Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

October 12, 2016

Cornell Students Critique Culture of Careerism

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“You’re a classics major? Oh, it’s your money. Well, have fun not having a job.”

These are the comments that Erial Zheng ’18 has grown accustomed to hearing since she switched from a biology major to classics in her sophomore year.

With the emergence of the College of Business and Cornell Tech in New York City, many students say they feel an attitude of careerism is growing among Cornell’s undergraduates. Critics might say Cornell is becoming more vocational, according to Prof. Charles Van Loan, computer science.

Even within the College of Arts and Sciences, the liberal arts college, the two most popular majors — economics and biological sciences — are pre-professional majors, noted Jen Maclaughlin, assistant dean and director for Arts and Sciences career development center.

For a growing number of students at Cornell, the undergraduate experience has become defined by attaining a prestigious career after graduation.

For Prof. Michael Fontaine, classics, however, called the path to academia something he stumbled into, and not a track he consciously planned as an undergraduate.  Because of the requirements set by his college and a freedom to explore his academic interests, Fontaine chose a class called “Greek Sacrifice,” thinking the class would center on human sacrifice.

Although his prior thoughts were incorrect, as the Greeks never actually practiced human sacrifice, Fontaine cites the class as shaping his undergraduate experience — a class he had taken simply because of the title and his mild interest for Greek mythology.

“I just fell in love with the ideas and the literature. I had never read any of that before. And at the end of the semester, the professor said ‘If you like this stuff, I’m going to be teaching beginning Greek in the spring,’” he said. “I thought ‘why not take Greek.’ I will never forget that.”

Fontaine began his undergraduate education considering a pre-medical track, but said he never felt the expectation or obligation to adhere to this course of study, particularly because of the support he received from his parents to follow his interests wherever they led. He also credits the culture of the 1990s for his ability to explore, without experiencing the economic pressures that can daunt today’s students.

Van Loan agreed with Fontaine, saying the current economy and the effect of the Great Recession greatly impact the way undergraduate students at Cornell view their education.

“There’s so much instability in the world now and nervousness about unemployment,” Van Loan said. “I think it’s really pronounced now. I would say that in my day, we had it much easier than [today’s] generation.”

The cost of a Cornell education certainly plays a role in these economic pressures. An emphasis on the return in investment, particularly from parents, often shapes the undergraduate experience.

“I’ve had many students sit in that chair and tell me that they would love to study more classics, for example, but their parents won’t pay their tuition unless they do engineering or pre-med,” Fontaine said. “Or their parents will say you cannot go to Cornell if you’re not going to study something practical.”

The combination of parental pressure and the cost of Cornell were both factors compelling Zheng to initially decide to pursue a pre-med track.

“I never really went into pre-med because I had this burning desire to be a doctor. I can’t even stand the sight of my own blood,” she said. “I just did it because it was the expectations of my parents and my parents’ friends and everyone else who was saying ‘I’m doing pre-med,’ so I thought I had to do pre-med too.”

Zheng ultimately left the major after feeling apathy in many of her classes — taking required classes to “get [them] over with” — and fueled by concerns about her GPA. Since then, she said she “switched to classics and never looked back.”

“Maybe I just don’t have the scientific mind or the medical drive to finish this,” Zheng said. “That’s something I’ve accepted for who I am: I am not meant to be a doctor, but it’s ok.”

Arlinda Shehu ’18 also said she understood the profound role parental pressure can play in choosing a major, particularly as an immigrant to the United States.

“My parents put all their dreams on me. For them, it’s to be able to pick a career or a job that will support not just them later on, but also my sister. Something that’s practical,” Shehu said. “We didn’t come all the way to the United States just for me to become an artist or for something that’s not as practical: that doesn’t get you a good job.”

Shehu is currently a philosophy and psychology double major, planning to attend law school after she graduates. Although she is interested in becoming a professor, Shehu said she is planning on pursuing something “practical” immediately after she graduates, and possibly chasing a career in academia later in life.

Economic pressure has also changed the way students view the very concept of a major. Instead of being simply “your major subject of study,” as Fontaine defines the focus, a major has become a means to employment, an expression of a student’s ultimate career ambition.

“There’s the misconception that students are thinking that they have to do the major in order to get the career path,” Maclaughlin said. “Any time that you ask employers, they are looking for skill sets, not certain classes.”

These skill sets, which Maclaughlin says can be attained in pursuing a liberal arts education, will serve millennials best in the future, when it is “critical to think about the skills need[ed] in my career — not just my job immediately after graduation two, five years out,” she said.

Maclaughlin refers to the fluid nature of the job market and the variable patterns of this generation of students as indicators demonstrating why she values a liberal arts education.

“Millennials are switching jobs so much more,” she said. “Baby-boomers would start a job and stay in the company for their whole career. Millennials are just not doing that.”

Van Loan also emphasized the uncertainty and volitality of the job market, urging students to pursue their interests rather than being governed by transient employment trends.

“Whatever interests you, just go after it. That’s one way of helping to guarantee your success in the job market,” Van Loan said. “If you come across as broad, articulate, you know the big picture — these things work to your advantage.”

Despite these admonitions of careerism and encouragement urging students to follow their true passions, Fontaine said that unless economic pressures relax, it is unlikely that professional trends will reverse in the near future.

  • Cornell ’13

    I hope I’m never the patient of a doctor who went to med school just for the prestige or to fulfill parental expectations.

    • LGR

      Hate to break it to you….

      • Frankie Leung

        You only want a doctor who saves your life and not his philosophy of life. what difference does it make if he or she is a Muslim, Communist or Lesbian?

  • Frankie Leung

    I am an immigrant to this country. I had a son who graduated from Cornell. If, as a parent, you pay an exorbitant amount of money to put your child through education, and at the end he has no job, how would you say to yourself? Luckily my son studied engineering and had a job.

  • dan

    I agree with Frankie Leung. If 20 students decide to be Classics majors and the job market only needs one of them, what are the other 19 going to do? Nothing wrong with studying classics, but why pay $50,000 tuition, when you can go to the state school for that? The teachers are as good and as passionate.

    • Frankie Leung

      The courses a student takes at universities should not pre-determine his career after graduation.

    • Nope

      Your points are contradictory. You imply that the supply of people with classics degrees vastly exceeds the demand for them but then state that they could just study at a state school. Whether you like it or not, the name of the school DOES matter in the job market. All other factors held equal (ability of the applicants, experience, etc), employers will choose a Cornell grad over a graduate of some little-known state school with an even less famous/prestigious classics program. If someone is passionate enough about classics, outperforms most of their peers, and establishes great connections with tenured and well-known faculty in the field, of course they’re going to get a “better” job than if they were to switch to some pre-med or engineering program where they’re an average-performing student with no interest in the curriculum. Btw, my degree isn’t even in classics (it’s in ILR), I just find this sort of thinking is very misinformed about the reality of the labor market.

      • Frankie Leung

        You folks touch on the basic tenet: what is the goal of higher education. Many treatises have been written on the subject. No definitive answer.

  • root of the problem

    If we got rid of all the bullshit on campus so we could reduce tuition to non-insane, non-financial suicide levels, this wouldn’t be a problem. Ironically, the fields suffering the most from this seem to be the ones demanding more administrators and silly services and programs that drive costs through the roof.

    • Agreed

      For sure. The non-academic spending of the university occupy a massively disproportionate share of the budget compared with their impact on the quality of a student’s education. Students demand more bureaucrats but also lower tuition and those desires are mutually incompatible.

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  • Saddened by the naivete of the author

    While I think that some of the author’s points about a student’s major not being a finite prediterminant of their ultimate career path, ultimately their message is flawed.
    Yes don’t jump on career trends, but maybe advocate for a degree in something broadly employable; instead of advocating for a classics major (one of the most underemployed majors in the job market).
    Underemployed does not mean unemployed; when a college cites its job placement or continued education (which you will be pursuing as a classics major) statistics it’s more than happy to include all of its graduates making 50% more than minimum wage.
    Maybe interviewing the young professor, who is willing to say anything to keep the amazing job they worked so hard to get, is not the best way to advocate your position?
    I truly pitty any student who has worked hard enough to get into Cornell and switches into a liberal arts major with no career goal or focus. When boomers were going to college the reason they could explore wasn’t just because the job market was better; it was because it wasn’t saturated with college graduates.
    I attended a community college before transferring to Cornell along side a recent Cornell graduate who had a BA in literature. They were going back to school to become a physicians assistant and needed science courses. They couldn’t get a job, as a white upper middle class Cornell graduate with only a liberal arts degree.
    This may be only annecdotal, but it is representative of a well documented trend. More and more students are coming back to school when they realize a bachelors degree does not make them financially stable (not wealthy, but enough so their kids can’t go to Cornell for free). This raises the competition among job applicants and allows companies to have more demanding requirements, thus creating a cycle of escalation.
    So yeah, while students shouldn’t think that the trending career featured on social media isn’t prone to labor market fluctuations; talk to baby boomers about their college experience. Most of the stuff they did is illegal on college campuses now. They graduated before it was common for companies to compete for small business contracts across continents. Most of them studied classes at Cornell, which are now required to get into Cornell (biochemistry was an emerging field then).
    So while it sucks how negative the doggedly driven career chasing environment can be; we need to admit that the value of a four year degree is depreciating (Cornell perhaps slower than some less prestigious schools). And trying to continue the fantasy that a bachelor’s is not just a means to an end, is unfair to young students unsure of which path to take.

    And the answer to making the culture less negative is not hiring more mental health professionals and counselors, who students don’t see out of fear of being ostricized (and yes the easy and shortsighted comeback is to say, “make it socially acceptable”).

  • Justin Samuels

    My undergraduate degree was in history, and I graduated from Cornell in 2010. There’s nothing wrong with getting a liberal arts degree. Most people in the humanities generally need advanced degrees though. I did not do well with just my BA. I ended up getting a job teaching English as a second language. For that I had to get licensed as an ESL teacher, and go to grad school for a MA in the Teaching of English (I graduate this winter). Some of my classmates with history degrees went to law school, medical school, or other professional schools. Other friends of mine who were history majors became social studies teachers. A friend of mine who was a political science major is an actor. Obviously most politicians were liberal arts majors undergrad, before they went to law school.

    So to sum it up someone who gets a BA from Cornell in Classics will ultimately be able to do a lot, but they will likely need additional education (advanced degrees, professional licenses, etc).

  • Justin Samuels

    I think liberal arts departments need to give students guidance on their career options post graduation. That is what I think is lacking, and if more students were aware of how they could apply these degrees after graduation, they’d be better informed. I am happy I have a liberal arts education, as a screenwriter and a teacher I can work anywhere in the world (big demand for English teachers overseas), and I love going to Latin American countries (my concentration/minor was Latin American studies). This year for the first time the history department e-mailed alum asking what kinds of jobs we were doing and what advice did we have for graduating seniors in the history department. I think all the liberal arts departments should research what their alumnae are doing for their careers post graduation, and present this to current and prospective majors while at Cornell.

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