Career Counseling for Humanities Majors: Navigating Ambiguity

Our recent Humanities Recruitment Survey (HRS) revealed a consensus among faculty and administrators across institution types that “student concerns about job prospects” is the most influential challenge to attracting undergraduates to the humanities. Over the past year, we’ve been updating the career outcomes data in our Study the Humanities toolkit and collecting effective strategies for articulating career pathways for humanities students. Anticipating that student anxieties will weigh even heavier amidst the economic fallout of the pandemic, we’ve been reaching out to leaders in this field to understand how they are adapting. Kirstin Wilcox, founding director of the University of Illinois’ Humanities Professional Resource Center (HPRC), offered her take.

Wilcox, a long-time member of the university’s English faculty, founded the HPRC to better serve humanities students, who she had found frequently avoided engaging career services due to anxieties or misgivings. A cornerstone of her approach is to engage these anxieties head on. Amidst the economic fallout from the pandemic, that means tackling questions likeis it even worth applying for things?” From there, she pivots to how students can leverage adaptable skills to navigate a challenging market and moment from a place of strength. “I’m encouraging students to accept the uncertainties and instabilities of these weird times and have the courage to flex their own agencyto look around their communities and see where they can make things happen that need to happen,” says Wilcox. “The working world consists of things that need to be done that people can be persuaded to pay for; postings for discrete jobs may be scarce, but the needs and desires are still there.” 

Second, Wilcox encourages humanities students to apply their critical analysis skills to the question frequently posed to them“what are you going to do with that?” “The current economic crisis lays bare things that have always been true,” says Wilcox. “There’s no shortcut to finding a meaningful career pathit requires reflection, self-knowledge, and exploration”capacities enriched by studying the humanities. This common career question falsely implies a linear path toward a predestined outcome determined by one’s major. In reality, most careers unfold through an unpredictable, iterative process. There are always many possible outcomes and success is ultimately defined by evolving personal values. She encourages students to instead wrestle with deeper questions that more accurately reflect these realities, employers’ priorities, and the hiring process: What problems do you like to solve? What information do you find interesting? How do you like to engage with the world? 

To gain buy-in from fellow faculty, Wilcox emphasizes that the aim is not to instrumentalize humanities education but to enhance students’ sense of their own agency. Faculty should use data to debunk widespread misconceptions about humanities career outcomes early and often; not to reduce education to workforce preparation, but rather to give students permission to follow their own interests. Faculty can also help demystify career preparation and reframe it in positive ways. For example, Wilcox reframes networking as about connectingsomething we’re doing all the timerather than manipulating, highlighting how the humanities help us learn how to connect more deeply and with people who are very different from us.

The HPRC provides a fairly lean model for delivering high-quality career services by humanists for humanists, but the lessons learned through the effort can be applied to institutions where the precise model may not be practicable. The dense fog enveloping all students’ career pathways in this moment calls us to redouble our efforts to articulate career pathways for humanities students--not out of defensivenessbut with compassion and sober confidence that the humanities give them the skills to adapt deftly to the ambiguous and challenging circumstances they face. 

Read more:

Study the Humanities COVID-19