and additional work before that, including working as an RFP writer for a software company and a legal assistant), I just finished my master's in journalism. I had also been accepted to other programs in library science and public affairs. Many of my music school friends went on to med school, law school, grad school in German, biology or any other program they felt like.

I have never, ever, intended to be a professional performer of any sort. I mainly wanted to have a solid academic background while I honed other skills in areas I thought would be useful in a variety of fields. I wanted to work for the university when I got out, and that had more to do with what I knew about the university and how it worked than whether I could sing a scale or make some sort of chemical reaction.

I should also point out that employers view former music students as interesting, creative and well rounded. In addition to the core competencies that every undergraduate should master, you would also have the experience of teamwork (small and large ensemble work), discipline (practice), performing under pressure, critical historical study...

Especially now, having skills like this is super helpful, because you might be able to get a job that requires a combination of skills instead of just a degree in X or Y. The best thing you can do is hone your customer service skills, because in addition to that old chestnut of working at McDonalds, you'll go far in other fields, too. I'm on at least the third job in which someone actually created a position for me because I was friendly, honest and all-around awesome.
posted by Madamina at 4:43 PM on November 25, 2009


I'd like some specific examples of possible paths (the more details, the better), and some reassurance that my degree is at least somewhat useful.

Like smoke, I'm not sure that I can give that reassurance.

I graduated summa cum laude with an English degree, spent a year working in a library, went to school for another English degree (MFA in creative writing) and currently work in stewardship for a large research university. My position largely involves design and writing (the job description specifies "impeccable writing skills") and some marketing/PR skills, which I have more-or-less improvised by being creative, personable, and a good critical thinker. It pays OK for the area, but not great.

I don't know that I would consider it a career; it's a job. I derive meaning from my extra-curriculars, so to speak, and my long term goal is still to write full time.

That being said, I enjoy it; it's reasonably creative for office work. My coworkers and boss seem to really like me, but that's because I'm a good worker, friendly, and I finish my work in a timely manner. I'm honestly not even sure they would remember what my degree is off the top of their heads if asked. I found it like you find any job--through online job postings. I'm fairly certain that my snazzy-looking resume and the fact that I know most major software packages is what got me my interview, not my liberal arts degrees.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:56 PM on November 25, 2009


What can you do with your degree? Hate to break it to you, but basically nothing.

What can you do with a degree? Well lots of stuff, actually. Assuming anyone is hiring, which isn't a terribly good assumption these days.

smoke is right: your list of skills isn't going to be terribly useful for most jobs, because thinking critically is hopefully done by people in upper management (and those that advise them), leaving everyone below them to basically do what they're told.

The only places I can think of where this isn't true are 1) academia (good luck), 2) the classic professions (law, medicine, the clergy), and 3) some but certainly not all areas of engineering. There are number of jobs which require you to be creative--the arts, obviously, but marketing, PR, etc. too--but they don't tend to involve much in the way of research, writing (of the kind you're talking about anyways), or analysis. For that you either need a specialized undergrad degree like engineering, pharmacology, etc., or an advanced degree.

I have a law degree. I graduated this past spring and I'm one of the lucky minority to actually have a job. The pay ain't great, but the hours are, and I get to do exactly the sort of critical reading, writing, and analysis that you're talking about. The downside is that I'm probably going to be paying off debt until my kids are in college, and since I don't actually have any kids at the moment, this is depressing. But it beats the pants off shift work, and I have a ton of responsibility even though I've only been there a few months. Yeah, it's not a guarantee of an upper-middle class life, but I'd much rather do what I'm doing now than anything I could be doing with my philosophy/history bachelors.

I'm gonna hit smoke's second point again: there are actually jobs of the sort you're talking about. They're in the federal bureaucracy. I spent a summer working for the FCC's International Bureau. It was awesome. And the only way I was able to land the job is because they weren't paying me. All the people working there are incredibly well qualified and could probably double their salaries tomorrow, even in this economy, if they decided to go private-sector. But the federal government isn't really hiring, and the states are in even worse shape, so I can't really give you much encouragement there.
posted by valkyryn at 4:57 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


You would potentially do well combining all of those things into a newspaper, magazine, blog, or website job. Long story short, that's what I did with my bachelor's degree in psychology.

To do while you're still in college:

⋅ Write for an on-campus website or print publication
⋅ Do a media internship for course credit
⋅ Start sending out job applications
posted by limeonaire at 5:02 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


What can you do with your degree? Hate to break it to you, but basically nothing.

What can you do with a degree? Well lots of stuff, actually. Assuming anyone is hiring, which isn't a terribly good assumption these days.


Give me a break. Why be negative? Look, you make your own luck.

As a fresh undergrad, you can use your degree to be a program officer, project coordinator, administrative assistant, marketing coordinator, research officer, etc etc etc.

Working with junior staff at a government agency, I expect them to be polite, willing to learn, willing to listen and follow directions, and willing to take the initiative (ie, I don't have to micro-manage them). A lot of the work involves basic event planning, research, contact clients or large lists of clients, booking rooms.

At this stage, you need to be organized and be able to plan, and be able to complete tasks in a quality manner.

That's what I would focus on.

And be entrepreneurial and be responsible for your own success. Fill your sales funnel with job leads - it's often a numbers game. Throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see if it sticks.

If there are no jobs in your region, consider moving.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:08 PM on November 25, 2009


I have undergrad degrees in physics and English from a liberal arts college. Neither degree offered much in terms of immediate employment, so I decided to go into technical writing. I earned a Masters degree and immediately had good job prospects in the software industry. I've been a tech writer for about 7 years, and I really enjoy it. I get to work with brilliant engineers who respect my unique skill set. Plus, I even get to teach tech writing courses at my local university.

Tech writing matches your description well:
- Requires clear, succinct prose
- Requires good research skills
- Requires ability to analyze and summarize
- Requires an understanding of the reader's thought process, an area of study increasingly dominated by cognitive scientists
- Requires some computer science skills, but not as much as a programmer
- Should grow as a field over the next few decades
- Prefers people who write using bulleted lists

Two ways that it doesn't match:
- You'll get further faster if you have a degree or a certificate in tech writing, so you might be looking at more school.
- You can expect to make good money as a tech writer, so I hope that non-lucrative wasn't a requirement.
posted by cholstro at 5:22 PM on November 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


My answer. Short version: I started with a bunch of entry-level jobs in the tech industry, and now I'm a geek/suit interface.

Community management, product management, and tech writing all sound like plausible options for you; cholstro's advice above is good. If you're interested in any of those, contributing to an open source project is a way to get pro-level experience and build your portfolio fast.
posted by brainwane at 5:51 PM on November 25, 2009


I have a career that answers all your points! Unfortunately, it requires going to grad school. Read on, if that didn't scare you off.

So I'd like to hear how you turned your liberal arts/humanities/social science degree into an intellectually challenging and reasonably fun career...


I have a degree in history as well as one in Spanish. I could have gone into other fields, but I have been interested in the field of librarianship for a long time. I would encourage you to explore the field, and look at what doesn't require a degree or odd little offshoots of the traditional paths like Information Architect, or Metadata Curator at a database company. I'm currently an academic reference librarian. I got my BAs, worked a bit (in a totally unrelated, soul-sucking field), then went to library school.

- writing clear, succinct prose

This is a necessity for a variety of fields, but especially in my area of academic librarianship, where you are expected to publish in journals and do conferences and all that, and you're also expected to respond to emails/IMs/committee work/other forms of communication in ways that are clear and succinct.

- research skills
I'm a reference librarian. This is what I do all day, in one way (on-desk reference) or another (retrospective collection development).

- reading and summarizing abstruse/academic material
This is a huge part of the job, and since a number of academic librarians also do instruction (that is, 'how do you do research in your field?' classes directed at undergrads especially), you would be expected to competently explain academic material and the how-tos to students.

- analytical/problem solving skills
Very necessary in my field, because you have to think around a problem or find a new solution to a reference question that is particularly tricky (and where the obvious answers have already been explored). Also, you could pursue cataloging, which at a higher level research institution is very, very analytical; it's also a dying field, however.

I should mention, also, that I've taken some computer science courses - I don't want to become a programmer, but if you have a relevant job that requires some modicum of technical skill, that's fine.

Oh, this is super hot in librarianship right now. You could, if you wanted to, explore becoming a Systems Librarian (though that's not exactly a 'modicum' of technical skill).

I'm not looking for something particularly lucrative, but extra points if your story doesn't involve a dying industry (e.g. print journalism.)


Half there: librarianship is definitely not lucrative, but you'll get some degree of argument as to whether it's a dying field or not. I would say to explore those non-traditional paths (which are likely growth areas) and see if there's an area that might interest you. Please note that there's recently been a lot of discussion about whether there's too many librarians being turned out of library school or not (think of law schools in this respect); I mention this not to discourage you but to make you aware. It's a path worth looking at, even if you decide to go another way entirely.
posted by librarylis at 6:01 PM on November 25, 2009


I agree with smoke et al -- your degree won't lead to a job, but working will. I hated this when I was just out of college, b/c I was smart & graduated with honors & resented having to start at the bottom of the totem pole in admin jobs or whatever I could find, but I've found that in working those kinds of jobs, I've met other people who've helped me out.

My personal story: I have a double major in Religious Studies & English Lit (& a writing minor). Additionally, I completed about 50% of a MLS degree before walking from the program, so librarylis is on to something as well, but I basically fell into the job I have now which uses most of the skillset you mentioned above -- I work for a university writing clinical trials for oncology research. I do not have a medical background, nor do I have much of a science background (I excelled in the sciences in skill but the interest wasn't there), but I started in a behavioral research position at the university several years ago & in the course of that, I met a physician who liked me & thought this kind of position would be a good match & helped me get into the field.
posted by oh really at 6:13 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Magna Cum Laude in Mass Communications. 20 years in Government procurement. I don't have a business background. I write, research, and solve problems. For seven years, I worked on a large ERP implementation, though I don't have a degree in computer science. I've been a classroom instructor despite my lack of an education background. I work 4 ten hour days, three in the office, one at home. 10 paid holidays a year. Six weeks vacation a year. It's a recession proof industry. Satisfying? Sure, financially and otherwise. Intellectually stimulating? Not really, but it's had its moments.

But the federal government isn't really hiring

Nonsense, just look at Usa Jobs. The average age of an employee in my agency is 47 or so, we're always hiring as people are always retiring. Good luck.
posted by fixedgear at 6:35 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


@fixedgear, valkyryn


I'm gonna hit smoke's second point again: there are actually jobs of the sort you're talking about. They're in the federal bureaucracy...All the people working there are incredibly well qualified and could probably double their salaries tomorrow, even in this economy, if they decided to go private-sector. But the federal government isn't really hiring, and the states are in even worse shape, so I can't really give you much encouragement there.


Nthing the federal government. I work there as well, but unlike fixedgear, my experience in my field there (research) has been nothing great. I do amazingly interesting work, have a great quality of life, and am surrounded by intellectual people. In addition, the average age of employees is high, and there's about to be tons of opportunities (we've been hiring at an amazing clip, especially at the entry level. I have several friends that are in the feds now). What valkyryn is saying is not true at all.
posted by waylaid at 7:09 PM on November 25, 2009


To repeat what some other people have said, I became a librarian. My undergrad degree's in modern poetry.
posted by box at 7:17 PM on November 25, 2009


I graduated with a liberal arts degree from a small liberal arts college. I've turned it into an endlessly interesting career in museum theory and programming (a field I didn't know existed when I got my BA). I made my way into this field by way of traditional classroom education and then experiential education.

The college spent a lot of time defending/justifying/arguing that a liberal arts education was the best possible preparation for a career. At the time, as a student, that talk kind of washed over me. I didn't have any idea what they were talking about, and since the liberal arts education was the only kind of college education I had, there was no basis to compare my experience.

But since that time I've realized they were absolutely right - not full of shit. I've been able to cross disciplines and argue my way into responsibilities that most people expect you need specialty training in, on the basis of the fact that my liberal arts education made me well-rounded, a quick study, able to read and write, take a position and defend it, judge and evaluate, research and report.

Seems crazy, but these skills aren't as common in the professional world as one might think. My liberal arts education actually made me believe that there were no barriers to success - that my skills were applicable anywhere, and with appropriate training, I could excel.

I'm 40. It's only maybe during the last 5 years or so that I've been able to perceive the fruits of the liberal arts training. YOu don't notice it while you're in it; eventually, though, you can learn to work it. It means there's basically nothing you can't do, if you pursue the necessary credentials.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on November 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


I worked for a few pizza entrepeneurs before and after I graduated with a bs in psychology with minors in management and sociology. At one point, I started taking courses toward cognitive science but wimped out because of the math.

I met the pizza mavens my junior year, and worked in their first store as a driver, pie slanger, and eventually manager about the time of my graduation. Best university job ever.

After graduation, they offered me a role in their plans to expand into a lot of markets. I worked with them for about 6 months whilst dreaming of opening 20 stores and making mad mozzarella cheese. Too this day I wished it had worked out. We made it to 4 stores. One of the partners in that venture was one of the brightest guys I have ever met. Making and delivering pizza's all day long is a drain. Huge potential upside as a owner but tiring as a operator. I came to realize this, and decided to go back to school for a year and a half. I finished with an additional MIS major with the necessary business and I.T. courses to be a decent candidate for employment in the MIS / IT space. My liberal arts degree made me a very strong candidate. Why? Because I sold it.

I had always enjoyed 'computers', and soon realized that a lot of what I had learned in psych and soc could be applied to the business and I.T. worlds. That was the pitch. I now work as a business analyst and a project manager. I enjoy it as a profession. It brings in good money, I get to work with smart geeks and suits, and I keep my finger in technology. I definetly need to use my noggin. I am learning new things everyday. Between politics, research, people, code and technology, you can burn up as much grey matter as you want. As a entry level developer , my education, with its lack of math really put me at a disadvantage against hardcore coders. I sought out roles that eased up on the coding, and shifted a bit focus onto business and people.

In looking at your list of abilities, if I replaced the words 'abstruse/academic material' with 'technical /business material', you could be a great business analyst, that is of course if you can work with people.

Best of luck. Whatever you do, figure out a story that big-ups your liberal arts degree to prospective employers,
posted by jasondigitized at 7:22 PM on November 25, 2009


philosophy/psychology/cognitive science

[more] this is a fantastic degree to have right now. Cognitive science is hot, hot, hot in my field. We are grasping around to find people who can talk usefully about it.

I think there's a fundamental issue with your question: "What can I do with my degree?" The thing is, you don't know yet. The first thing you do with your degree isn't going to be THE thing you do with your degree. Like everyone, you're going to have a series of jobs, and you'll develop a more and more finely grained idea of what your particular gifts to deliver on this earth are going to be. It's going to take a fair bit of time and a lot more accumulated experience. To some extent, it doesn't really matter much what your jobs are - not until maybe age 30, or whenever/if you go to graduate school. You're in an experience-accumulation mode now, an applied-learning-and-observation mode. It's going to take some time to perceive how your degree is useful to the world, and some experimentation.

One of the greatest disservices done to people by the college-promotion machine is to promise people that college is a ticket to an immediately useful and rewarding job. That's not the case. It's not the preceder, it's just the prerequisite. You still need professional experience, and most people gather that through a variety of seemingly unassociated work assignments that, over time, begin to cohere into a career path. You'll do some great things - not with your degree, but because you have your degree. You don't need to know what you're going to do with the rest of your life. You just need to think as far as what you're going to do next.
posted by Miko at 7:23 PM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


your list of skills isn't going to be terribly useful for most jobs

Well, those skills you list can be a hell of a lot of use in law, depending on the career path you take. But litigation/legal research seem like an ideal application of your skills (not that other skills are not also required).
posted by Dasein at 7:29 PM on November 25, 2009


Wife has BA in English. Wondered what in the world she was going to do. Took a part time job at a public library. Started working full time. Went to library science school and got an MLS. Now assistant head librarian and (more important to her) children's librarian for the last 10 years. Loves her job and people love her. She has applied for (writing) and received many grants. Has to (research) new ways to get teens and young adults into the library. (Reading) - goes w/o saying. (Analytical/problem solving) - have you spent much time in a library?? Do you know how many people are in there that probably shouldn't be in there, including criminals, mentally ill, and just plain idiots (my description). She deals with these people everyday. My job as an IT manager that I like to think involves problem solving pales in comparison. Bonus for me: I feel like I'm with a celebrity when I'm out on the town with her, so many people know her.
posted by dukes909 at 7:52 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


As the first-born son of a Jewish doctor, growing up I was told that I could do anything in life that I wanted to do ... after I graduated from medical school. As I reached the end of high school, my love of reading and antipathy for my father motivated me to take that precept of his and throw it in the trash. So when I was accepted to the Univ. of Chicago, I immediately threw myself into a philosophy degree program, purposefully eschewing my father's wishes in order to pursue the humanities.

While I succeeded in pissing off my father, after a couple of years I thought that I was going to be short on job skills (outside of being a graduate student). Because my main interests within the broader field of philosophy were ethics and phenomenology (not together, of course), I found myself drawn to medicine as a "practical laboratory" for these two topics. This brought me to medical ethics and machine learning as applied to diagnosis. It was a terrific fit -- what I studied in my philosophy classes, and what I learned, allowed me to look at medicine from a different perspective. Medicine became, for me, a study of the human condition, and meshed perfectly with my undergraduate studies.

Well, you spend enough time around hospitals and it gets a little addictive - the drama, the science, the personalities. So after getting my degree, I decided that, in fact, I was interested in medicine, but for different reasons, all of which were a result of my undergraduate study of philosophy. So I spent 3 years after college doing pre-med courses and research in anesthesia, and then ended up pursuing a career in science and medicine. I ended up in pediatrics, and then pediatric oncology, and then ultimately pediatric brain tumors before putting all of that a side, a couple of years ago, when I decided to work for a pharmaceutical company doing cancer drug development research - specifically, I design experiments using human beings to prove whether or not new cancer drugs are hitting their intended biological target, or having their intended biological effect, so that we can more quickly determine whether to accelerate development (if the drug is working), or terminate development (if it isn't).

Long story short -- I think that the undergraduate study of philosophy was, for me, a terrific background for a career in science and medicine. One learns critical thinking and analytical skills, how to frame an argument, and how to perform logical analyses. One studies the history and development of human thought, attempts to understand questions of knowledge, existence, reason, and ultimately, the human condition - which is, of course, at the core of medicine and biomedical science. Personally, I think that a liberal arts degree is completely enabling. My feeling is that you go to college to learn how to think, and not what to think. Once you know how to think, then you can do whatever you want.
posted by scblackman at 7:54 PM on November 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have an English degree. I'm now a litigation support case manager, and it has the qualities you're looking for, as long as you're also organized, able to meet deadlines (often on short notice), and good with people. It's mostly consulting and project management: my colleagues and I meet with attorneys, become familiar with the details of the case they're working on, stay up-to-date with any current laws that have any bearing on how we handle their discovery, and create a data management plan/timeline. We write proposals for hiring outside vendors when we need them. On the technical side, we put together trial exhibits and presentations, set up courtroom technology, and provide software training.

My paycheck sucks, but that's because I work for a bankrupt state. Private firms and the federal government pay pretty well. It's not the right career for me, but my coworkers and boss are fun, so that (and being able to use my brain at work) makes the job fun.
posted by kiripin at 8:04 PM on November 25, 2009


I've got a BA in English and worked for non-profits/colleges/tech companies as a project assistant/admin asst/executive asst/secretary. Some of these jobs are entry level, but if you can get your foot in the door and prove that you are smart, motivated and can write, it is possible to move up in rank.

I went back to school and got a MA in the museum studies field and work at a museum. I love it. I get to research and write and be around objects that have amazing stories behind them and I get to help tell the stories! I've been able to write and publish articles for journals and other publications in this area, sometimes even getting paid. The downside is, the museum field is wildly competitive. But if you are a rock star scholar and can hustle (ie. write grants), you can make it.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:08 PM on November 25, 2009


I have a politics degree, with an emphasis on political theory. I found that four years of reading thousands of pages of dense, complex text, and identifiying the key insights and applying them in an analysis, has made me a pretty good at doing those things for money. I'm a strategic planner for a digital marketing agency, and have worked as a marketing strategy consultant. My 'learning to think' degree came in handy!

Also, i took a 'post graduate' marketing diploma at a community college, after i graduated form university. The college diploma got my foot in the door of marketing jobs, but the politics degree is what makes me good at it.
posted by Kololo at 8:16 PM on November 25, 2009


I have a BA in Communication Arts - Radio, TV, and Film.

Due to a massive twist in fate, I now do Software Test Engineering on television media software. While I can't say that my degree has directly helped me, it is good to be working in an area that I have both an interest and an academic expertise in, and it's really exciting to be working on one of the cutting edges of it. It's also the only job I've had where I *have* to watch TV - it's literally always on in the background because I'm running some test or another, and it's gotten to the point where I can tune anything out. (Whenever those surveys come along that ask how much TV I watch in a typical day, my answer of "oh, 10 hours or so" always blows people's minds, and I love it.)

I also love running into other 'TV people' in the field, and talking about what we do. Fascinating stuff, it is.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:16 PM on November 25, 2009


I'm only a year of so out of my undergrad, so I have nothing like these great stories to tell, but I do have almost the exact same degree as you (but switch "psychology" for "English") and I'll tell you about a job that exactly fulfills your requirements that you can do right now and that you probably don't know about:

Writing assignments for undergrads. This was the first job I got out of university, through a misleadingly-worded craigslist ad. I did it for about a year. It's actually kind of an amazing job. If you can write a B paper without much effort, there's not a lot of pressure involved, and you're getting paid pretty decently to read and comment on Greek plays, Jane Austen novels, sociology theory--all that good undergrad stuff. It's like being an academic, or a book reviewer, but you don't get any of the credit. I'm not exactly proud that I did it--it's legal, but morally it probably ranks somewhere around working for a well-intentioned oil company--but it's a lot more rewarding than most other jobs that are available to me at the moment.

With respect to graduating with a cognitive science degree, my thoughts were similar to yours in that my impression was that if you weren't going into academia a cognitive science degree was completely useless. However, I've recently started tutoring for an agency that focuses on kids with learning irregularities/disabilities, and I'm finding that my degree actually helps. It helps in selling me to the parent (which at first, to me, felt a bit dissimulative), but it also actually seems to help me isolate the kids' problems. So I don't know, I'm curious myself where this kind of degree will lead.
posted by skwt at 12:20 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have a BA in philosphy with Honours in English, and a music degree. When I graduated I worked as a research assistant and hated it, mainly because of all the university bureaucracy.

Now I work as a textbook editor. Most of the time the writers I work with aren't really writers, just experts in their field, so even though they might know what they're talking about, often they aren't capable of communicating it. Therefore, I use all of the skills you mention - obviously I have to read, write and summarise in order to knock things into shape, but I also use problem solving skills to confusing text make sense, and research skills so I can understand topics I'm not familiar with (and fill gaps, more often than not).

[It's actually kind of the perfect humanities career, but that being said, I think you might be surprised at how few humanities graduates have these kinds of skills at a high level. If you're good at that stuff, I think you'll eventually find a niche somewhere.]

On the whole I find it pretty satisfying. I get to do something that's hard, that I feel like I'm good at and trained for, and that I know most people couldn't do. I also get to do something that I feel is helping people (i.e., the students who will be able to understand their textbook because of my input). It's a pretty dry job in some ways, but I enjoy it, mainly because I work with smart, cool people.

As a young-ish person without heaps of experience, I think it pays reasonably well. However, I don't expect my salary to rise to dizzying heights.

On the downside I can't really tell you how to get into or progress in this kind of career. I figured out I wanted to do something with words, and then had the good fortune to sit next to my future (current) boss at a party. But I would definitely agree with Smoke that it is the work that you do which will get you hired, and also shed favourable light on your degree. So start doing things, particularly things that use the skills you've mentioned, and hopefully that will lead you somewhere.
posted by Emilyisnow at 12:35 AM on November 26, 2009


I'm finishing up a social science/humanities degree (philosophy/psychology/cognitive science, if it matters.)

Your definition of your own degree somewhat surprises me, although I see that you have philosophy listed first so you must have focused in that area. I say this because I also graduated with a degree in cognitive science, and subjects such as cognitive neuroscience, computation modeling and clinical psychology are definitely not humanities or traditional social science. Anyways, I work in an fMRI research lab as a research assistant, and my degree has served me very well so far.

- writing clear, succinct prose [yes, I frequently am asked to edit papers and write abstracts]
- research skills [obviously]
- reading and summarizing abstruse/academic material [often]
- analytical/problem solving skills [definitely, particularly in programming and experimental design]

Other people I know with degrees in cognitive science have gone into programming, marketing, teaching and grad school, as well as the others I know working in various labs as assistants/managers.
posted by sophist at 12:51 AM on November 26, 2009


Just my $0.02 (

Interesting question and understandable why you would have some anxiety about the future path ways in front of you. Like a lot of people have said already the degree in and of itself is unlikely to result in a particular career but it is an enabler and I would not be too concerned that the nature of degree is in itself restrictive.

I have a BScEcon in International Politics and Intelligence Studies. I work as an Underwriter for an Insurance company. It requires all of the points you mentioned, every single risk I Underwrite is different and there is a huge choice of classes that one can specialise in. I appreciate that insurance may not be something you had in mind but I assure you whatever your specialism is can be used towards a good career. And as for 'dying industry' extra points I assure you insurance is going nowhere.

Just some interesting classes of business in my opinion:
Space - insuring launch phase of commercial sattelites etcetera
Marine - cargo ships on the high seas
Fine Art & Specie - insuring high value art collections, jewellery, bonds, cash in transit etc
Political Risk - looking out poltical (in)stability of state's around the world and covering businesses transacting business in other countrys.


- writing clear, succinct prose
This is absolutely integral part of underwriting.
- research skills
ditto
- reading and summarizing abstruse/academic material
ditto
- analytical/problem solving skills
ditto
also the computer skills are key.
I describe the role as being a cross between a detective and a gambler.
PM if you want anymore details.
posted by numberstation at 5:01 AM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I totally agree with those who say "You make your own luck." In my case this is completely true. I have a BFA is Studio Art Photography. I made a living for a several years as a production and fine art potter, an architectural draughtsman, a mechanic, an automotive production line worker and an administrative assistant with a university. Currently I'm working as a graphic designer for a different department in the same university.

The major advantage of a liberal arts degree is that you learn a lot of different things. So: go and do a lot of different jobs with your different skill sets. You're not going to be recruited by law and engineering firms, you job path is totally and completely up to you. If you can type, you can get an office job. Pick a field and be in it for while, if you like it, move up, if not, move on. I tried several fields before I found the academic world to my liking. Not everything is going to be a great fit out of the box, but with a liberal arts degree, you have the ability to do a lot of different things, use that to your advantage.

Remember, specialization is for insects, so go for things just beyond your reach and see where it takes you.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 3:56 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


BA with honors in anthropology. I also took a certificate program (more than a minor, but not quite a second major) in culture, health and science. It took me 5 years of work, in an unrelated field (project management for a small web design firm), to figure out that I wanted a Masters in public health.

What really helped over those 5 years was not just getting up and going to that same job every day, but trying different volunteer opportunities (I never did any internships in college, which I immensely regretted as soon as I was out and tied to a paycheck and my student loans). My last volunteer work - at my city's local board of health - really helped me see the connection between my undergrad coursework and the huge field of public health (epidemiology, health policy, bioethics, etc).

Connections I made through that volunteer work turned into my current job, as a writer/editor for a health communications firm. I've also been accepted to a Master's program in Health Communication and Education. My current work hits many of your points - writing clear, succinct prose - absolutely a requirement. Research skills - definitely, and this one - reading and summarizing abstruse/academic material - yes, in the sense that I'm often 'translating' medical / technical jargon into plain language.

The greatest part of all this is realizing that the 9-5 I had for so many years at the web design firm wasn't a waste. Even though on the face of it, it was totally unrelated to health or anthropology, it was a great experience in dealing with hands-on usability and literacy issues, design challenges, and of course the critical thinking / problem solving needed to actually get projects out the door on time. Plus, my technical know-how is serving me well as the field of health communication moves online and into new media (Twitter, etc.).
posted by pants at 4:10 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


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