Unlocking knowledge

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  January 12, 2011

Roskam saw this in effect at Harvard. "Having not seen a job market this poor in 20 years, there was very little advice my advisors could offer me with respect to the job search," he says. "To them, you'll graduate, and there will be a job for you."

Needless to say, it's not the case anymore. The question of how to fix it remains.

"To me, the answer is not to create more jobs," Kamenetz says, "but to figure out how to create systems that are constantly connected to the job market and to innovation so we don't have this sort of mismatch."

Roskam mentions a friend who went straight from college to graduate school for her PhD. He was there when she realized, at age 30, that she'd been in school since age five. "She didn't know anything else," he says. "For kids who are operating at high levels, a PhD is almost assumed. It's inevitable. The flipside is, when they're almost done, they don't know what the alternatives are." At age 30, it becomes a little more complicated to take that year or two to go about finding yourself.

"The learning models I'm talking about," Kamenetz argues, "are active, connected to communities, not a person stuck studying something for seven years only to find out it's only relevant to the 12 people on the dissertation committee."

Roskam spent four years in between college and graduate school, working for Vermont senator Patrick Leahy in Washington, doing environmental work with the Nature Conservancy in its Asia Pacific Region office, and traveling extensively, before starting at Harvard. These experiences "helped remind me that I was making a proactive choice about graduate school," he says. "I knew what the alternatives were, and I was choosing academia."

As a result, Roskam is cautious when recommending graduate school to others. He urges students to work after college, to see what's out there. "Students should be made aware, earlier, just how difficult it is to get a job. I had absolutely no concept of the job market or what it took to get hired," he says. "And I didn't know anyone who could offer advice on that."

Outside the classroom
Some universities have long embraced the idea that education can — and should — take place outside the classroom, that you'll learn as much (or more) from a work experience than you will in a lecture hall.

Lucy Hackett, a 21-year-old psychology major, has a semester and a half left at Northeastern, a university known for its co-op system, in which students alternate between academic study and full-time employment.

Hackett, who'd transferred to Northeastern from Marist College in New York after an under-challenging and "disappointing" freshman year, just started her second co-op, working in the special education department of a Dorchester public school.

Her first co-op, working at a school in Newton, "shined a light on what I wanted to do," she explains. It allowed for "this huge epiphany — that I wanted to go into teaching." She chose Northeastern for precisely these sorts of opportunities. "It's been huge," she says. "It's been life-changing, career-changing."

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