what’s in a major? liberal arts vs. engineering

Happy Monday!

The start of another work-week has me thinking about what gets us employed in jobs we actually like (and maybe even love): our education. Our course of study, and the degrees we earn, determine our future, but to what extent?

Which is the right path—for our children, or, if we’re returning to school as adults, for ourselves? Are liberal arts degrees practical for today’s hyper-competitive job market?

I just read a fascinating post on Tech Crunch by the engineer-entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa, “Engineering vs. Liberal Arts: Who’s Right—Bill or Steve?”

Interesting that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are college dropouts, but let’s leave that aside for now—the vast majority of us won’t make it out there without a college degree.

billionaire nerd smackdown: Team Bill or Team Steve? (NYT, Vivek Wadhwa.com)

You can see from the title of my post what side of the debate I’m on.  Get me one of those sleek Team Steve black turtlenecks!

In a nutshell, Wadhawa states:  “Our society needs liberal-arts majors as much as it does engineers and scientists.” But, he also acknowledges that:

“…employment prospects are dim for liberal-arts majors. Graduates from top engineering schools such as Duke are always in high demand. But PhDs in English from even the most prestigious universities, such as UC-Berkeley, can’t get jobs. The data I presented [in his NYT piece] were on the background of tech-company founders—those who made the transition into entrepreneurship.  Most don’t. And, as you can note from Bill Gates’ speech, there is a bias against liberal arts and humanities.

Angelika Blendstrup is an author and a lecturer who holds a PhD in Bilingual Bicultural Education from Stanford. She says that her liberal-arts background is “great for writing papers or PhDs, but it would be better to have studied engineering and have a choice of jobs”.

Charles River Venture Partner emeritus, Ted Dintersmith, on the other hand, received a PhD in Engineering from Stanford.  But he also studied liberal arts. Ted says “It doesn’t have to be either/or—I double-majored in Physics and English, and never regretted combining two such different disciplines”.

So there is no black and white here. We need musicians, artists, and psychologists, as much as we need bio-medical engineers, computer programmers, and scientists.

My advice to my students—and to my own children—is to study what interests them the most; to excel in fields in which they have the most passion and ability; to change the world in their own way and on their own terms. Once they master their domain, they can find the path to entrepreneurship. They can then come up with creative ways of solving the problems that they have encountered, and apply their ideas to other fields where their knowledge adds value. Maybe they can team up with the hard-core engineers who develop the clunky, inelegant, over-engineered products that Bill is famous for; maybe work with Steve to create the next iPhone or iPad.

You can read more views and witness the lively debate on the New York Times web site.

I graduated during the height of the nasty 1990 recession with a History degree from Barnard, a stellar liberal arts college. My friend Regina and I woke up one morning in March of our senior year, looked at each other, and said: “Holy crap: we’re graduating in seven weeks. We need to find jobs.” We bought suits from Lord & Taylor’s sale rack and the Sunday New York Times (these were the pre-Internet job search days), where we circled possible jobs in red ink.

Armed with my determination (and that L&T suit), a history degree and fluent Italian (thanks to that history degree), less than three weeks after graduating I started a $26, 000/year job working as a bilingual executive assistant for a maniacal COO and his uptight marketing director at an Italian subsidiary in midtown Manhattan. Turns out that year studying history (in Italian) in Florence paid off.

After multiple background checks (fortunately none of which involved me), Regina started a gig as a paralegal with the Federal DA in Brooklyn.

My job was…not what I had expected, but I was relieved, and so were my parents. I figured that all jobs out of college were for the most part underwhelming, but that I needed to start somewhere. I also figured that my first job wasn’t forever. It would teach me business skills and get me out in the world, where I could find something more rewarding in a year or two—which was, in fact, what happened. After working in the corporate world for seven years, I went back to school and got an MBA in finance. In retrospect, I could have gotten an MFA in writing, but: I’m writing now, and making a living from it! The MBA helped me switch careers and land a job in banking, which I parlayed into a freelance career as a financial and business writer (and blogger extraordinaire).

An education—or more importantly, a degree—is something no one can ever take away from you. It’s an investment in yourself, and in your future.

I’ve always believed (and said to anyone who’s ever asked) that you should study what interests you. Follow your heart, and the path will become clear.

Just one example springs to mind: the whole law school and b-school myth. Does the world really need another corporate VP? Or another lawyer? Maybe only if you’re passionate about advocating for human rights, or defending the downtrodden. The accelerating death spiral of high paid corporate attorneys (and corporate middle management) has been well documented over the past decade.

While it may sound counter-intuitive to some, money shouldn’t be your only goal when it comes to choosing a course of study and ultimately, a career path. Your degree will help you get to the right career(s) for you, just not always in the ways you expect. That’s why it’s important to enjoy whatever major you (or your children) pursue.

I promise to remember this if my son decides to become a theatre major. Or join the army.