Our economy’s in dire straits and college students have become increasingly panicked, wondering whether or not they’ll actually find a job post graduation. When applying for schools and choosing their major, they’ve started to think twice. Do they follow their passion, or do they go where the money is? And where is the money? What careers are even sustainable today?

Xconomy recently published a report in an attempt to break through the haze, asking one simple question: What should students be studying now to prepare for 10 years from now? 

During a chat with Xconomy founder Robert Buderi, who has one child in college and another on the way, he said, “Everywhere you go, you hear this grave concern. I see it in my own kids. People are worried; and a job isn’t something that comes to you anymore. You need to work for it.”

The Xconomy team posed this question to their network [read: an older audience], reaching out to the people they knew “it would resonate well with.” And while we’ll include some of the answers they received, we decided to reach out to our own network and ask the question ourselves, curious as to whether a younger audience — whether they be fresh out of college, going for their MBA, or newly into their thirties, still trying to figure things out — would have something different to say.

Like Xconomy, we said they could answer in as many or as few words as they’d like. All we wanted to hear from them was: What should students be studying now to prepare for 10 years from now? Here’s what we got:

From Colin Kennedy, Project Manager at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center

“Diversify your background. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, and have a business background, then start studying engineering. If you’ve got more of an engineering background, then brush up on your business skills. Every good school is starting to offer these skill sets to people, and you really need to have a handle on all of these facets. You’re going to need wear a lot of hats and focus on your versatility sooner if you’re going to want to get into entrepreneurship.”

From Kevin Miller, Literature Professor at Emerson College

“The whole principle of a liberal arts education, to which I’m committed, is somewhat antithetical to the idea of gaming the job zeitgeist; that’s both its greatest strength and its much-discussed weakness. A liberal arts education guarantees you almost nothing, job-wise, yet, engaged in properly, it gets you into the conversation for almost anything. Happily, in an information-based economy, the need for people with a broad understanding of the world, who can think both analytically and creatively, and who can write and speak with force, would seem to be on the rise rather than the decline. Creative writing and literature — what I teach — is, has been, and always will be, something one pursues despite the apparently dismal prospects, yet when I think about the futures of current BFA and MFA candidates, I see a lot about which I’m encouraged.

Chiefly, my optimism arises from the students themselves, because, overall, they’re remarkably savvy and sophisticated, including technologically. They seem to understand that the pace of change in society — and, most pertinent to them, in the publishing industry — is happening so rapidly and unpredictably that they have to be constantly reinventing themselves, learning new platforms, growing. Yeah, my department offers desktop publishing, magazine editing, etc. — career-useful courses — but the most exciting developments in that sphere have been some of the astonishingly professional publications that students have created entirely on their own. My colleagues and I provide guidance, context, foundation, but in some way it’s the students themselves leading the way to the future. Yes, let’s all sign up for Codeacademy (fantastic idea!); meanwhile, I’m confident in the long-term relevance of works of the imagination.”

From Andrew Rosenthal, MBA student at Harvard Business School and Co-founder of Startup Tribe

Rosenthal (Left) With The Startup Tribe

 

“For students currently in college, one of the most important skills to learn is how to understand other people — how to empathize. Universities are really good at teaching us facts and processes, and at helping make us experts in our own domain, be it English, international relations, finance or journalism.

All of us will be in situations where we have to work with and influence people coming from backgrounds very different than our own.  You could be in a sales job, right out of college, trying to get people to purchase your product or service.  Or maybe it’s leading a team in a professional services firm, four years after graduation. Ten years from now, you may be responsible for managing a movie production, or a factory merger. In all of these cases, no amount of textbook knowledge will get the job done. You have to understand where other people are coming from, what beliefs and concerns are driving their behavior and how they think about the outcome toward which you’re working.

What’s the best way to learn to empathize? Take classes that compare one system or worldview to another, like anthropology, or history.  Travel.  A lot.  To places that are really different.  And get out into Boston, either as a volunteer, or holding down a job or even doing research.  The more exposure we get outside of our own community, the better we can learn to understand, and work with, other people.”

From Dan Phillips, Director of the UMass Boston College of Management’s Entrepreneurship Center

“Internships! Students need to project who they want to be 10 years from now. Not just their profession and title, but the industry they want to be in, and the size and stage of the company they want to work for. And then identify companies that can provide them with experience that is closely aligned with their vision, and focus their time and energy toward getting an internship in one of these companies. Students have every right to change their vision over time, but start with your best educated guess on who you want to be and where you want to go, and let it evolve through real world experience. Get started with an internship.”

From CeCe Bazar, Recent Grad and Account Executive at Beacon Hill Staffing Group

“I wish there was a ‘Life Major,’ however, most universities do not offer courses in this discipline. That said, I think entrepreneurial courses are probably at the top of the list of what is going to be important in 10 years from now. Not everyone has to be an entrepreneur per say, but being innovative, a self starter and able to put a plan in o action is going to be beneficial down the line. That, and stellar email skills!”

From Birju Shah, MBA Student at MIT Sloan and Co-founder of SugarCrew

“I’m a physical product type of guy.  Future innovators can definitely study computer science or any programming language to incrementally innovate on the web or with software, but the real future and value is in materials.  Nanotechnology and material science have been, and will continue to be, the wave of the future.  They will jump the chasm of our current consumer electronics, teach us how to use our resources more efficiently and keep reinforcing the importance of the manufacturing industry.”

From Jeff Seibert, CEO at Crashlytics, Inc.

Jeff Seibert (Photo Courtesy of the Boston Business Journal)

“Students today should focus on one thing to prepare them for a decade from now: creativity. Year after year, the global business landscape becomes increasingly competitive and increasingly crowded. We’ve witnessed the commoditization of manufacturing and it’s clear to me that the commoditization of engineering is not far behind. What’s left? Design. The ability to, time-after-time, creatively arrive at unique, elegant solutions to problems will set apart the next generation of companies and entrepreneurs.”

From Brett van Zuiden, Undergraduate Student at MIT

“Technology changes quickly, people change slowly: students should be learning how to work with users, how to understand their needs and how to design solutions for those needs rather than learning about how to build product with the latest and greatest technology.

Innovation is the differentiator: as the populations of India and China become more educated and prosperous, proficiency in a skill will no longer be sufficient. It’s not enough to be able to build something to an existing specification; students need to learn how to provide value by coming up with new solutions or new approaches that will distinguish them from counterparts overseas.”

And here are some of the answers Xconomy received. 

From John Seely Brown, Visiting Scholar at USC and Former Chief Scientist at Xerox

“My pat answer is mathematics (the universal language), biology (in order to master non-linear, dynamic thinking especially related to complex systems and ecosystemic issues), and Chinese (since in 10 years Chinese will be even more important than it is today in both the commercial and scientific domains). But let’s peek around the corner. Both design and the arts are going to become increasingly important. Why? First we must crack the problems of our lives being flooded by junk. We need to better understand the design ethos of ‘elegant minimalism’ and then we need to master the art of the sketch where hand and mind merge to expand our imagination.”

From Robert Langer, Engineering Professor at MIT

“I believe the opportunities offered by the convergence between biology, medicine, and engineering are rapidly increasing. Thus, courses and research at this interface may be increasingly attractive.”

From Len Schlesinger, President of Babson College

Len Schlesinger (Photo Courtesy of Business Innovation Factory)

“I recently came across an article in Cell Science [in which] Martin A. Schwartz, of the University of Virginia Department of Microbiology, wrote that…‘the more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries’…Whatever their interests, students should find a place to study that helps young people acknowledge their “productive stupidity” and use it as a base for engaging in problem-solving and discovery. Their studies should combine the best of predictive logic—rooted in the scientific method—with a complementary logic that starts with action and is punctuated by reflection, learning, and more action.”

When on the phone with Buderi, I asked him to answer his own question, and his response, honestly, surprised me. “What I do tell my kids is that it doesn’t really matter, because whatever you’re going to do doesn’t exist now.” Buderi said he believes more in the Steve Jobs’s approach of following your passion, because those “who are self-starters and can find that motivation in themselves, they’ll be much easier to adapt to the world that’s changing at this rapid pace.”

And, I couldn’t agree more. I can, essentially, sum up a majority of Xconomy’s responses into one acronym: STEM. While, yes, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are important components of an education, they shouldn’t be the only components of an education. Sure, you can code, but can you start a business? Sure, you can analyze data, but do you know how to communicate what it is you’ve discovered?

At this point, a liberal arts education is the best education you can get. It forces you to think critically and, as Kennedy alluded to earlier, “wear many hats.” Because the world is, indeed, rapidly changing, a liberal arts education gives you that diverse background that will allow you to adapt. I don’t know how many people poked fun at me for going to an arts and communication school, telling me in May I wouldn’t find a job post graduation. Well, hey — I’m writing this post on this site, aren’t I? Looks like following my passion, and taking a random “Culture and Power” class, alongside a course called “Art? History?” didn’t do me half bad.