Why I Don't Like Career Statistics

I am a failure.

According to overall employment statistics, I am “underemployed,” since I have a part-time job. And according to university statistics, I’m one of those sad saps who can’t find employment in her field of study.

And so I don’t like statistics.

Does this look like failure to you? (At the Giant's Causeway, on the coast in Northern Ireland. Winter 2013)

Stats can tell us a lot. There’s huge value in studying sweeping patterns, and lessons to be learned in examining employment rates and options in different majors or career sectors.

But the usefulness is limited. There is an enormous range of experience that they can’t measure or neatly represent. They count people like me as a failure. And it turns out that I don’t feel like one. Not in the slightest.

On my part-time salary (augmented by part-time freelance work), I have traveled to Italy, Switzerland, the US, and Paris from my home in Dublin in the last two months. Mostly this is because I’m careful with how I spend my money, but it’s also because I’ve been strategic with my employment and have nurtured skills that make my income flexible. (I’ve written previously about my “Broke College Student Mentality” and I recommend you check it out—it’s how I’ve been able to travel the world).

My half-time job has nothing to do with the sociology and comparative literature I studied as an undergrad, OR with the conflict resolution and Human Rights Law I studied in my two Master’s degrees. I work for a small multimedia production company in the heart of Dublin City. My job title? Writer/researcher. My main focus for them? Writing scripts for museum videos. Also for cultural heritage site touch screens, websites, and apps.

Not a literature compared, or a human right litigated.

But here’s the thing, and the ultimate reason I feel so passionately about sharing personal stories beyond the career stat infographics that are floating around everywhere:

I have my awesome job today because of the skills I learned in college. And I have the lifestyle I desire because of what I came to value as a college student.

I don’t believe that my career needs to match my academic record. I think I will hold a number of different exciting and interesting jobs over the course of my career, and that they will draw on different passions as they develop and different skills I learn. I’ve written before about how the skills that got me my job today—writing quickly and clearly, synthesizing information, and strong communication skills—are skills I was learning in my high school AP classes. My passion to learn and explore new ideas and different perspectives on history and culture make my job an excellent fit. But as far as college employment statistics are concerned, this job would be more appropriate for someone who majored in something else—history, communications, or IT.

Your major does not doom you to a lifetime in one career track. I think that’s a good thing. I see employment statistics for comparative literature majors and I think “I don’t fit the concept.”

There are majors which draw a clear, bright line from high school to retirement. One of my cousins is a civil engineer, and a darn good one. He went to the Colorado School of Mines, held internships and jobs during college, and has been employed in the industry of his choosing ever since. He could, conceivably, retire from the same company that employed him in high school.

That is a fine path. It’s one that shows up nicely on an infographic, and one that leads parents to push students toward a safe option. For someone like my cousin, it’s the perfect choice: his interests and skills match the job description, and in his late twenties he’s living a secure life, just built a new home, is married to a wonderful woman (also an engineer), and they are mapping out travel plans and a life that looks absolutely perfect. I’m happy for him, and for others whose college degrees are a direct indication of their whole futures.

But there’s no reason to expect the same of me.

An infographic of my path thus far and my aspirations for the future would look something like a plate of spaghetti. Which is to say: delicious, foreign, nicely spiced, and with clear narrative threads that don’t add up to a neatly colored box.

And that’s why I don’t like stats. It’s why I like entrepreneurial stories and gutsy nonconformist memoirs.  It’s why I love Tales of a Female Nomad and folks who imagine wild and unconventional paths.  

It’s a big old complicated world out there, folks. Don’t tell me that I’m destined for social work because I studied sociology. Or that I need to be a mediator because I studied conflict resolution.

I’ll go ahead and make my own way, thanks very. And I wish you all the best in doing the same.

Do you plan on working in the field you studied in college? If you are a high schooler, what is important to your choice of major? What do you imagine for your future?

Please check out my related blog posts"Unconventional Twentysomethings" and "Imagined 'Plan B' Futures." Let me know if you enjoyed this post!