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Illustration by Danielle Sharpe/VOX ATL

Am I on the Right Track? Breaking Down the Pre-Professional Narrative

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“Are you pre-med? How about pre-business? Pre-law, by any chance? Oh, so you intend to be an engineer? …” 

“…None of them, huh? So, are you even pre-professional?”

I am a college student who doesn’t fit these commonly recognized tracks. Nonetheless, these statements are often used in passing, so much so that I began to expect this as the norm for conversations I overhear and am subjected to on and off campus whenever majors or careers come up. However, this is unfortunate as this limiting rhetoric leads to students only considering conventional paths, even with little knowledge of their area of pursuit. 

Even being asked, “What pre-professional track are you on,” can be off-putting for college students when the “pre” categories are typically only associated with the ones stated above. Thus, the context in which people use “pre-professional” is often convoluted. 

“Most college students will do one of four things: a job, grad school, post-grad service, or fellowship,” says Branden Grimmett, Vice Provost for Career & Professional Development, Director of the Pathways Center, and Associate Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences “Everyone has a future ahead of them, no matter their major or track. So, when I hear ‘pre-professionalism,’ I’m not sure who students are referring to, but I think they mean needing pre-work for a profession.”

He adds, “However, that is essential for any career path. Students need to try things out, learn what they do and don’t like to do, study hard, and find out what agency they have to prompt change, not just in their day-to-day lives but also in their choice of work.” 

Reimagining Preprofessionalism

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So, how do we reframe our mindset and approach when hearing the question, “So, what are you going to do with your life?” We must recognize how pre-professionalism can occur in many forms by actively reminding ourselves how diverse the working world is. There are thousands of jobs, some yet to be created. For instance, there was no social media manager in the 1990s because there was no such thing as social media. So, educators and students must work to promote innovation rather than solely remaining gung ho toward traditional roles within medicine, law, business, and engineering. So while students should also bring their creativity within these common focuses, educators must play a pivotal role in encouraging students to use their skills in lesser-recognized fields such as trades, arts, etc. However, this is a process that requires academic support and student motivation. One way to do this is by providing a liberal arts framework to foster student creativity and exploration.

Embracing the Liberal Arts

A liberal arts education equips students to “understand how an ambiguous world could be more clear,” says Grimmett. It emphasizes critical thinking, inclusion, teamwork, empathy, and communication. It also allows you to find the intersections between your interests and apply them toward career pursuits. For example, I loved watching investigative and true crime documentaries, photography, community work, and public health. At my college, I found a research lab focused on community violence prevention through photovoice and documentary creation among youth. Through this, I have been given opportunities to facilitate research within the Metro Atlanta area, have gained rich knowledge of ethics, and have been directly involved with intervention work. Such work would not be possible without the willingness and openness to incorporate a plethora of skill sets toward a common goal. These ideas hold in the broader workforce as the elements of an efficient workplace are not transactional. Most people in the business and law sectors, who need to build a team to make decisions, seek those with liberal arts skills who likely can make deep connections with people. They also seek those willing to take a risk, as “there’s not always intrinsic value in certainty,” asserts Grimmett. Although the world typically rewards certainty, we should embrace what’s uncertain and what comes our way as we navigate our academic and non-academic paths. 

Getting on the Right Track

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So now, to respond to the opening question, “So, what are you going to do with your life,” I’d like to leave you with five pieces of advice from Grimmett to apply as you seek to get on the right track:

  1. Remind yourself and those who question you that you are the career plan. The career you pick should be enjoyable and financially supportive to you. So as you explore possible career options, don’t let opinions on what you should do deter you from finding what may be most suitable without doing thorough research on the field.
  2. Remain curious and value that uncertainty leads to exploration. 
  3. Connect with people of both similar and dissimilar interests. Knowing your dislikes is as vital as your likes, so figure out what drives you and what doesn’t.
  4. Try out new things to discover what the world needs from you and what you can give the world. College is the safest space to try things out, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If it doesn’t work for you, you can try something almost immediately after that, and that’s a great benefit to have in college.
  5. When in doubt, begin. Don’t wait for one sole opportunity and allow others to pass you by. Instead, be ready to say yes to what comes your way and to work! 

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