Don’t major in history for the love of Charlemagne

Everyone got their outrage hats on?

Here’s mine:

Let’s go.

This article. (via Leora and others)

Let’s start parsing, shall we?

William Klein’s story may sound familiar to his fellow graduates. After earning his bachelor’s in history from the College at Brockport, he found himself living in his parents’ Buffalo home, working the same $7.25-an-hour waiter job he had in high school.

So that’s the normal paragraph.  How does it read to me?

William Klein’s story may sound familiar to his fellow graduates. After earning his bachelor’s in history from the College at Brockport, he found himself living in his parents’ Buffalo home, working the same $7.25-an-hour waiter job he had in high school.

Kids, what did I tell you about majoring in liberal arts and then trying to find Real People jobs?  Unless you are a trustafarian, don’t major in stuff that sounds nice in your head but not on a resume. If you are majoring in liberal arts and are aware that you have less chance of finding a job, that’s coo’. But otherwise, don’t whine that grad school is the next new thing. I guarantee you no one in the companies you think you want to work for will hire you when your resume is in a stack against B.S.s in Finance or Chemical Engineering.

What’s that?  It was your life passion to pursue history?  Why not do it on the side then?  Why not volunteer at a historical society as you work in a soulnumbing job and at some point are able to turn that volunteering gig into a full-time position?  Oh, you feel like you’re compromising everything you stand for?  But living in your parents’ Buffalo home isn’t?

Ok.  So you blew this one.  Looks like you’re going back for a Master’s?

So this fall, he will sharpen his marketability at Rutgers’ new master’s program in Jewish studies (think teaching, museums and fund-raising in the Jewish community). Jewish studies may not be the first thing that comes to mind as being the road to career advancement, and Mr. Klein is not sure exactly where the degree will lead him (he’d like to work for the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East). But he is sure of this: he needs a master’s. Browse professional job listings and it’s “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred.”


So this fall, he will sharpen his marketability at Rutgers’ new master’s program in Jewish studies (think teaching, museums and fund-raising in the Jewish community). Jewish studies may not be the first thing that comes to mind as being the road to career advancement, and Mr. Klein is not sure exactly where the degree will lead him (he’d like to work for the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East). But he is sure of this: he needs a master’s. Browse professional job listings and it’s “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred.”

*mind explodes*

So you have one unmarketable degree, and you’re going to get ANOTHER?  If your goal is to work in the Jewish community, by all means, get that degree.  But, why not research the market first? Do you realize that most Jewish orgs struggle to pay people, and pay is usually around $30k or so for someone starting?  Will that balance out the debts you’re incurring?  Do you already have contacts in the professional Jewish community that will get you started? Did you do Jewish stuff in college?  These are the kinds of questions he should be asking himself instead of aimlessly going for a second degree and being not exactly sure where the degree will lead him.

Hint: If you want to work for the CIA, you need to be in DC, not Rutgers, and you need to be learning Arabic and Farsi and prefrably a third language like WHOA.  Jewish Studies will not help you, unless you are EXTREMELY resourceful.

Don’t waste your own time and money.

Are we all sufficiently outraged?

I need that hat for real.




32 thoughts on “Don’t major in history for the love of Charlemagne

  1. Mr. B and I have decided the only thing you really need to know to get into the CIA is how to bust in doors. If you hadn’t zoned off during our conversation, you’d know that. Then you could have helped this poor, poor idiot get just a little closer to his stupid, stupid dream.

    Also, in an unrelated note: I’ve decided I want to be an astronaut. or rather – a cosmonaut. I know my degree is in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics with a minor in unusable Irrigation techniques, but you know, dream big, right?

    Why are some people so misguided?

    1. I think I zoned out because you guys started talking about guns and there’s only one way a conversation about guns could go with Mr. B… “You should get a gun.”

  2. I love this post more than I can tell you. I swear I had this kind of conversation with a friend of mine who got a degree in communications, and then decided that since she couldn’t find a job right away that she could use her degree in, decided to get another degree in baking and pastry arts “because it’s fun”. She likes to complain every day that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her degrees and I just shake my head.

    Thank you Vicki. I will be sure to keep this article in mind for any other friends of mine struggling with this issue, and also for myself as I go back to college in the next year or so.

    1. Pastry arts…let me tell you something about pastry arts. That stuff is SO HARDCORE. If you have Netflix, you can check out ..maybe it’s out elsewhere as well, about the intensity of being a pastry chef. Also check out Irina’s really interesting story about how she became a pastry chef:

      What I’m saying is it’s really tough to know how your career will go, so research as much as you can. What are you thinking of going back for?

      1. If I could make up my mind, I’d know for sure. I’m stuck between legal studies, business admin.

        I’m all for research… When I was first in college, I admit that I chose a fun major instead of something practical. I realized about 2 semesters that I didn’t want to waste any more money on something that I couldn’t really use. So I left school to get a job and find out what I did want to do with my life.

  3. I agree that these days, you need to have a better idea of what you want to do as a career before even thinking of college. And I also agree that if you don’t know what you want, get a science-y degree just in case and minor in the stuff you’re sort of interested in. At the same time, it seems to me that we’re experiencing a dearth of knowledgeable, well-rounded, intellectually engaged thinkers. On average, American society, unfortunately, is getting less proficient in things like history and literature and writing in general (especially the last is the kind of skill you need in most jobs — even it’s used to write a report about the new formula for soap you’ve discovered accidentally). Part of the problem is that our education system is so focused on standardized tests that a lot of “trivia” goes by the wayside. I don’t want to sound like a “oh those good old days” reminiscer, but television, the Internet and other media also contribute to this phenomenon because information is so readily available and people don’t feel the need to actually engage in learning — they’ll just wing it when need-be with the help of Google & Wikipedia (see this article

    I don’t like people who whine about their life simply because they didn’t think their actions through. Agreed. On the other hand, degrees in English/Journalism/Political Science/Sociology/History, etc. are useful springboards for a very wide variety of careers. Yes, the guy in the story would do better to learn Arabic/Farsi/Urdu, etc. Yes, he’s grasping at straws (and the Jewish studies program he got into is obviously not looking at its applicants closely enough).

    My undergrad degrees are in journalism, Russian lit and international studies, and I have a master’s in international relations. When I began my undergrad studies, I was passionate about newspaper journalism. Yet I worked in journalism proper for a very short period of time before realizing that I don’t want to devote years to living in some god-forsaken middle of nowhere town and writing about local government or, worse, being on the night cops beat, before graduating to a mid-level paper. Instead, I turned my skills into something marketable for a community organization, another passion of mine. Got a grad degree and worked in a fairly dead-end job that I still loved for 2.5 years before something opened up in which I’m actually using both my undergrad & grad education.

    1. That’s the thing. You also think that you’ll do something you love, and when you go to do it, it turns out that you don’t love it at all. I always dreamed about working in Jewish orgs but never got the chance to, and when I talked to my friend who worked at NJOP in New York (maybe it was NJOP?) she said she was quitting. I asked her why and she said, “I love the work, but there’s too many Jews here.”

      Basically, yes. You can get the second major or minor if you’re really interested in something else. I got a business and economics degree and struggled through accounting and toughed out econometrics, but I loved minoring in Hebrew, and I sat in on some Arabic classes when I had time, as well. There is no way ever ever I’d been able to use a Hebrew major, but it still gave me some enjoyment out of college.

      Anyway, I always love your comments here.

  4. Me AND my science degrees AND my immigrant parents are nodding vigorously in agreement.

    I have a younger brother who loves music but he already knows that he is free to pursue it as a major IF he majors in something more marketable in addition to music. He’s going into college this fall as a Music/Mathematics major. Smart boy.

    1. And of course, my constant screaming about how “We’re not rich! You’re going to have to buy your own boxed wine and ramen eventually!” help a lot. I’m such a great sister.

      1. We’re Hispanic hailing from Mexico. Given my mom’s Tiger Mom tendencies and our chosen majors (my brother plays the piano and math and I did biomedical sciences) you’d think I have Asian parents, though. Perhaps I should investigate that family tree more closely.

        Still, though, I think a lot of first or second generation immigrants have that consciousness about choosing practical majors that will result in decent paying jobs because that is why they came here in the first place. They haven’t yet absorbed the American mentality of majoring in things because you LIKE them, the horror.

  5. Or at least double major in something useful. I wanted to study Russian, because you know, very interesting. So it was my ‘fun major’ on the side of my degree in genetics. Which I needed to actually get a job. Liberal arts degrees are great, but they sure don’t pay the bills.

    1. This is why I always tell people to do stuff on the side. In my current job, I can’t use any of my Russian or Hebrew skills or creative writing or design or anything I like to do in my spare time, but that’s what I have this blog for.

  6. I don’t know, being the daughter of indian immigrants I always felt forced to do things like medicine, science, engineering, technology/IT, or finance. Actually, my parents wanted me to go into finance. I tried it, and I forced myself to try and like it for 2 years. I applied for i banking and consulting internships. I tried taking finance classes and certificates. I failed at it all because in the end, my heart wasn’t in it and I really, really did not like it. I ended up majoring in econ & poli sci and I LOVE poli sci. I am SO much better at it because I love it. I did a honors thesis, got grants to do research, studied abroad at LSE, got much better grades, got grants for summer internships, etc… I tried to do something practical and lucrative, but honestly I hated it and I sucked at it. Now, I am really glad I didn’t try to keep at it with finance. I wouldn’t have succeeded. Now that I am hoping to do human rights law I think I have a better chance at succeeding.

    So basically what I’m saying is, a lot of young men and women in the Indian/S. Asian community are forced by their parents/relatives/Indian community to become a doctor or engineer. A lot of young people hate it though, and they may do it but be unhappy or fail to do really well in these fields. Is it worth it?

    I say that do what you love and not just do the most practical route if you can afford the degree.

    I’m not saying to go into jewish studies or do something totally useless – if that guy really wanted to work for the CIA he should probably have chosen something more relevant.

    But I think people should follow their heart to some extent at least, because otherwise you might never be happy and always be a slave to someone else’s dreams for you.

  7. Akhila, I completely agree with your comment (and I love your blog, by the way). Though I do see what Vicki is saying, I wouldn’t have said it in quite the same way. What I mean is that people ought to have a plan of some sort – for example, I’m majoring in history and I plan to become a university professor, which obviously requires a lot more education beyond my undergraduate degree. Aimlessly majoring in history without a definite plan for what to do after you receive the degree is probably a bad idea, especially in light of the fact that history is one of those fields in which you need an advanced degree in order to succeed.

    Sure, I could have done more “useful” things. But the fact is, I don’t like economics (sorry, Vicki!), I’m not crazy about finance, and I don’t like science (biology, chemistry, physics, you name it) one bit, so I would have been very unhappy in those fields.

    1. Yes, my general gist is, have a plan. Don’t just pick an out-there major and expect to get an office job with it. Pick a major with some sensibility that gives you real-world skills, and do other things in your spare time.

  8. For some reason my immigrant parents allowed me to major in history. I couldn’t figure out what to do, so I went out and got myself an MA that’s even less practical. Next I worked in Jewish non-profit (bachelor’s required, master’s preferred). LOL! At least my education cost me about… I don’t know 5K altogether. If I had to pay more, I’d think twice about my majors.
    That guy *is* a trustafarian, you realize.

  9. The funny thing is, with the default looming and the Dollar artificially deflated, a historian will at least be able to point to the parallels in history. And have their $7.25/hour student job next week.

    The reason why in sound democracies Humanities are taught is because a critical, educated middle class, a bourgeoisie, has shown to be the backbone of democratic societies, and a distinct quality of that bourgeoisie has been a well-rounded education. The more specialists we get in the easily-manipulated and career-oriented fields, the more specialists we need in other fields, too, to create some sort of balance. There’s a reason why Humanities are never favoured in totalitarian societies, and a country’s wealth, real or assumed, has never been a good gauge of its people’s morale.

    I’d feel bad to encourage a student to look for a job in a field that will make them miserable for the next 45 to 55 years of their lives. If they are pursuing a certain dream, I can tell them about the possible disadvantages and tell them about alternatives in the same field. You want to become a kindergarten teacher? How about doing an extra year to specialise in some sort of handicap, which’ll give you a rare qualification on top, better chances at landing a job, and three times the pay? I won’t turn such a person into a car mechanic if that is not within their skill sets. I have recommended aspiring IT professionals to become pastry chefs as there’s a surplus of IT-professionals these days that make about 40,000 Euros per year while there’s a shortage of pastry chefs which can easily make 80,000 per year and more as they are desperately sought after.

    The only solid, economy-proof professions are in agriculture and skilled crafts. The rest of us can be randomly disposed of and substituted all too easily. So any career besides one in those two is nothing but a fancy choice. (Well, there are also undertaking and prostitution to be fair.)

  10. “Yes, my general gist is, have a plan.”

    Now come on, that’s a lot of pressure for an 18 year old! I’m pretty sure my plan during college was “Get the hell out of my podunk little town and go hang out with smart people and drink and talk about Nabokov and ancient ruins.” Or at least that’s what I did. The “plan” part was really just get the hell out of my podunk town. I had no idea that it was possible to have (or want) an actual “career” that related to something I studied.

    Bad Cohen, on the other hand, double-majored in music and physics – both of them for the love of the subjects, and with no career goal in mind. After the physics and some computer hacking skills got him jobs he hated for 15 years, he’s back doing music full-time (and getting a PhD in it), so he can join the academic pyramid scheme. So, at this point, he has a plan and I have mad editing and baking skillz that will no doubt languish because really I’d rather just spend all day on Twitter.

    1. “Get the hell out of my podunk little town and go hang out with smart people and drink and talk about Nabokov and ancient ruins.””

      That’s a plan.

  11. I have a Master’s in Broadcast Communications: Television Writing, and while I have written for television (ABC/NBC/TNT) and published several novels (including two NYT best-sellers), the thing I tell aspiring writers now is: First, a degree in writing is pointless; if you want to be a writer, write, write, write, and send out, send out, send out, so that you can be rejected, rejected, rejected and learn, learn, learn. (Do you like the symbolic repetition? I have a Master’s, you know.) And second, spend your college tuition on getting a degree in marketing or PR with a strong side of Business Administration because THAT is the lifeblood of any creative person. Making stuff is easy, getting it noticed and sold is hard. Being a creative person means you are running your own business, so you’d damn well better know how to do that. My oldest son is 12. He wants to be an artist. Peachy keen. BUT understand what that means from a business stand-point. (Oh and, FYI, my parents are Soviet immigrants, a bio-chemist and a computer programmer, so it’s not like they don’t get the whole: Do something practical thing. They are still stunned that I can make a living as a writer. But, that’s because I have a secret weapon. I’m a writer who thinks like a business person.)

      1. Not exactly. 😉

        More like create stuff THEN GO OUT AND SELL IT LIKE A BUSINESS PERSON.

        Too many people create art, then stand around waiting for others to take care of all the less fun details.

        The trick is to think of yourself not as an artist but as a small business owner whose product is art, be it painting, writing, music, building doll-houses, etc…

        I spend as much time each day promoting and marketing my writing as I do actually writing. And I’ve never needed to take a job that wasn’t writing related, as a result.

        1. Alina, you are spot on. Also, start early enough in life, so that you can fail and start again, and fail and start again.
          Writing, music and art are actual professions, while history is a degree, unless you go all the way and get a Ph D in it.

  12. “I would imagine in the museum world, I would want to hire someone with content,” she says hopefully. “To say, ‘I have a master’s in Jewish studies,’ what better credential to have when you are on the market?”


  13. Just two quick thoughts:

    1. Planning is everything; plans are nothing. Why? Because plans are static and life is not. Beyond a degree, learn to abstract what you learnt. I have successfully coached a history graduate to get into a magic-circle law firm’s training scheme and from not knowing what to do, he is now happy as a corporate lawyer. Common skills? Being able to read tons without losing the plot; and being able to write (although drafting skills are specialised which is why you get trained specifically in them by a law firm).

    2. That is not a hat; it is a fascinator. 😛

    PS: Some of us studied engineering because we loved maths and we loved tinkering and we were good at both. Engineering happens to pave a path for much else because above all it teaches you how to structure complex problems and how to design solutions to them.

  14. I think when people (like myself) who pick liberal arts majors, internships become all the more important. I havent struggled to find a job since I graduated, however I was mindful in securing opportunities while in college to put the more transferrable skills of my major (verbal and written communication, analyzing, project management, etc) to work. Beyond the actual major, accomplishments that are easy to market and demonstrate your value to an employer are key.

    Besides, we all cant be engineers. 😉

  15. I’m loving this post, and I’m loving these comments.  I’m full of love right now.  And fatigue…
    I majored in Music Performance, clarinet, specifically.  I minored in having an amazing time, reading lots of great literature, being slightly pretentious about it, and being very artsy in general.  My plan was to go all the way (PhD), and hopefully score some orchestral or chamber gigs.  My plan exploded in my face when I didn’t get into grad school (oh, the burn).
    It was about then that I realized, as I was trying to sort through my immediate prospects post-graduation, that music performance was not a very practical degree.  I ended being a paralegal/legal secretary for a few years.  Then I went to Israel, then I got married.  He’s a doctor, so now I don’t really worry about my career.  I take are of my boychiks and I blog.
    Interestingly enough, though, since I’ve been married, I’ve actually had quite a few paying gigs.  I also had a thriving piano studio for a while.  So, the moral of my story (it’s not marry a doctor, if that’s what you’re thinking) is that even if things don’t go according to plan, if you keep at it and do what Alina Adams said up there, market yourself, things can go well.
    Of course, many creative-type people are lousy at business.  So I guess you should get a manager. 

  16. Love this, post, wish I found it back when I was in college. Anyway so much truth here, I hear people talk on and on about “follow what you love, follow your passion and the money will come” etc… So dude follows his passion, because after all college is the pursuit of what you love as opposed to what is more practical more markatable. So lets person A follows his passion and chosesillustration, Person B, a friend of Person also loves illustration but he wants to go for a more marketable major so he choses Accounting. Now he doesn’t hate accounting, he thinks its all right but he understands that a job is much more secure with accounting.

    Lets say they are both excellent students, good grades etc… They graduate in 4 years my guess is the Person B with his Accounting degree is working in Accounting/Finance/Business while Person A with his degree in Illustration (because after all college is about passion!) is sending out resume and cover letter to ad infnum for every entry level, unpaid internship out there be it illustration or naught, all the while working that same Staples job he had during high school. That’s life, at least that has been my expereince thus far.

    Research, look ahead, really look at the marketablity of your major, go past the department heads and professors who say “Oh you will be fine, plenty of English Majors are working”. The days of Majoring in general liberal/humanites degree and landing some office job, tech job, entry level where the employer would be more than willing to train you are gone, they are a relic. Employers can afford to be picky, they can afford to chose.

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