English majors, careers, graduate schools… ideology?
I thought I’d do something different in this blog today, something pragmatically useful for my students. As one might imagine, students often come into my office distraught about their career prospects (especially in in today’s economic climate, the dreary winter recession of ’09), wondering what to do with a degree in English, and secretly hoping that graduate school might be a nifty way to avoid that scary, uncertain future — a future as loaded with all the hope and fear as those starry-eyed proponents of the American dream can make it. So, what I’m going to do in this blog post is give some practical advice about how to think about careers after college and even how to search for a good graduate program.
But, as this is a theory blog (and since my theory class has just begun its unit on ideology), of course I will also add a few remarks about that as well. After all, isn’t all the hope and fear about the future a product of the ideology of the American dream, an ideology that claims you can be anything you want to be? (And please notice here how — just as in the contradictory readings of Slumdog Millionaire found in the media, which I blogged on last week — ideology always produces a contradiction, as hope and fear are contradictory emotions.)
So, to be as useful as possible, I’ve divided this blog into several topics, which you can skip to as you wish: career options, why it’s surprisingly good to defer making that fateful decision, choosing a graduate school, and finally how to prepare early.
Many students come to the English major because they love reading and/or writing. And of course, this presents a problem, since we aren’t always able to earn a living doing what we love. For instance, somebody may love sleeping, drinking beer, and having sex, but careers in such activities are highly unlikely, not to mention morally suspicious. Nevertheless, we have been taught since we were children that we should love not just our leisure but also our job (and I do love mine, so sometimes it works out.)
The real problem here, though, is not whether it’s possible to love one’s work. This is a false dilemma. Rather, the real problem is that most students don’t even know what their options are. Their imagination of what’s possible is obviously limited, but what limits it? They know what teachers are because they’ve been students, and they know what writers are because they’ve read books, and they know what lawyers and doctors are because television stations feature them on their dramas and sit-coms so often. Of course, television shows feature such careers not because they are the best careers but because they conveniently lend themselves to dramatic action — i.e., the ambiguity of crime, the risk of death, etc. In short, our knowledge of what’s possible is limited by our power to access various kinds of information, and this serves to underline how ideology works in strange and even unintended ways. Not only our idea of reality but also the form in which we learn about it (the form being the television drama or sit-com or even school) often serves to actually obscure and hide reality.
In addition to the two problems of access to knowledge and the form such knowledge is presented to us, such limitations are unfortunately perpetuated by the very people entrusted to advise students: teachers, who tend to advise students from their own experience. After all, what kinds of jobs do teachers of literature know about? You guessed it! Teaching and writing. What else is there?
Of course, despite the myth that English majors are good for nothing but teaching and serving hamburgers with-or-without fries, there are many other fulfilling careers out there for people who can communicate and think critically. Communicating and thinking seem like obvious skills, but as many employers know full well, few people on the planet actually have them. For instance, both governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) need such people. Working for an NGO can be a fun and rewarding job, and one place to start looking for work is Idealist.org. But also government jobs. For instance, the State Department needs people to work in embassies all over the globe, and the main skills one needs to work for the State Department is a criminal-free past and the ability to not be a jerk. (Again, not being a jerk would hardly seem to be a skill at all, but employers will tell you otherwise. And English majors seem to be especially skillful here, perhaps because of the effect of literature on their subjectivity . . . . Sadly, I have to admit, literature has not endowed me with the skill of jerk-less-ness, and that is just one of the reasons why I could never work for the State Department.)
And although jobs in technology or medicine may seem more lucrative, a UNESCO study once estimated that America’s second largest export is not gadgets or pharmaceuticals, but… can you guess? The entertainment industry! (By the way, if you’re wondering what the largest export is, it’s money; yes, that’s right, we export pieces of paper with our presidents’ faces printed on them. It’s called the finance sector, and China and Saudi Arabia have quite a bit of these pieces of paper in their vaults.) The entertainment industry includes movies, television shows, video games, pornography (yes, sad to say, but that’s a big slice of America’s economy), sports, music, magazines, books, etc. And of course, English majors are perfect for all of these jobs, as writers, editors, managers, administrators, producers, etc. To give you an example, a friend of mine was a painter, and one day a random guy was looking at her paintings and offered her a very lucrative job. It turns out he designed video games, and he wanted her to design the background for a new NASCAR video game . . . . Cha ching! Money.
And of course, any university’s career center will have dozens of other possibilities, and there is even a book called Jobs for English Majors. So, taking a gander at books such as that (though I advise always gandering with some skepticism) and taking advantage of the staff who work in career center are a must — the sooner you do so, the better — but keep in mind that the career center and myself are often behind the trend. For instance, in the mid-1990s, back when the internet was just becoming mainstream (and when I was just graduating from college with my seemingly useless English degree), probably the best thing an English major could have done was to learn HTML and start designing web pages. At that time, the web was new, and HTML was easy to learn, and who better to design a website than somebody who understands the creative process of representation? Many of my English major friends did just that, and are now millionaires, but no career service center would have thought in 1995 to suggest as much. What’s the moral of the story? It’s this: pay attention to what’s going on in the world. And how does one do that? Ummm…. newspapers and magazines, duh.
It’s Good to Defer
One of the myths that causes so much anxiety is the notion that one must decide one’s career. Some feel that choosing a career is not only about finding a way to pay rent and buy food but also an expression of their core being. This feeling is also an example of how ideology works on you (or, as Althusser and Foucault suggest, works on subjects), and seems to me to come from the Protestant work ethic that defines your relation to God in terms of your labor. But the fact is, people change careers often, and the real fact of it is, you never really know whether you are that person until you try it.
What troubles me is that many seem to believe that the best way to defer choosing a career is by going to graduate school. This is, however, probably the worst way to defer, because you never get to test out real career paths. I suspect the notion that more education will make you a better person and better job candidate is also ideological — derived from the liberal belief that everyone can, and should, go to college, because that’s how one achieves the American dream. But more school is not always the answer. So, my advice is to defer choosing not by avoiding the world of work, but to defer choosing by experimenting with real jobs. Thinking about going to law school? Instead, why not work as a legal assistant for a law firm or get a job at an NGO such as the AFL-CIO, ACLU, Human Rights Watch, or Greenpeace that engage with legal matters. There are thousands of these NGOs, of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The upshot here is this: only when you really know what you want to do should you actually start applying to graduate school.
Choosing a Graduate School
So, what if you want to go to graduate school to become… a real, bonafied author… or a professor? Although this is the path I chose, I often find myself counseling students to be cautious about choosing it for themselves. People seem to believe that getting a Ph.D. is a sure way to a successful life, but here again is a myth perpetuated by television and movies. I personally know a few Ph.D.’s in literature who barely make enough money to eat because there just weren’t any jobs for them out there. And since American ideology seems not to value educators as much as it used to, government spending for higher education continues to decline (when measured against inflation and cost), which forces universities to cut back on their hiring of professors, as Michael Bérubé has discussed in his book The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies.
In addition, many people don’t realize what the professional aspects of being a professor really are and the amount of scrutiny that both graduate students and professors are subject to, as Greg Semenza has written about in his recent book, Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. Again, I think this is in part due to TV stereotypes, but I also think such stereotypes are in some cases politically motivated. When Fox television represents professors as silly fools or bizarre geniuses, then Fox “news” can more easily ignore or dismiss the expert opinions that professors have to give on such controversial topics as Iraqi culture, the environment, and the death penalty.
But, if a career as a writer or as a professor is what one really desires, then the question becomes which school? There are many resources out there — whole books on the subject — and certainly magazines such as the U.S. News and World Reports is famous for ranking colleges and graduate programs. But even more useful than a ranking is information about what kind of program the school has, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) actually has a guide to doctoral programs, which explains what the program really has to offer in terms of financial assistance and courses. (The MLA is also a place one can get a job, by the way.)
Another blogger has done a very comprehensive study on MFA programs in creative writing, which I wholeheartedly recommend you check out. But like many guides to graduate school, he left out some important information. First, rankings are based largely upon reputation, and though reputation is important, it doesn’t tell you what kind of training you will receive there. Some of the highest ranked schools are ranked highly only because they have famous professors . . . . And guess what? Sometimes famous professors are way too busy being famous to actually teach or advise their graduate students. So, although rank always matters, and we can’t pretend it doesn’t, sometimes high-ranking programs are not very good at training graduate students and preparing them for the job market.
In addition, sometimes location matters. Universities in big cities will give you the advantage of access to many cultural resources such as theaters, libraries, and other schools . . . not to mention airports so you can more easily go places (like home). But rural universities will give you the advantage of greater sense of community and access to your faculty, who have nothing better to do than spend time with you. It’s a toss up as to which is better, urban or rural, but really, you should go to a place where you feel you can flourish. Because if you don’t flourish where you are, then the whole graduate adventure will not take you where you want to go. In other words, while rankings are somewhat important, they aren’t the be-all-end-all.
For instance, rankings won’t tell you about the personality of a graduate program. Some MFA programs are theory-phobic, and others (such as St. Mary’s College of California) is more theory-friendly. (In St. Mary’s case, though, it is mainly a particular kind of theory–modernism — which it mentions on its website.) And some creative writing or Ph.D. departments in English have close relations to other disciplines such as gender studies, Latino/a studies, or world literature. These affiliated disciplines may not seem important initially, but all Ph.D. programs require that one person on your dissertation committee be from outside the English department. And in addition to all of that, it is also the case that most of the interesting work being done right now is interdisciplinary.
But all things considered, the most useful advice I can give is this: apply to programs that have faculty whom you know about. Of course, you’re probably wondering how the heck you could know them, but it’s easier than you think. All colleges and universities regularly invite professors and authors from other colleges. For instance, my school just had three poets visit and read their work last week, and all three of them teach at other colleges. So, when there are such literary and academic events on your campus, I suggest that you go to them. And if you like the people and like what they do, then find out where they teach… and maybe read some more of their work.
This same principle can also be applied in another way. Even if you’ve never seen or met an author, you will often read recently published books or articles in your classes and when you do research papers. If you read something that you really like, then find out where that author teaches. Quite possibly, it might be a good place to apply, and in your “application essay,” you will actually be able to tell of a real, personal connection between you and the graduate program to which you are applying. The upshot of all this is that choosing a graduate school is not something that you all 0f a suddent start to do. Your entire undergraduate experience and education, in essence, has prepared the way for that choice.
The problem is that (again, for ideological reasons), students fail to notice the context of that choice. As Karl Marx points out in his famous chapter on the commodity fetish, the value of a commodity is not simply natural. It is social and historical. So, when you are looking for a graduate school, don’t buy into the ideology of the marketplace and think you can choose a graduate school the same way that you might choose a pair of pants at Macy’s. Instead, prepare early.
And this leads me to my final point: preparing early. As I mentioned, you never really know who you are or what you want to be until you start doing it. You may think you know what you are, but as Foucault points out, your subjectivity is socially constructed. And even if you don’t agree with Foucault and believe in a God-given soul that is wonderfully unique and unaffected by the world around you — an ideology that is very convenient for capitalist countries, since it allows them to ignore the socio-economic conditions in which people live — you might still agree that the eternal soul is not exactly the easiest thing to actually understand.
So, in addition to getting good grades (since, these days, few graduate schools will pay much attention to your application if you have below a 3.5 GPA), you should also do extra-curricular activities such as the school newspaper or literary society or even a basketball team. All of these things not only will help you figure out what you want to do with your life but also give you something to put on your résumé — something that will demonstrate to future employers that you are a real person. Or, alternatively, you might do volunteer work such as caring for children or tutoring immigrants in English. For summers, try to find internships in various fields so you can see what they are like and gain experience. Your career center will have all sorts of information about such opportunities. Of course, the problem is that many of these internships (such as internships at publishers or magazines) are often unpaid, and some of you may need to make money by serving burgers with-or-without fries. But if that’s the case, then find an internship that’s only ten hours a week, so you can work full time as well.
In this blog post, in addition to offering some concrete information about what one could do and where one can look, I’ve also tried to give you the intellectual tools for critically thinking through the ideological baggage that might get in your way. Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, and you’ll need to figure things out for yousefl.
But I suppose, all things considered, I do have a thesis, and it is this: experiment, experiment, experiment. In other words, you do not have to make one single be-all-end-all choice. You do not have to figure out who you truly are (as if this were even possible.) Rather, you learn, develop, and improve yourself through a series of experiments — trial and error. When does this experimenting start? You’re doing it already. Do it more.
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