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mirifique's avatar

Best higher education/career options for liberal arts majors with no career options?

Asked by mirifique (1511 points ) February 16th, 2010

I graduated with a history degree from an Ivy League university, and have been a paralegal for nearly three years now. It used to be that law school was the perfect degree for a liberal arts major, but the general consensus on nearly every career website (WSJ, NYT, etc.), newspaper, and blog is that law school is not a good investment unless you go to a top 20 law school, and even then, you really need to want to be an attorney for the rest of your life (a notion which seems impossible to truly grasp until you are an attorney). I feel very stuck—a cautionary tale, even; and feel like I’m withering more each day, although I am lucky to have a job.

The paralegal profession, while promising much growth (according to the 2010–11 Bureau of Labor Statistics annual jobs report), also has a ton of competition; if you Google “paralegal certificate” it’s easy to see that many, many people are trying to break into this field, which I imagine will bring down salaries (perhaps consequently, it was not rated as an “excellent” or “good” career by the BLS). Thus, I don’t want to be a paralegal forever—I need something else, preferably in the “business world”, but there are so few jobs that it’s just demoralizing to apply to any of them. I’ve considered getting an MBA to foray into the business world, and play up my “management” experience as a paralegal, but MBA programs, too, like JD programs, seem to be losing their value and return on investment. I feel like I’m at a total dead end. I don’t want to be wasting my time right now, being single with lots of free time to be learning. This weekend I broke down and investigated getting a paralegal certificate, a real estate certificate, masters programs in information management, as well as masters in teaching programs (although the jury seems to be out for K-12 teaching as well—job security and salary-wise—unless you’re going into special education). For each of these options, I feel fully capable of fitting them into my own continued life narrative so they seem relevant and practical; in other words, none of these options came to mind whimsically—I can see how they could all be great life choices, provided I could find stable employment afterward. The issue is thus more: what should I be learning to ensure I’m always employed.

I suppose my question to you all is should I a) apply my current skills, passions, interests (writing, research, project management, verbal communication/persuasive skills) to a field which would readily welcome those skills, or would I b) be better off “starting fresh” and learning an entirely new set of skills, say, IT, accounting, math or economics skills, and begin collecting credentials that could some day be applied to a position in business?

My thesis is that I’m sick of being labeled a “useless liberal arts major”, and want some “hard” skills. The question is not which ones, necessarily, but which route to take; I realize this is a bit of an impossible question, so I expect a lot of “it depends what you’re good at/who you know/what you want to do” and “just pick one thing and go for it!” But I feel like I need better advice than that. It feels as if every route is a dead-end right now—for me, anyway, and I’m willing to invest a bit more in my education to make up for the time I wasted in college (not that history wasn’t a great thing to study—I loved it). I’d be interested to hear if anyone is in a similar boat, or if anyone has any specific suggestions as to careers, programs, certificates, grad school programs, etc. that might be good alternatives to law school or business school. Maybe I should apply to law/business schools, and see where I get in, and take it from there. But perhaps I could master the same material through adult education courses, online education and self-study… and maybe this would be better (and much more cost-effective)?

If anyone has any questions about my particular skills, interests, experience, background, etc. please ask or PM me.

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15 Answers

davidbetterman's avatar

Pay no attention to what anyone else tells you. Go to law school and make the big bucks.

wundayatta's avatar

You sound like you’ve pretty much got it together more than anyone else. Just keep doing what you’re doing (research-wise) and you’ll get to where you want to go. It takes a lot of drive to do the kind of research you are doing. Frankly, any employer will probably be pleased to hire you. In any type of business you want to get into.

mirifique's avatar

@wundayatta Thank you! :) That is really nice of you. I hope you’re right.

mirifique's avatar

@njnyjobs Yep, already looked through it—that’s where I read about paralegals, lawyers, database administrators/IT managers, teaching, etc. I also read this article in the WSJ on the 200 best and worst jobs of 2010.

lilikoi's avatar

Do you want to practice law? If so, become a lawyer. What makes you think you wouldn’t be able to get into a top 20 school?

Engineering project manager or Sales Engineering might be good for you. You’d need to get a BS degree in engineering to get into the field though.

Your skills would probably fit a managerial role well. Pretty much every industry needs good management.

mirifique's avatar

@lilikoi As I said, how do you know if you want to practice law until you’ve actually done it? I get to do a lot of attorney-level work at my current job, and it’s fun and stimulating, and stressful and challenging, but I’m not sure to the extent that I should do it forever.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

When I graduated with my history degree several millenia ago, I was often asked what I was going to do. My standard reply was, “I’m going to see a man about a dog.”

But I took my liberal arts BA and went one step further by getting a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM. So, what did I do with that?

The only thing sensible. I put it on my resume appropriately and got a job in sales. At every interview I went to, I readily talked about my masters degree without actually saying it was an MA and not an MBA. The result was that I got a sales job and was very successful at it for many years.

However, I did get tired of the stress, and now I enjoy being a poor freelance book editor.

The question still remains what you should do. I honestly would not worry about getting a certification as a paralegal, if that’s what you’re already doing. And if you enjoy it, then continue. It’s worth a gold mine to do something that you like.

lilikoi's avatar

@mirifique I don’t know. I guess you just have to look at the attorneys around you and what they do and ask yourself if you’d enjoy a life like that. You don’t need to do anything forever, but I think the reason why people always say you should only go to law school if you intend to practice is because of the debt you’ll accrue by attending. Maybe reading The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore will help you find what you are looking for. You have one foot in the door for a career in law – it is only a matter of tapping into that resource and asking the right questions of the people around you, and then making a personal assessment of whether or not it is right for you.

tragiclikebowie's avatar

@mirifique There are many types of lawyers, it doesn’t mean you have to be a defense lawyer or a prosecutor, etc.

the100thmonkey's avatar

I think the fact that you see your life as a narrative says more about your career crisis than anything else you wrote – talking about your career options in an extended 3rd person isn’t a healthy way. Where is your agency in this? It’s not happening to someone else.

What do you really want to do? No, I mean it – what do you really want to do. A dead-end route is only really a dead-end route if you want to conform to the expectations that others set for you.

Go volunteer abroad for a year; bring your life into focus somehow. (I’d add that the focus I’m talking about happened to me when I had kids; it doesn’t happen to everyone that way, though).

mirifique's avatar

I suppose the most important and difficult aspect of this process is dissociating myself from the notion of the program-as-commodity which has been fed to me since I was a kid. College was marketed and packaged as an experience which somehow changed you, inserted you within a community of like-minded people, and filled you with knowledge, just as soccer camps, piano lessons, writing courses, summer programs and extra certifications are marketed as individuated packets of experience that would somehow instigate self-improvement. But we all know the world’s best entrepreneurs, leaders, and innovators looked and look within themselves to find and develop their passions, fueled by their own intrinsic desire for the subject matter in itself, not some extrinsic, outward depiction of that desire its consummation.

I found this article to be relevant in terms of how “Gen-Y“ers tend to follow a particular line of thinking regarding work and the self, wherein the ego must be perpetually stroked. There is a specific narrative/trajectory of self-improvement where the governing logic is “what will this job offer me?” as opposed to “how can I learn as much as possible from this job to better the organization?” Any marketer or recruiter that truly understands this key facet of the Gen-Y archetype stands to profit much from any program or experience that purports to simultaneously champion and improve one’s self as it progresses along its own path. The self is either a browbeaten victim or a transcendent hero within the narrative structure and is seldom merely compliant within it—that would imply weakness, a lack of ambition. I think this explains why so many students are at once so attracted to the prospect of grad schools, degrees, volunteer programs abroad, etc.—which “promise” and certify a life-altering experience of discipline and renewal, wherein the student has the potential to be a hero—and so repelled and disappointed by the actual practice of these experiences, as they ultimately have been reduced to victims with little choice over the curriculum, which may seem too pedantic, irrelevant, and/or arbitrary for one’s imagined, ideal narrative, precluding any point of actual, focused hard work.

I wish I could more easily dissociate myself from these commodities, but recruiters and marketers know this is what drives my generation; they know which carrots and sticks to use to attract us to a particular position and that we won’t consider embarking on an experience unless we can imagine it as a transformative one, one where we enter as victims and emerge as heroes, stronger and redefined.

Jeruba's avatar

Very interesting comments and article, @mirifique.

lilikoi's avatar

“There is a specific narrative/trajectory of self-improvement where the governing logic is “what will this job offer me?” as opposed to “how can I learn as much as possible from this job to better the organization?” Any marketer or recruiter that truly understands this key facet of the Gen-Y archetype stands to profit…”

This is not unique to “Gen-Y”-ers, rather it is human nature. One could argue that it is futile to try to change anyone or anything beyond oneself, and that bettering yourself is simply the most efficient way to better the world.

What you go on to say in that same paragraph can be whittled down to “everyone has an agenda, and seeks to advance it”. Again – human nature.

I don’t see how the motivation of “many students” is relevant to you. Within the context of this discussion and your question, why others decide to pursue degrees or other opportunities is irrelevant.

If you are lured to higher education or work abroad purely under some romantic pretense, you would benefit from seriously considering what you want and/or need out of life to be satisfied. What are you passionate about, what do you really want to do as @the100thmonkey pointed out above?

Our lives are constrained by physics, and similarly by the systems that our predecessors have imposed upon us. Understand the rules, then make a choice – to play or not to play the game. Higher education to me can be a stepping stone in the achievement of personal goals or a means to an expensive, useless trophy – it depends what you want to make of it.

I find the use of “victims” and “heroes” overly dramatic and ridiculous.

It sounds like you would benefit from a bull-shit detector. If you have the right information and know what you’re after, it is not hard to separate the transformative opportunities from the crap. If you are well-informed, you may consider embarking on an experience that you can imagine being transformative, but you will not ultimately allow romanticism to best reality.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Ayn Rand is not the be all and end all of human nature. Indeed, I think she talked a right load of old bollocks.

I note that you’re still referring to yourself in the 3rd person. Did you read any Camus or Sartre in your ‘useless’’ liberal arts degree?

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