There Is Life After College - A Review

College is one of the biggest lifetime expenses and longest commitments of dedicated time many people ever make. The cost of college continues to rise and news outlets regularly report the high rates of underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates. As a result, some families question whether a college education offers sufficient return on investment. Others are plowing ahead without thought and collecting six-digit debt burdens.

Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, tackles the topic of the value of college, particularly with respect to employability. Selingo covers a lot of ground in the book, but together he paints a fair picture, warns of some common pitfalls, and offers some recommendations for current and future college students.

Summary

In Chapter One, Selingo describes three categories of young people: Sprinters, Wanderers, and Stragglers. Sprinters are those who have launched careers and have some financial stability by the time they are thirty. Wanderers often graduate but have difficulty finding a career-type job, which retards their progress. Stragglers stumble through their twenties, often failing to finish school or find stable employment with long-term growth potential. Much of the rest of the book is built around helping people find their way into one of the top group.

The second chapter analyzes what employers are looking for. According to Selingo, some of the most common attributes in job descriptions are “baseline skills.” The book lists five of the most significant skills, which are far from academic: (1) Intellectual curiosity; (2) Depth of expertise, even in a non-degree area; (3) Awareness of and adaptability to tech; (4) Dealing with ambiguity; (5) Teachable humility. The careful reader will notice that specific skills in a major are not in this list. In other words, a key way to gain an advantage in the marketplace is by going beyond academic expertise and being a valuable part of the team.

After these important opening chapters, Selingo covers a variety of topics in rapid fire fashion. In Chapter Three, he explains the potential benefits of a gap year—as long as it is purposeful gap. The fourth chapter describes the value of going to a college that is near a center of interest for the student’s proposed first career; internships and other experiences are much more possible. Chapter Five emphasizes the value of internships, co-ops and other hands-on learning; many employers use such opportunities as an extended interview for future employees. In the sixth chapter, Selingo describes habits that are necessary for success after college and some programs that can help enhance them.

Chapter Seven offers some ideas about rethinking the bachelor’s degree, considering the value of two year degrees and other vocational learning. In the eighth chapter, Selingo surveys one potential shift in future education: just in time training, boot camps, and other modular programs. Then, in Chapter Nine, he sketches some of the common hiring practices among firms, which is key information for those seeking jobs. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Selingo highlights the importance of being able to tell your story. It isn’t enough to graduate, but employers want to know why you chose a particular major and what you have done to get there.

Analysis and Conclusion

The most significant value of this volume is that it answers questions vital to student success, efficient investment of tuition money and time, and successful navigation of the sometimes-confusing marketplace of colleges and universities. This is an accessible book that has important information for our time.

Surprisingly, Selingo’s book points to the enduring value of a liberal arts degree. There is certainly a need for technical specialization in certain fields, but being a well-developed human is just as important, and perhaps more so, than purely technical proficiency. At worst, a strong liberal arts core, which is at the heart of a lot of Christian higher education, appears to be an asset rather than a liability in the marketplace.

Certainly, this book is not a guaranteed method to be successful in life. In fact, Selingo simply assumes that success is being well-placed, well-compensated, and reasonably happy in one’s job. Whether the reader agrees with his end or not, he provides some helpful guidelines to get there. Even for those more interested in other careers, Selingo’s assurances of the value of liberal arts and meaningful experiences before and during college make this an engaging and valuable read.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Some Lessons from Dissertation Writing

This week I turned in my dissertation. Now I wait for my defense. In the moment of euphoria before I find out everything that is wrong with the project I’ve been working on for a year, I decided to jot down some of the things that I’ve learned so far about the process.

Some of these lessons are based on advice and counsel that others gave me, but that I’ve since found to be wise. We’ll find out how well I did on the final product in a couple of months. Even if there are flaws (there are, trust me) in my dissertation, here are some things that I have learned through writing the longest academic work I’ve ever attempted.

1.         It’s never going to be perfect. – One of the hardest things to recognize just prior to my submittal of my dissertation was that there were still going to be some imperfections in the manuscript. I’ve read the completed manuscript multiple times. So has my wife. I have no doubt that there are still a few typos, missing words, extra spaces, or the like throughout. At some point you have to let it go.

2.         You can’t read every possible source. – I wrote each of my chapters, referencing those volumes and thinkers that best related to my point in the text. However, as I was doing my final read through of the dissertation before submitting it, I kept on thinking of additional sources that could have bolstered my point or that I could have read. There are new books in the academic catalogs that are begging to be included in my bibliography and dozens of articles that I downloaded that I never got to read. I could have tried to read and cite more, but sooner or later you have to turn the project in.

3.         Having someone else read it is invaluable. – My amazingly patient wife also serves as my editor. She doesn’t do style manual stuff, but she does read for grammar, clarity, and typographical issues. Having her read my chapters to tell me where I made no sense or where I had errors made a huge difference in the end, I think. There were a number of places she called my attention to that were unclear and needed simple rewording to make the project better.

4.         This isn’t the best thing you will ever write. – Looking at the 358 pages of manuscript is pretty impressive. It’s the longest piece of scholarship I’ve ever written. In fact, most of the chapters are longer than any paper I’d previously written. What I had to continually fight back was the goal to make this my magnum opus. I will write something better later on, so I need to make a good effort but not think that this is the pinnacle of my scholarship. My scholarship and writing should get better in the future. That’s not a ding against my dissertation, it’s a reflection of academic maturation.

5.         Doing a read-through at the end is important. – Before I had the final proofreading done by my wife, I read through the dissertation from cover to cover in about two days. Since some of my chapters had been written about a year before, this was an important step in the editing process. By the end of the writing process I had developed some key phrases and learned to avoid others. I was able to edit the earlier chapters to reflect the language of the later chapters (chronologically) by the end. This step helps the project read more like a cohesive work of scholarship, instead of a collection of essays. I was also able to find some places where I could clarify my own explanations, which, I think, made the end product more readable for someone else.

6.         Creating a project plan with deadlines is vital. – The internet is flooded with “dissertation writing as project planning” sites. There is value in the approach. I only met a couple of my deadlines, so I had to keep revising and extending the project plan. However, by delineating the steps and what it would take to get there, I could focus on the next thing instead of getting overwhelmed by the size of the project. By having an internal deadline (with plenty of margin built in to the institutional deadline) I had something to keep me moving. Because I had looked at the institutional deadline and built my project plan based on that, I knew what I had to do to get the project in on time. This made it easier to prioritize so that I could know when I needed to lock myself away to write or when I could play another game of Monopoly with the kids.

7.         Stay on topic. – There were about a million times in the process of writing that I found interesting rabbit trails to go down. I even ventured down a few of them. I’ve got extensive notes and footnotes to prove it. However, when I was polishing my dissertation, most of the work of those rabbit trails ended up deleted from the final product. I may use some of the material for essays later on, but I sometimes spent a week on research that was interesting, but did little to support my final dissertation. A bit more discipline would have benefited me significantly.

8.         Keep notes on the side ideas. – I wasted some time along the way exploring rabbit trails. However, one of the things that I think will bear some fruit in the future is using some of that material and the ideas that I got while writing my dissertation to produce journal articles at a later date. I’ve got a list of potential topics with some sources that I can chase down now that I’ve finished my dissertation. These don’t all relate directly to my dissertation topic, but there is room for further research. I now have more ideas for the future than my life and schedule can possibly support.

There are probably more things that I’ve learned. Perhaps after my defense I’ll pick up the topic again. Or, I may discover that some of my lessons learned aren’t as helpful as I thought. I’ll let you know what the readers think.

The Eroding Foundations of Education

Recently the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing the failure of many colleges to require courses in economics, history, government, or foreign languages. As a result, the study shows, “A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown.” More significant than the absence of basic facts are the growing complains from employers “that graduates are entering the workforce without basic skills such as critical thinking.” Representatives of some of the institutions negatively implicated by the report question the validity of the survey, pointing to an interdisciplinary approach where aspects of history and economics may be wrapped in an art or science class.

Scholars often lament the compartmentalization of the university, where academic disciplines become isolated. This often results in and perhaps is caused by academics focusing on narrower and narrower fields. As I’ve heard it explained previously: a good scholar will work to know more and more about less and less until eventually she knows everything about nothing. This is tongue in cheek, but does represent the trend of specialization and the lack of an integrated community of learning that exists in most academic institutions.

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