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The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

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I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

The “dream job” revisited

I wasn’t one of those kids who from an absurdly early age knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was convinced at 10 that I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved my cat Marmalade. Then, after performing in a dozen or so plays in middle school, I changed my mind: I wanted to be a Broadway actress. After choir took over my life in high school, I decided I’d probably become a professional choral singer.

Then, finally, college started, and after two terms I arrived at what I thought was my final career destination: newspaper journalism.

It’s a commonly held belief that college is the place where people discover their true selves and find the things they’re passionate about. I believed that to be true, and so I believed my discovery of journalism was the be-all end-all: that was it. I’d found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Now, after a month of Seattle-area job searching in the midst of an economy that’s forced millions of laid-off workers to reinvent themselves, I see clearly that my “dream job” could appear in a myriad of different forms.

There are very few reporter vacancies at Puget Sound newspapers, and among the hundreds of applications for each and every vacancy are likely a few former Post-Intelligencer reporters. That fact forced me to expand my job-searching horizons beyond, and I’m glad it did. I found an open position for a study abroad advisor at the University of Washington, a call for marketing workers at the Seattle Art Museum and a vacant spot for a government grant writer at the Seattle Symphony. All these jobs eased the frustration I’d felt applying for job after job in the reporting field and renewed my excitement for the unknown future. They may not have been journalism jobs, but they all involved writing and incorporated other passions I have–passions for travel, art, academia and music.

The fact that there are so many potential “dream jobs” out there makes me feel better about my uncertain future in this unforgiving economy. It expands the possibilities, increasing my chances of finding a job I actually enjoy. I’ve realized that in the end, it’s not about finding a journalism job–it’s about finding a job that makes me feel inspired, content and valuable to society.