Institutional Recognition for Non-Traditional Career Paths

Consulting season at Amherst came fast. Open the “Career Columns” newsletter and you get the sinking feeling that if you’re not working for Parthenon, Bain or going to Harvard Law, you’re probably out of luck. Talk of an upcoming case interview workshop or a friend’s lucrative summer internship often slips into daily conversation. While Amherst offers consulting and finance opportunities throughout the year, fall is a particularly intense time of year for those hoping to land a summer internship or a pre-graduation job offer.

While I am not planning a career in consulting or finance, I understand that students have various reasons and past life experiences leading them to pursue work in these fields: interest or skill in the subject matter, the opportunity to lock down a financially-stable position, no small feat as a college graduate or the chance to contribute one’s skills to a team. Thus, this article does not aim to condemn or exalt this process of case interview workshops and job offers.

Rather, in my discussions with other students who are also not interested in consulting or finance, the demanding interview process that many students are now tirelessly working through seems to bring into focus some realities of the culture of employment at Amherst. Whether we’d like it or not, all of us class of 2018 students will be literally kicked out of our housing after the Commencement ceremony in two short years, and unless you are planning to take some unstructured time-off, many of us hope to make money in a way that aligns at least somewhat with the interests we have pursued both academically and through our extra-curricular activities over the past four years. As someone with many interests but no clear idea of how to turn those passions into some type of compensation-providing work, it is easy to feel for a brief second like I am somehow already falling behind. Sometimes after emerging from a great class discussion, I have wondered how this feeling of investment in my schoolwork could be translated into real work. The distance between my current student self and the effective working adult I hope to be sometimes feel chasmically-large in a shit-your-pants type of way.

While Amherst offers incredible amounts of resources and support to seniors in the job search process, I believe that there is a disparity in visibility between graduates going on to work in consulting and finance as opposed to fields that are in the process of fundamental transformation, or newly emerging and yet to be invented. While it is hard work, Amherst helps elucidates the process of moving from A (jobless student) to Z (employed graduate in the finance or consulting sector), educating students on the interview process and providing clear deadlines. Additionally, while Amherst does offer many types of support for those interested in the health professions, as well as resources to those interested in the arts, communication, non-profit and government fields, the events that they host are often buried deep within the newsletter.

However, in a period of time generally characterized by extreme job uncertainty for recent graduates, what would it mean for Amherst to show its students that it fundamentally values work in the arts and other creative fields? I see many Amherst students who desire to take risks, yet who remain unsure of or who lack the skills to create work for oneself outside of the traditional business, law or health pathways. There are many comforts and benefits in committing oneself to an institution; indeed, that is why many of us came to Amherst, and why we have grown deeply during our time here. However, to be comfortable with the prospects of life outside of more traditional employment institutions is an orientation to the world that one must cultivate, a type of thinking that does not often emerge in discussions within the Career Center or among friends at dinner.

To be clear, I recognize the very urgent and understandable reasons that many students have for choosing a more-stable option straight out of college, and recognize that there are many factors affecting one’s ability to take career risks. But I believe that Amherst has a duty to equally encourage those students who desire to embark on certain paths that many of us feel deeply moved to pursue, yet paths that often feel too risky, paths whose endpoints are difficult to imagine. While we will never fully exist outside of any institutions, I believe that Amherst could do more work bringing in living breathing human beings who may have struggled, who may have meandered, but who learned how to merge their deepest interests with their daily practice of living.

While having parents who write for a living has instilled in me the firm belief that creative work can be sustainable, I have not found that same message on Amherst’s campus. It is rare to hear speakers, professors or other community members discuss what it is to struggle in one’s work, to make no money for a period, to completely reinvent one’s self upon realizing that the way it was going was just not going to cut it. It feels ironic for me to demand more institutional support for students who wish to chart their own paths out of an institution. However, one’s career choice is heavily determined by the examples and mentoring one is inspired by during these four years. If Amherst were to bring in more artists, writers and champions to talk not only about the themes within their work but the daily experience of building and continually building the foundation of one’s own work, I believe that many students, myself included, would see graduation day less as an anxiety-inducing blank space but as canvas of radical potential.