An Education and Career Reality Check

My wife and I attended tailgate reunion (the best kind of reunion, in my opinion) with her university degree graduating class before the Michigan State/Air Force football game. Collegiate reunions are rare, but she graduated with a very specialized 5-year degree in Landscape Architecture with just 20 other students. The group studied abroad together and were in all of the same classes and labs for 5 years of their lives, so they were very close.

As everyone was catching up on what they’ve been up to, one very interesting thing became apparent. Despite having a very specialized degree that everyone was extremely dedicated and passionate about from the top program in the country for their field, surprisingly very few in the group were still landscape architects just 11 years after graduating. It was the running joke of the tailgate. Of the folks I talked to, current occupations were:

  • a greenroof installer
  • a roofing salesperson
  • a lighting salesperson
  • a full-time housewife
  • a CFO of an arboretum
  • a paramedic EMT
  • a nurse

and then there is my wife, who also made the career switch to nursing from landscape architecture a few years ago. How many trained landscape architects did I speak with that were still doing landscape architecture in just a little over a decade after taking out plenty of student loan debt (ironically, we and many of them are still paying off) for a very specialized 5-year university degree? Just 1! And this is from a program that boasted a 100% job placement rate.

This real-life longitudinal career case study is surely a small sample size, but it perfectly summarizes a lot of educational and career observations that I’ve come to realize over the years:

  • education career adviceVery few people REALLY know what they want to do in high school/college and then end up doing it for the rest of their lives.
  • Job loyalty is dead on both sides. For ages 23-27, 75% of workers have been with their employer for less than 2 years, and 88% less than 5 years. For ages 28-32, 68% of workers were with their employer for less than 2 years, and 84% less than 5 years.
  • People get bored.
  • Passions change.
  • People change.
  • Life priorities change (i.e. how much you value work/life balance, compensation, time off, etc.).
  • Job markets change.
  • Parents, kids, significant others, and associated geographical pulls will often have more career impact than what you graduate with. People not only go to where the jobs are at, but they also geographically gravitate towards family and their significant others career.

As a result:

  • Your first job will definitely not be your last.
  • Your first career will more than likely not be your last.

There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s life – better to accept it than fight it. Or, why not embrace it and become a serial job changer like my personal finance blogging friend J. Money, who has worked over 40 different jobs in his life and is only in his 30’s?!

What actionable and practical education and career advice can be taken away from all of this?

  1. Young adults should be advised to chill out. For starters, I really wish that these realities had been taught to me back when I was in school so I would have been so less stressed out about selecting a major that would (I assumed at the time) lock me into one career path for the rest of my freaking life! No pressure in that, is there?
  2. Avoid highly specialized degrees at the start of your career. I think it’s probably best to avoid highly specialized degrees altogether at the start of your career. If you become really passionate about something after having close exposure to it and you want to eventually move into a specialized career after already being in the job market for a while, it might make sense to go and get a specialized degree. But to commit to a specialized field at the age of 18 when you know nothing about a field or even yourself and be locked into it (or a low paying job elsewhere) until you can go back to school? It’s a waste of money. There is nothing wrong with going for broader degrees (i.e. business, engineering/computer science, medical, accounting/math) that have a ton of job prospects to get you started and then get specific later on.
  3. Default to cost efficiency. With your first degree often not leading to a lifelong career field and not being recommended, why not go the inexpensive route? There is no shame, only wisdom in this. To change her career, my wife got the cheapest degree needed (a 16-month accelerated associate’s degree from a community college) to get into nursing, but it pays the exact same as someone who got the degree from an expensive four-year university program.
  4. And finally, try to find an employer that will help you foot the bill for continuing your education. Now that my wife has a nursing job, her employer is paying 75% of the cost for her to finish her bachelor’s degree and beyond. My employer offers tuition reimbursement as well. It’s out there, if you look for it. Don’t pay for it out of pocket unless you’re 100% sure of the field you want to move into.

It would be very interesting to hear personal stories. Are you working in the same field you originally graduated in? Why or why not? And what have you learned in the school of hard knocks?

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