Monday, February 3, 2014

Three Career Questions I'm Often Asked

Here are my answers to three of questions that readers and callers to my show have asked:

What should I major in? 

Of course, it varies with the individual but here are a couple of my not-widely-held beliefs:

If the person really is a science/math/computer whiz, it may make sense to choose a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) major. But more often, I recommend not majoring in those. They're hard, not that interesting to most people, and these majors contain some very smart, hard-working students bringing down the curve. Also, if you end up switching majors, you'll find most of what you learned irrelevant to life or career. Most important, not withstanding what politicians say, there's already an oversupply.

A major I consider underrated and of wide benefit to one's career and life is theatre/dramatic arts. Studying and being involved in plays (whether as reader, actor, student director, stage manager, whatever) gets you exposed, again and again, to pieces of literature that focus on life's key issues. That repeated exposure is required for it to be transformative for you. A theatre major is more likely than most to make you a wiser human being. And if you spend some time on stage, you'll gain poise, an important and underrated attribute. Most people also find the theatre major fun.

What's the best career?

Again, of course, it depends on the person but I do have a few favorites.

One is optometrist. It offers prestige, a six-figure income, low stress, you succeed with nearly every patient, and there are few emergency calls. Optometry is not offshoreable and you won't get replaced by a robot. The training time isn't inordinate: four years after your bachelor's degree, or at some colleges, you can get a bachelor's degree and your Doctor of Optometry degree in seven.

Haircutter scores near the top of most job satisfaction surveys. Again, you succeed with nearly every customer and you're dealing with something positive--appearance. Plus, you get the chance to develop ongoing relationships with customers: After all, you get to chat with them every month or two. Haircutting is another career that won't get offshored or automated.

Clergy. You get to do unmitigated do-gooding and have a very varied workweek: from counseling the unhappy to preparing and delivering a sermon to planning for the church/synagogue's future. Yes, hours can be long and irregular. Pay often is bad but not always. This is another career that won't the offshored or automated.Tip: Prioritize nuance and true fairness over dogma.

How do you get promoted or at least reduce your risk of getting laid off?
  • Try to get to work for a boss who's ethical and a star or up-and-comer. You'll both learn a lot and such a boss is likely to get increasing responsibility, which could create new opportunities for you. 
  • Try to make your boss's life easier. You might even periodically ask your boss that explicitly: "How could I make your life easier?"  
  • Keep your antennae out for priority areas in the organization and in your field and get more skilled in one of those. 
  • You can't overtly brag but subtly try to get it known that you're a person who has good ideas and does fine work. For example, instead of just giving your best idea to the boss, you might bring it up in an email to others "for feedback." 
  • Try to be low-maintenance and well-liked by most people. 
  • Sometimes, your organization really has too little opportunity for advancement. If so, resist the temptation to stay put and, at least, subtly, confidentially, put feelers out.


Anonymous said...

Here are some other majors non-STEM folks should consider that can be helpful, make you a wise connoisseur of life, and even be fun:

Philosophy: Like theater, you're exposed to many great works and great writers/thinkers. You learn to think critically and rigorously about key issues. You learn how to think logically and ethically, and make sense out of intense texts.

Rhetoric: Like theater, you spend some time "on stage" debating, which also builds poise. You get exposure to some eminent speakers and writers here too. You learn to think on your feet and read your audience. You learn how to write well and do so quickly.

Psychology: Many of the same advantges of philosophy and rhetoric, but you also learn about how people think, feel and behave. and what drives thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

While you're majoring in these fields, you can consider taking courses or minoring in something more career-focused. One school I attended offered a "business certificate" for non-business majors that gave them exposure to important business concepts employers look for without actually majoring in business.

On a personal note: If Catholic priests were allowed to marry, I probably would have become one.

Marty Nemko said...

Thanks for your good comment. I agree about rhetoric-- great point. I am ambivalent about the philosophy major because it's usually too larded with "academic" philosophy, explorations of the most absurdly arcane and real-world irrelevant--e.g., hermeneutica. I also think that psychology, especially of the non-physiological type is too heavy in dubious theory.

Rex said...

I must say I am surprised you didn't choose something more along the lines of engineering, biology, finance, etc. I can see your point about computer science though. The STEM majors are hard, and my sense is that employers recognize and value them for precisely this reason, especially given your recent post about employers complaining that recent grads don't have enough "hard skills." Don't you think employers would be more likely to turn their noses up at a theater major vs. an engineer? At least engineering allows one to get a decent-paying job right out of college, biology may help you get into the healthcare field in one shape or another, and the finance/accounting/management, if it comes from a decent university, won't hurt your chances at getting an entry-level job in banking or consulting. What's the flaw in my reasoning here? And that's not just a rhetorical question.

Maria Lopez said...

I want to put in a good word for STEM classes though not necessarily STEM majors. Knowing basic physics, chemistry, and biology can make you somewhat less likely to fall for bogus scientific arguments.

Also, doing experiments like doing art, including theater teching, can teach manual skills, something that younger people seem to often lack, especially if they are more academically inclined.

Marty Nemko said...

Rex, I said, "If you're not a whiz," consider not majoring in STEM. Whizzes probably should major in those fields if they find such fields of interest and aptitude.

If one makes the most of, say a theatre major, and thus grows more in writing, thinking, speaking, etc that one would if majoring in engineering, and then that person demoed that in cover letter and interview, I'd say that the non-STEM whiz would be wiser to major in theatre or rhetoric than to try to compete in the crazy-competitive STEM major and for STEM jobs. Yeah, health care isn't as competitive.

Marty Nemko said...


The way even "basic" college science courses are taught, you're unlike to increase your ability to discern bogus arguments in the media, etc. I invite you to look at an intro to college, bio, chem, or physics book. You'll see what I mean.

Geronimo said...

Hi Marty--This comment prompted by a theme from your recent show about disconnects between the output of our learning institutions vs the needs of the workforce. A huge hidden gap in the system: about 2/3rds of people check out on the Myers-Briggs typology as 'sensing.'This means they trust and concentrate on sensory information--spatial thinkers, sequence oriented, like to make, move and manipulate things, keen observers of what's really happening around them. These people have to go thru an academic system, however, that is 2/3rds "intuitive," which people who are focused on abstract concepts. The academics believe that the objects of their passion--ideas, concepts, theories--are 'knowledge' and the rest is kinda kid-stuff.

In that context, it's very disheartening to see the U.S. miss the whole set of themes that are captured in traditional blue-collar work. The world's sensing types are silent and unaware victims of a system that's run by and for their non-comprehending counterparts.

I remember from the 90's a German labor minister's answer to this question: "If you could only preserve one thing to guarantee the future of the workforce of Germany, what would it be?" Without hesitation, he said, "Our apprentice system!" Every time I think of that concept (and America's apprentice system is...where, exactly?), look at the unemployment in the low-formal-education sectors, and try to imagine the alternatives of some of the high-sensing people, it gets very discouraging. This mismatch is huge, systematic, almost invisible, and very hard to remedy--at least, so far.

Marty Nemko said...

Geronimo, while the Myers-Briggs suffers from frighteningly bad validity, your point remains valid. Leaders' deification of the intellectual inappropriately devalues the concrete. Yes, even tradespeople need to think but not at all in the ways the intellectual elites would insist everyone must--e.g., by going to college.