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English majors wanted

Tuesday 11th February 2014

For the past few months I’ve trawled Seek for job vacancies, trundled off to interviews looking uncharacteristically put-together and waited for the phone to ring – so much so that I am starting to think of it as pro-bono research; an experiment in unemployability. After all, not many jobs advertise, “English majors wanted. No experience necessary”.

With the humanities – unlike degrees like law, education or accounting – there is no clear career path after graduation. I spent most of 2013 doing a research project on literary allusions in Jane Eyre and getting my head around 1970s feminist sci-fi. There isn’t the same natural progression from this into steady employment.

There are a handful of paid internships offered each year that attract hundreds of applicants from across disciplines.

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When I decided to study English Literature I was straight out of high school, and my career ambitions were nebulous at best. I was excited by the idea of sitting in a room filled with people who actually wanted to talk about books (and hadn’t just rented the movie version), although it turned out to involve less of this and more long hours spent alone and caffeinated in the library.

Now that I’ve graduated, the question I am asked most frequently has changed from “What do you want to do?” into “What are you going to do?”.

Distant relatives and general well-wishers will often respond to my apparent lack of prospects with something along the lines of, “There’s always teaching”. I understand the logic; however, this does imply that our schools are clogged up with disillusioned arts graduates. Is moulding young minds really the last refuge of the destitute? Considering that teaching involves another expensive degree, and creates more graduates than there are job vacancies, it seems unlikely.

BAs are endorsed by universities on the grounds that they impart transferable skills, such as analytical and creative thinking, as well as oral and written communication. Theoretically, this means that any subject-specific knowledge is a massive by-product of the transference of these skill sets. The merits of this knowledge as cultural and artistic exposure have been long debated, but there is general agreement that it is largely extraneous in terms of gaining employment.

With an increasingly competitive job market and no shortage of graduates, the problem isn’t that arts students aren’t capable, but that the distance between university learning and the skill-based demands of the job market keeps growing

One of the persistent criticisms of arts degrees is that they are useless; that if you do an arts degree you’ll find yourself educated and unqualified. With an increasingly competitive job market and no shortage of graduates, the problem isn’t that arts students aren’t capable, but that the distance between university learning and the skill-based demands of the job market keeps growing. There’s a lot less room for on-the-job training, and high expectations for previous experience.

Living in Wellington, I knew very few students who didn’t have to work to pay their living costs, but there are few opportunities that are relevant to the careers that students want to pursue later. There are a handful of paid internships offered each year that attract hundreds of applicants from across disciplines. Even unpaid internships are hard to come by. Unlike in other parts of the world, like much of Western Europe, work experience is a mythical beast to the average arts student.

Many hip, bearded students earn a wage as baristas, but because even that industry is a tough one to get into – I don’t know how to make coffee and can’t grow a beard – I worked two very different jobs. On the weekends, I worked as a receptionist at a camping site, and on days without lectures I worked as a support worker at community housing for people recovering from mental illness.

In jobs like these you accumulate a lot of specific on-the-job skills. I can say “no vacancy” in three languages. I can give a paranoid schizophrenic his meds and then help him make a carrot cake. Surprisingly, I’ve found that this doesn’t typically translate into “relevant experience” – at least, not without some creative licence, and often that is not enough. With more applicants for fewer jobs, and what seems like a specific degree for every vocation, employers can cull applicants and make the whole process a whole lot easier on themselves. Whatever the personal ability, however resourceful and capable – without the specific experience or degree it can be an uphill battle.

There is such a strong urgency to move forwards after graduation that the process of applying for work can be arduous and demoralising. When you’re facing repeated, professional rejection it is hard to maintain a clear perspective, and it is easy to forget that experience isn’t irrelevant because it doesn’t help you get a job. It can be valuable and edifying regardless, and sometimes – if you’re lucky – when it’s over you may get to eat a slice of cake. Arts degrees are flawed, but I chose to be cautiously optimistic. To tread dangerously close to sounding earnest, I got to read books for four years, and who can complain about that?