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Northwestern University

The Humanities and Your Career

“The sky’s the limit,” alumni tell students who are considering majoring in the humanities

By Daniel P. Smith

Four Northwestern University alumni sat before some 30 current Northwestern students recently and confided they, too, had heard the question during their undergraduate years:

What are you going to do with a humanities degree?

The four Weinberg College graduates — who had majored in history, philosophy, art history and American studies — acknowledged the uncertainty that can accompany a decision to major in a discipline that does not seem to point in a pre-ordained direction.

But in hindsight, they agree, that anxiety seems to have been unnecessary.

“The broad liberal arts background I received at Northwestern was so wonderful because it never boxed me in or confined me to a particular path. I really felt the sky’s the limit,” said art history major Megan Washburn ’05, the  executive director of public relations for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago.

Wide-ranging skills

Washburn was one of four speakers at the College’s Student-Alumni Engagement Program’s “Careers for Humanities Majors” panel in April.

Her fellow alumni echoed her sentiments, emphasizing the value of skills such as critical thinking, writing, interpersonal effectiveness and empathy in a world increasingly driven by STEM fields.

Bobbi Byrne ’89, a history-major-turned-physician-turned-hospital administrator, noted that her background gave her the tools to navigate the broad, unstructured responsibilities that now fill her workday as the chief medical and quality officer at Edward Elmhurst Healthcare.

“Companies need people who can be self-starters, who can figure it out and get the job done,” Byrne said, advising students to “worry less” and know that they are developing an agile, open mind that can navigate wide-ranging challenges.

Unexpected directions

Byrne’s advice, Michael Falk ’94 noted, was particularly valuable in light of the fact that one’s life will almost certainly veer from even the most carefully designed path. To wit, Falk, a philosophy major, is now a partner in the Chicago office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, where he practices in the areas of employee benefits and executive compensation.

“There will always be opportunities for multi-tooled, ‘human’ and present people who are willing to work hard,” Falk said, adding that the humanities illustrate that there are many different ways to reach a destination.

American studies graduate Tim Mulvey ’05, meanwhile, urged students to take advantage of the opportunity to immerse themselves in enriching material and lively discussion, even if their studies seem unrelated to future plans. He recalled without regret, for instance, taking a thought-provoking class on the films of Orson Welles rather than another political science course.

“Don’t worry about coloring inside the lines all the time,” said Mulvey, the Democratic communications director for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. “The humanities can provide an added level of discernment and help you develop the strong judgment skills invaluable in all walks of life.”

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