The Chronicle Review

Adrift at the Career Fair

Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle Review

December 15, 2014

Earlier this fall, I went to Cornell’s annual career fair. I wanted to learn what employers were telling students about how their college coursework might prepare them for careers. The topic comes up a lot when students—especially first-years—come to me in my capacity as an academic adviser and ask what they should be taking. My inclination is to tell them to do what I did: Take the courses with the best professors regardless of the discipline. That worked for me. Why shouldn’t it work for them?

The trouble is, I’ve never been in their situation. Beyond lawn mowing, garden weeding, etc., I’ve had just four jobs in my life: I worked as a staff writer for the local newspaper over two summers after high school, emptied trash and washed dishes in college (work-study), was a teaching assistant during graduate school, and then became a professor. I didn’t have student loans to pay after graduation, and though I was never sure whether someone would pay me to do what I wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to do, and eventually people did pay me to do it. Furthermore, my parents’ expectations of me were firm but few: that I should be reasonably happy and financially independent.

The experiences of my students are different. Some are racking up student-loan debts in the tens of thousands of dollars. They have been told by career counselors, peers, and parents that they can’t risk following their passion in college if they hope to have a salary, career, and lifestyle comparable to those of their parents. As a result, many students don’t seem to have a passion.

From where I sit, these changes have come hard and fast, in the past 10 to 15 years. I’m on the young side of associate professorship, still under 40, so it’s not as though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since "my time." And while I think much that has changed about college since then has been for the better—students tend to be ready to work harder, and they know more—some changes are either bizarre or outright bad.

One of the bizarre changes is how new students choose majors, and which majors they choose. When I came to Cornell, in 2004, everyone wanted to study psychology or biology or both. Then it was political science. Now it’s economics. All but one of my first-year advisees this year listed economics as their probable major. A recurring conversation I’ve had with first-year advisees goes like this:

"What would you like to do while you’re here at Cornell?" I ask.

"I want to go to law/business school," they reply.

Even by repeating the question ("What would you like to do while you’re here at Cornell?") I’m not certain I’ve ever brought any of them to contemplate being in college rather than life after college.

I went to the career fair, then, so I could better advise students about the choices they may face. But I also had an ulterior motive: I wanted to know whether career prospects are tightly linked to what undergraduates study, and what happens when the mystical combination of advice and aspiration and fear and peer pressure brushes up against the world beyond academe.

What did I expect? That the recruiters would say they want people who have studied economics. (Why else would everyone be studying economics?) But I secretly hoped they would instead validate the advice I give students and declare that it doesn’t matter what you study so long as you do it well and show passion, curiosity, and ability. I was wrong on both counts. It was something else entirely.

My strategy at the career fair was as follows: I did not approach the tables with long lines, as I didn’t want to interfere with students’ chances of getting an audience. So I steered clear of Chase Bank, Boeing, and Gap (where I overheard a snippet of a conversation in which a Gap representative explained to a young woman that the company no longer exploited overseas labor and that "a lot has changed over the past 15 years"). I also didn’t approach the frankly unpopular businesses (there was a seed company that I was personally curious about, but the two people at the table were the very epitome of wallflowers at the Cinderella ball).

I visited seven tables: M&T Bank, DC Energy (an energy-investment firm), Green Corps (a "field school for environmental organizing"), Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, Carlisle & Company (a consulting firm), McMaster-Carr (an industrial and commercial supply company), and Terakeet (a marketing firm). Insofar as I would never personally want to work at any of those places, I did not favor one over another, which may be as close as a professor at a career fair can get to objectivity.

I introduced myself briefly and honestly: I’m a professor who advises undergraduates and would like to get a better sense of what employers are looking for. I didn’t say what field I’m in (history), and only two people asked: the M&T guy (toward the end of the conversation) and the Green Corps guy (at the very beginning).

Everyone was very nice. M&T looked me earnestly in the eyes, gave me his card, and said I should write to him "any time" with follow-up questions. Others thought it was cool that I should show so much concern for my students’ futures. None of them rubbed me the wrong way, but I tried to remind myself that these are recruiters—it’s their job to make you like them.

Still, my favorites were the woman at McMaster-Carr who graduated from college with an English major and was smart, articulate, natural, and easy to talk with, and the guy at DC Energy, who had a background in engineering and wore his hair parted in the middle. He was soft-spoken and sounded so intelligent and sincere that I thought if people like him are working in energy investment, how bad can it really be? The brochure even has windmills on it.

The recruiters I spoke with said they had no hard-and-fast expectations about majors or coursework, and in the few instances when I asked about transcripts, they confessed to consulting them only rarely. They did look at the GPA on the résumé, however, and most seemed intent that prospective employees should have at least some demonstrated quantitative or technical skills. In several cases this meant knowing how to use Microsoft Excel or Access, in others a knowledge of statistics and an expressed nonaversion to quantitative methods, or some practical "real world" experience (an internship, for example).

The marketing firm wanted people with "communication" skills, which meant they favored the humanities (English and rhetoric were mentioned) and writing (the liberal arts). One woman at Carlisle & Company said that most of the people who applied came from quantitative backgrounds, but that this was "correlation, not causation," in her view. In other words, people interested in those things tended to want to work for places like Carlisle & Company. This intrigued me, as it implied that all the guessing that students do about what employers are looking for may actually be driving the market, rather than the other way around.

Most recruiters said their companies did a lot of their own training and so were not concerned overmuch with what potential employees had majored in or what coursework they did. This did not surprise me. One thing that is clear even to an ivory-towerite like myself is that the world outside of academe has its own climate that requires serious adjustment. Academe is strange, but so are other places of employment: They, too, have subcultures and bizarre rules and value systems.

DC Energy confessed to me that the biggest challenge for his company was conveying the "atmosphere" at the place where he worked. In the past, he said, they had pitched the company poorly and were attracting the wrong sorts of people (socially inept brainiacs who wanted to hole up in a dark room and write code). This also intrigued me, for it suggested two things: that the profile of applicants was determined by the applicants’ expectations far more than the company’s (as with Carlisle & Company), and that employers may know what they want but not know how to communicate it to potential employees.

The DC Energy brochure was classy—good design and pleasantly vague language that pointed everywhere and nowhere. Phrases like "growth-oriented focus" and "the benefits of competition and innovation" might have been taken from a recruitment brochure for the mob or a pitch for a charter school. Then there were the quotes from former employees who had gone on to do great things; they praised the "collegial environment" and "steep learning curve" of the firm (interestingly, the mob/charter school comparison still applied).

If I were looking for a job now, this experience would make me feel at once all-powerful (it is I, the prospective employee, who defines what employers want with my own expectations) and utterly powerless.

Why powerless? All those people who studied psychology back in the day have apparently penetrated all of the professions, because most employers seem to be using the putatively fail-safe methods of cognitive neuroscience to make their matches. More than once, the conversation turned to how employers found the "right jobs" for the "right people," through their internal training as well as by means of placement procedures, which by most accounts entail personality tests. (Nothing new about that, either, says the historian. I recently read a series of personality questionnaires for prospective members of a Hungarian extreme-right party from the 1940s.) The understanding is that what kind of person you are should dictate what kind of job you do.

This is liberating insofar as it means that you don’t necessarily have to listen to what other people (parents, advisers, your own superego) think you should do, But it’s also limiting in that what you yourself think you should do may not be what employers think you should be doing, or may be only what you think they expect you to want to be doing. (Why did I go to the career fair and, more important, why are you reading this article if not to try to figure out that very thing?) Some algorithm has set up a gorgeous hall of mirrors wherein employers who don’t know how to communicate what they want feel fully competent to tell you what you want, which is influenced by what you think they want.

I don’t think these employers are evil or malicious, nor do I think students are acting in bad faith when they conform to trends. Rather, I think both employers and prospective employees show signs of being adrift in a sea of utter certainty, where correlations are regularly being mistaken for causes, and formulas are derived to assign positions on the basis of those correlations as if they were causes (i.e., as if they speak to something essential rather than the affect of a person who has spent a long time trying to guess what employers are looking for).

If this weren’t such a serious matter, I would take this occasion to conclude that everyone should study history: We do causality like nobody’s business. But while I think everyone should be curious about history for the endless fascination and raw humanistic weight of the thing, I don’t necessarily think everyone should study it. The only real advantage of history, as far as I’m concerned, is that it encompasses everything: science, art, politics, economics, etc. If I were an undergraduate now, maybe I would study economics, but not in order to get into business school. Rather, I’d do it so I could better understand a job market that increasingly resembles the financial markets, in which value is rooted in projected futures (like signing on to a major) rather than an actual state of affairs.

Alternatively, having reached this conclusion, I might study anything but economics, on the assumption that in four years the market is going to be flooded with economics majors, and a new trend will already have made my economics major as passé as the personality test—designed by the psychology major of eight years ago—that now tells me I belong in finance.

Holly Case is an associate professor of history at Cornell University.