Starting Liberal Arts Grads on Their Journey

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007; K01

It was grand spending four years writing papers on American history. You even got all A's on them. What a shame that fancy degree won't help pay the rent, much less that student loan you just took out.

Or will it? Sheila J. Curran and Suzanne Greenwald think so. Their book, "Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads" (Ten Speed Press, 2006, $16.95), aims to help fill that gap between earning a diploma and finding work you love.

"We wanted to put careers in context, to show what real careers look like," said Curran, the executive director of Duke University's career center, in a recent interview.

The authors also realized that a common audience for books targeting recent grads is actually their parents. To worried moms and dads, they offer reassurance that a philosophy degree doesn't mean their darling son is going to be living under their roof forever.

And speaking of living at home: Don't do it. "Unless living at home is a financial necessity . . . for the sake of your career, move on," they write. Many "millennial" students -- those born after 1982 -- are close to their parents, but that isn't necessarily a good thing, the authors warn, not if it means relying too much on them for career guidance.

"If you involve your parents too heavily in your career search, you may find them also assuming responsibility for your career choice. And their choice may be very different from yours!" the authors write. Mom and Dad's advice may also be outdated, based on assumptions that no longer apply.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the stories of 23 successful liberal arts grads, tracing their paths from college to fulfilling careers. The authors chose this approach because "students and grads really respond to stories, not directives," Curran said.

And it's in the stories that the book really shines. The subjects are smart, energetic and determined. What they're not is perfect. These are career paths full of switchbacks, not a straight corporate ladder.

One of the subjects is Washington's own Warren Brown, the government-lawyer-turned-baker who founded CakeLove. Among Brown's smart moves, in the eyes of the authors: He wasn't shy about marketing himself. And he wasn't scared to take a short-term job after college before making long-term decisions about his career.

Another profile subject: Curran's son, Chris, who went through several internships and a Peace Corps stint in Morocco before landing a job with the Foreign Service in Baghdad, which his mom dubs "the coolest job in the worst location."

Some sage advice from the book:

Hold off on grad school."You have to know what you want to do and then find a way to do it, rather than commit to a professional education and then figure out whether it's a necessary step toward your current career objectives. Too often, graduate school or professional school is seen as a default when you can't think of anything else to do," they write.

Think beyond your grades. The real advantage to a liberal arts education lies in the people, not the books. To that end, Curran and Greenwald encourage students to build at least one strong connection with a faculty member or administrator each semester. "Doing so gives you at least eight people at graduation who know you very well and can support your dreams. . . . Seek them out. Invite them to lunch. Let them get to know you without a notebook open in front of you," they write. The authors emphasize the learning that such out-of-classroom conversations provide, but I must point out another crucial benefit: good references for those first jobs after graduation. Because of this, the B or C student who made a connection with a professor often does better than the straight-A student who goes it alone.

Get experience. This can be a paid or unpaid internship. Or it might be a clerical job that you think you could have gotten without an expensive college degree. For example, for Cara Storm, one of the workers profiled, an unpaid internship in the promotions department at a Boston radio station was a stepping stone that took her from recent psychology grad to the owner of her own company, Marketing By Storm.