So What’s it Going to Be? Liberal Arts or Professional Studies?

Yes! It is finally spring, which ushers in the graduation parties, both high school and college. I am at the point now where my friends have kids who are eyeing college with both trepidation and excitement. Having worked for over 20 years in higher education, I get invited to a lot of these graduation parties and am privy to the liberal arts vs professional studies debate.

Sometimes it gets ugly with parents on opposite sides or parents ganging up against their kids. But here is the thing: Liberal arts, or education for education’s sake, to become a well-rounded person was losing its panache when my friends and I were going to college. Studying for a “profession” was where it was at. Oh, there were still liberal arts students at my Ivy League institution who nervously eyed us at recruiting functions – would they get the jobs or would we as the professional, internship-toters edge them out? Maybe all of this was a function of what was happening with the 80s robust economy. Be a professional, make a lot of money, make America great.

So flashing forward through the decades, past a major economic depression, past the boom/bust/mini boom of technology markets and here I am, facing down the “Well?” accusatory stares of my friends and their offspring: But again, here’s the thing. The lines between liberal arts vs professional studies have become blurred. There isn’t necessarily only either/or anymore. Nope. No one likes that answer, but it’s the truth.

So I bring out my education again as an example. Back in the 80s when I tried to get my advisor to sign off on my schedule which included the requisite social work classes, along with creative writing, religion and Latin studies, he thought I was crazy. But I convinced him because I had enough AP credits that I had room in my schedule for it all. I had to wait until after graduation to take the music, writing and stress management classes I wanted when I could get tuition remission in my higher education jobs.

Today, this works in reverse too. So many liberal arts students are coming to college with AP credits that they can add professional studies to their schedules. And the colleges and universities are loosening up too, allowing this to happen. The key is to plan ahead to get the prereqs for the professional studies classes finished in the first or second year. The way is then clear to add professional classes that will complement the liberal arts that students pursue.

Parents eye me suspiciously. “But does that really work?” they ask. Let’s take an internship and a job example. Internship: I had a film student in the late 90s who had grown up with a movie camera in his hand. He knew “everything” there was to know about making a film. He spent over $20K on his demo reel which he shopped around to potential internship sponsors. Remember, this is the 90s when every film studio wanted highly skilled interns. You know what? They all hated him, and he had a really hard time finding an internship. He didn’t want to start at the bottom. This guy wanted to immediately get his hands on the most expensive camera on the studio lot. As an intern sponsor at Industrial Light and Magic, one of the premier Hollywood production houses, once told me: “I would rather have an intern who is willing to follow our training program which takes them from running for coffee to reading scripts to participating in the shooting action. If that means I take a liberal arts major who doesn’t have all the technical skills but who is willing to learn, I’m okay with that.”

Now a job example: Did you know that many Disney artists studied liberal arts? Well yes, yes they did, much to the chagrin of all the specialized art and design graduates out there. So why? This is what the recruiter from Disney told me: While Disney requires that all of their art has that “Disney” quality about it, the company recognizes that the key to longevity and icon status comes from their artists willing to learn and to innovate.” That means that sometimes when you are a trained professional, you get so caught up in the technique and the design that you are learning, that you aren’t willing to move ahead to build and innovate because you learned “this is how it’s supposed to be.”

So, blurring the lines between liberal arts and professional studies can be a bit scary for both parents and students, as I’ve worked out in my conversations with them. Getting more out of a liberal arts education may mean spending more time and money, both of which make parents nervous. And we already have college (and high school) students complaining that school is making them stressed out. And they are right – it is. This type of program is going to be jam-packed with liberal arts classes, professional studies classes, internships and experiential education. It may mean that students need to take a gap year to take a break or expand their schedule to fit in a mini coding boot camp or a certificate program such as the brand new Eastman School of Music’s Career and Leadership Certificate program. But the benefits of such education would be tremendous: we would be both educating our students and preparing them for what comes after graduation. I like that because to me the best possible ending of a student career is a graduate who is confident and knows where he or she is going.


The Professional Doldrums: Cue Professional Development Programs

As a college student, no one tells you about the professional doldrums – those two years or so after graduating where you struggle in survival jobs while trying to get your career off the ground. You can also end up in the professional doldrums after you have been laid off,  have opted out of a job for maternity leave or have tried to switch careers.  Thankfully, there are programs out there that are designed to help you get through these tough times.

Whether you are a musician and need a Young Artists Program (YAP) or a professor wanna-be in need of a post-doc program, the process of getting into the right program for you is similar. First, you have to ask yourself what type of program do you need? Do you want an incubator program where you are less in the public eye while learning your trade, or are you ready to step onto the performing or teaching stage? Do you need to get paid or can you afford to participate in a program without pay?

Also, what can you bring to the program in terms of experience and skills? Most professional development programs are going to ask you to have experience and skills. You can still be accepted into a YAP or an adult internship without some of these prerequisites, but you must have references such as teachers, coaches and professional colleagues who can speak to your abilities.

Your resume is important because this is where you list your abilities, skills and experiences. Concentrate on describing how you are a soloist and a team player. If you are a singer, list your solos and recital pieces first. Save the choral works and coaching the children’s choir for the related skills section. If you are applying for an adult internship, highlight your transferable skills sets. Don’t pad your resume with extraneous “stuff.” Your real skills and abilities become hidden, and it is obvious when you are adding “stuff” to make your resume more impressive.  You resume will become bloated and a chore to read.

Once you are satisfied with your resume, take a look at the program application. Not clear on something? Ask before you submit the application. Most programs will have a contact email address or number. Follow the application directions. Do not get eliminated because you failed to clarify a section or wandered off on your own tangent instead of providing the required information.

Most important: Get someone else to read your application and resume before you submit them. Another set of eyes will find the mistakes you can’t. Many people skip this step because they are too self-conscious or over-confident in their proofreading abilities. However, it’s worth the extra discomfort to be able to submit a mistake-free application.

Some professional development programs may ask you to submit a video as proof of singing or presenting abilities. Get help if you do not know how to do a professional recording. You should dress professionally and eliminate fidgeting. I’ve seen a number of masterclasses and presentations where performers/presenters have clearly been doing this for a long time, yet they still clear their throats repeatedly, say um, twirl their hair, scratch their noses, tug on their clothes, etc. Why do they do this? Because they are nervous. Concentrate on introducing yourself and your performance or presentation. Leave it to your recording assistant to ensure your sound is clear, the lighting bright enough and that you are not positioned to sprout a lamp or any other object out of your head to make you look ridiculous.

Your application introduces yourself to the program staff. Your social media profiles tell them more about yourself, who you are. Keep your profiles up to date and list them on your resume to make you easy to find online. Social media profiles have an advantage over the resume in that they should showcase what you are doing now and how you are developing professionally. They keep the story of you going.


Getting Back to Work

It is not uncommon for people to take a career break. But whether you stop out due to maternity leave, a layoff or family illness, sometimes it can be a challenge to return to work. You may think you are guaranteed to get your old job back, however, this is not always the case. Business factors can change quickly, leaving you scrambling for a job.

One option is to start your own business, whether it is providing goods or services such as consulting on a freelance basis. The Small Business Association – SBA can help you get started. The career services or alumni offices at your alma mater may also have classes – you may have to pay for them – on re-entering the workforce or starting your own business. If you opt to freelance or consult, check for state or career organizations that can help you such as NYS Freelancer’s Union. Finding and following such organizations on social media is also helpful.

Another option if you are in good financial shape is volunteering your services. Look for businesses or non-profits who can utilize your skills and provide you with opportunities to learn new ones. This can help you transition into a new job or career, but be aware that the Fair Labor Standards Act, put in place to protect workers’ rights to fair pay, can make volunteering and compliance to the law tricky.

Perhaps a better option would be to pursue an adult internship designed to help you re-enter the workforce. These internships are paid, last from 10 weeks to a year and can bridge the gap in returning to work. You will get a chance to update skills, to build your career network or perhaps to test drive a new career. There are many options out there, especially in the finance and legal sector. iRelaunch, a career re-entry resource, provides a list of internships as well as higher education re-entry resources here. This list includes opportunities at financial institutions such as Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and MetLife. OnRamp Fellowship is another career entry resource aimed at lawyers looking to get back to work.

If you do not see an adult internship program for your career field, think about creating your own. Come up with a strategy by identifying your skills that can help an employer. Define what you want to learn and do and how much you would like to be paid. This process is easier if you can write up your proposal as a contract. You can use your alma mater’s career services or the career resources at your local library to target companies. Use your career network to get your proposal in front of prospective internship sponsors. You may have to contact many companies before one agrees to an internship. Don’t get discouraged. When I worked in sales, the mantra went, “It takes 17 no’s to get to one yes.” It may take you a lot more than that, but an opportunity to get back to your career or gain entry into a new one will be worth it.


Art Internship Ideas

For all you student artists out there trying to finish up your end-of-the-year portfolio projects, I feel your pain. The weather has finally gotten nice, and while all those liberal arts students are able to study outside out the quad, there you are, stuck in the studio. And for those of you who have not gotten around to finding a summer internship, you are probably disconsolately staring at the prospect of a long, hot summer doing something like house painting.

Well, don’t despair. You may think that all of the good internships are taken, but that may not be true. If you don’t look for internships and ask about them, how will you know? There are a myriad of directories out there for arts and entertainment, too many to list here. Check out your school’s career services, the library or your local big box bookstore to find internship directories. 

I include entertainment in this blog because if you are an artist, you should be looking for opportunities in this industry as well. The video game industry not only needs testers, they also need graphic artists and painters to bring their creations to life. Theaters and opera houses also need artists and textile and fashion designers who can help mount their productions. Casinos and hotels routinely need artists as well to keep their facilities up to par and looking beautiful.

Then there are the fashion houses, the museums, the art galleries, book and comics publishers and the auction houses who need summer help. These are the internships that seem to fill the fastest. Did you find an internship like this whose application deadline is past? Sit down and write out a list of what you want to learn this summer and what you can contribute to an internship site. Then get on the phone and call them up. Ask if the internships are filled and give them the 30-second take on why they should consider you. Be ready with an online portfolio or a mini portfolio you can send out right away.

Not interested in spending the beautiful summer indoors? There are internships in art for you sun lovers too. Check with parks and recreation departments, your local highway department or local arts festivals. Summer camps will often hire artists as camp counselors to run the art activities for the kids. You are a creative person, so be creative. One of my art students collaborated with the Phoenix highway department to design and create mosaics along the Phoenix interstates. Not sure I would want to be outside during the day doing that, but most of the layout and cementing of pieces was done at night.

So you have called many places that offer internships to only be told no? Do not stop there. Another one of my students wanted to learn about pop-up book design and production. There were not any publishers who were offering this type of internship. So we called publishers, and one decided to hire her for the summer. There is no reason you cannot do the same – call a video game producer, a theater, or a park that does not offer an internship. Call and offer your services, but be prepared. Know what you want to learn and what you can contribute and commit to. What if they tell you they can’t pay you? Negotiate for free lunch/coffee service, a stipend, or get them to fund all or part of your transportation costs like a bus pass.

Taking the initiative may mean the difference between a boring summer and one that could change your life. A risk worth taking, yes?


Creating Your Design Career

It seems that design careers are often the hardest hit in a bad economy. The funding for projects and jobs dries up, and creatives are left scrambling to meet financial obligations. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Proper planning ahead can help you survive a weak economy. Here’s how.

During School:

*Get to know the Career Services staff and programs. Most schools have their Career Services participate in student orientation activities. Attend career services events as soon as you can to develop a relationship with the staff.

*Get an internship. The best, paid internships are often the most competitive. Pay attention to portfolio submission deadlines and do your research on design firms. Consider a for-credit internship if you cannot find a paid one. Many students work an evening job while interning to help defray expenses. Think about pursuing your own internship if you cannot find one through Career Services.

*Collaborate. You can increase your design network by developing your own opportunities to collaborate with faculty and other students either at your own school or other local schools. Consider doing a pro bono project for a local non-profit.

*Find a mentor. School alumni can be great mentors. Participate in a formal mentor program or contact the alumni office at your school to identify alumni willing to mentor students.

*Participate in on-campus recruiting. Meet recruiting deadlines and pay attention to portfolio submission guidelines and deadlines. Show up for every interview slot you claimed. If the recruiter tells you that your portfolio is not a good fit for his firm, ask for design firm referrals where your skills can be put to good use.

Post Graduation:

*Network. Stay in touch with the people you met during your school career to find job leads.

*Collaborate. Be willing to work on cross-design projects. For example, if you are a product designer, work with photographers and graphic designers in your network to bring your product idea to market.

*Branch out. Understand that design skills can be cross functional. For example, your automotive design skills can be put to good use on environmental and shoe design projects as well. Architectural firms may also look for landscape and environmental designers to enhance their real estate projects.

*Consider a portfolio career. You can do a number of art and design jobs that together will pay the bills. For example, freelance as a graphic designer while teaching design and managing an art gallery on the weekends.

*Be willing to mentor. You will meet many people in the design field if you are willing to mentor a promising design student. Time with a student may bring you into contact with new faculty, new student affairs people, as well as new people in a particular design field.

No Internship? Now What?

As we power through a hot 4th of July weekend, there are probably some students out there who are wondering what to do if they did not get that coveted summer internship. Not to worry; there is still time to gain experience this summer. Here are a few internship alternatives and strategies to try:

*Call around to the places where you did not get chosen as an intern. Not all hires are a good fit for an internship, and while it does not happen all that often, some interns will leave or get fired before the end of the internship. This leaves the placement without an intern, and you may be able to step right in. You may worry about getting any credit when you start an internship part way through the summer. Take the internship anyway if you are lucky enough to get it. Your school may allow you to sort out the credits later. Even if it doesn’t, you still get the experience, and many students find an evening paid position while interning so that they still make money for school.

*Take an alternative internship. For example, you may be interested in animation, but anime? Not so much. Take the anime internship if it is offered because you will learn many of the same skills such as plot construction and animation skills. When you are finished with the internship, be ready to explain why it is on your resume, especially if you are applying to animation companies. Be honest. Explain you were not able to obtain an animation internship the first time out. Outline the skills you learned, however, and how you can use them in animation.

*Look for summer jobs that may teach you the same skills or help you to make professional connections the way an internship would. For example, lists jobs temp and permanent for the film industry. Signing up with temp agencies for the summer may land you a useful summer experience as well.

*Check out continuing education classes at your local community colleges and universities. Some of these classes tend to be more hands-on learning experiences in the summer. I have seen real-time stock market trading classes, design classes, wine tasting, Monday Night at the Movies and counseling classes offered.

*Sign up for your school’s job shadow program. Summer is an ideal time to follow someone in your field of interest for a day or two to see what he or she does at work. Your school does not have a program like this? So create your own experience. Use your family, friends and alumni networks to locate someone who is willing to host you.

*Summer is also an ideal time to do informational interviews as the work pace slows down in some industries. An informational interview gives you the chance to ask questions about different careers. Research your targeted companies first, and then make a list of questions. The questions you ask should not be about information you can already get online. Use your networks to find someone to interview at your targeted company. This type of interview is purely informational, and you should not be asking for an internship or job at this point. However, you can ask for referrals in general. For example, “Do you know of anyone in the industry who needs an intern right now?”

*Sign up for your school’s mentorship program. Having a mentor is like having access to someone with whom you can do an ongoing informational interview. Again, use your networks to find someone to mentor you if your school does not have this type of program.

Experiential learning can take place year round, too. There are year and semester internship opportunities, ongoing shadow and mentor programs and introduction to careers classes that you can take. Keep your eyes open for opportunities, and the alternatives to a summer internship may give you great experiences that you never anticipated. Good luck!