It took dropping out of grad school and uncovering some unexpected interests for Dane Ferry to see the value of her liberal arts degree

Dane Ferry

Author headshotI think it’s fair to say that 2020 was a difficult year for everyone, and we’re still recovering. I was wrapping up my second year with my first “real” job as a full-time operations associate with a start-up, which I began after graduating in 2018. But tragedy struck when the business disbanded. I was suddenly jobless, at the beginning of a pandemic, with seemingly little hope of finding another position.

Although being an operations associate was not exactly what I dreamed of doing as a child, it paid the bills and allowed me to pad my sparse resume with what I believed were “transferable” employment skills. Unfortunately, I was faced with the reality of having to move forward during a period where everything seemed stagnant.

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Even before the pandemic, I had considered that there might be some barriers to entry for someone with my education and vocational background. I’m a liberal arts major (political science and philosophy). I was always cautioned by educators and concerned family members that things might not be easy for a deeply introspective thinker in a technically driven, skills-based labour market. To be fair, I had no idea what I was getting myself into; I just liked the content.

I’ve had many jobs: hostess, avian research assistant, kitchen designer, museum tour guide and more. All of them interesting experiences, but seemingly not as appealing to prospective employers that offered respectable starting salaries and stable employment. I felt that I only had two options; commit to working in more specialized fields or go back to school to gain specialized knowledge. During the pandemic, the choice seemed easy. To avoid the responsibility of being an adult, I started grad school.

Pandemic post-graduate revival

In the fall of 2020, I entered a post-graduate paralegal program in hopes of pursuing that specialized knowledge. But like many others, I found the transition to online education challenging. Between tech trouble shooting and monotonous Zoom calls, something didn’t feel right.

I started to question my motive for entering the program in the first place. I assumed that pursuing a paralegal designation would allow me to enhance the skills I already had while retaining the ability to monetize them in a way that was recognized by most conventional employers. Note the absence of any real interest in paralegal work. Practically speaking, I didn’t really know if this career path suited me, but I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I felt like a jack of many trades but master of none.

One day, while job browsing, I stumbled upon an entry-level legal position within a “big four” law firm and decided to apply. Even though I wasn’t technically qualified, I interviewed well and soon received an offer, prompting me to withdraw from my program.

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The ability to practically engage in vocation-specific work before completing my education gave me valuable insight. I learned that I didn’t particularly like being a paralegal. I was overwhelmed by the long hours, repetitive tasks and what little fulfilment I received from my work. But instead of withdrawing from a stable job during a time of economic uncertainty, I attempted to pivot in a different direction as I’d uncovered some unexpected interests.

My previous operations experience gave me baseline knowledge of resource forecasting and quality assurance, which I enjoyed due to their unpredictable nature. Using this, I was able to convince my supervisors to allow me to take on some projects on the business operations side of the firm. Additionally, the company was very supportive of upskilling initiatives in the realm of technology and data. I took advantage of every free course, coding bootcamp and intercompany upskilling initiative to increase my knowledge.

Before I knew it, I had gone from filing court documents to designing databases that predicted labour trends; from not being able to find the restart function on my laptop to someone characterized as a “data-driven professional” by my supervisors. I felt so empowered knowing that I could do this all on my own and all I sacrificed was some time. But I was never limited to begin with, and when I applied myself, my employers recognized that.

Context is everything

I often used to make disparaging remarks about my education, how I’d spent thousands on a “useless” degree that no reasonable organization would recognize. But to really overcome the stereotypes myself and others had about my background, I had to learn how to market myself, as well as shift the narrative around education generally.

Universities and colleges were never intended to be job factories. They were designed to be institutions of education and personal development. After all, a well-formed person is a well-informed one. Possessing a general understanding of many subjects can bring context to whatever career path you happen to pursue. Context is the gift the humanities gave me. Without it, I could not employ critical thinking required to create tools, technologies and methodologies that make my work easier or objectively better.

In truth, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and that is okay. Learning what I like about different careers, studying what I enjoy and marketing myself well will likely serve me in the long run. Rather than simply disqualifying myself from opportunities based on a perceived lack of experience, I am better equipped to embrace the unknown. Going forward, I plan to transition out of my current role and obtain formal certification in analytics and project management, given how much I have enjoyed those fields so far. Although I have no idea what is to come, I sincerely look forward to the challenge.

Dane Ferry is a self-taught, data-driven professional who connects businesses to strategy solutions that will greatly improve their performance and outreach. At Western University, Ferry learned the importance of applying multidisciplinary approaches to research design from experts in the field. Ferry is also a proud dog mom and wildlife advocate who looks forward to continuing her education in pursuit of a project management role in the environmental non-profit sector in the future.