The Silliness of Early Career Planning

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I was invited last week to present on my current job and my career trajectory to my eldest daughter’s 10th-grade Civics and Careers class. Her class is divided into working groups and each of these is required to formally invite someone into the class to present on their career and the path they took to get there. At first I thought my daughter might be cheating a bit by asking her mom to do this, but I was won over when she told me: “But mom, I think your career trajectory is interesting. You used to be a professor and now you’re not; plus you’re a CAREER COACH, what isn’t perfect about that?” Awwww, flattery will get me every time.

My daughter told me she thought my story was interesting because it encompasses both disappointment and resilience. She’s right. Leaving the academy, whether voluntarily or no, requires immense resilience, along with the ability to reframe your knowledge and skills and, likely, your sense of self. So I talked about disappointment. I talked about getting help from a coach and a therapist. I think these things are good for 15 year olds to know: the road is likely to be bumpy. That’s ok, be prepared to reach for a helping hand when you need it.

My intention in outlining the presentation was twofold: I wanted to illustrate that you can prepare a long time for a job you are passionate about, or feel is the right fit for you, and that job may never materialize. This is not because you aren’t good enough to get that job, but because (to look at the academy) the entire economics of your chosen profession undergoes a dramatic shift (towards contingent labour), and there’s a global recession (I’m looking at you, 2008), and, well, shit happens. I also wanted to point out that “no man is an Island, entire of itself.” Most of us live in families and those families end up, for good or ill, having a profound impact on where or when or whether we exercise our chosen career. My story as case in point: if we had not left Kansas for Canada, I would still be Associate Professor of German. For our family, though, the costs of staying in Kansas were high enough that they weren’t cancelled out by the stability of my career. So, priorities change over time. We make compromises and are flexible.

To the second point, I included a quote from Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and certainly not the only person to have said something along the lines of “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you’ll marry.” Keeping in mind that these kids aren’t at the partnering phase, I extrapolated a bit about not only their life partner in adulthood, but their community in high school: surround yourself with people who believe in you and want you to succeed, rather than with people who put you down, make you feel badly about yourself, or encourage you to do things that don’t serve your best interests. In my own case, having a supportive marriage means that my partner and I have negotiated on several different occasions who follows whom where and for how long and to what end, etc. Believing in your partner, knowing what they are capable of, makes it easier to form those compromises AND easier to feel ground under your feet when you’re undertaking a huge challenge.

During the talk, however, I went off on a tangent, as lecturers are wont to do. When I spoke about the collapse of the job market in Foreign Languages at the university level, I ended up talking about the relative wisdom of getting a BA, MA, or PhD in the humanities. I told these young people: Listen, you parents, your peers, maybe even your teachers and guidance counsellors are telling you that you need to study something that is going to GET YOU A JOB. They might think that a degree in business, or engineering, or health sciences is the ticket to a lucrative and secure future. THEY ARE WRONG. Not because a degree in commerce is in and of itself a bad thing to have, but because there are NO tickets to a lucrative and secure future. The market changes; jobs go in and out of fashion; and whatever sector you’re zeroing in on in 2016 might not even exist in 2022.

BUT, what most employers want, and what our society needs, are thoughtful individuals who know how to:​

  • Read information critically
  • Absorb that information such that they can relay it further in easily understood language
  • Write well
  • Speak to different kinds of audiences, hitting the right tone for each
  • Continue their learning, independently and/or in an entirely new arenaAny student’s ability to master the precise skills of whatever major are likely to be less important in the long run than the list of “educable” qualities above. So, dear 10th graders, in light of that: study whatever the heck you want! A degree in German, or Philosophy, or Anthropology, or Economics, or Geography or what-have-you is just as valid in the long run as a degree in commerce, as long as you understand that you are not likely to become “a philosopher,” but rather an educated person who can navigate their way in an evolving world. The fact that this lesson is just as apt for today’s PhD holders as it is for today’s 10th graders is an interesting one. If you’re thinking of leaving the academy and worry that, because you aren’t an engineer or scientist, there is no work for you out there, remember that businesses, the government, non-profits, and the world in general need your skills.

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