To humanities graduates seeking employment

Lots of friends I had left behind in university ranks are now considering entering paid employment. Even though unemployment is low in Switzerland, getting a job is still difficult. Transitioning from a liberal arts education into the “workforce” is an especially long ordeal. So I worry…

The worst part is fear. Politicians and employer union representatives keep screaming that there are too many college educated people who they label as “unemployable”. It’s HR-speak for “useless”. It saddens me. It carries a lot of stigma. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to wash the label off. When counsellors at the unemployment office, friends or family say you have to work on your “employability”, what they mean is you have to weasel out of being useless. These levels of jargon and condescension are hard to stomach. No matter. They’re right on some level: you will have to change, gain experience, etc. However, you’re not as far behind as you might think. It’s a matter of attitude and learning to market your skills.

Young humanities graduates are squished between romantic ideals of our “calling” as defenders of the besieged humanities and the harsh realities of a world which seems in perpetual crisis. At my graduation ceremony, the dean of our faculty told us that starting a career would take 18 to 24 months of suffering. Right after that, an 80 year old alumnus said that it was our responsibility to “shine a light” upon the world and dispense humanistic lessons on scientists, engineers and bankers who seem to run things (poorly). If you’ve ever bought into the idea that your role would be to impose humanist values upon the uncaring, you better saddle up. It’s gonna be a hell of an attitude adjustment.

Such arrogance gives credence to the prejudice we face from employers — in fact. They don’t care about our values, what we learned about the human condition by analysing the Prose Edda, or the inconsistencies of chivalric discourse uncovered by Chaucer’s tongue-in-cheek humour. Calling knights hypocrites may get you somewhere among gender studies and feminist intellectuals, but in most workplaces it only makes people snigger at your inadequacies and question your competence. Nobody cares. The phone’s ringing — you better get to it.


If they don’t care about medieval literature, what do employers care about? They care about weird shit like getting things done on time and under budget. Since you took two years to submit that twelve page paper about “Hamlet”, you may not see yourself as an ideal candidate just yet. But don’t worry. You just have to adapt. Unlearn some old habits and learn some new ones. That’s really what this 18 month period is about. Wave goodbye to your humanities student self.

All young graduates are in the same boat. Or at least they face the same rushing river. Even people who got degrees which seemed more marketable when you started college need to adjust. It’s raining MBAs and they are more prone to grandiose expectations than humanities students.

Once you are sufficiently distraught and poor, you’ll have no scruples left. You’ll use our secret killer-rhetoric techniques to sell yourself. There are lots of experiences which come from growing in the humanities you can sell. For example, do you remember when you had to get the signature of two super-busy professors, run from one department to the next, talk to twelve administrative assistants and five teaching assistants just to register for an exam? And then had do it all over again to get the credit? Believe it or not, this kind of grit is marketable. Put that down on your resume: You know how to navigate horrible backwards bureaucratic systems and get results. That will come in handy because there are lots of bureaucratic systems in large organisations. And it’s only an example of all the things you manage very well already.

  • Revisit your past, every growth opportunities, every teachable moments and every task. Make a list.
  • Then, gather job postings that might interest you and analyse them as you would a literary text.
  • For each task description, prepare arguments with stories about how you already did a version of that.

Always speak to the fear. Looking for a job is scary. Hiring might even be scarier. The people across the table from you are scared out of their minds — always. Their hire may be a mistake and they will look bad if you under perform. It is very important that you raise no alarms in their minds. As humanities students, we always were taught to address complexity and unpack simplifications to expose flaws. Do that in private. In public, you’ll get farther by reassuring people.

I don’t expect any of this to sink in and make a difference on your first reading. There are a few resources that might help you, though, such as the classic podcast “Back To Work” — especially episode 7. Statistics do say that you’ll have a hard time no matter what you read off the internet. Make the best out of that time and learn as much as possible about yourself, work and how to get things done. Eventually, you will find a nice job and you too will know the joys of being baffled by office politics, bewildered by unclear hierarchies, perplexed by obscure expectations and inconvenienced by endless rambling meetings.

Have faith, dear reader. Have faith.


Still Alive and Well

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written something here. Yesterday, I read something by Paul Ford and I went to bed early thinking: “I could have written”. Weird dreams featuring prolific over-achievers, writers and entertainers ensued. Therefore, guilt was inevitable in the morning.

But it prompted this post… so what could there be to complain about?

Since WordCamp Switzerland in Zürich (where I had written my last posts), I went to UX Lausanne. Great notions and ideas were thrust in our consciousness by kind and knowledgeable people there. So much so that live-blogging or even tweeting was almost impossible to pull off for me.

Bonny Colville-Hyde, whose UX Comics workshop was surprising and fun, did a great job of blogging her notes. The videos of the talks have also been released. I hope the organisers put the conference together again.

In the meantime, tickets were booked for Confab Europe in Barcelona. It’ll be my third and most probably last conference of the year. Can’t wait to be there and then.