A recent Op-Ed in Inside Higher Ed, “Advising Outside Our Experience,” led me back to a conversation with a friend regarding career choices and generalists. Like me, my friend works in technology and is a fiction writer. Unlike me, he’s an actual software developer, while I’m more of a librarian-hacker. However, we both found a common niche, not in writing elegant code, but in communication.
Being geeks, the background for our conversation was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, and the ill-advised multiclass character. I say ill-advised, because a multiclass character gains the abilities and limitations of both classes, but accrues the same amount of experience points as normal, making advancement in both classes much longer. For non-geeks, read class like career or job. It’s a blueprint for development that defines skills and abilities one may gain, along with some restrictions. In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, a wizard can’t wear armor, and in real-life, a baker (probably) can’t perform surgery. The key points though are development and abilities.
As a librarian-hacker, I’m not the best programmer and there’s a lot of details about technology I don’t know. As a writer and librarian who worked many service-oriented jobs, think libraries minus the hacking, I needed to effectively communicate with people. One tradeoff however was that my “writing career” took a serious backseat ever since grad school. I needed to make money and fiction writing didn’t seem to be the answer. Instead, I focused on libraries and technology. So what abilities and limitations do I have regarding technology and librarianship?
My greatest ability is being able to speak with programmers and system administrators, as well as users, which in my context are faculty, non-technical librarians, and grant partners from outside institutions. It doesn’t seem like a great skill. I’d love to be able to program in Ruby. But, it does seem like a skill that many employers need. For my friend, he’s found himself in a similar role translating between programmers, management, and clients. Furthermore, the ability to work on large-scale software packages has informed his novel writing. He’s able to imagine the many working parts and structure of a novel and set goals and benchmarks to stay on track.
With the idea that Americans will probably work multiple careers over their lifetime and less than a third of those may relate to what they studied in college, there may be more and more people with “multiclass careers.” It seems like alternative academics are an example of multiclass careers, but that movement doesn’t address undergraduates.
If you work in higher education, what are some challenges you envision for current students seeking jobs and how would you address them? Otherwise, if you’ve switched careers, how has the change helped or hindered your role in your organization?