Friday, April 16, 2010

So What CAN You Do With a History Major: Part 26

Today's edition of "So What Can You Do With a History Major" features an interview with Katherine Brooks. Katherine is the director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career (new out in paperback!).

We have blogged about Katherine's book before in this series. It is loaded with helpful advice about how to market your liberal arts degree and the ways in which liberal arts education provides transferable skills for a host of jobs, careers, and vocations. I appreciate Katherine taking the time to target some of her ideas to the study of history in a liberal arts college. Enjoy and learn!


JF: WHAT DO YOU TELL A STUDENT WHO LOVES HISTORY (OR ANOTHER LIBERAL ARTS FIELD BUT FEELS PRESSURE FROM PARENTS, FRIENDS, OR SOCIETY TO MAJOR IN SOMETHING MORE PRACTICAL OR MARKETABLE?


KB: I think you can appeal to logic and emotion—and/or both. From a logical perspective, if they don’t have a specific technical career in mind (such as engineering) then a history major is great preparation for whatever they would like to pursue. They will develop valuable transferable skills they can apply to many fields. “Practical” is only practical when you know exactly what you want to do.


For the emotional appeal, I get students to connect to the passion they feel for the subject of history. What periods in history do they resonate with? What have they found fascinating? What questions do they want to have answered through their history major? It’s hard to argue with that high a level of engagement in a subject—their passion will translate to better grades, better relationships with professors (for recommendations), and a better quality of life than pursuing something they aren’t interested in just because it’s “practical.”


JF: LOOKING BACK OVER YOUR YEARS IN LIBERAL ARTS CAREER COUNSELING, CAN YOU THINK OF ONE OR TWO EXAMPLES OF A STUDENT (PREFERABLY A HISTORY MAJOR, BUT IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE) WHO FOLLOWED HIS OR HER PASSION FOR A LIBERAL ARTS SUBJECT AND USED THE SKILLS GAINED FROM THAT MAJOR TO LAND A JOB?


KB: Yes, one of my students took my freshman seminar in “Film & Society: The 1950s.” One of the films we studied was “High Noon.” We talked about it as a classic Western, of course, but also as an allegory of the times since both the screenwriter and the director were under investigation by HUAC. The student went on to major in history, and while doing an internship with CNN in Washington, DC, he was at a meeting where the producers of a story on the Middle East were looking for a clip that would illustrate a “line in the sand” moment. My student suggested a scene from “High Noon.” They not only used the clip, they offered him a job later that semester. They were impressed with his broad understanding of politics, history, and even pop culture gleaned from his history major.


Another student who was a history major had an interview with Hershey Corporation for a sales position. When asked how his history major related, he described a history methods course he had taken which required digging up obscure references and resources to gather information. He discussed his attention to detail, infinite patience, and determination to get results. He then launched into a short discussion about the history of some of the Hershey candy bar lines and how their sales (and survival or lack thereof) was determined by current/historical events. (For instance, Hershey was one of the few companies which didn’t suffer as much during the depression because people could still afford a 5 cent candy bar—and Hershey adjusted the size and formula of their chocolate bars for use in WWII rations.) He then explained how his knowledge of history and appreciation for the full picture of a product would enable him to better understand his customers and the needs they might have due to their situation.


JF: WHAT ARE SOME CONCRETE WAYS IN WHICH STUDENTS CAN MARKET THEIR LIBERAL ARTS TRAINING TO POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS?


KB: Students need to remember that their degree isn’t a hockey stick. It’s not something they’re going to apply one way in a specific setting. Rather, their degree is in their head—it’s their mindset, the way they think, the way they have been taught to analyze and view a situation. It is a perspective that they bring to whatever task is at hand. So an historian is likely to bring patience with detail, a ‘dog-on-a-bone” mentality to solving problems, an appreciation for facts and getting information correct, etc., to the workplace. Those are the skills they want to market to an employer—but it’s important that they not speak generically about a major (such as “I’m a history major so I like to read.”) but rather know what makes them unique through their major, the other courses they’ve taken outside the major, and their experiences.


JF: DO EMPLOYERS IN NON-HISTORY RELATED FIELDS *REALLY* WANT PEOPLE TRAINED IN THE LIBERAL ARTS?


KB: I think they do once they understand them. If the employer comes from a professional degree program, they may not really understand a history major. They might have taken one (if any) history course in college, so their understanding is quite limited—maybe even negative. It’s important that the students be prepared to sell their major—to explain to the employer what skills, knowledge, experience, etc., they have acquired. Why are they passionate about the major? What do they think they’ve learned from it? For instance, let’s say they have studied Abraham Lincoln—what did Lincoln say or do that showed masterful leadership—and how would than information be valuable to the workplace? If they can convey their enthusiasm—in a way which directly relates to what the employer needs—then it shouldn’t be that hard to sell.


JF: HOW CAN HISTORY PROFESSORS (OR OTHER LIBERAL ARTS PROFESSORS) DO A BETTER JOB OF "SELLING" THE HISTORY MAJOR TO STUDENTS AND THEIR PARENTS?

KB: I think we need to step away from the “learned individual” argument that is used so often with liberal arts. While no one is arguing for ignorance, obviously, when parents are looking at a bottom-line investment, the idea that their son/daughter will be “learned” is nice—but may be seen as a luxury. I think professors should find out (through their development or career offices) where their graduates have gone--- and not just in the traditional careers such as teaching history or going to grad school. But actually seek out the interesting and unusual—promote the fact that your students are smart—so they go places where smart people go—banks, law firms, consulting firms, advertising agencies, government agencies, nonprofit groups.

Parents want to know that their children will have career options—and a history major can be the start of a brilliant career in all sorts of fields. If you focus too heavily on teaching history or grad school, you reinforce stereotypes.

Thanks, Katherine! This is great stuff!

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