Thursday, 11 October 2012

Debunking the myths about Arts degrees and careers

Today's post is from guest blogger Amber Nicholson, Career Development Officer with the U of A's Faculty of Arts.

When I was asked to blog about a career topic for Arts students, debunking employability myths came to mind. As tiresome as myths can be, I think they still deserve a kick in the pants now and then…

The only jobs for Arts grads do not require post-secondary education.

From time to time I hear stories about a friend of a friend who ended up flipping burgers after finishing her or his Arts degree. My response is what does this person’s career exploration and work search look like? Does this cautionary tale, by association, mean there are no jobs for Arts graduates and you, too, will end up flipping burgers? While it’s true that some Arts graduates have a difficult time finding work, the same can be said for a wide range of fields. For example, it’s not always easy to find work as a teacher; or when the economy takes a downturn jobs for engineers can be in short supply.

In the past couple of weeks I visited current Arts undergraduate students who are working in a variety of internship positions through the Arts Work Experience Program. Their job titles and responsibilities include: a Business Analyst reviewing emerging market opportunities for a manufacturing company in the oil and gas industry; a Legal Assistant who works on high level legal research; Student Recruiters who travel around the province delivering presentations and independently manage complex schedules; and a Research Intern who communicates directly with government ministers. Why am I telling you about these students? Because instead of thinking of your friend’s friend, the burger flipper, think about them. Think about the vast number of success stories of people who take chances, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and are applying their education in meaningful ways.

As an Arts graduate myself and now, working in career services with Arts students, I appreciate the challenges involved in deciding how to apply your degree in the workforce. Let’s face it, if you take nursing or mechanical engineering, your career path is much clearer and there isn’t a lot of room for ambiguity. It’s true that broad undergraduate programs lead to a number of undefined career options and that can seem overwhelming but, looked at another way, the endless possibilities can also be exciting.

Beyond reviewing employment statistics that clearly state that Arts graduates do, indeed, find work (see University of Alberta Graduate Survey, Alumni Employment Surveys), talk to people who have been successful. Plan to attend the Arts Career Fair, listen to an alumni panel presentation at a Career Forum, attend a Career Chat or take advantage of Career Exploration Programs, like Job Shadow Week. The highly successful professionals who participate in these events are using applying their degrees in a wide range of fields. They have Arts degrees and are gainfully employed. You can be too!

There is no association between what I’m learning in class and what’s needed in the job market.

As part of the Arts Work Experience Program, I ask interns students to reflect the relationship between their academic experience and the applied experience of their working environment. Without fail, these students comment on how their degree helped them to develop skills they use every day on the job. These skills include: time management/organization, the ability to communicate ideas, effective writing, the ability to collaborate and work independently, etc. The interesting thing is that their supervisors also comment that these broad, yet hard to teach ‘on the job’ skills, are the reason they targeted Arts students for their work experience opportunities. Although these students learned their specific job tasks at work, they learned how to approach learning, problem solving and decision making in their degree program.

Finding a job is all about who you know, I don’t know anyone in my field, so I’m never going to find a job.

Okay, so this bit of despair isn’t specific to Arts students, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Are most jobs found through personal and professional networks? Yes, a good number of them are. In fact some sources report 80% of jobs may be found through networking. Does that mean if you don’t have professional connections, you have no way to make them and will, in turn, be living in your parents’ basement forever? Absolutely not! There are a vast number of opportunities to explore career options, build your network and get relevant workplace experience while you’re a student.

For Arts students, consider attending the Arts Career Fair next week to learn about the range of jobs participating employers have to offer. Do your research and approach employers with well thought out questions…they love that! If a career fair setting is not for you, consider attending a discipline specific career forum, find a mentor, or conduct a career information interview with a professional in a job that interests you. Earn money while volunteering through the SCiP Program, take a Community Service Learning course, get involved in undergraduate research or join a student group. Basically, get out there, meet people, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and take an active role in your career exploration!

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