“You Just Watch Me!”

My undergraduate degree was in what my university (Queen’s University) called Life Sciences–what others might have once called pre-med. Many of us wrote the MCAT (as I did) but not all of us got into medicine (as I didn’t, but as my roommate did). In our first year, we predictably took courses in Chemistry, Biology, Physics (each of which had its own three hour lab too, of course), Calculus, and Psychology–the last being an elective but everyone pretty much took it. In other years we enrolled in such courses as Organic Chemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry, Histology, Abnormal Psych, Anatomy, Statistics, Brain and Behavior, Physiology, etc. I would imagine that many of my classmates who, like the vast majority of us, didn’t get into medicine, have ended up in one of the many adjacent fields–such as going on to do a Master of Science degree in Microbiology (“micro” for the initiated), or eventually going into, say, Pharmacology–either to do research, work for a drug company’s marketing division (as one friend did after getting his Ph.D.), or owning your own pharmacy (the route taken by another good friend from my Life Sciences days).

Me? I ended up getting a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto.

What a waste that undergrad degree was…, right?

Maybe my point is obvious; not unlike many students who pursue a degree in the Humanities, many who earn an undergraduate degree in the sciences have to reinvent themselves once they graduate. But–and this is the interesting part–no one seems to see this as a problem in the sciences, while it worries us terribly in the Humanities. What gives? Enrolling in a BA in religious studies? “What on earth are you going to do with a degree like that?” asks Aunt Enid at pretty much every family get-together. But enroll in an engineering degree and everyone somehow knows that you’re on the right track. That few of my own undergrad friends who did a degree in engineering ever actually did any engineering in their careers–coz they all enrolled almost right away in an MBA degree and all became managers who never picked up a protractor again–doesn’t seem to tarnish that first degree, in which they were immersed in material that eventually, proved of little relevance to how they earned their daily bread.

Or…, was it directly relevant, perhaps? Coz I always thought, at the time, that my engineering friends, with the insane schedules and workloads that they had (they certainly had it worse than me in terms of hours per week in class, even though my 5 classes, each meeting three times per week, plus those three 3 hour labs per week, made my time pretty hectic), were actually being trained in how to manage their time, how to meet deadlines, and how to juggle multiple balls. That is, especially when they all started doing business degrees after graduation, it seemed to me that they were actually being taught skills and not content in that undergraduate degree, skills that would be handy to them, whatever they should decide to do.

Looking back now, it seems to me that the seemingly practical application of their degrees (an application few of my friends ever realized, remember) provided cover for their professors to teach them skills basic to any education. It never really was about the content of those classes, after all.

Well played, engineering professors, well played.

As for me? I didn’t do the final year of my Bachelor of Science degree, which means I earned a B.A. instead (that’s how the Canadian system was). For after three years of petri dishes, fruit flies, and carbon rings, I also moved on to other things. But I think that the sort of analytic problem-solving skills that I learned in those three years, the way to break something down into manageable parts you can tackle, have served me rather well in the place where I happen to have landed–in my research, my teaching, my professional service, and my administration. And this means to me that my undergraduate degree, seemingly so removed from what I do today. was anything but a waste of my time; for it turned out to be crucial in the formation of the scholar who I am today.

The moral of my story? Not all scientists wear lab coats.

Which brings me back to the unfair nature of Aunt Enid’s question, something that is never apparent at the time, when it is asked while you pass her a bowl of mashed potatoes. For she’s asking you to read the leftover coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup that you’ve not even finished making yet, much less started to drink, making your prediction of the future pretty inadequate. And so, to her “What on earth are you going to do with a degree like that?” question, I would advise a simple reply: “You just watch me!”

3 thoughts on ““You Just Watch Me!”

  1. I think this is marvelous, and I think that students in–or considering entering into–the humanities need to read things like this.

    I find it very interesting that the “hard” sciences don’t need the excessive justification as a field of study that the humanities seem to need. Not that the hard sciences aren’t useful in any way–they absolutely are. I’m not saying that at all. But in many cases–though not all, of course–the hard sciences, business, education, etc., though preparing you well for a certain type of career, only prepare you well for a certain–specialized–type of career as pertaining to content.

    I don’t know when the idea of higher education became the stepping stone to [insert career here]. But it’s was definitely something that was greatly encouraged in many high schools. They all talk about getting into pre-med or pre-law tracks, engineering, or business as if these are the only fields of study that will help us get degrees. No guidance counselor/teacher/advisor actively -encouraged- us to go into the humanities. Though they never discouraged it, they never pushed it as a good idea. Career-track isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but then it’s no longer about the education–learning how to learn. It’s results, maybe. The focus becomes about how well a university is producing ‘x’ number of degrees, with these test scores, etc. And while that’s fine, these students who have been passed down the assembly line of courses that taught very specialized content and information, somehow find it difficult to acquire a job in the field for which they were so properly groomed.

    While content and information are good, learning how to think analytically is crucial. That is a skill that is applicable in any field. With the skills I’ve acquired in the humanities, I can go on to attain whatever type of degree or career I want, and these skills could very likely give me a leg up. Unlike my friend who is getting her Accounting degree and then going on to get her MBA (because that’s just what you do), I can map out whatever type of path I want, and I have. And because of the skills I’ve acquired in my undergrad career, I’m not limited to career path ‘x’–I, like my peers in the humanities, can create my own career path. The best part is, we all have exceedingly different interests and goals. I don’t have a career path set by my degree field. What I’m studying doesn’t guarantee me a job in a highly specialized area, but if we’re really being honest here, is there really a job guarantee with career-track degrees?

  2. See the second table from the top (Employment Change By Major Occupational Group, 2007-11), 4th bar from the top–the last five years has been rough on engineers too (to pick one example, to stick with the theme of the blog: this Bureau of Labor Statistics Report puts them in the negative column for job losses since 2007):

    http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/distribution_table.htm

    The point is that, in the university, we likely ought not to cannibalize ourselves by arguing over which major is better, since it is a zero-sum game–that is, society and the economy takes all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, to make it run. The wisest thing might therefore not be to decide against the Humanities as a first degree but, instead, to go into it with your eyes open and plan strategically for the variety of futures that your skills prepare you for.

    I wonder what parents would say to students concerning what they thought they’d do themselves, when they were 19, and what they’re doing now that they’re in their late 40s or 50s…? And how they got from one point to the other. I often can’t help but think that Aunt Enid is displacing onto her niece her own anxiety about her own past, her own decisions, her possible dissatisfaction with where she is now…, making her “What are you going to do with a degree in that?” question mostly about her and not so much about the student’s current choices.

  3. My MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities certainly taught me a large number of analytical and research skills in addition to the content of the degree (rather more than what was on offer in my undergraduate degree in Psychology, as it happens).

    But the most important thing that a humanities degree can offer, in terms of thinking skills, is the ability to see more than one possible cause for a situation, more than one philosophical perspective. If I had a dollar for every time someone had started a conversation about religion with the assumption that ALL religion is about belief, and not about cultural context, symbolism, practices, etc etc, I would be very rich.

    And you would think that people would realise that we need study of religions in our not-very-secular world with multiple competing religions and philosophies.

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