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How do you use what you learned in school?
September 2, 2014 10:08 AM   Subscribe

As a tutor of every age group from kindergarten to college, I often hear the sensible question, "When am I ever going to use this in real life?" I would like to be able to better answer this, and so I ask you, Metafilter, when do you ever use the things you learned in school? Do you use math? English? History? If so, what parts? And how?

If you would be so obliging, it would be good to hear some or all of the following in your response:
1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?
2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?
3) How much do you make?
4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?
5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?
6) If you use nothing you learned in school, say so. I'm happy to tell my students that, too.

Thanks for your help!
posted by Alex Haist to Education (52 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's funny. What kids WANT to hear is "yes I will use this exact same precalc equation/fact about the Roman Empire in my work life," but that's not really the point at all.

It would take days to sit down and figure out just exactly how every aspect of my work life is informed by stuff I did in school, so I'll use a very narrow example.

In both history and English classes, as kids, we started out just reading things and being told about which parts were important. Then, we'd read them and TALK about what was important. Then, in high school/college, we would read texts, figure out what the 'point' of the text was, and summarize it, perhaps pulling out a few quotes to make our argument more effectively. I figured out that I had a knack for this- digesting information, pulling out the most relevant bits, and presenting it in a clear manner. And now I'm a grant writer and communications person for a nonprofit, and I do that stuff every day.

But if someone had told me "oh, hey, reading Across Five Aprils in 4th grade is preparing you for a career in nonprofit communications" I would have been very confused indeed.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:21 AM on September 2 [6 favorites]


I'm an executive assistant to the CEO of a wine distributor and I have a liberal arts (political science/history) degree. I ended up in this position by doing a lot of administrative work while I was in school and then hitting the tech boom at precisely the right time to somehow get hired as an EA to the president of a fiber optics company at age 24.

I can't think of anything specific I learned in school that I use in my professional life, and I think it's okay to be honest with kids about the limited utility of learning geometry proofs or memorizing the names of paintings. What I learned in school, up through and including college, was more important than any specific skills or facts: school taught me how to learn, and how important it is to keep learning. It taught me how to finish things I started, how to concentrate and try hard on doing stuff I may not personally care much about, to be open-minded and curious about new and unfamiliar subjects, to figure out how to develop educated opinions and accept that others might disagree, how to work with people who were not my friends. My schooling gave me confidence that I'd be able to do and learn things that didn't come easily to me. And of course I also learned a lot of stuff about politics and history and literature that I feel makes me a well-rounded and generally informed person who is capable of interacting intelligently with all sorts of people.

For people in technical fields I'd think schooling would apply a lot more directly to day to day work, but for somebody like me there is still a great deal of benefit from the intangibles.
posted by something something at 10:23 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


Oh, and something else entirely: any student who wants an office job must, must, must learn every aspect of MS Office they can. I got my first professional job based largely on the fact that I had used Microsoft Excel for various school projects and could talk briefly about how I used it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:24 AM on September 2 [5 favorites]


In my opinion, unless you are in an extremely technical (say electrical engineering) field, you never do.

What you do use is how to learn to think and apply broad basic principles. School gives you a toolkit, not solutions to problems you encounter in real life.

My answers to your questions follow:
1) Project manager for a chemical company. Regularly scheduled programming runs from 9-5.
2) Get an engineering degree and top it off with an MBA with an analytical emphasis (in my case Finance). Then, read. Read. Read a lot. Read Non-Fiction. Read about things that explain how the real world works.
3) Low 6 figures
4) Nothing from my MBA or engineering classes, beyond high school math and English. How to write well is more important than what people believe. My job relies a lot on Excel and everything I learnt, I did so because I enjoyed working with it. There are no classes that taught me what I needed to learn to program Excel to update data from SharePoint on the click of a button. What I've learnt and sought out on my own, has been a lot more fun and has stayed with me much longer than anything I learnt in school. Though, I do seek out and look for theories and principles to structure my thinking. For example, when designing processes, it pays to have an understanding of systems design. But then again, I didn't discover this until I started working and was seeking knowledge for the sake of it.
5) Getting along with people who hold very different world views than you do, being respectful and tolerant in the process, and working towards a common goal in spite of those differences.

I've found that seeking out knowledge for the sake of gaining knowledge is how I learn and use stuff. It's hard and it's a constant struggle, but therein lies the challenge. Also, I read. A lot.
posted by rippersid at 10:25 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Well history is obvious. You can't understand current events without context; you can't identify patterns or understand what's likely to happen or where the flaws are in a plan without knowing what has happened when people have experimented before. If you vote, if you care about your community and what's going to happen to it, you need to know history, not just of your own people but of others'. Every war, every improvement, every thing that has ever happened, illustrates some aspect of human psychology that needs to be taken into account when we consider our options today.

Math, I must admit, I never use anything beyond algebra in my own life, but I'm not a scientist. I do use arithmetic and algebra just about every day as I am a recruiter and need to understand what people are earning (all the components including weird stock vesting plans) in order to make them competitive offers and explain why they're competitive when the components are different. It also comes up in my day to day - like I designed rugs for my dining room made of tiles that needed to be cut different ways, and it definitely involved math. Math is also crucial to budgeting, which is a necessary part of having a nice life without debt and its stresses.

English -- this is for fun! While a lot of the books I read for literature classes in high school weren't my cup of tea, the analysis tools (understand how themes fit together and are expressed, understanding characterization, language, and all the rest of the components) remain with me and hugely multiply my enjoyment not only of books but of film. You just get things on multiple levels which otherwise you wouldn't spot.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:26 AM on September 2


I'm the Dean of Students and a Special Education teacher in a high school. But I was also a professional writer, a radio and nightclub DJ, and I worked in TV for years.

I get this question from my high school students. The BIG truth is that it's the activity of genuine learning that opens pathways and allows us to learn other things, things that we care about.

In other words, you may never use algebra as an adult, but you now have the skill set of learning and that's the real skill you're using. You're learning how to learn.

Also, we tell kids a lot that many things build upon each other, but you don't know it until you get more into things. So, maybe as a kid you think you want to be a veterinarian, so you think you don't need math. Well, it turns out that you absolutely DO need algebra and geometry on a daily basis.

You may think you don't need Islamic history, but as an adult, having the knowledge of how Islam came to be and the Islamic experience throughout history, well that can help put current events into a frame of reference you wouldn't have had.

Also, there's an element of overcoming things that you think will be too difficult because that builds grit.
posted by kinetic at 10:28 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I try to tell kids that half of school is about learning how to do specific things like write a paragraph or do a math problem in a way that's effective, but the rest of it is about learning how to think critically about tasks and concepts. You're learning how to experiment, how to persevere how to research, and get what you need. That's the real value of school, IMO/IME.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:30 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


In math class, we learned how to scale shapes down- like, a 10'x4' box is the same proportions as a 5"x2" box.

In college, in a graphic design class, I learned to use Adobe Illustrator.

Last year, we were reorganizing my office, so I measured the rooms and the furniture inside them and, using that elementary-level math, made a scale mockup of the office in Illustrator so that we'd be able to figure out the best places for file cabinets and so forth.

And again: "This third grade math exercise with colorful plastic learning cubes will eventually allow you to help Shelley in Finance figure out where to put her desk" is such a crazy thing to think about, but that's just how these things work.

What you learn in school is a tool. It's like learning how to use a hammer by pounding nails into a board and asking "what use do I have for a board with a bunch of nails in it?" That's not the point. The point is, now you know how to use a hammer.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:35 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


I usually tell kids that they are right, in the future 90%-95% of what they learn they may have no use for. The other 5% may be what they build a career upon, gives them a rewarding hobby, or is just the thing to help bond with someone so they may get lucky. The problem is right now no one can tell you WHICH 5% it's going to be, and the 5% is different for everyone.
posted by Sophont at 10:40 AM on September 2 [23 favorites]


I'm a geographer. History, obviously, is huge but also a surprising amount of basic visual art & design stuff like color theory.
posted by troika at 10:43 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


1) Game designer (actually a technical designer but that's harder to explain). I spend all day working with a large team in the office, lots of sitting at my desk and lots of walking around chatting with people while problem solving, and a few meetings. My job is very creative, but also very heavy on problem solving, both in technical and non-technical ways.
2) Make games in your spare time. Study computer science, or at least learn a little programming. Every job in a game dev team can benefit from some basic programming skills - yes even artists and animators. It makes you not be afraid to get your hands dirty and do things yourself, it teaches you logical problem solving skills (which are useful everywhere in life, not just in programming - breaking down problems into manageable steps). Work on a team to make something. You can't be a game developer if you can't work with others. You need good written and verbal communication skills, team-player skills, and expertise in an area of games you want to do (art, animation, design, programming, production)
3) A very good wage.
4) Geometry and math skills, when laying out levels and designing puzzles. Logic when scripting. English when writing documentation, presentations, and emails to others. Especially documentation, writing tutorials and even quick email explanations - you need to be able to explain things clearly to others on your team. You don't need to be a grammar or spelling nerd, but coherent paragraphs, good use of language, and precis skills are useful to me every day. English literature taught me critical thinking and analysis, which is 100% required for anyone who wants to design games. If you can't break down and understand the mechanics and themes of other games, you won't be able to learn from them, and you won't be able to analyse your own work in order to improve it. This is absolutely the most important skill for my job.
5) Learning how to learn. When faced with a new thing to learn, I know how I learn and what methodologies work best for me.
6) Tell them to that its not a literal transfer of knowledge from school to work - they aren't going to need the actual information they learned in their job, but they are going to need the skills they learned in their job and at home, when navigating real life. They're applying those skills at school to learn some things they will later forget, but they're exercising those skills, and will need those skills throughout their lives.
posted by Joh at 10:45 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


Before going into the specifics, have you ever looked at the Occupational Outlook Handbook? It has information on almost every non-trivial job classification, from cashiers to fasion designers to atmospheric and space scientists. You can see what to study, what the schedule/pay is like, etc.

For my profession (software development), I'm going to contradict what some people said above, and say that the intangible skills I learned were way more important than any particular day in math class or any programming lab. Being able to communicate to your peers and those above you can make the difference between a project finishing on time and a month of rushing around fixing things that were caused by poor planning or miscommunicated requirements.

For the things I learned that were specifically helpful, being able to organize thoughts into writing came from all those seemingly pointless essays I rushed out the night before. Math was kind of a mixed bag -- I don't use geometry and trig on a regular basis, but I regularly bring out set theory (databases), statistics (data analytics), and basic algebra. It's also interesting what else is taught during school that ends up useful later -- the wildly popular Civilization game series probably wouldn't be viable if history wasn't a required subject.
posted by ayerarcturus at 10:45 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


Honestly? High school was about ticking boxes so I could get into a college with a good career office that recruiters courted, and one that would curate peers from whom I could pick up the niceties of being upper middle class. There will be more box ticking later in life, and there is skill in seeing the boxes and in ticking them. There is also art in deciding you don't want to tick boxes anymore.

I'm a junior programmer: I write correct, maintainable code that do things that other teams in the company needs.

The math I use at work is based on the probability and statistics I learned in high school, not the calculus, but probability was posed as "pre-calculus" and statistics was de facto "post-calculus", so maybe that was the use of calculus.

I do think that learning to structure your ideas (English, History, mathematical proofs, any course with writing) helps with programming. Presentation skills are also universally useful.
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:47 AM on September 2


There are two big problems with your students' questions: (1) it assumes that education is solely utilitarian and (2) that learning stops after school.

When are your students going to use the law of congruent triangles in real life? I don't know. When will they use playing Call of Duty or reading The Hunger Games in real life? Some things are their own reward, such as learning. Will we ever "use" the Louvre? Probably not, but we don't raze it to the ground to make room for a factory, no matter how economically beneficial it might be.

To answer your students' question, you could fairly say that they could live and never "use" a single thing ever learned in school, down to literacy and numeracy. But, the life one can live while illiterate and innumerate is probably not going to be a pleasant one. So, there is certainly a pragmatic component to education. That only takes you so far, though. If a student takes the attitude of "only teach me X that I need to get out of this school and get a job", that's fine. The thing is, there are a few hundred million people in the world who also know just "X", and I can outsource that labor for pennies on the dollar I would pay your student. Where your students can have value to me is having the ability to deal with those unpredictable matters that arise outside of "X". When that happens, your student can say, "I learned about that from Alex Haist. I can solve that problem" but my outsourced employee who only knows "X" will say, "I wasn't trained for that". There is your utilitarian argument for your students.

But, I think that education is largely its own reward. I don't understand being talked into learning something any more than I understand being talked into eating my favorite ice cream. It's also about as effective as arguing someone into quitting smoking. Obviously a lot of people disagree with me, but I think learning is its own reward and should never stop. Would my life be pragmatically any different if I didn't understand the allusions of expressions such as "crossing the Rubicon"? Probably not, but *something* intangible would be missing. I would recommend this theme in answering your students' questions - that they are asking the wrong question.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:51 AM on September 2 [9 favorites]


One thing is that certain studies are mainly for 'mind stretching', honing the ability to think rationally and logically. This may prevent being 'had' by get rich/healthy/thin schemes in later life.
posted by Cranberry at 11:02 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


To directly answer the question, I specifically use various mathematical concepts that I learned in high school and college somewhat frequently in my work life, and all sorts of random things I learned in all sorts of classes in conversation and when reading or otherwise learning new things. With that said, though, a more general quote comes to mind. This quote has been attributed to many famous people, and I don't really see any reason to believe any specific one of those attributions, but my favorite telling of it attributes it to Ben Franklin:

When Franklin was in France (as US ambassador), he witnessed the very first manned free flight (a hot air balloon). Someone supposedly asked him of what use this new thing could possibly be.

Franklin is said to have replied, "Of what use is a newborn baby?"
posted by Flunkie at 11:10 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


What I told my kids is that content knowledge is really only a small part of school. Ah heck, kids nowadays have all of the world's content knowledge on a device in their pocket. What school is about is learning to learn, learning to be a critical thinker and learning to manage time and resources.

I do use some mathematical formulas I learned when coming up with theoretical values of derivatives I trade. I also try to use my learned grammar at all times. As a history major, I also try to apply some of the lessons of history to my decision making.
posted by 724A at 11:21 AM on September 2


We used to moan, But whyyyyyy do we have to learn French? to our teachers and their answer was always something along the lines of it being an intellectual exercise. It was a graduation requirement for my high school (not anymore, I just checked) but this was in a town, mostly an unambitious town, in which less than one-quarter of the students went on to a 4-year university.

No one ever said, Hey you might go to France one day.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:22 AM on September 2


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?
I am a staff assistant at a think tank - I work with several scholars, including at least one whose name most educated Americans would recognize immediately. I also do some research/writing. It's an office job - I am in for about 8-9 hours/day, mostly checking emails, reading, going to meetings, and calendaring.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?
This job required (as I recall) 2-3 years of prior experience. Before this I was an EA at a defense contractor.

3) How much do you make?
Approx. $50k/year

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?
English skills are particularly useful for me - drafting and proofing correspondence, editing scholarly articles, etc.

I use algebra and statistics - the former typically when reviewing budgets, and the latter very occasionally when doing research.

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?
The most important thing I learned in school was critical thinking - how to think about problems and develop good solutions, that type of thing.

Also how to push through unpleasant and challenging work (thank you, Trigonometry class!).

And I find basic historical knowledge to be incredibly useful - when I learn something new at work I can immediately place it in context and begin to better understand it.



Like Tanizaki, however, I think there is a big flaw in any question about the utility of education. Sure, the things you learn in high school help you get through the next stages of your life. But, they also inspire you to learn about new topics and think through problems thoroughly and carefully.

Those "soft skills" of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking have carried me much farther than knowing what to do with prepositions, the formula for the area of a triangle, or the year in which Hitler was born.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:24 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Kind of a mundane answer, but the other day my high school geometry skills came in very handy, when I had a cake recipe which called for 8 inch square pans and had to adjust it to fill my 9 inch round pans.
posted by Daily Alice at 11:24 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Wow, I'm shocked by some of the answers (and the question frankly). Education should be about teaching someone how to think - not about teaching specific tasks. Specific geometry proofs are never the issue, the idea of HOW to actually prove something is...

Anyone reading or answering this question is using critical skills developed as a result of going to school - not specific tasks, but certainly the way they are understanding the question and the answer comes by analogy with what they learned as children in all areas.

Someone who never learned algebra would have a very different response to this question (or any question) than a person with no higher order math classes - even though this question doesn't have any specific mathematical content. Learning algebra changes your brain and as a result the way you think or approach new problems.

The goal in education should never be to teach a person to solve a problem they have seen before (a computer could do that), the goal should be to prepare a person to find a solution to a problem they have never seen before...
posted by NoDef at 11:36 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I think this is an excellent question to ask.

From 8th through 11th grades, I memorized my way through 4 years of college level math. I was in my thirties before I got clued what the real world use for some of that stuff was. I just thought it was crap they tortured kids into memorizing. I homeschooled my sons. I knew my oldest absolutely could not memorize his way through math, without any idea what on earth it was for or how it related to anything.

So in addition to teaching math as it related to the real world, I also gave my sons a choice between the traditional algebra-geometry-trig track and a statistics track. They chose a statistics track. You run into statistics every day in magazine articles and information about your day-to-day life and it is extremely relevant.

So I think kind of on a meta level, the answer to this question is to try to help the kids understand what their lessons have to do with their actual life in the here and now, not in some distant future. I think they are telling you they just don't see the point in devoting mental space to this abstract Thing They Should Know. I mean, I think the idea that they SHOULD know this is pretty abstract.

I was a homemaker for a lot of years, so, in some sense, all that math "never got used for a job." On the other hand, I kept running tabs of numbers in my head for years and years: How much money do I have in the bank? What is the cost of the goods I am stacking in my grocery cart? etc and I didn't really appreciate how much I relied on being good at math just every minute of every day until I got really sick and could no longer do that.

On the other hand, when I did finally get a full time paid job after being a homemaker for two decades, it was a job dealing with numbers all day long. I paid insurance claims. My job was just drowning in numbers: phone numbers, policy numbers, street addresses, claim numbers, claim amounts, dollar amounts for individual things in the claim, check totals, how much I could cut a check for before it needed to be reviewed by someone higher up than me, and on and on and on. And I was comfortable with numbers, more so than many of my coworkers. So while a lot of that higher math did not directly apply to my job, the fact that I took four years of it nonetheless did: Because my job was numbers, numbers, numbers and I was comfortable with that.

If you are knowledgeable about something, that knowledge can come in handy in all kinds of ways, not just your job. And it may not be particularly apparent in a "you don't know what you've got until it's gone" kind of way. As I got healthier and some of that innate ability with numbers plus training/education came back to me, I appreciate it a heckuva lot more the second time around, even though I am not as good as when I was in my twenties. But, for example, I do know the difference now in how much easier it is to manage a tight budget if you can keep a running tally in your head at all times vs how much harder that is if you can't do that. I simply did not appreciate that in my twenties. I did not understand how much easier my life was because I was good at math compared to people around me with similar incomes and financial responsibilities.
posted by Michele in California at 11:45 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


I use basic geometry as a gardener to calculate the number of plants in some interesting areas given the ideal planting distance between said plants.

I use basic physics to figure out how to move heavy objects that I can't lift on my own - ie I think I should be able to use a lever of length x to move object with mass m.

I use roots of words I learned in English class and French class to understand where latin names of plants come from which helps me remember what the heck they're called.

I use typing class to touch type what I'm writing now. (even if it does mean that I still do the double space after a period).

I was still using the basic genetics stuff I learned in seventh grade when I was a grad student in molecular biology.

I still use the method of figuring out dilutions I learned in sophomore year of high school to calculate dilutions (if you need 1 tsp of fertilizer in 100 gallons, how much do I need in this 2x3 plastic box I have).

I use basic algebra and all those fun word problem things to solve lots of day to day stuff.

I use basic geometry to calculate volumes and perimeters with some frequency.

I use the techniques for finding journal articles and books in my college library's computer system to hone my searched on the google. Amazing how being good a choosing keywords helps you over the years.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:49 AM on September 2 [5 favorites]


I write *all* the time-- my emails and proposals depend on my ability to write clearly and concisely. Everything hinges on my ability to express myself in writing, and that ability only developed because I did it over and over again for years in school... and I did that writing in the context of learning other things-- not writing itself but history, literature, and technical classes where lots of writing was required.

Stoichiometry-- I use this constantly, even though I haven't done anything in chemistry for 20 years. All of life is about converting one set of units to another. Sure, I might know the cost per gallon of gas and the miles per gallon in my car, but how does that work out in terms of how much it costs to drive my car per mile? How much money am I burning per minute while driving 65 mph down the highway?

That said, there is a much more cynical answer which is that teachers, by nature of their job, tend to value learning and understanding other perspectives, critical thinking, good writing, and analysis. They are generally swimming against the tide in a world where a separate set of value systems prevails, but it is helpful for students to learn about this intellectual value system just so that they know it exists.
posted by deanc at 11:53 AM on September 2


The best response I ever got from a teacher when I asked this same question (about imaginary numbers) in high school: "Isn't it fun to know things?" Thirty five years later, I still remember that when I learn something new. And now I agree with her.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:53 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?
I write, edit, and design graphics for a healthcare consulting company. I work from home, wear yoga pants, and take my dog out for a lot of walks. My favorite part of my job is ghostwriting for people who are very smart but who don't have a knack for writing.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?
Build a portfolio of your work. I had some stuff from the college paper and even one of my final essays when I started as a technical writer. My portfolio improves with every job. You need writing samples.

3) How much do you make?
Well over the median household income for my city on just my salary alone.

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?
Sentence diagramming! It's not a task -- it's a whole way of thinking. I hated it, too, but it makes my life easier now because I can explain my edits to others.

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?
I did a lot of activities in high school -- yearbook and newspaper, the literary journal, publicity and posters for the theatre club. I designed newspaper ads in college and won some awards, even. Part of my job is to put together these huge proposals, and those activities taught me how to visualize the finished product, use text and images wisely, build in structure and transitions, and edit stuff down for pagecount. It's a niche field and I feel like I had a good foundation for it based on stuff I did when I was 16. Most days, my work doesn't feel like work.

6) If you use nothing you learned in school, say so. I'm happy to tell my students that, too.
I liked school, but I don't remember a thing about geometry or chemistry. Those classes taught me to be patient.
posted by mochapickle at 11:54 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Hello wall of text. How are you today?

1) Freelance painter. I'm pretty much entirely dependent on commissions at the time of this writing. No specific hours, but I get most of my work done at night.

2) Make artwork. Network a lot, and not just with other artists. In my case, I caught a HUGE break in terms of finding potential clients by making friends with a few podcast hosts whose shows are really big on audience participation, and I did some paintings for them in exchange for promotion.
Other things... Understand that taking money for your work does not mean you are "selling out." Resist the temptation to self-deprecate or downplay yourself ("I'm not any good at this," etc.) when showing your portfolio, it does not inspire the confidence that you think it does. Modesty is an admirable quality, but when you're trying to establish yourself as an artist it can actually get in the way, so you'll have to put it aside for a little while for self-promotion purposes. Realize that it is absolutely okay to want attention (as long as you're respectful and have the talent and honesty to back it up).
If you are a hardcore introvert, know that the self-promotion aspect of being a career artist is going to be VERY HARD, but not impossible. You can do it! It's intimidating, uncomfortable as hell and you're going to be doubting yourself a lot, but there will come the day when you accept that you deserve to be recognized and, yes, even paid for your hard work and it will get so much easier (or at least less exhausting)!

3) Ah, well... slightly above pocket change, right now, but that's mostly because of weird living circumstances. After I move next month and have access to my full studio setup, I'll be able to do SO much more.

4) Here's what they don't tell you about beginner-level art classes (the most important ones, next to life drawing) until you get there-- it's not about how to use the media, because ANYONE can draw lines with pencil/charcoal, or paint a stroke, or click and drag a vector shape. It's really about how to observe and be mindful of the subject's features. I cannot overstate how important observation is, even when your goal is not to make a cold replica of what you see, because eventually you know enough about what X and Y looks like that if you were to make an imaginary object that had features similar to X and Y, you could make it look very convincing! Compared to that, the technical aspect (working with the media) is trivial.
Speaking in more general knowledge terms, though, writing skills are very essential. Bet you thought being an artist was just about making pretty pictures all day, huh? NOPE. You're going to be writing statements and applications and essays and website copy and other odds and ends, and this will probably take up just as much time as you spend actually making artwork.
Basic math is a must, too. Gotta calculate how much to budget for supplies (or hardware if you're digital) while still being able to pay living expenses. Also knowing about angles and degrees is highly useful when making precise marks.
Foreign languages! Okay, they're not specifically "useful" as much as they are "oh, so that's what [ART HISTORY/MEDIA TERM] means." A lot of those originate from French and Italian. I'd suggest learning one (or both) anyway, because languages are fun and help you understand your native language and the world outside your studio space.

5) I see a lot of props for critical thinking, so I'm going to bring up something else: PROBLEM SOLVING. Not just for math or flipping custom burgers! (Apologies if you consider this to be included with critical thinking.)
When you make complex art, and ESPECIALLY when you're doing commissions and you have to adhere to a specific set of parameters (and there will always be parameters, even when the client gives you latitude to "work your magic"), it's about figuring out the appropriate tool to satisfy the conditions. It's also about thinking outside the box. It's about knowing when to hit up Google images for a color reference so you can get the skin tones JUST RIGHT. It's about using brushes for off-label purposes to get what you want. (Need to make a tiny highlight and that 3-pixel acrylic opaque detail is too big? Cover pencil, baby!)

6) P.E.
...okay, I lied, but it's not for what you think. I'm going to specifically reference Archery class in college for this.
While I was standing by waiting for my turn to shoot, I was observing the stances and motions of the active shooters to memorize the positions of the hands and legs... so I could accurately draw archery scenes later! Seriously, this was half the reason why I picked this to fulfill my P.E. activity requirement. (The other half is that Archery is the most... accessible sport for a jiggly nerd like me. Also, video games.)
Yes, this probably fits more in 5, but eh.

---

Semi-related: To provide a more directly-relevant use for basic algebra to teenagers and young adults: levelling and gold-farming in MMORPGs.
That's right.
Want to know how many enemies you have to kill in order to level up? (Or to save enough gold to buy that item in the auction house) If you know how much you need, and how much you already have, it really does translate out to:

(current EXP) + (number of monsters) x (EXP per kill) = EXP needed to level

This doesn't account for quest EXP or EXP modifiers (which involve higher levels of math), of course, but it's a starting point.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 12:17 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I own a small business and I use high school math A LOT when I'm running my business and trying to figure out my accounts.
posted by bq at 12:34 PM on September 2


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like? Project Management Assistant / Government.
2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours? Get an entry level office job
3) How much do you make?$40k
4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use? How to read, basic math, formal letter and address formatting.
5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work? How to appreciate different cultures.
6) If you use nothing you learned in school, say so. I'm happy to tell my students that, too. Technically, I have a 9th grade education with one semester of college. I failed algebra and physical education three times each. Most of what I have learned has been through job experience. Then again, I only make about $40k - but I'd say that's pretty decent for someone like myself.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:49 PM on September 2


In work as a freelance writer/designer, I use high school math and art all the time. For example, in making a perspective drawing of a proposed building. Or making a graph of, say, corporate revenues and expenses that accurately represents what I want it to. (Common mistake: in a bubble graph, the quantity is supposed to be represented by the area of the circle, not the radius. So you need to know the difference to make the graph correctly.) Obviously I also use writing and editing/proofreading skills, conceptual comparison skills, understanding what will be easy or hard for other people to follow in an explanation, being able to break an idea/problem down in different ways so I can choose which way will be clearest or most persuasive.

Another thing I use is intellectual confidence. Because I have a good broad foundation of skills, I feel like I can tackle a wide range of problems and come up with a reasonable approach to them. In particular, I often hear people say wimpy things like "oh it's math, I can't do that" -- not impressive for an employer who wants their employees to be able to solve problems on their own.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:10 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


4: The world is sufficiently complex that just ordinary home and body ownership/use benefits from a basic grounding in STEM subjects (both the logical and statistical reasoning entailed within them and the details of particular content areas). It helps you avoid getting scammed by contractors, mechanics, banks, fitness and nutrition gurus and assorted health quacks, marketing, bad media, and bad politics, thus equipping you make better decisions in all these areas.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:22 PM on September 2


I have a masters degree in soil chemistry, but I run MetaFilter. I love talking to kids about this because even though it may seem like I wasted 7 years in college for something I don't use, I do actually use things I learned.

Overall, college taught me how to budget my time and be organized. Grad school taught me how to manage budgets and daily goals on a long-term project. Grad school taught me how to communicate effectively since I had to write a great deal, every day in every class and to my advisor and colleagues constantly.

Specific skills from college come up a lot -- algebra is something I use constantly to solve math problems that crop up when planning things out. Writing and being able to communicate with coworkers goes back to all my writing classes in school. As I've gotten older and traveled around the world, history classes have helped inform what I do on trips, and in general the practice of learning to research subjects for school assignments relates directly to how I do research to this day for all sorts of things.
posted by mathowie at 1:40 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Well geez. I use all of it all the time. I manager a software engineering team.

I learned a lot about English grammar from my high school German classes. Using and identifying grammatical speech is an essential part of professional communication. Also, my experience studying German and French in school is extremely useful when dabbling with any other language for a holiday or business trip or whatever.

Comparative literature. I love novels. And enjoying them is (for me) enhanced by understanding structure, approaches to prose, historic movements in art and literature, etc.

History & economics & social studies... I mean... that's the basis for having informed opinions on current events. And what you learn in school so barely scratches the surface that I'd say I use what I learned about history and economics in school just as a framework on which to learn more history and economics, through reading biographies, social science articles, The Economist, etc.

Math. Constantly. You can't plan a trip (or wedding, or anything else big), or build platers for your garden, or do just about anything without solid algebra. Understanding statistics and calculus are useful (yes, on a daily basis) for understanding all the numbers that go into our world. No, I'm not sitting down solving integrals, but having a feel for thinking of numbers as rates of change, and rates of change of rates of change is extremely helpful.

I'm sure this is all mentioned in a thousand ways in all the other comments. It just gives you the intellectual tools to function intentionally in the world. The alternative is to just bounce around, taking whatever comes, and not having the mental equipment to make sense of the world and chart a course through it.

(Edit to add: and my university degree is in fine art, which I use every day of my life, especially the skills involved in group critiques, editing a body of work down to the relevant focus, etc.)
posted by colin_l at 1:46 PM on September 2


I'm an engineer, with a strong interest in the humanities (which of course all my high school administration told me was unnecessary to keep taking beyond the minimum graduation requirements because, engineer). Usually as an engineer I work an 8-to-5, though the last couple of years I've been telecommuting not-quite-full-time so it can really vary. I got my job straight out of college.

I took French and Spanish in high school. I've been able to use both on business and personal travel, a semester abroad, and in random interactions in large US cities where being able to translate for a tourist trying to buy batteries from a rude CVS employee is a nice thing to be able to do. I also worked in a Japanese restaurant kitchen where all the staff were Central American and only spoke Spanish. I also managed to avoid a $45 Easyjet checked baggage fee for some wine because I spoke in Spanish to the check-in agent about this great wine I'd just bought in Barcelona. Foreign languages! Making you not an ass and saving you money!

I often tell people the math I use the most often in my engineering career is the Law of Sines, and I am pretty much not kidding. It's really handy. That said, even if I'm not taking integrals every day, the intuitive sense of "goes like" that comes from years of higher math gives me a really good intuition for judging other peoples' calculations, designs, and claims even when they work in a different discipline than I do.

A strong grounding in science and how research is performed helps me understand scientific studies and apply critical judgement to mainstream media reporting of the same. This has enabled me to look a bit further into "PREGNANT WOMEN MUSN'T EVER EAT/DRINK/DO X" guidelines so that I can get through my current pregnancy without going insane, by weighing the actual risks of, say, painting my nails, against what I'm willing to accept.

I paid attention to grammar lessons and know that "a lot" is two words and all my its/it's and your/you're etc. It is shocking, truly shocking, how many people don't know and/or don't care. I also love reading, always have, so I like to think I have a pretty good command of English and an ability to communicate complex technical topics to a non-technical (or less-technical) audience. As a result, this lowly engineer is often pulled onto sales proposal teams to provide a dose of correct English to technical proposals, because most engineers can't be bothered to communicate correctly or effectively. It also landed me a side job doing freelancing work for engineering and robotics magazines, which can net me a grand or two for a decent article about stuff I enjoy learning about anyway.

My love of history just gives me stuff to talk about with people who don't want to talk about robots and engineering, and an ability to appreciate tourist attractions.

Maybe this isn't all job-related, but it is fairly life-related, so I think it still counts.
posted by olinerd at 1:50 PM on September 2


When I was newly graduated from college and was the most junior software engineer at my division at Tektronix, a high school math teacher asked Tek to allow his class to have a tour. And one of the things he wanted was for us to tell him how we used calculus in our work.

Being junior, responsibility for this landed on me, and frankly I didn't do a very good job of it. To the question of how I used calculus, my answer was that programmers didn't. (Embedded programming, you understand.) Some of the EE's did use it when designing filters, but that didn't come up very often.

It was only years later that I was able to formulate the answer I should have given: Studying math in general, including calculus, taught me rigor. Software is a very unforgiving thing; if there is any mistake in your code, it WILL be found, probably at a catastrophic time. The rigor I learned from studying math has aided me in avoiding such fates.

(Also, it's Civil Engineers who use Calculus.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:55 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Having at least a foggy memory of something comes in handy all the time. All. The. Time.

It's not that you personally will need to ever re-learn it. It's that it makes it a lot harder to lie to you. Cashier rings up three nine-dollar items and asks for fifty dollars? Probably a mistake there. Magazine articles with statistics - hey, I can't calculate the statistic with the given information, but that's obviously bullshit. Politicians want to lie to you about history and what that means to us today all the time.

I mean, I'm never going to have to work on a car. There will be mechanics who will do it for me. Does that mean I shouldn't know enough about how cars work to recognize an obvious lie, or at least get suspicious enough to get a second opinion? No it does not.
posted by ctmf at 2:18 PM on September 2


As a tutor of every age group from kindergarten to college, I often hear the sensible question, "When am I ever going to use this in real life?" I would like to be able to better answer this, and so I ask you, Metafilter, when do you ever use the things you learned in school? Do you use math? English? History? If so, what parts? And how?

I really feel the question is just wrong-headed from the beginning, and you'll constantly have to come up with use-cases for every single new chapter. The answer is that 'you never know'. You'll probably only ever use 1% of what you learned in school in real life, but you don't know which 1% you'll use, and more-over, even the stuff you don't think you'll need directly will help you learn the stuff you'll need to learn later.

History is always tagged as a useless class, but how the hell are you going to vote on candidates if you don't know history? Or even get into a pointless facebook argument about foreign policy with your future brother-in-law? And that's not getting into the reading comprehension, writing and critical thinking skills you learn from engaging and responding to texts in history class.
posted by empath at 2:26 PM on September 2 [3 favorites]


I think a good analogy for kids is video games -- Being good at mario brothers is a completely pointless and useless skill, but isn't it fun and rewarding to get good at something, just for the sake of doing it? Mastering a skill, even something you'll never 'use', is a valuable and worthwhile thing to spend your time on.
posted by empath at 2:28 PM on September 2


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?

I work in customer service in local government.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?

Applying for one - recruiters generally look for general intelligence, good humour and interest in people.

3) How much do you make?

Not a lot - it's regular money, simple work and good if you have other plans in life like family or studying.

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?

Writing, spelling, punctuation, IT, geography, psychology

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?

presentation skills, getting along with people, being on time, holding your bladder!
posted by Middlemarch at 2:35 PM on September 2


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?

I work 8:30am - 5:30pm at a company that helps non-profits do online fundraising and advocacy work. I sit at a desk, mostly sending email, writing in Word, or number-crunching in Excel. My job is fabulous, and I get to work on really interesting things with really smart people.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?

I graduated college with a degree in molecular biology (which naturally required all of my science and math classes from high school). I parlayed that into two years spent in India, working for environmental non-profits and focusing on rural and urban water and sanitation issues. The social justice grounding I got in college, the writing skills I've been learning and practicing since kindergarten, my knowledge of history and politics (general, as well as specific to colonialism and India), and my strong science background were all crucial steps in landing and succeeding at those jobs. And in turn, my unique experiences in India were how I landed my current job, as well as how I got into grad school to get my MPH (I start in August 2015). My point is that you simply do not know what winding path you will follow and where it will lead -- and that's only in terms of my career!

3) How much do you make?

Quite a lot for a job that's nonprofit-adjacent, and definitely enough to live comfortably in SF, which has an enormously high cost of living.

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?

I talked about this in #2, but I use so many things I learned in school every day. Because of history classes, I can contextualize the current global violence (Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Gaza, etc.) and public health epidemics (Ebola) to design better campaigns for my clients. With all the data we analyze daily, I use Excel like a drug. Percentages, fractions, and decimals are the basic building blocks, but there are more complicated things too. Just today I used the concept of compounding (taught to me in high school in the context of compound interest) to explain why you can't divide an annual rate by 12 to get the monthly rate. My writing, spelling/grammar/punctuation, and communications/rhetoric skills are invaluable in writing copy, delivering presentations, talking to co-workers and clients effectively, etc. I've used my high school Spanish and elementary school French both to talk directly with speakers of those languages (I did some community organizing in LA, which required me to communicate with Spanish-speakers) and to figure out what unfamiliar words mean (via roots, cognates, etc).

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?

Because I know at least a little bit about a vast array of topics, whether it's vlookups or Ebola or the right dimensions for a Facebook image share, I have the frames of reference to easily look up (on Google mostly, but using other tools if necessary) more in-depth information with the correct keywords. That skill is really, really crucial in a job like mine, where no one has the time or patience to babysit me. I'm expected to troubleshoot and solve problems every day, and I'm able to do it with independence and competence and intellectual confidence. I might not use every piece of information I've ever learned, but my diverse academic background allows me to converse intelligently with people I respect and draw interdisciplinary conclusions that stem from a variety of sources.
posted by Ragini at 3:28 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I'm a musician getting ready to tour Europe for the next six weeks with my band. Every kid's dream, right? In the process of getting ready for the tour I've used extensive writing skills to promote our music and communicate with all the people involved, critical thinking skills to review contracts, basic math and algebra skills to plan and track our budget (Here's a fun example I worked on a few days ago: Four band members are renting a car for the tour. All of the members will use the car the first two weeks, but band member X will then fly home and only 3 members will use the car the last 4 weeks. What percent of the total cost of the car rental should each band member contribute to split it up fairly?) Plus graphic arts skills to develop our promo materials and web design skills for maintaining our online presence.

Since we're spending a lot of time in Germany this tour, I've been studying German. Even though I studied different languages in school, understanding the process of language learning has helped immensely. And having a basic knowledge of European history, politics and even literature will give me a better context for understanding the places that I'll be visiting with the added bonus of helping me not look like an idiot when talking with people while I'm over there.

Generally speaking, the music business (like most arts these days) is all about DIY and independent control by the artist - which means that if you want to be successful, only about 5% of your time will have anything to do with actually making music. The rest of it is all about managing and promoting yourself and your music and that's where all those skills learned in school really come in handy.
posted by platinum at 3:49 PM on September 2


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?

I'm a filmmaker and underling in the entertainment industry, where I've done quite a few different jobs, from personal assistant to graphic designer. Right now, I work on the crew of a network TV show your students have probably heard of. I work a twelve hour shift which is scheduled at the mercy of whatever we're doing on the show this week. If we have a bunch of night shoots, I work noon to midnight. If we're outside during the day and need to take advantage of the light, I come in at 5 AM. Right now I work in an admin capacity, so my specific tasks depend on the needs of the show. Today I've been ordering office supplies, dealing with some script issues, managing the schedule of the team prepping the next episode, processing tons of boring paperwork, and troubleshooting the air conditioning on the soundstages. Just for example.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?

A BA, most likely in a humanities field if not Film specifically. After college, it's a short but typically unpaid internship -- often on a low budget indie film -- and then paying your dues as one of various flavors of admin assistant. If you want to actually make movies rather than work on big crews, there's really no trajectory. You just go out and do it. There is no real trajectory to becoming a director or producer.

3) How much do you make?

Roughly $40K, maybe a little more. I could make more if I were more ambitious about climbing the ladder rather than working on my own creative projects.

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?

Accounting math. Adding long lists of numbers. Calculating tax rates. Creating Excel formulas that can take me from "how much was this box of pens" to "is my department within its budget, in general". There is no way I could do my job without a pretty thorough understanding of spreadsheet software. This goes even moreso for my own film projects. At the end of the day on this TV show, it's not my money, and the worst that could happen if I miscalculate some sales tax is that we're off by a couple bucks. But on my webseries, a misplaced decimal point might spell the difference between finishing the project or not.

Also, weirdly, adding and subtracting amounts of time/time of day. If Crew Member A came in at 6:12 AM, wrapped at 8:36 PM, and took two half-hour meal breaks, how long did she work?

When I worked in the art department, I was surprised at how much I used fractions and basic geometry, as well as converting fractions to decimals and back.

Additionally, research skills, as well as the soft skills to present my findings and have them approved by higher-ups. There's an art to being able to convince someone of something, especially when that something is going to cost money.

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?

English, History, and the Humanities in general: I use this knowledge ALL THE TIME. There's no way I'd have a chance in hell either in a creative capacity or in my day job if I didn't have a basic sense of US and world history, the Western literary canon, a general grasp of art appreciation/art history, and general knowledge of mythology, world religions, geography, etc. It's true that I'm rarely called to explicate a passage from Milton or explain the consequences of the Treaty of Westphalia, but I need to know the general significance of both of those things and at least be able to generally bullshit about that sort of stuff as needed. T
posted by Sara C. at 3:54 PM on September 2


I think it's okay to be honest with kids about the limited utility of learning geometry proofs or memorizing the names of paintings

I literally use both of these things in my day to day work life. Well, geometry formulas rather than proofs, but still, yes, it's surprisingly literally connected to specific math operations I learned in middle school.
posted by Sara C. at 4:03 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


As much as my Math teacher Mr. Hardy would laugh if he knew, I use algebra pretty frequently. I'm constantly asked for information and I have to arrive at it by arranging what I DO know, to arrive at what I DON'T know.

But to agree with everyone else, school teaches us how to learn. And we use that throughout our lives.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:24 PM on September 2


And oh man, if the complaint is about English mechanics or writing...

I believed them when they told me I'd need it, I just didn't believe enough. I figured, yeah, but competent to get the idea should be good enough, right?

There is literally nothing I do that I couldn't do better if I were a better writer/thought organizer. I take nuclear submarine reactors apart and put them back together with new fuel, ffs, why would I need to write a paper?

I think a new tool would help a lot. Really? Write a paper on it, we'll think about it. I don't have enough manpower or enough money. Really? Write it up. Why did problem X happen and how have you made sure it won't happen again? Tell us in writing - preferably writing that makes us believe you.

You need to be good at this. Sometimes I don't get all the time I want to remember how to write a paper. Sometimes I get this sinking feeling I'm about to be asked something in a meeting so I have to scribble furiously on scratch paper for five minutes what I'm going to say. Sometimes I get shotgunned with a surprise question from a very important person and have to make something up on the spot.

You get way more of what you want if you can write and speak. I'm getting better at it, but I sure wish I hadn't considered writing less important than math and science when I was in school.
posted by ctmf at 6:51 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


I took high school English with Mrs. Munson. At our 35th reunion, many of us acknowledged that her strict teaching of grammar was a great help. I think of her fondly when I stop to consider usage. Being able to write so that you can be understood, and not making grammatical errors that will make you look uneducated, are useful. A lot of what you should learn is how to read & write. You will use these skills repeatedly in life.

I had double majors in Literature and Psychology. I have owned a bookstore, and I have worked as a social worker. The bookstore made okay money, and when I sold it, I used the equity as a big down payment on my 1st house. Literature major, for the win! Also math, because bookkeeping & taxes.

I got a job in technology because at one point, if you were technically competent and reasonably bright, you could jump in. I took classes and got certifications and got better jobs, and made good salaries with benefits. Which is good because I got sick and needed disability pay and savings for a while.

For the last couple days, I've been making a tent to use as an extension of my minivan. Geometry has helped.

Most of all, learn how to get along well with people, and how to get along with people even when you disagree. You'll get job opportunities from people you know. It's also really useful to know how to be a good student, which means you know how to learn, because things change really fast, and you'll have to keep learning new things.
posted by theora55 at 7:52 PM on September 2


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?

I'm a museum registrar, which means I handle logistics of moving and caring for fine art, helping to set up and maintain our object database, write a variety of different types of things, supervise interns, handle art, and in general try to impose as much order as I can on a generally chaotic world. Sometimes I'm at my computer the whole day, writing up payment requests and working in the database and sending emails, sometimes I'm storage or working in a gallery.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?

The professionalization of the position means that an MA in Art History (which is what I have) or Museum Studies is good, but in some circumstances you can get by with a certificate program. Even more rarely, you can sneak into some museums in smaller locations by way of volunteering/lower level jobs/making yourself valuable. Usually, though, you need the MA.

3) How much do you make?

Not all that much. It's a non-profit job and doesn't pay well. In general, benefits tend to be ok, working for a university has certain perks, and the people you work with tend to be good sorts. Lots of creativity and teamwork floating around.

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?

English, definitely - writing, reading, comprehension, communication. History, because you're working with objects that are of a particular time period, and it's good to know them in their context. (Plus, my first job was at a history museum.) I always had a rocky grasp on math, learning a concept and then forgetting it the second the test was over, but I wish I had kept more of it because we measure things, use fractions, plus lots of practical geometry (will that fit in our door? Is the truck big enough?) Thankfully our preparators, who use math every day to measure, cut, and hang can generally bail me out if I need it. Enough art to know that I liked to look at it and think about it even if I didn't feel like I needed to create it.

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?

I wish school hadn't come just easily enough so that I got decent grades without having to work very hard, because that discipline would come in handy the days I have to put my head down and crank through stuff that's boring but essential. Structure, routine, planning - because that's how things get done and nothing gets damaged. Mostly, though, I learned how to learn - stoking that eternal curiosity and desire to be engaged and thus engage other people.
posted by PussKillian at 7:58 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


There are lots of good answers here, but I'd turn the question around on them. Ok, when WILL you use this information? How can you imagine it would be helpful?

In other words, ask them to find real world applications of the things they are learning. (If there are literally no real world applications of their studies -- no one in a professional role related to them, no mention of them in movies or books or newspapers -- then it probably isn't something they need to know.)

I'd also say, maybe you're right, there is no application that interests you. Ok, now how can we spend more of your time on something that will really have an impact on your life as you imagine it. If you want to be a writer, let's get you started on writing a book now. If you like animals, let's focus on that. Etc.
posted by 3491again at 12:19 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?

I am a Sr. Regulatory & Compliance Professional Consultant. I work with regulated industries like pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, blood laboratories, etc etc to help them comply with federal and EU regulations about software. It's an awesome job. I memorize regulations and standards and fly all over the world teaching people about them. The actual work is close to a 9-5, but I'm on the road about 3 weeks out of the month going to different clients to help them out. I write documents, I set up and test software, and I teach people about the regulations. I am working on a project in Puerto Rico right now, and will be going to the UK and France in a few months to work. When I'm not on the road, I am working from home in pajamas.


2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?

You need to have a college degree (preferably in Computer Science) to do my job. I actually have a BS in Psychology and worked at a hospital that participated in clinical trials. Because of that experience - I got a job with a software company that made software to run clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies. Interning at a regulated industry company will help get connections. A lot of my coworkers for my first job in the industry were recruited at a job fair in college, where our founder was an alumnus.

3) How much do you make?

Twice the average salary in my city. Plus frequent flyer miles and hotel points from all the travel. (this is a HUGE perk for vacationing between free trips and upgrades. I haven't paid for a personal hotel stay in years)

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?
Learning how to write coherent sentences. Learning how to explain complex ideas in ways people can understand. Vocabulary helps - but is more often than not a detriment to what I do. The rule is everything should be written on a 4th grade reading level in my industry.

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?
Attention to detail. EVERYTHING I do is based around ensuring all of the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. You learn this in writing lab reports, in proofing English papers, in double checking your math homework, etc. I also spend a lot of time arguing the spirit behind the regulations. So English class - defending your statement and picking out specific examples of why you're right helps make my life much easier. I also learned that group projects are terrible, and you will never be done with them. Group projects are 99% of what I do when collaborating with clients. There will be people who take credit for all the work, but do nothing - people who are supposed to do the work and don't bother, etc etc. Learn to deal with group projects, because no one works in a vacuum anymore.

6) If you use nothing you learned in school, say so. I'm happy to tell my students that, too

While I can't come up with direct relationships between my 11th grade physics class and what I do now - I can say that being well read has helped a lot of client relationships. Being able to discuss books or music or something I heard on NPR with a client has helped save a lot of client relationships. It also gives you more credibility for being an intelligent person (regardless of that's actually a measure of intelligence or not)
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 7:37 AM on September 3


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like?
I'm a Linux system administrator. I usually work 9-6, with the occasional off hours service call.

My daily schedule isn't very predictable. A few meetings a week, but rarely are there Important Projects assigned that allow me extended periods of respite from customer requests. My general work day is, someone reports a problem, I figure it out and fix it. Sometimes I take measures to never have that problem again.

2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours?

Run a game server. Minecraft, Quake, Counterstrike, etc. Nothing beats motivated learning coupled with ample spare time.

Studying comp sci is common, but my student employees have a habit of not actually graduating before getting jobs. Getting a job at say the college IT helpdesk and keeping an eye out for student programmer jobs is a very strong way to get a leg up over your competition.

3) How much do you make?

The BLS publishes data that will give you a clearer picture of the field than a single data point will. My wage is on par with that dataset, but as the charts make clear, location is a factor in compensation.

4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use?

All the maths. Especially set theory, which is useful for SQL queries. But more importantly, graph theory, which is useful all over the place. Spanning tree protocols build your network. Advanced use of git requires one to discuss manipulations of the DAG ('a merge is a commit with two parents'). File systems use B trees, and Google itself crawls a sparely populated adjacency matrix called the world wide web.

And statistics. I was recently asked to produce a list of how many drives we'd need on hand to cover the next six months. Fortunately I had like a year's backlog of drives to dispose still lying around with failure dates marked, so I was able to use that to build a model and make a prediction. A better student of statistics would have made a better, more accurate prediction.

Symbolic Calculus is probably the least used part; at most we usually deal with calculating rates of change, but rarely do we model or write software using algebraic terms. Computer science researchers need to know the calculus though to analyze their algorithms. And there are programmers who need to know this stuff more; I mostly use calculus skills while browsing SIGGRAPH papers.

Writing is another important skill. We maintain a engineering / tech blog, and do most of our communication with customers through email. So you need to be able to spell, and write a series of coherent sentences. I tested out of college writing courses though, so you'll have to thank the high school Honors English courses I almost failed out of. Protip: Huckleberry Finn is the only book you actually need to read to get a 5 on the AP exam.

Physics can also be important: good old V=IR can be useful when planning datacenter capacity. Or even just a rack. Newtonian physics isn't very useful here, but the speed of light is an important upper bound for things like reducing latency in client / browser responses for overseas users.

Biology can be useful; one of my clients is a protein geometry search engine, and that course I took on computational genomics comes in handy. Plus, there's some biologically inspired tools like genetic algorithms that use population genetics to find fast algorithms for problems; my favorite example is the guy who used this to find a better set of default compiler options for his gentoo infrastructure.

And pretty much every compsci course I took was useful. Except maybe the ethics class, from which many students came in expecting a black and white 'do this, don't do that' and left with something close to a gray field of 'everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden.'

5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work?

Problem solving skills. What I do daily is

1. collect an observation ('the website is down')
2. repeat it ('looks down on my workstation too')
3. inspect the system for obvious malfunctions ('apache is up and running on port 80')
4. review the logs for signs of failure ('ERROR: permission denied on /var/www/htdocs/drupal/config.php')
5. replicate that ('su'd to apache2, and indeed I can't read that file')
6. do a thing to fix the symptom ('chgrp www-data config.php && chmod g+w config.php')
7. observe if the fix solved the reported problem
8. push a patch to our configuration management tool to perform step six repeatably
9. Write back to the client that we've solved the issue

This gets more interesting when the problem is just 'the site is slow', because then we need to start asking questions like 'when did this start' and begin looking for correlations in our server statistic collection tools, and ends with me staring as a screen of syscalls programs make looking for odd behavior.

6) If you use nothing you learned in school, say so. I'm happy to tell my students that, too."

History, as taught in schools, I can't really think of a use for on the job. For UNIX sysadmins, history began on Jan 1st, 1970, and I never had a course that discussed anything that recent. It's more of a citizenship thing, I figure. There's some interesting problems related to the reckoning of time, but our problems are more about leapseconds than society deciding to skip a year or change counting systems.
posted by pwnguin at 12:16 AM on September 9 [1 favorite]


1) What is your job and what is your daily schedule like? - Architect. 8-5.
2) What is the first step out of high school or college to have a job like yours? Have professional degree in Architecture, get an internship.
3) How much do you make? Decent living
4) What specific things that you learned in school do you use? Geometry, all the time. Physics, all the time. Not in the specific way that I need to calculate things, or know the names of theorems, but I need to intuitively know both well enough to be able to use them without really thinking about it too hard. I need to know enough about physics things like cantilevers and voltage and air pressure to tell the engineers that I would prefer if they did X instead of Y and know that X is a real option. I need to have a general sense of how big a thing is needed to support another thing. I need to be able to lay out things like sprinklers in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and meets complicated geometric requirements. History is also oddly useful in that it gives some context for jurisdictional BS that is encountered. Literature is mostly useful for complaining about things for being Kafkaesque or Catch 22's. Basic math is important for budgets and spreadsheets and schedules. I generally do not need more complicated math than basic algebra and geometry, though. Calculus... no.
5) What things that you learned in school indirectly help you at work? Writing. So many emails. Being able to get to the point and be clear about what you think, what you're asking and how you want to do things is SUPER important.
posted by annie o at 10:02 PM on September 11


Thank you, everyone. I feel like I have a lot wider breadth of examples to draw from when talking to my students.
posted by Alex Haist at 6:18 PM on September 12


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