The thing that turns a liberal arts education into a meaningful job

In search of meaning.
In search of meaning.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Clayton Spencer, the president of Bates College, a small liberal arts college in Maine, is unapologetic that careers do not arrive as neatly packaged gifts for students. Figuring out what kind of work to do after graduation requires exposing students to different kinds of work, and intentionally connecting what they learn in a classroom to what happens in the real world.

“If you get love and work right,” she said, paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, “you’ve sort of figured it all out.” Since 2013, Spencer has built a program of “purposeful work” at Bates, broadly defined as work that both has personal meaning and societal relevance, and embedded it into as many aspects of college life as possible.

Guest lecturers regularly visit classes, such as a doula or nurse practitioner visiting a psychology class. A five-week “short term” in May offers practitioner-taught courses, like digital marketing taught by a digital marketing consultant, or dancers teaching students about the business of working in the arts. Students shadow workers in various fields for a day, many of them Bates alumni. The college funds internships in fields that don’t pay, such as non-profits and the arts, for those who do not have the luxury of working for free.

It all sounds sensible. But does it work? Spencer decided to test her theory that happiness and fulfillment comes in large part from finding meaningful work. She commissioned a survey of college graduates to find out how important meaning was to their work, whether they had found it, and what undergraduate experiences helped most in shaping that meaning.

“This was scary,” she admitted over coffee recently. What if her gut was wrong and all of her efforts over the past five years misplaced?

Bates commissioned Gallup to survey a nationally representative sample of 2,205 college graduates, 637 hiring managers, and 1,037 parents of college students late last year.

Spencer’s hunch—and experience—proved accurate. A whopping 80% of college graduates said that it is very important or extremely important to derive a sense of purpose from their work. Less than half had succeeded in finding it. The report, released today, dubs this the “purpose gap.”

Colleges, Spencer argues, need to close this gap.

The secret is work itself

The key to helping students define and find meaningful work is simple: let them try out a range of jobs. Internships topped the list of experiences that students said helped them achieve purpose in work. In order, the following experiences had the strongest relationship to graduates achieving high levels of purpose in work:

  • Having an applied internship or job (56% agreed)
  • Having someone who encouraged a students’ goals and dreams (39% agreed)
  • Receiving realistic expectations for post-graduation employment prospects (23%)
  • Participating in a class/program that helped think about pursuing meaning in work (28%)

Employers, unsurprisingly, concurred. When asked what colleges should do to best prepare students for success at work, the top response was internships and on-the-job experience. These results are similar to another report, from Challenge Success, a nonprofit that is part of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, which identified six experiences that fulfilled employees had in college. Internships were among them.

Even though more millennials had on-the-job experience during college when compared with previous generations—63% of millennials versus 51-53% of Gen X and Baby Boomers— the surveys suggest this isn’t enough. In spite of higher participation rates, many graduates regretted not doing more. When asked what they would do differently as an undergrad to “pursue a path to purposeful work,” millennials were more likely than previous generations to say they should have taken part in a wider variety of internships and job shadowing.

Students also noted that colleges needed to improve the way they set expectations for life after school. It’s good to prepare kids to change the world, but it might help to mention that it might take time. According to one student quotes in the Bates/Gallup report:

“I had a lot of idealistic professors that really made me think that I was going to change the world kind of thing,” said one respondent. “That we all were. We were going to go out there and really be a great politician or a great lawyer and I think even though I did the co-op … you go back to that and it’s just kind of like it’s not the real world. You go out there and you’re just another person.”

A mere 23% of graduates strongly agreed that they were given realistic expectations for employment prospects when they graduated.

Who cares?

If this sounds a bit indulgent—finding a deep and purposeful meaning in work at age 22—the report argues it is not. People who like their work tend to perform better and be happier. The survey found, not surprisingly, that only 6% of those who have low levels of purpose in their work have high levels of overall wellbeing, compared with 59% of those with high purpose in work who have high wellbeing. Having purpose has been shown to contribute to “eudaimonia,” a kind of wellbeing defined by “relevance to a broader context, personal growth, excellence and authenticity, meaning relevance, personal growth, self-actualization and authenticity.”

In many ways, the recent spate of articles about millennial burnout suggest the problem is not enough meaning but too much: Many young adults assign excessive meaning to work, as well as too much time, resulting in a sort of epic, existential generational disappointment.

As Quartz’s Cassie Werber writes, “We’ve been trained to associate our work with our identities, and we seem unable to break free of unhealthy ways of working.” She argues that the search for meaning needs to be intrinsically, not extrinsically, defined: “Meaning isn’t something to be found, and it can’t be uncovered by heartfelt commitment, long hours, and self-sacrifice. Meaning is something we make.”

Spencer thinks colleges should care more about helping students manage all of this. The Bates/Gallup study shows graduates who can match their work and interests, values, and strengths are about three times more likely than others to experience high purpose in work.

This won’t be easy, as the average college graduate can expect to have more than 11 distinct jobs before the age of 50. That means colleges need to help students figure how to pinpoint what they want, and adapt as they go.

“If reliable career paths are no longer to be defined externally, the ability to sustain work over a lifetime will increasingly depend on individual agency,” according to the Bates/Gallup report. That means college shave to go beyond content knowledge and cognitive and interpersonal skills and help instill a “mindset of informed self-determination and adaptability.”

Spencer, obviously, sees great value in a liberal arts education. She also thinks that colleges could work harder to produce practical outcomes for graduates. She frequently quotes poet ee cummings, “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are”, and Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and myth, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

To develop courage and navigate the winding career paths of the future, a new set of tools, skills, and mindsets are needed.