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Liberal arts grads go off beaten path

Emma Driscoll | Monday, April 30, 2007

As Arts and Letters seniors approach graduation, they must determine the answer to a question with which they are no doubt familiar – what can they do with their majors?

Notre Dame Arts and Letters professors faced the same question when they were liberal arts undergraduates. While they eventually pursued careers in academia, their experiences demonstrate the wide variety of uses for an Arts and Letters degree.

Associate professor of philosophy Bill Ramsey wound up working on “a massive laser about the size of a gymnasium” after graduating from the University of Oregon with a major in philosophy.

“I just wanted jobs that were low commitment and gave me lots of free time, so I bussed tables and I baked bagels, and then I worked for a research and development firm,” Ramsey said.

So for eight months, Ramsey worked as the expediter at a company building a laser as part of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program during the Cold War.

“It’s a crazy job,” Ramsey said. “But it just shows you how a philosophy major can kind of wind up doing things you would never expect.”

Although he was looking forward to being laid-off after the laser was finished so he could travel and climb, Ramsey was surprised when the company asked him to stay on as an engineer – even after his boss and other members of the company had been fired.

But since the laser “[didn’t] do anything except discolor some tissue paper,” Ramsey decided it was time to move on.

While Ramsey spent time working low-commitment jobs after graduation, he believes his philosophy degree would have made him a qualified candidate for a professional career after graduation if that was what he had wanted to do.

“The thing that was holding me back was I didn’t want to go the serious career route just then,” he said. “If I decided that I really wanted to go into business or something like that, I wouldn’t have had any real problem.”

English professor and published author Valerie Sayers taught economics at a new technical college – even though she graduated from Fordham with a degree in psychology. The technical college “desperately needed somebody to teach social science courses,” Sayers said, explaining why she was hired with just a bachelor’s degree.

“They asked me if I could teach economics and I said ‘sure,'” Sayers said. “I just read the textbook as fast as I could.”

Originally, Sayers had planned to go to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist, but plans changed when she realized toward the end of her college career that she wanted to be a writer.

“I took a year of my life [after undergraduate school] to decide whether I could be a writer and take a kind of minimal earning and write every day,” she said. This was when she moved back to her home town and took the teaching job.

Although Sayers considered this a sort of “test year,” she was anxious as to how things would turn out.

“I was terrified. I was scared to death because my original plan had been very professional,” she said. “To be a psychologist was a clear path … but to be a writer seemed to have no path whatsoever. It was as if I had to hack out my own path.”

Unlike Ramsey and Sayers, music professor Alexander Blachly knew that he wanted to attend graduate school right after graduating from Haverford College with a B.A. in music and a concentration in composition.

Blachly went straight to Columbia, where he received a Master’s degree in historical musicology in 1972 and then a Ph.D. in 1995 with the intention of being “an academic.” Blachly, however, also founded the professional singing ensemble Pomerium in New York, which he still directs.

“My career path has not been typical. … I had always had a dual career, even as a graduate student, as a performer and as an academic,” he said. For Blachly, having two careers makes his situation “a little unusual.”

Performance was not something Blachly expected to pursue when he was an undergraduate. He said he thought that performing would be a “sideline” to a career in academia.

Since he had already been accepted to Columbia’s graduate program at the time he graduated from Haverford, Blachly said he did not face much anxiety over what the years following his graduation would bring.

“That part of my future – those immediate next few years – was already mapped out for me,” he said. “I only applied to one graduate school. My feeling was that I wanted to go there, and if I didn’t go there, I would do something else. That’s also not very common and probably not very sensible looking back on it, but that’s what I did.”

Department of Film, Television and Theater assistant professor Christine Becker never planned to become a professor when she went to graduate school after she finished her undergraduate education at University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign with a humanities degree. Film was a humanities option at the university, and when Becker chose it, she said she “didn’t really have a career in mind,” but knew that film was something that she “really loved.”

While Becker’s immediate family and friends were supportive of her decision to pursue her love of film, she recalled her aunt telling her that her major was a “waste of brains.”

Blachly – who said that his parents also supported his decision to pursue music through graduate school – said that “luck” played a role in his career path.

“There is always an element of luck and the sort of good fortune that is involved in getting an appointment [to a job],” he said.

Sayers noted that the lower cost of living – something that graduating seniors today do not have – also helped her to turn her goal of being a writer into a reality.

To Blachly, choosing a career path that could be more financially promising may not be the most beneficial.

“If you go into something just for the money, I think that’s ultimately going to lead to discontent,” he said. “I think you should do the things that you find fulfilling, and trust that things will work out.”

For Ramsey, trusting that things will work out may require that students be willing to learn new things as they build their careers. He said his experience working on the laser serves as an example that in the professional world, employees must figure things out as they go, especially since most employers know that they will have to train their new hires anyway.

“[Employers] are looking for people with the right kind of raw materials, and that’s exactly what a liberal arts degree gives you,” Ramsey said.