Although I love Thanksgiving and getting to see my family, one of my least favorite parts is the “relative questions.” You know the ones, the repetitive small-talk questions that everyone asks when they don’t really know what to ask about your life.
When you’re 16, the only thing anyone can think to ask you is if you’ve gotten your license yet. The year after that, everyone wants to give you advice on where to go to college. Now that I’m about to graduate, I constantly get asked what I’m planning on doing next. I generally don’t have a problem with this question because it’s important, and knowing what I want to do with my time tells you a lot about me.
What annoys me, however, is when people ask “So what are you going to do with a Sociology degree?” Within the phrasing and intonation of this question are often a number of subtle assumptions and judgments. The first is the implication that I’ve chosen a useless degree because it doesn’t give me a clear path or job field to enter after college. The second is the assumption that my undergraduate degree determines my next steps; that because I am getting a B.A. in Sociology, I will pursue work in this field. The ultimate frustration I have with this question, one that often comes out during the course of the conversation, is the need for the person asking me the question to fit my answer and future plans into a discrete career label such as teacher, lawyer or lobbyist. In reality, none of these is true. My degree is not useless. Nor am I required to pursue things related to sociology. In fact, my job will probably not have any sort of neat label at all.
I find these issues crop up when talking to Stanford students as well, and I often feel looked down upon for not having chosen a more pre-professional path. I’ve had numerous conversations with techie students in which it is clear that they look down upon fuzzy majors. The culture among Stanford students lauds techie degrees as practical, which ends up framing fuzzy majors as useless. Although it is true that a Stanford engineering degree offers higher salaries and a guaranteed job right out of Stanford, a liberal arts degree is not a death knell. Liberal arts degrees have tremendous value even though they don’t shepherd the student into an obvious career trajectory and throw money at them.
My degree opens up a world of possibilities to me. Although the skills I’ve gained are less quantifiable than those from techie majors, my time at Stanford has vastly improved my writing, my critical thinking skills, my research skills and my ability to put together a coherent and convincing argument. All of these are qualities that employers look for and make me a valuable commodity on the job market. Every company that employs those high-paid CS majors also needs people to do marketing, HR, management and public relations. Any and all of these options are available to me with my liberal arts degree from Stanford.
People forget that many Americans have jobs have little to nothing to do with their undergraduate department, so it’s of little concern to me that my job be related to sociology. Some of my relatives get this and some don’t, but as our conversations continue they struggle to find a job label for the future me; do I want to be a consultant? A social worker? I should be a teacher! It’s like they’re grasping at straws for a name that they know and understand, failing to realize that jobs don’t always fall into these labels. Like most adults, I will probably have a job that has a title that you’ve never heard of and that doesn’t fall cleanly into any category. What’s important to me is that I find a job that accomplishes something that I believe is a valuable use of my time; the end goal is what’s important, not the name.
I haven’t applied to jobs yet, so we’ll see if I’m right or just overly idealistic. But for now I refuse to believe that my degree and coursework are less worthwhile than someone whose future trajectory is obvious. I plan on forging my own path ahead and finding jobs where I like the environment and the work and that meet my long-term goals. So next time you feel despair because you don’t know exactly where you’re going out of college and there’s no obvious plan laid out for you — don’t. I’m there with you. We will fashion careers that work for us while doing what we want to do, instead of trying to cram ourselves into a label that doesn’t quite fit. No matter what our relatives tell us.
Do you have any career advice for Jamie? (But no neat little labels, please!) Then email her at jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.