Tuesday, September 04, 2007

No $50000-a-year jobs laying on the ground 

Thomas Benton applies an old economics joke to college advising. It's advice I'd like to pass along to all incoming students.

Nowadays, when students tell me they want to major in something because of a looming labor shortage, I say to them, "Sorry, there are no good jobs out there going begging, and there never will be. It is hard to find good work in any field." And then I send them right to career services.

Students shouldn't just talk with their academic adviser because, in the end, most of us don't know anything beyond the precincts of our field, and we are naturally biased in favor of it. Despite everything I know, I want you to go to graduate school. I can't help it; I have drunk the Kool-Aid. For all that's happened, I still believe in the value of the humanities and that some people should be teachers and scholars. And for that reason I can't be trusted completely.

So go talk with the people in the career-services office before deciding your life on the basis of my flattery, an article in Time magazine, or the advice of your Aunt Sally who listens to NPR. And don't just take career services' word for it: They have biases, too.

The job market is beyond your control, so focus on what you can control: Do research on the field that interests you before, during, and after your degree program. No matter what you've heard, you will not get a job on the basis of nothing but your degree and your inflated GPA. Get relevant experience through internships, preferably paid ones, but use your time in college to get a real education, instead of mere job skills. Believe it or not, successful business people don't like to be surrounded by philistines and ignoramuses.

Develop your writing and speaking abilities, mind your manners and appearance, do your work on time and without excuses (never say, "but I tried really hard"), earn the respect of your professors, and, once you have become an educated, responsible adult with some skills and a network of other adults willing to vouch for you -- you might find full-time, entry-level work -- making copies, fetching coffee -- in a city 500 miles away.

That's hard to swallow when every college seems to boast about unlimited prospects with minimal effort, but it is the truth for most undergraduates.

It does make you wonder what to do with government labor statistics sites that tell you which jobs are likely to grow fastest through 2014. What would you do with it? Did you need someone to tell you to go into law or medicine to make big money? You didn't know that before? Or that marketing managers do pretty well?

Greg Mankiw chose economics over law due to comparative advantage. I did about the same thing, though driven in my case as much by demand -- there were scholarships available for me in econ, not in law, and Paper Chase's John Houseman scared the everliving daylights out of me. My ego was much more fragile at 21 than now at 50. But I had at least some experience with the adult world, and at that age and after living at home through college a desire to leap at something. So off to grad school I went. (As a side note: years later a classmate and I went to a 99-seater in LA to watch some experimental theater, and there was Houseman in the front row. I didn't know whether to thank him or punch him then. I know I'd thank him now.)

A former student of mine has been working in the financial industry (good pay! growth!) for the last several years. Married and with children, she now thinks about going back to teach economics. She feels drained on her job by 10am. I check myself every time I start to write to her, that indeed I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and think it's a great life. For her? How would I know? I know I don't feel drained at 10am, or at 4pm. But is it the job, or me?

I waited two weeks to answer her email, and I don't know that it was a good answer.

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