Students, Faculty Discuss Pursuing Arts After Graduation

Imposter phenomenon, often colloquially called imposter syndrome, is a formidable yet common beast. The term also constitutes a hilariously relevant piece of Oberlin trivia: clinical psychologist Pauline Rose Clance coined the term on our very own Midwestern campus in the 1970s. A popular point of discussion during Peer Advising Leaders workshops, imposter syndrome is often closely associated with that invasive feeling of inadequacy many experience during their first year at Oberlin — a kind of involuntary upchuck of self-consciousness ushered by that inevitable period of destabilization inherent to entering a new phase of life. And then, four years later, there’s the second wave: graduation begins to loom on the horizon, and while some students seem to know exactly what they’re doing, many don’t have a clue. Imposter syndrome begins to rear its ugly head anew, and for students pursuing careers in the arts, conceptualizing next steps may strike as a particularly elusive undertaking. After all, what does a degree in the arts really mean? At Oberlin, the professional roles exemplified in front of us are largely tethered to the world of academia. What are the implications for those of us hankering to take a step outside of the academic world, to try on a new hat when we’re not even exactly sure what’s in our wardrobe? This week, with the help of Professor of Medieval Art History and Chair of Art History Erik Inglis, I found that the answer may lie somewhere in the question. In order to approach this lightbulb moment, however, I set out to see how students debating careers in the arts view their paths in relation to the crowded and imminent professional world.

College fourth-year Dina Nouaime has long flirted with the idea of law school, but, for the time being, has moved this plan to the back burner. She now fosters a burgeoning attraction to fields that merge the arts and social justice work, and though she has engaged in a diverse array of internships that have set her on this track, she wishes the application process could be a bit more straightforward.

“I’ve had moments of being like, maybe I should be a professor, because that is what we see modeled before us,” Nouaime said “Aside from educational policy, if you’re talking about academic careers, that’s the only alternative to academia or maybe even administrator positions, but that’s less hands-on than the classroom. You know what’d be great, a quiz; so it’s like A, B, C, D — when I do art, it makes me feel this, or when I create art, I like to follow this process. This is how I like to share my art. And then you kind of click, click through the quiz, and hone some idealized list of potential career paths, you know, like ba ba bam: here’s what you’re gonna do. Kind of dystopian, but I’m for dystopia sometimes.”

Nouamie is right — a BuzzFeed- style quiz titled “What You Should Be When You Grow Up” would be a comfort for many of us. She likely won’t need that tool for a while, though — a day after our conversation, she was awarded Oberlin’s esteemed Shansi AAPI Experience Grant, and will be spending the first two years of her post-college life learning and working through the Shanxi Agricultural University.

College second-year Max Andrejco, much like Nouaime, is “less interested in the academia side of the road and more interested in the way art history can be applied to public humanities.”

He has found that two tools have proved particularly indispensable in locating vectors of his academic and professional path, as they stand today: the Winter Term practicum in museum education offered by the Allen Memorial Art Museum and the counsel of his professors.

“I don’t have a lot of experience in different departments, but just from my experience within the Art History and Studio Art departments, there is genuinely so much support,” Andrejco said. “I feel like especially in arts, where it’s like; well, what are you gonna do with your degree? Look at art and appreciate it? Everyone can do that. This is just me acting as a cog in the capitalist system or whatever, but I feel more confident that there is a job for me in the future and I will do something I enjoy a little bit at least and have a life outside of college, which is always a concern for people going to a tiny liberal arts school.”

One of the professors Andrejco has received support from in the past two years is Professor Inglis. Inglis is a huge proponent of the AMAM’s Winter Term practicum, which beyond facilitating hands-on experience in museum education work, helps students exercise a muscle fundamental to any application process: writing a good cover letter.

He recalled a moment in his own college career, wherein he asked his advisor to review a cover letter he had drafted for a job application and she replied simply: “This sucks.” Acording to him, this makes sense in retrospect: he “wrote a phone- book when the requirement was a sonnet.”

Inglis stressed that it is okay if next-step planning feels like alien terrain, and it’s more than okay to ask for help from professors and mentors. Above all, he encourages his students to just apply to things, to push past the spectral barrier of imposter syndrome and expand our views on what constitutes a suitable professional path for our field of study. After all, we spend 75 percent of our academic careers taking classes outside of our major. He provided the example of arts students pursuing positions related to performance; even if you have no theatrical experience, anything that looks worthwhile is worthwhile to apply for.

“There are hundreds of roles that make sense as a result of an art [history] education or an education in the arts more generally that we can’t model here,” Inglis said. “One of the ways I justify sending around an opening that I’m pretty sure no one on the list qualifies for yet, is it’s just a way of saying this exists. You know, this organization exists, it might be interesting for you to know about this kind of job. … Never take yourself out of the running; that’s the imposter syndrome. Never say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t get that, so I won’t apply.’ If it says PhD required, don’t apply when you’re graduating from Oberlin, but if it doesn’t say that … I just sent around this thing from performance, it says B.A. desired. You might think, ‘I don’t know much about performance, I’m not sure, but it’s really interesting.’ But never take yourself out — make the employer say no. You don’t have to be convinced you want something to apply for it. Just because you apply for it doesn’t mean you’ll get offered it; just because you’re offered it doesn’t mean you have to accept it.”

In my own experience, and those of many of my peers, the regular listserv that Inglis sends out — and has been sending out for over a decade — has proven one of the most useful tools for career exploration at Oberlin. These weekly emails disseminate a huge amount of information and career opportunities that Inglis amasses through resources such as The University of Delaware Museum Studies email list, the Art Institute of Chicago job list, and alumni word of mouth. Inglis also provided me with a resource list loaded with hyperlinks, and a metrics sheet tracking the professional roles and grad school foci frequented by Art History majors over the past decade — as may strike as obvious by now, these
roles comprise a huge, smattering variety.

“I would say, have a very broad definition — and recognize that others will have a very broad definition — of what’s relevant experience,” Inglis said. “Let’s say you’re an Art History major, but you wind up working with a theatrical organization; that might seem like a stretch, but the stuff you’re going to be doing there is going to be very, very relevant. I think it’s useful to be creative and open-minded when you’re looking at the first couple things you do after college. I think the other thing to recognize is that the first couple things you do after college are not destiny. That’s another thing that we don’t model particularly well here; most of the professionals you come in contact with may appear to have been dong what they’re doing for eternity. The report about what people do five and 10 years after [graduation] suggests a real kind of scattering, I think in a good way.”

It is impossible to distill the wealth of wisdom Inglis offered me over the course of our conversation, but there was something he said that I found particularly comforting: it’s normal to graduate without a clue about what’s next, and to be stressed out about this. If you’re on the side of a mountain, Inglis says, you shouldn’t feel bad about being stressed. We should feel comforted by the fact that we are not in this alone, and that so many of our predecessors have ended up in professional roles they could never have expected. It’s even okay to move to a city and figure out what to do in that city once you get there: trust in your own capacity (with the helpful leverage of your degree), and shoot your shot even when it seems like a stretch. As Inglis’ metrics prove, life has a tendency to surprise us.