Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Unsolicited Career Advice for the Student No. 4. Get a useful education.

Just recently I posted my Caveat Auctor post about career advice. Read that first.

 Young men, African Americans, training to be wheel wrights.  1900.

Many years ago I worked with a lawyer who decided to drop out of law, which was his third career path at the time.  He'd studied to be a meteorologist, switched to geophysics, and then gone to law school.  Oddly enough, fwiw, and having nothing to do with this thread, I've known quite a few lawyers, including myself, who started out as geoscientists.  Anyhow, when I ran into him after he quit the law, and was ready to go back to school (to become a teacher) he observed "lawyers are occupationally illiterate.".

That's absolutely true.  Indeed, one of the great lies about law school, which this thread is not about, is that "with a law degree you can do anything."  No, you cannot.  With a law degree you can practice law, or teach it.  The fable that you can "do anything" with a law degree came about in the day when you could "do anything" with a liberal arts degree, and get a decent middle class income even if you'd dropped out of school in the 10th Grade.  None of that is any longer the case, and it hasn't been for a long time.  Some law school profs still circulate that comforting bit of propaganda to their students, who apparently must be wondering about their course of study at the time, but like most of that type of slop, it just isn't true, and the people who circulate it, while they should know better, do not.

 Lawyer, 1940, doing exactly what a law degree trains you to do.

I mention that not to pop that balloon.  Presumably (but perhaps I shouldn't presume), most people who go to law school do not do so in the hopes of never using their degrees to pursue law.  If they are, they're making a rather odd choice, sort of like "I got on this train that goes only to Duluth, but I have no desire to go to Duluth."  Rather, I note that as I'm doing one of those things that I shouldn't, and I'm offering a bit of career advice.  And that advice is get a good educational broad base, but don't major in anything that can't be employed, unless you are rich.

Okay, what do I mean by that?

Well, whether we like it or not, because of the increasing automation of technology, anyone entering the workplace in anything today should not count on that field really still being around, in its present form, in ten to fifteen years.  Yes, I hope it really is, but you can't count on it.  Some fields, law being one, definitely will not be really recognizable in their present form within twenty years. Yes, there will still be lawyers, but they'll all be poorer and there will be fewer of them, and a good deal of what they do in some fields will have been farmed out overseas to equally well versed and trained individuals, who work for a lot less.  This isn't unique to law, and is already happening in a lot of fields (some doctor's offices, for example, have their records handled by firms in India..

Because of these changes, in my view, a person's educational base and training base should be broad enough to hopefully give them something to fall back on, or move to, should they need to.  

Using law as a model again, there are those who take undergraduate courses of studies in something that can not be used for gainful employment in and of itself.  If it can't, it won't, and in a pinch, that education was wasted.

For that matter, there are entire institutions that focus on this sort of training.  There is, for example, a private university in Wyoming that focuses on a classical education centered on the "great books."  That's fine, except that education will not put food on the table.  It might get you access to a law school, or a seminary, but that means you are really locked in. When you get that law degree, for example, your bolt is really shot as you don't get endless chances and you sure better darned well like it.  Nobody is going to hire you in a corporation at this point, or in business, or whatever, to head their Duluth widget making branch. Shoot, they won't even hire you to work on the factory floor at Duluth Widgets and Cat Grooming Supplies..  You are a lawyer, with a degree in something that only prepared you for that, and that's what you are. 

Now, any one of those degrees may be fine if you can work it into a teaching career. But you had better have had some plans for that and be capable of moving on it, and it better really be one of those.  A degree in History, or English, or Math, and not a degree in "I wanna be something else so I'm taking this now."  After you get pretty far along this path, it is the path, and there's not an easy way to turn around and walk back down it.

Moreover, at least in the professional fields, I really feel a professional is better off having a broader base of knowledge.  I've known a lot of lawyers whose undergraduate degree was focused on being a "pre law" degree, and frankly they missed out.  Their education was so focused on a path, they don't know what's off of it.  And this isn't limited to just lawyers by any means.

And I don't mean this post to be.  Wanting to be a pilot?  Great, study something else in school too.  We don't know where that field will be headed in 20 or 30 years.  Wanting to be a welder?  Great, but why don't you take those welding class as a community college and maybe take some accounting as well.  Could be useful.  Want to be an accountant?  Fantastic, but why not also round that out with some other field as well.

Now, a lot of this can only be taken so far.  Students only have so much time, and so much money.  But, be that as it may, ideally a person would be better off having some manual skill they can at least do, and some field that requires a college education, if they're pursing a college education. Stuff happens.  I've known two lawyers who, due to circumstances, had to work construction jobs after years of being in the law, but at least they could.  One reemerged and another disappeared, but at least they were able to do that.

Now, as I can already sense the hackles raising, let me note what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that any field outside the engineering department is worthless, and that a university should be a species of trade school.  I've seen those arguments countering that trend made, and I agree with them. But that doesn't have so much to do with a person's major, as it does with the failure of the modern university and the evolution of the modern economy.  I fully agree the classic liberal arts majors should remain, although I'd fully dump some, like political science, that have little real utility.  But the problem we see here is that any university education is, in and of itself, supposed to be "liberal".  A student shouldn't be able to get out of university without a foreign language that they've studied, without a solid foundation in history, and without exposure to the various arts.  If the hard sciences and engineering have become trade schools, that's because the schools have let that happen. And that's because we have an erroneous concept that everyone, everywhere, needs a college education.

But many will needs such an education, and it should be "liberal" in the classical sense.  But, the realities of the world being what they are, the education should also have a practical application, or the student should have a goal in mind.  Just hoping it works out isn't a good goal. The institution needs to inform the student of the chances of applying the education, after which it is up to the student to go forward or not. For some, that education will not really fully work out immediately, and for others it will fail sooner or later.

And that's the point really.  As nobody is that accurate at predicting the future (indeed, according to those who have studied this topic, most such prognostications are in error) it's better to have something to fall back on, in some ways.  The more education you have, the broader that education can be, and the better your chances, maybe, of having something going disastrously wrong.


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Commentary on Career Advice:  Caveat Auctor.

1 comment:

Pat and Marcus said...

As an example of Synchronicity at work, I'd no more posted this post than a client I am working for, who was engaged in the middle of a significant legal matter, asked me to give my opinion about a major for her daughter, who has expressed a desire to be a lawyer, and who has just entered her first year of college.

I found myself giving the same advice that was set out here.

Following that, a young woman approach another of our lawyers, a young female lawyer, with the same question. That lawyer gave her largely the same advice.