Sheila Curran, the Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Career Center, is the co-author of a new career-advice book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, released in April by Ten Speed Press. Curran, who holds a bachelor's degree in Russian and Persian from Durham University in England, followed a career path as circuitous as they come, before coming to Duke to help set students on their own paths. She took time to discuss the value of a liberal-arts education, the internship craze, and dealing with over-anxious parents.
What is so valuable about a liberal-arts education?
The biggest value of a liberal-arts education is not necessarily the subject matter that you study, but how you study it. It's the ability to get skills in research, in communication, in teamwork, and these are really required in the work world. A liberal-arts education allows you to explore different areas to find out what you're interested in, because if you limit yourself to what you've studied in high school, then you may never discover that you have a real interest in cultural anthropology, or international relations, or even physics, for that matter.
Is it fair to expect seniors to make major career decisions?
There are some students who are ready to think about their careers in their first year. Others will start thinking after they graduate, and then it's perfectly acceptable to take time off to figure it out. That's why there's this increase in one- to two-year positions, and why Teach For America was the number-one employer at Duke last year. It's not because all those people want to go into teaching, although some will. But there are an awful lot who are going into Teach For America, because they don't really know what they want to do, and it's a good way to spend a couple of years.
Do parents misunderstand what a liberal-arts education is?
I think a lot of them are buying the brand. They're coming to highly selective schools because, they say, "I know that if my kid's got that brand, that they're going to be set for life." If parents do not put all that pressure on their kids to say, "You have to have a job at graduation," that can be really helpful to the students. The job search is often the first time that these successful students have been rejected [from] anything at all. But unemployment at graduation says nothing at all about your future prospects--I mean, zero. In the book, for example, "KC" started off with a really good job at NASA but left because of bad bosses and had a period of unemployment. Now she's the CFO of the Andy Warhol foundation. But when she was in that kind of depressive mode, she didn't know when she was going to get out of it. The idea that careers are just something you think about in your senior year is missing the boat because, frankly, you're going to think about it until you're fifty.
You stress the importance of embracing the unknown in the job-finding process. How hard is it for a college graduate to really enjoy the process?
The bottom line is, if you want a job to pay the bills, you can always get a job to pay the bills, but you need to be working on "what's my next real step?" Students with financial aid do much better in that process, because they've always had to work, so they're used to putting work together with studying. There are many people who start off in clerical positions, and they've done incredibly well. But one must have the persistence to say, "This is not how I'm going to define myself. This is not where I'm going to be long term." There are all different types of possibilities out there, and persistence plays a huge role in whether or not you get them.
Is law school a good option for those unsure of a career?
Many of the students here have parents who went to college in the 1970s and, back then, going to law school was always the default. Many of them are saying to their kids, "Well, you can always go to law school." The problem is that law school is really expensive, and, if you don't want to be a lawyer when you graduate, you may never make that money back in terms of the additional money you get from having a law degree. For many people, law school can be a really wonderful experience. You just have to do it for the right reasons.
Internships seem to be all the rage. Duke's department of public-policy studies requires an internship for its undergraduate majors. Should more departments require internships?
I'm not sure whether requiring an internship is necessarily the way to go. It'd be great to have more internships that have a learning component. It's not enough to just be doing really well in the classroom; you've got to be able to apply that knowledge. Most employers are going to be able to expect that you know how to operate inside a work environment. Proving that you can is a very powerful reason to get hired. Many of the people interviewing you are not going to be liberal-arts grads. They don't understand a liberal-arts education, and so a liberal-arts grad has to work a little bit harder than other students might to be able to convince an employer that they are qualified to do the job on day one.
You advocate traveling as a way to determine career goals. Why?
It really helps you be more self-reliant. It helps you to be able to make really good decisions. And I think what makes that different from a lot of study-abroad trips is that you're really planning it yourself. You may make some wrong decisions, and those kinds of learning experiences become increasingly valuable. The career decision is about "What kind of life do I want to lead? Do I need to have a lot of money or can I live on a certain amount?" There are many different decisions that come into play, and the book shows how difficult those can be for people. Even though the book is called Smart Moves, there are an awful lot of people who have made dumb moves. And they've had to learn from those dumb moves.
What were the key influences in your career path?
You know, it's funny. When I do presentations for students, I throw out all types of jobs, like secretary, cruise-ship assistant, employment manager, assembly-line worker, and program coordinator, and ask, "What do these things have in common?" And very rarely do they guess that they are all jobs that I've had. There are two very clear kinds of people. There are the people who say, "This is what I want to do, and I know the steps to get there." Lawyers would be a good example. But that's really the minority of people. Most people do it to some degree the way that I did it, which is, you start in one position and you see what you like about that position, you see what you don't like, and then you look for the opportunities to do more of what you like and less of what you don't like. I think I've applied for three jobs my entire life, because I've always been in the position where I've been talking to people about what I've done and have given them the idea of what I could do differently and that's how I've been promoted. I've had about fifteen jobs since graduation.
So you network very well?
I believe in lunch. Lunch is a time to get to know people from all different kinds of areas, and anybody who is interesting is fair game for lunch, as far as I'm concerned.
Q & A: A Career, All in a Day's Work
June 1, 2006