Alumni Feature: How to Answer “What are You Going to Do with That?”

Madalyn Muncy-Piens, Class of 2013, Marketing Specialist for WSM International

If you are a student of history or simply the humanities in general, you get asked the following question A LOT: “So, what are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I’m pretty sure if I had a dollar for every time I was asked that about my studies in English and history, I would be wealthy by the grace of compound interest. I’m sure you would too.

I’m here to tell you that I’m a living, breathing case study of a humanities major who succeeded in heading straight into the corporate world and did not make a stop to graduate school (yet). I have a house and a dog and a retirement account. I’m doing just fine, without a “practical” college degree.

The condescension of that terrible “what-are-you-going-to-do-with-that” question plagued me all through college, and now when I think back, I could have spared myself anxiety over thoughts of myself as a starving artist, or worse — gasp — back working in retail forever if I had met people who had indeed skipped the graduate school route, made a way for themselves in the working world, and also fit my standard of a functioning adult.

So, what will you do with that history major or minor? Or any humanities major or minor for that matter?

You will write well.
Do not underestimate the power of good writing. Seriously. Most of what happens in the work world is now done through the written word. No, it’s not 50-page research papers. It’s email or instant message or blog posts. Being able to clearly communicate is an invaluable skill and you’ll have it.

You will be able to persuade.
Back to writing. I work in marketing so persuading is an important part of my job function. However, it doesn’t matter where you are in the work world, if you can persuade and influence others to take an action, to help you, to not make a terrible business decision, you are winning. Persuasion is part of constructing a thesis, and guess what? Those pesky emails or presentations are thesis statements!

You will be able to speak in front of others.
Maybe I’m biased, but I truly believe that communication is key to success in most jobs. No matter where you work or what job you do, you’ll probably have to speak in a meeting or present a case to your boss. Your training as a historian has included presentations and discussions. Now–thanks to your professors–you can walk in a little more confidently and contribute in a meaningful way.

You will have an understanding of the ramifications of an action.
History majors have amazing critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is scarcer than you realize in the workplace. And you’ll not only use it there, but also, more importantly, in your personal life. You’ll see the big picture while still understanding how everything all fits together. Being able to look to the past for clues and insight regarding the present and future is what historians are trained to do. This skill will help you reflect on your own journey and help you make decisions about where to go next. In that way, I think historians are some of the most resilient people in the world, granted they translate their academic skills to their personal and professional life.

So you may not know all the business jargon or how to write a marketing plan or how to schedule an Outlook meeting. But you’re a liberal art student, so you can learn.

In a world where everything is becoming more interdisciplinary, where everything continues to becoming more connected, we need people who can see beyond the code or beyond the robot. And that’s where you come in. Don’t think that because you aren’t training for a job right now that you can’t or shouldn’t end up working at one. We need the historians in the archive and in the classroom, of course. But we also need them to bring a set of unique perspectives and skills to other professional fields.

If anything, remember that the greatest gift of your liberal arts education is that of being a lifelong learner.  Necessary professional nonsense aside, your ability to ask good questions, to seek truth, to solve problems, and to come to your own conclusions will continue to serve you well. I’m grateful for my education being just that, an education, not training for a job. For that, my life is all the richer, and yours will be too.







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