The terrible piece of career advice I got over and over again as a college student

Katie McGheeMe in front of the Sir Christopher Wren Building.

I had a great gig as an undergrad at the College of William and Mary. I gave tours at the Sir Christopher Wren Building, the oldest college building in the US. That probably sounds boring, but I love history and I’m pretty obsessed with that building. I also liked getting to meet the various people who came through the Wren.

At certain points in the year, most of our visitors were just lost souls seeking a bathroom or the admissions office. Some, however, had an interest in history or some time to kill and ended up following me around the 17th century building while I rattled off facts about the portraits and the Civil War-era bullet holes.

After I took them through all the rooms, we’d often have a quick chat. I’d ask where they were visiting from. They’d ask me what year I was and what I was studying.

When I revealed that I was a history major to my tour group, most people would respond in one of two ways: They’d either say something like, “Oh, obviously,” because what other kind of person wants to talk about Flemish bonds and Lord Cornwallis on a Saturday morning (the answer is lots of people, majors of all kinds worked as tour guides in the building)? Then they might ask me another question about the history of William and Mary; or they’d say, “You’ll be a wonderful history teacher!”

It was the second response that I found interesting. It was a lovely compliment, but I found that people were often very insistent that teaching was the only way for me to go — even after I told them that my interests didn’t lie with education.

I once got into a very polite conversation — tour guides don’t
argue with guests — with a nice but unyielding tourist who said, “you have to go into teaching because that’s the only thing to do with a history major.” (I heard this over and over again.) She didn’t even specify what level I’d be teaching at, just that it was inevitable.

OK … no.

I’m not knocking education, obviously. I’m not sure many people understand the kind of work that goes into teaching. It’s not like rolling out of bed once a week to give a historical tour to a group of people you’ll never see again. One of my best friends is a teacher. She’s brilliant. I couldn’t do what she does. Honestly, most people couldn’t.

I also get why people make assumptions like that (like the insistent tourist). There’s something sensible and comforting about a linear career path. You take the relevant classes, you graduate, and you’re basically all set. And when you’re a history major, going on to teach history is one of the few linear career paths you’ve got.

Still, liberal arts majors, disregard the well-meaning people who are fixated on the career path of least resistance. Maybe this is naive (or maybe it makes me sound like a humanities shill), but a good liberal arts education should teach you how to think, write, and speak. Once you have those skills, you can do whatever you want.

That’s not to say you should major in English and then expect to dive right into a brilliant career as a NASA astrobiologist. Obviously, certain careers come with specific requirements. However, it’s up to you to forge your way into most other industries. A degree won’t get you a job, but cultivating experience and connections in the field you want to pursue will. So don’t get lead down the garden path that your major is always the be-all, end-all of your future career.

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