Our Disdain for Professionalism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

One of the dirty secrets of Swarthmore is that we both stigmatize and undervalue the professional world. There is a certain disdain we hold towards those who come to college for not-so-idealistic reasons; coming to Swarthmore to increase your prospects of financial security, maybe even a six-figure income in the future, is not something you tell people here. And yet, according to the Swarthmore website’s most recent statistics, 23% of our graduates choose business careers right after college, and 46% of them go into for-profit jobs.

Last semester, Sam Wang ’18 and I took a trip to Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. Visiting Williamson made me realize just how far Swarthmore is from pre-professional. Yes, we have a great Career Services office that holds networking events and will help you craft a resume if you ask them. But that is a far cry from Williamson, which has mandatory resume and finance classes, two job fairs a year, and a strong emphasis on discipline, professionalism, and work ethic, factors which together mean that the only thing preventing you from getting a job at Williamson is an unwillingness to work.

For many in America, a good job is the end goal of college. “Success” looks very different from the Swarthmore rhetoric. By our metrics, it might be difficult to understand how a student at Williamson could ever feel as if they had “succeeded.” While I am sure there are some there who are passionate about woodworking and masonry, for others, it is a job. Not a passion. So is this success?

There is a notion among much of the faculty that to “instrumentalize” their study, or to teach it in such a way so as to orient it towards being useful for a future job, is selling out. We teach students as if they will become political scientists and biology professors rather than politicians and pharmacists. Multiple alumni have told me that their professors tend to judge them, sometimes quite openly, when they come back and tell them they have gone into the business world, or have become a lawyer.

In 2013, we alienated Robert Zoellick from campus in part because of his political affiliations, but also because he worked for Goldman Sachs and we associated him with all of the things we tend to hate about the corporate world. We proudly tell prospective students that we are noncompetitive, that 45% of our graduates go on to get PhDs, that we’re in it for the learning and the ideas. And for many of us, this is true.

We are extremely uncomfortable talking about money, both when we have a little of it, but I think even more so when we have, or want to have, a lot of it. This shows up in the way Swarthmore fundraises, in the way our website looks (at Swarthmore, we don’t “market,” we “share our story”), in the way we feel intensely awkward about trying to network, like we are being underhanded and dirty when we look for people who might help us land a job.

Perhaps none of these things is much of a problem on their own. But consider the fact that one of the aims of the college is to attract a greater socioeconomic diversity in its student body. This results in some cognitive dissonance. There are students here, and even more students yet to come who cannot afford to study a subject just because they love it. They need a “practical degree,” as we hate to call them. As much as we like to promote the life of the mind, learning something because we are passionate about it is an extreme luxury that not everyone can afford.

Though it is admirable to say we don’t care about our grades, other people care about grades and we know that. As I go through the process of applying to internships, I can’t help but be keenly aware of the fact that there is a little red asterisk next to all the “GPA” blanks. Though I may be able to say to myself that it “would be an A anywhere else,” you can’t really say that in an interview.

Academia is a wonderful career to pursue and I don’t want it to seem like I am knocking academia. But perhaps it is time we thought about how our orientation towards learning for learning’s sake, as unifying as we may find it, can also secretly be an alienating force. And this does a disservice to all of our students, not only to future career-seekers.

Image courtesy of Image Source/Vetta via Getty Images.


  1. Students who come to Swarthmore expecting that they will graduate as trained professionals should either transfer as soon as they can, or resign any idea of gleaning professional knowledge from only academia. When I came to Swarthmore as a freshman in 2012, I was certain that an academic path for me was okay, that I would go on to get a Masters and maybe even a PhD, and that that was okay. Going to a liberal arts school is not the place to learn about how to run a business, or how to be a professional. AT ALL. I mean, look at how the school itself deals with students who have business ambition: a story I heard last year was that students who wanted to start a small business on campus (selling milkshakes and smoothies) were told by the school that they could not do so on campus because the school “is a non-profit”. That’s no way to help students who want to do SOMETHING (as opposed to something academic, which I should say I love doing anyways and has value, of course).

    Maybe it’s because I’m a Junior and I’m in a place where I have to start thinking about what awaits after I graduate, but last semester I had this moment where I found myself thinking: what now? My education is priceless (well an average of 60k a year for people who aren’t aided, but really, who’s counting? …) in two ways: its value is immeasurable because I’m learning so much, but it’s also worthless (priceless as in has no price because cannot be sold as is) because on paper, it’s not teaching me how to run a business, let alone how to be a professional. I’m learning to be an academic, and I think (and hope) a better human being. It’s teaching me how to think and write critically, but it’s not teaching me how to succeed in the business world. Thankfully I’ve never had a professor frown when I say that, yes, I want to make money, yes, I want to be wealthy and yes, I want to work in a for-profit environment. There should be no shame to that. Our economy runs on for-profit. No one would be at Swarthmore if the concept of for-profit did not exist.

    But the idea that when I graduate I will hold a degree that says that I have two majors and nothing else kind of scares me. I’ve thankfully worked as a photographer and have been able to meet people who have given me a solid direction, but that’s it. Now I have to go to grad school for at least a Masters degree to hope to get a job, but that’s also a product of our economy and job market. Sometimes I do wish I had gone to a professional school, where I would get a professional diploma that would allow me to get a job straight out of college. But in 10 years, where would I be? Most adults I know who only have a BA or BS are going back to uni to get Masters. Because they have to. So even though above I’ve complained about what I perceive as the apparent pointlessness of the academic work that I’ve been doing (and this related to what kind of work I want to do later), I have to say that the work I’ve been doing at Swarthmore has prepared me very well for grad school. And I’ll probably go to a professional grad school as well, or at least go for a very specific degree. Swatties who want to go into government work for example (another field that no one talks about without being stigmatized I feel) have to realize that the hyper-liberal culture at Swarthmore works as long as we’re all students. When we’re out there and competing for jobs, no one’s going to be playing Mr Nice Guy anymore. As soon as we leave, it’s going to be an open fight to get those jobs. And with an education worth more than 200k, it’s stupid for anyone to tell you or judge you for what career you want to have. If you want to work at Wall Street, go for it. If you want to go into non-profit, go for it. If you want to work at the FBI, or the CIA, or the NSA, go for it. If you want to be a professor, go for it. And if anyone tells you at Swarthmore that you should seriously think about the “consequences of what this means for the current state of the country, while balancing heternomativity, the patriarchy, the socio-political state” and whatever else someone might say at Swat, just send them the price tag of Swarthmore College. You’ve paid for this education, and if you haven’t, you’ve earned it. You can do whatever the hell you want with it.

  2. This is one of many articles that could be written saying: ‘Let’s face the realities of our future lives in society’. The question is – do we like the society we have, or do we want to change it? It’s a matter of personal preference. I chose Swarthmore because I wanted to be in a place that accepted questioning the way our world works by default. As you say, there are lots of good colleges (liberal arts or otherwise) out there that prepare people for the professional world… why not just be one of them? Maybe because we didn’t choose to go to one of those schools. If Swat wasn’t advertised as is, this is more the fault of admissions marketing (surely a reflection of the larger business world! We market in a very similar way to other similar liberal arts colleges [like Haverford] with which our campus climate has little in common!) than of the college climate itself, which obviously pulls no punches about being non-careerist.

  3. There’s a great misconception that going non-profit automatically means doing good, and profit means doing something potentially immoral. Someone in public service who can achieve little due to bureaucratic inertia will ultimately do little for society. A profit-seeker who can revolutionize the way we live, e.g. Elon Musk, may ultimately achieve way more good than someone in a non-profit.

    At the end whether non-profit or profit-making is morally good depends on the person.

  4. Thank you for this article, Isabel. As someone from a working-class community, the idea that coming to college is more about career preparation than learning is a dominant one. It wasn’t one that I was keen on, which is why I chose a liberal arts college, but I didn’t truly know what “learning for learning’s sake” would look like or what it would mean for me after college. I thought that I could be pre-med (a secure professional career) AND learn for learning’s sake. Not that you can’t do that here, but it gets harder as the years go by, when you are constantly questioning what choices your career gives you straight out of college. I had never even thought about grad school before coming to Swat, but I quickly learned that that was the track that this type of education prepares you the best for. What you learn quickly is that the “career prep” does not come from Swat, but during the summer, in the form of internships and jobs outside of the college, and to make every single one of them count and that they reflect what you might want to do after college, and so on. On a final note, I will say that the cognitive dissonance was not something that I was expecting. It’s hard to come from a background that stresses career over intellectual exploration, but the life of the mind and the college-to-career path shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it is in this current climate.

  5. As an alum with a PhD (who loves my job, by the way)…let me tell you, the dichotomy between “love of learning” and “professionalism” is a false choice. Getting a PhD without any idea of how you’re going to use it is setting yourself up for unemployment. If you are seriously considering a PhD or MA, realize that these degrees are very specialized training, and that most people with PhDs do NOT become professors. Learn what people do with PhD degrees before you get one, and prepare yourself. Learn about the requirements for various types of jobs, and if you want to be a professor, learn about the application and tenure processes (I recommend http://theprofessorisin.com/)

    To be an academic or researcher with a paycheck, you need many of the same professional skills that you need for success in any career. You need to be able to follow instructions (after figuring out which instructions you actually need to follow), write clearly on a deadline (Swarthmore is good preparation for this), and keep going even when you are discouraged (ditto).

    If you just want a “life of the mind,” without any concern for a paycheck….you had better have a trust fund.

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