What Should Amber Do With Her Life?

Welcome back, friends. Long time, no speak. I was in hibernation yesterday from five long days at my advertising show in Orlando, and now I’m rested and ready to pummel you with advice until kingdom come. Ready, go.

Hi Josh,

I’ve read your book and I enjoy your blog very much. Thanks for the work you do. I’m curious if you could offer me any or your usual sage advice.

Thanks! And I will surely try.

I have been trying to discover what I should do/want to do with my life and how that pertains to my post-secondary education. I am a part-time student in 2nd year at a small community college in Northern British Columbia. I am also slowly but surely working on my diploma of business administration through the University of Victoria (read: contingency plan for future boring office job).

Well, that future boring office job is definitely possible, but let’s hope not. You can do a lot of interesting stuff with a business degree — it’s kind of a catch-all ticket punch to get your foot in the door to all sorts of jobs and companies.

I will be finished both the diploma and associate degree in arts within the year and I want to go on to get my BA but I’m having difficulty deciding what to do!

If you do become a teacher, Amber, word to the wise — don’t give or receive lap dances from other teachers at pep rallies. Your countrymen are kinda sore about that subject right now.

Well, if there’s any comfort in that, it’s that you’re not alone. In fact, I might even venture to guess that you’re in the majority. Two years of college isn’t a whole lot of time, honestly, to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. My general advice: stay versatile. More on that in a minute.

The good news for me is that I’m not particularly concerned about student debt. As of now, I have relavitvely little debt, thanks to the fact that I’ve done my schooling over the last four years while working full-time. I’ve had a small amount of family help as well. I may have to take student loans out in the future, but at least I’ve emerged from my first two years relatively unscathed.

That is outstanding indeed. In my book, the second-best benefit of avoiding student loan debt is the fact that it gives you more options. (An obvious first is the general principle of not owing the government a debt of tens of thousands of dollars that you can never escape, even through a bankruptcy).

Everyone has a threshhold of debt they don’t want to exceeed, and at the same time, there are an infinite number of career options out there, and each has a price tag. And some of those price tags are above your personal threshhold of student loan debt (even if you haven’t established that threshhold yet).  So, the longer your debt is zero, the longer you can stay open to even the most expensive of career options.

I have been thinking that I would like to be a high school teacher. I know, crappy pay, and at least in Canada, the job market isn’t looking very rosy. Also, I would need to major in a “teachable” area and then take a two year program for my BEd. Two degrees, yes, but I could do my master’s in the same amount of time and go on to teach college instead.

Yeah, everyone knows about the low pay so I won’t dwell on that part here. Whether you teach college or high school should mostly depend on which group of students you enjoy teaching more, I think. The environments are very different. On one hand, in high school you’ve got a lot of bright students, and a lot of not-so-bright students who are there just because the government and their parents compel them to be there (I assume they do that in Canada, anyway — the government part, I mean).

In college, you’ll have filtered out a lot of the riff-raff. However, a master’s degree would be the bare minimum for teaching college, while a master’s would leap-frog you to at least the middle of the pack and on to a higher rung of the pay scale in high school.

All points worth considering.

But I don’t know if I would be of any use for research stuff and all the other going’s on at college campuses. As a high school teacher, I would be interested in teaching history, english, geography, and/or social studies. As a college prof, I would want to focus on anthropology and/or history. I’m so torn!

Well, as a high school teacher, there’s no doubt you’ll be doing some actual teaching, and a good lot of it. In a college situation, let’s face it — a master’s degree will probably not (at least immediately) elevate you to the status of someone who gets to pick and choose a lot of what they focus on. You may get stuck teaching lower-level courses or whatever the tenured Ph.D holders don’t want to teach.

At the present, I’m thinking of double majoring in either history and english or history and anthropology.

Personally, I’d keep English in there somewhere. English is much more marketable than either history or anthropology. English majors seem to be everywhere. As long as companies need to have any kind of writing done, English majors will have jobs. I’m an English major, and I’ve been a reporter and editor, website editor and manager, software implementation specialist, marketing and advertising consultant, and I’ve been the owner of a search engine advertising agency for 9 years.

My other concern is, what if I decide I don’t want to teach at all and I’ve gone and got a history/anth/english major that is barely marketable? Am I obligated then to get my master’s degree anyway? I DON’T WANT TO WORK AT STARBUCKS! What do I do??!!

Please help,

Well, you definitely want to get your feet wet in the teaching arena before you put all your chips on that profession. See what’s available in your area for teacher’s aide positions. The pay will be low, you can count on that, but it’ll also get you inside a real classroom so you can see for yourself whether you want to spend your life in such a place. That’s much cheaper and less painful than blowing tens of thousands of both dollars and hours discovering how much you DON’T like teaching.

I don’t know what the deal is in Canada for substitute teaching, either, but if you can get yourself on the list of available substitutes for your nearby school system, that’s even better. Not sure about you Canucks, but in the States, eligibility for this varies widely. In some areas, you actually need a degree even to sub; in my area, you only need to be 18 and have a clean criminal record.

But yeah, back to the whole “stay versatile” thing — that’s really my advice for life in general, and especially for students in your situation. If you don’t know what you want to do, that’s perfectly fine, but since you DON’T, it’s not the best move to jump into some highly specialized major, or perhaps into some six-year sequential program, or anything like that. Sure, you might happen to hit the target with something you’ll spend your whole life enjoying, but that’s not the most likely outcome, I’m afraid. You might hate it, and what’s worse, you’ll feel married to it because you’ve already started it and you don’t want to toss away all the work and time you’ve spent paving the road to this grim conclusion.

So until you get some more concrete inklings about what you might like to do, stay versatile by choosing really flexible courses of study. English and business are both great choices as I mentioned before.

Another good idea for hashing out the things you might be interested in is to check out  iTunes U. iTunes U is a collection of free courses (video and audio included) from posh colleges like Yale, Berkeley, Stanford and Michigan, just to name a few (there are tons more). MIT is also a leader in this area — you can take over 1,900 courses for free on the MIT Open Courseware site.  Don’t get me wrong, you don’t get actual *credit* for the courses — but all of the material is online, and that’s perfect for sampling a variety of subject areas. Anyone can unlock a hidden interest on these sites.

OK, that’s all from me today. What do you guys think Amber should do? Let us know in the comments below!

I’m off to watch what should be the most lopsided game in World Cup history — Brazil vs. North Korea. See you tomorrow!

19 thoughts on “What Should Amber Do With Her Life?”

  1. When I was in the same dilemma in college, my dad gave me an old adage. He told me to imagine that the world is one village. Everyone has to have a sign outside their door- the cobbler, the baker, the candlestick maker, etc. He told me that whatever my major was, I needed to know what my sign was going to be. It really helped me focus and differentiate what I like from what I want to do.

  2. English double-majors amazingly well with a LOT of other humanities majors, and I can say that from personal experience. I did a double with Religious Studies, and there is so much subject area overlap. If you time your coursework well with history (or American Studies or women’s studies or religion or what-have-you), you can even be covering similar regions or time periods with English courses and your second major. It gives you a real edge in both disciplines if you know how to approach material from other angles.

    The MA English (depending on where you choose to do it) can offer you multiple sub-fields. Here (California), you can teach full-time at a community college (CC) with a master’s degree and part-time at the CSU/UC level (4-year public unis). Some MA English programs (like mine) will prep you for CC teaching with coursework, internship, and tutoring opportunities, in addition to giving you a solid grounding in the field. Some have tracks for writing/publishing-minded folks, and some will have ones that are for people looking at PhD programs (if your university doesn’t offer PhDs–mine doesn’t).

    Josh is dead-on with the teaching thing, though. Get your feet wet as a teacher’s aide or a sub for high school, or get a position as a TA or tutor at your CC. That will tell you a lot about where your preferences are–high schoolers are wilder (to say nothing of having to deal with parents!) and the curriculum is a lot more strict, but college students can have some MAJOR attitudes and some (when they get that first taste of freedom) just won’t care about what you’re doing, just that they get the grade they think they deserve. I can deal with college students (which is why I’m working on degrees that’ll let me teach them), but I just don’t have patience for high school drama anymore. Neither high school nor college-level teaching, however, is a rosy job market at the moment (but you still have time to think about that–hopefully conditions will improve by then).

    Sorry this was so long, but I figured this is something I could talk (and talk and talk) about. 😛

  3. First off, Starbucks isn’t all that bad of a work environment..I’d be more scared of McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s if I were you. =]

    I’m in the same exact situation…I find myself approaching my junior year of college and am torn between multiple majors and multiple career paths. Not a fun place to be, eh?

    Anyway, the thing you have going for you is that you have one possible career choice clearly pinpointed, therefore making it easier to decide if that is or is not the career for you. As Josh said, it’d be wise to keep English in there, I’d suggest History as well. While few, if any, high schools offer Anthropology [in the States, at least], History and English will be a constant in both high school and college.

    Going back to being undecided, I’d suggest going with a Master’s degree in any case. Typically higher paid, and it’ll give you more time to decide what to do. Always a plus.

    Good Luck!

  4. First of all, Rhodes scholarship – if you decide to study English and you want a free master’s degree and you don’t mind moving abroad and you play sports and have good BA grades, aim for it. Big time benefit if you want to be a teacher.

    Second of all, even if you don’t get a professional degree (nursing, business, medicine, &c.), you can still get a non-starbucks job. Example: I knew an English major who was the main administrative/personal assistant for the Dean of top ten law school. She wasn’t going to do anything else with her degree, but her writing skills were strong from a lot of writing-based courses, so he hired her.

    Another answer if you don’t want to be poor: law! I am biased in this regard, but if you get a BA in business, English, or even history, what better discipline to totally oppose the Starbucks job. Again, if you want to really be competitive, do something in between to be a better candidate, and if you want to minimize debt, look for a part-time program.

    Also, I don’t know if the organization extends to a Canada branch, because of differing educational standards, but you may want to check out “Teach for America” – I know a lot of grad programs look at their alumni like public service gods come down from heaven to bless public schools, and plus that will be good experience for you AND you can get master’s education reduced price as an alumni.

    Just some tips….

  5. I think Amber is making a wise decision by getting a diploma of business administration in addition to a humanities based degree. Regardless of one’s major, I highly recommend a balance of humanities with more quantitative skills. I’m not sure which courses are required in the business diploma, but if Amber graduates with a BA having taken statistics, calculus, and perhaps linear algebra in addition to her English or Anthro or History classes, she’ll have a wide array of options in the future if she changes her mind for grad school. I’m currently in grad school pursuing a degree (environmental economics) very different from my undergrad (international relations & German), and I found that in order to make such a big change, I had to go back and make up all those quantitative classes (stats, calculus, etc.) that I had skipped in undergrad because I assumed I would never need them. So my advice is to make sure you have a firm grounding in quantitative skills as well as humanities, and you’ll be fine!

  6. ever consider the states to teach?? here in IL (suburbs of chicago) teachers earn about 60k-70k starting off and after tenure (only 3-5 years in some districts) earn over 6 figures–although IL pays its teachers the 3rd highest in the US and right now a lot of teachers in IL are facing job cuts. I know teachers in California (highest paying state) make even more than that. However, IL and CA are pretty far from you. Although I also know Michigan is top 3 in US for paying (and i BELIEVE that CT is pretty decent as well) high school teachers also have excellent benefits and get to influence/touch the lives of hundreds of children each year.

  7. Hey, Brazil vs.North Korea wasn’t such a bad game after all….Brazil didn’t do that good (that first goal was pure luck) and North Korea did better than expected.

    And Amber, you need to take some time to figure out waht you like, because that’s not always easy, even if you think you got it. Take Josh’s advice and find out if you can be a teacher’s aid or a sub, and if anything else interests you try it out as well. Good luck!

  8. These are all great questions, and thank you, Josh, for your advice and for providing an arena for people to discuss situations like the one presented above.

    I’m throwing in my two cents by adding to this conversation my experience and outlook as an undergraduate anthropology major and a wannabe college professor.

    Like Josh already mentioned, a master’s degree is the absolute bare minimum level of education you need to teach anthropology, and in the U.S. that typically meets the requirements of faculty positions at community colleges. At four-year universities, however, qualified teachers are expected to have obtained a Ph.D (there are some rare exceptions but be prepared to only teach general courses), and the long path to a Ph.D in anthropology can be arduous. I’m sure you already know, but at the master’s level (and doctorate, too), socio-cultural anthropology students carry out some type of relevant ethnographic research. More often than not, this means living in and studying a different culture/society for an extended period of time only after you have gained a solid theoretical foundation and an understanding of the various methodological approaches to field work. Since anthropology, at large, strives to answer the question ?what does it mean to be human?? it is common and necessary to draw from other disciplines such as economics, philosophy, and even environmental science.

    If you’re interested in, or your research questions pertain to, a society where your native language is not spoken, you also need to consider how much time it will take to learn the language. Since anthropologists are concerned with cultural phenomena as experienced by those they study, the “other”, it is imperative that your language skills be sharp. Depending on your language proficiency, this could take a year or two, or three.

    What I’m trying to stress here is that the winding path to a master’s and Ph.D in anthropology takes a fair amount of time. But since your aim is (or at least you?ve considered it) to teach in an academic environment, what difference should it make if you’re in school FOREVER! The way I see it is (and this approach, among other reasons, is why I’m majoring in anthropology) why not go to school so that you can stay in school?

    If you?re interested in anything human related (what isn?t human related, right?) I suggest you at least take some anthropology classes even if you don?t decide to major in it. If you have an open mind and a general curiosity about people, you will gain a valuable new perspective.

  9. I HIGHLY recommend experiencing teaching before you decide to pursue it as a career. Not everyone makes a great teacher – think of all the teachers you’ve had, and how many have left a significant, positive mark on your life.

    One excellent way of exploring teaching is being a tutor. I’m a tutor. I love tutoring and it’s an excellent way to gain experience, build a resume, and determine if you want to pursue being an educator. If your BA school has a tutoring center, and you have solid A’s in an area (possibly writing, with your humanities leanings) or a professor who will recommend you, go talk to the Center’s director and see if they’ll hire you or at least let you shadow. (Most colleges pay their tutors, so you may get an additional income as well – warning, expect to have no life when papers are due!)

    Another way to tutor is to volunteer. Get in contact with local high schools and community groups and see if they need tutors. If you’re interested in working with ESL students, there is a huge need in that field, and many community groups and libraries host basic English classes for individuals that are taught by volunteers.

    I’d also recommend taking a basic Education course that involves job shadowing or interning. You’ll get an introduction to the myriad of teaching theories, learning styles, development stages, techniques, LD considerations, etc, that teachers use on a daily basis and see what actually goes into the job on a “behind the scenes” level. Quality teaching involves significantly more than standing in front of a class and spouting information.

    Best of luck with whatever you decide, Amber!

  10. I like the old adage about the sign outside your door. My career counselor gave me similar advice and it really helps to figure out what you want as a career and then (I’m hoping) we can diverge into specific interests from their…

    I just graduated college and am taking a lot of time to reflect on what it is I want to get out of my career in life, for now I am Coaching (which is something I’ve wanted to do since I was in 9th grade) and researching (which is something I’ve wanted to do only for a few years now) at my University and interning for a County in Parks and Administration (learning experience). Also managing spending time with family/friends cause when/if I leave those jobs to another my family/friends stay the same (well, adding on to the friends).

  11. In Canada, there are the same requirements for being a substitute teacher or a full-time teacher. You need to major (and obtain your bachelor’s) in something teachable. In BC, you need to complete PDP (Professional Development Program). PDP is a twelve-month teacher training program divided into 3 semesters. One semester is a practicum, having to teach at a high school. After finishing PDP, you are recommended to the British Columbia College of Teachers to receive a BC teaching certificate.

    If you’d like to become a teacher, it is a good idea to volunteer in a classroom. PDP is a very competitive program, as class sizes are small, and volunteer experience in a school is almost required. If you do volunteer, just do something that works with your schedule. Maybe that is once a week; in my experience, teachers are always happy for the extra help. Volunteering will help, as it will get you inside a classroom so you can decide whether that’s something you’d like to do. It also gets your foot in the door for PDP.

    It sounds like you’re talking about getting two degrees, and then on top of that, the teaching certificate. I just want to clarify something here; you do NOT need a bachelor’s degree in education to teach. In your bachelor’s degree, you must major in something teachable. After that, you go on to PDP, which is a one year (not two year) program. You take education courses during PDP.

    Personally, I don’t recommend getting a degree in teaching, or spending extra time to get a bED, since as long as you have a teachable major in your bachelor’s (make sure you check their list of teachable subjects) and the one year of PDP, you’re good to go. This seems to be a common misconception, having to get two degrees to teach. You need an accepted major for your bachelor’s, and teaching certificate, which takes five years full time.

    I’m just giving some background on secondary school teaching, in case you decide to go that route. To help your decision: if you want to be a college or university professor, you have to like school. Keep that option open, but complete your bachelor’s, and then see if you want to take more school.

    You have to remember that there are a lot of candidates, and relatively fewer posts open. Some professors do get jobs from their masters degree. When they do get in, usually they do sessionals, which means working on a single semester basis, and teaching courses when the college (university) asks them too. This is unpredictable, because you don’t know whether they’ll want you to do only one course, or if they decide they don’t need an extra prof right then. I would go and talk to your professors to get some more information on teaching at the college or university level. As per secondary school, high school teachers are great resources. Good luck!

  12. Great advice.

    Amber: It sound like your asking all the right questions!
    One thing I would suggest: put in sometime substitute teaching, or interning in classrooms. Its one thing to enjoy a subject, and another to enjoy teaching that subject. Now is the best time to figure out if you would enjoy teaching as a career.

  13. Sure, your degree is a collection of ideas your not sure what you can do with them. But think about your life, what do you want to do with that? You said you don’t want to work at Starbucks, so where do you want to work, what do you want to do? Degree aside. If its something you like, I’m sure you’ll be able to make yourself marketable.

    And if you still aren’t sure, take a year or two off and go travel. Explore. It’ll be hard to do once you settle down in a career and family. And you can learn about yourself and what you want to do in that time. I’m in a similar boat, I have no idea how to enter the ‘real world’ and am taking the coward’s way out by delaying it for two years. I’m applying for the Peace Corp. And hey, while I’m out learning about myself and having fun, I’ll be gaining marketable skills ^_~

  14. I can’t decide between International Relations and Journalism, so I’ve decided to do a double major. Maybe this could be an option for you too?

  15. Em & KN thanks. Your points did me a world of good. One of my art teachers has been 11 years earning her masters. She works and she teaches. That is her life. Her husband is a musician–their income is not so stable. She is a woman who probably never had any extra $$ to waste and has had to really push hard to meet her goals. She makes our classes the most amazing things to experience–EVEN for someone who has absolutely no art background.

    Another of our teachers just completed her masters. The joke on her was that she was studying at a school that she had been instructing many of the instructors (while without her masters). She still had to go back and do EVERYTHING. But she said that she graduated with DISTINCTION. She did everything but her final year part time at an institution relatively close to home. Her final year, she actually left home (kids, husband, the works!) to rent an apartment to attend university full time. But she felt that it was worth every moment. Her goal is to increase her teaching potential and income level. I found her in class this summer studying from one of the people she most admires in the art industry. She had to refuse to teach this summer at the college I am leaving, just so that she could finally sit in on this man’s drawing classes; her own class is always offered at the same time.

    The comment about going to school so that you can stay in school caused me to burst out laughing. It does seem that perhaps I’ll still be studying something on my dying breath! I will have a diploma when and if I finish my 3 year program. That will probably allow for some transferable credits. I have begun to wonder if the diploma will be enough for me; or will I find that I am not satisfied until I have earned a degree or two. The way I understand it, in Canada, many degrees are tuition-free to those either 60 or 65 (depending on the institution). I met a woman last summer who discovered that by accident. She had applied to U of T. Someone thought to ask her age and explain this feature. The deposit she had submitted with the application for her course was refunded.

    What I am beginning to imagine is that it might be feasible to complete this portion of my studies as a full time student while I find ways to develop an income. It is really important in my mind that I not wait to complete my studies to earn a living at things I love to do. Staying mentally organized in my game plan is often the challenge! Then, I am thinking I could take any degrees probably as a part time student… It might be nice to have a life while I can still enjoy my kids and 1 granddaughter.

    One of my classmates was forced to do things that way because she had already developed a career that she could not abandon. She (in her 40’s) then found the strength to recover from cancer and while in remission, her returning energy levels boosted her desire to catch up with the time she had missed so much while being sick. Her studies for the 2 year program I just completed took her twice the time; but she was able to continue using the artistic direction she had built a reputation with prior to this period. What she will do with what she has just completed changes some of what her thrust in art has been. Meaning that she must break into the industry with a different thrust to expand her horizons.

    I am reminded of the tutor I had some years ago when I studied computer security and investigations. I was so lost and she always knew the subject matter. She even knew the mistakes in the course material. There were assignments I could never have completed without her input! I was one of the few who had requested tutorial support. She had a lot of patience and really earned her worth. Yes, the school provided the tutors, if we requested assistance and they got paid well. Someone else told me that he managed to keep up with his expenses while he studied because he took notes by recording the lectures and transcribing them for those who found note-taking difficult.

    I am guessing that would provide another way to test my own levels of achievement by offering tutorial services as I develop marketable skills. I like that idea very much…

  16. Another option is tutoring. If you like tutoring privately maybe move onto tutoring in groups and if you like that try teaching. I’m a senior in high school and I spend my weekends tutoring and during school I am a teacher aide. Not only is this great experience but you literally see what things are like first hand and you feel pretty good about it too. Private tutoring earns decent money too, 10-15 dollars per hour. That’s just another route to think about.

  17. Hey, Amber ,just so you know, my dad is a high school teacher here in Canada, and from what I’ve heard the pay is way better than what teachers get in the states. Most importantly, in the next 10 years over 1/3 of teachers will have retired, so even though there are less kids nowadays, most of those teachers will need to be replaced. So if you do decide to be a teacher , the job prospects should be pretty good

  18. I know alot of high school teachers in Canada, who got there masters on the side. They are making over 100,000. Its all better years of experience. Teachers in Canada make way more money than in the States.

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