Why is Art History often used to exemplify the ultimate &#39

Why is Art History often used to exemplify the ultimate &#39

Florence and the Historian

Where the arts, crafts, and philosophy collide

On studying Art History (a useless degree?)

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As I was waking up this morning and doing my usual ritual of checking email/Facebook/Wordpress/Dragonvale, I came across a blog (which I will not link here) that featured an article from bestdegreeprograms.org. This article listed Art History as one of the “10 Degrees Hiring Managers Don’t Want to See: The College Majors That Won’t Get You an Interview.” The following degrees were also included: architecture, Latin, music therapy, theology, English literature, American studies, puppetry (wtf, that’s a degree?), and poetry. Here is a link to the article, which also referenced Rutgers, Georgetown, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as sources contributing to the study.

Oh Donald, say it isn’t so!

Alright, so in other words, this isn’t some BS speculation that someone made up. There is actual data to back up the fact that these degrees make it difficult to find a job in an already competitive market. But this article also said that having a degree in Art History only qualifies you for one job: being a museum curator. It goes on to say that it is much more beneficial to have a degree in design, as that would give you a more valuable skill set. As soon as I read the word “curator,” I said to myself, “Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t do much digging into the actual field of Art History.”

Pablo Picasso, “The Dream” (1932)
(Image from pablopicasso.org )

There is no denying that Art History is a difficult degree to work with if you don’t have another valuable skill set– or another degree– to bolster it. It’s not like Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” when he said that he majored in Art History because “It’s reputable!” (though I don’t recommend going into the hitman business to give you an edge). You have to know that you want to work in the art world, especially if you’re majoring in AH as an undergrad, and you should be prepared to go on to at least the Master’s degree level. Bestdegreeprograms.org seems to be geared towards prospective college students, and implying that getting a Bachelor’s in AH is enough to be a curator is absolute crap: most curators have a Ph.D, though the trend seems to be turning more towards needing a minimum of a Master’s degree. A Master’s degree is two years; a Ph.D takes at least 6 years nowadays, programs are incredibly competitive, and finding a job no easy task (then again, is it easy anywhere?). Curatorial assistants typically have MA’s, though there was a time not too long ago that you only needed a BA for that.

Being a curator isn’t the only option available to people with AH degrees. If this article had been accurate about how curators need more than a BA, it would have also said that teaching would also be a career to consider. If you want to teach at the university level, you almost certainly need a Ph.D (not to mention years of post-doctoral research, and you have to regularly publish if you want tenure), though art and design schools who employ art history faculty aren’t always so strict on that. Community college teaching usually only requires an MA.

Simon Vouet, “St. Jerome and the Angel” (1625)
(Image from Back to Classics )

As far as other careers in AH, yes, the bulk of them are in museums. For registration, collections management, and education, to name a few, it’s a good idea to get some experience outside of the bookish confines of Art History. There are schools that offer a dual degree program in AH and Museum Studies– my school offers a certificate program in Museum Studies and will couple nicely with my MA (I hope)– or some people simply get two separate MA degrees. It’s a good idea to get an MBA if you want to go into Development or work in some sort of directorial capacity. It’s also good to have a degree in Communications if you want to work in PR. Art History is a good gateway into conservation, but you will DEFINITELY need to get an MA specifically in Art Conservation if you want to have any sort of career in it. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can own a gallery and have an edge with your AH knowledge.

Believe it or not, there are even more careers outside of museums (well, “outside” in a rather literal interpretation of the word, since most of the time you’re still involved with museums in some capacity). There’s art shipping– where it definitely helps to have a background in studio art, art history, and/or museum studies– as well as art appraisal, auction houses, and private collections management and registration in which one works for an actual collector.

For all of the aforementioned careers, one has GOT to get some additional experience– internships, volunteering, anything. For me, my extraordinarily obscure Bachelor’s degree (Pre-Art Conservation) and related work ended up being crucial in helping me find all sorts of work. Having experience in conservation means that one is good with their hands, has a sharp eye, and is not afraid of getting dirty. I also got to know a lot of really great people who were vital in helping me get a foot in the door, which then gave me room to grow. For a more complete story on my decision to major in AH, check out my page, Art History-ing .

The moral of the story here is: if you are only majoring in Art History because you can’t think of anything better to do or you think it’s “classy,” then yes, you are going to have a hell of a time finding a job. But if you take it seriously and work hard, then you can have a fulfilling career in the arts. So dream big, because Art History isn’t really the most useless degree you can have!

Follow-up: If you would like to learn more about what it is like actually studying Art History and a critique on working in the arts, please check out my post Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously- is it a useless degree??).

“I never went to MIT. Notre Dame. Art history major.” “…Art?” “History! It’s reputable.”

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  • Posted by stefla in Art History , Museums
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6 thoughts on “On studying Art History (a useless degree?)

  1. Gah! This is something I am SO passionate about! My degree is in art, not art history, but I plan to continue with a masters in art history. While paying the bills is certainly important, and working in your field is a major plus, we need to rethink our concept of education. What does it mean to be educated? I have known countless people with great jobs and degrees who are not “educated.” Education, in the classical (and correct, I believe!) sense is about a pursuit of knowledge, not a job. Studying the “useless” subjects like English, history, philosophy, art history, etc. gives you a broader understanding of humanity, stretches your soul, and absolutely benefits you no matter how you actually bring home the bacon.

    Reply
    • I couldn’t agree more. We unfortunately live in a society where we are made to believe that money is the only thing that matters, and consequently, many end up in soul-sucking cubicle jobs that promise to pay well. It’s so unfortunate how prominent this has become in our society, and one could argue that money is contributing to our intellectual downfall (not to mention the disappearance of humanism, since everyone is so busy making money for themselves and not caring about those in need). But I digress. I’m glad you liked my post, and good luck in your Art History pursuits!

      Reply
  2. Such a good look into these sorts of degrees and the job outlook. I hear many things about my degrees in Historic Preservation and Museum Studies that fall into a similar vein. A lot of “so you are going to be a curator” questions.

    I can only stress your point of getting additional experience. So many job listings want an MA plus 2 years of experience, and experience is definitely provides a leg up on the jobs that are out there, and they are out there.

    Thanks for a great read!

    Reply
    • And thank you for reading! I just love your educational background! I can’t believe that people ask if you’re going to be a curator a lot, since both of your degrees (to me) are more practical and hands-on than Art History. People just stare at me when I say I’m getting my Master’s in AH, and one not-so-bright fellow even said, “You can get a Master’s degree in that??” Experience is definitely key, and I know that I had to learn to take whatever I could, even if it was unpaid or less than pleasant. It all ended up working out well.

      Reply
      • I think a lot of the questions stem from people just not knowing what a particular degree can lead to. After I get the curator question I say no, I’m not limited to that, I could go into collections care, museum education, or even run the museum if I chose to do so. It’s the same with those who ask about my preservation degree because many think of either saving really important buildings or limiting the paint colors on one’s old house.

  3. We have exiled beauty replacing her with profit. The day we say that art or history is useless then we have degenerated into animals.

    Reply

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Florence and the Historian

Where the arts, crafts, and philosophy collide

Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

  • 1 Comment

It appears that the most popular post on this blog is On studying Art History (a useless degree?) . In fact, one of the most common search terms I get is some derivative of “Is an art history degree useless?” Unsurprisingly, I saw a pronounced spike in this type of search around college application time. My previous post discussed what one can do with an Art History degree at a rather broad level, as I am sure that there are other things one can do with such a degree that I haven’t thought of. However, I did get one search phrase once– “is studying art history hard”– that I would like to delve into a bit more, as well as more real world analysis of what it is like to study and work in the arts.

Brilliant man, Einstein.

Let’s start with the inspiring question of “Is studying Art History hard?” Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but so are most areas of study. Everything requires work whether you are good at it or not, and what it really comes down to is if you care about it. Things can seem especially difficult if your mind does not operate along the lines dictated by your chosen discipline. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

For Art History, there are different skills that one needs to acquire and cultivate, including (but not limited to): memorization, which is necessary pretty much anywhere but in terms of Art History means remembering scholars’ arguments, specific artworks, events, dates, etc; analysis, or being able to look at an artwork and scrutinize how it is made, what it means, and so on; critical thinking, which is tied to analysis and basically means reading between the lines and questioning an argument or artwork; efficient communication, both in terms of writing and speaking so that one can make an effective argument. When I started grad school, I had spent most of my academic and professional careers thinking in more practical terms (and I mean practical in the “practice” sense of the word): in art conservation and collections management, there are set ways in which one handles or takes care of an object, like not touching an antique silver teapot with your bare hands. Granted, many rules in the various academic disciplines are made to be questioned, as questioning and reformulating ideas are what drives knowledge forward (and since conservation is a very scientific field, it is as open to evolving ideas as chemistry is). However, unless someone develops a better glove than nitrile, I doubt that anyone will be changing how they handle silver any time soon.

Art History, on the other hand, is all about challenging and reinventing ideas because it is a very abstract area of study where things are almost always open to interpretation. For example, Surrealism is acknowledged to be a chauvinistic movement that relegated women to the roles of muses or artistic echoes of their male counterparts (Kay Sage loved Yves Tanguy, and it has been argued that her style was influenced by his, which some have counterargued is a reductive claim because it puts her in a secondary, almost copy-cat role); however, in the 1980s, scholars like Mary Ann Caws and Whitney Chadwick began to apply feminist concepts to Surrealism and argued that its focus on the psyche allowed women artists to explore their identities and develop as artists more than ever before. Chadwick even argued that Surrealism was a precursor to feminism, an idea that would have been completely outlandish before the 80s. But I digress– I have Surrealism on the brain because of my thesis.

Karen Zgoda’s classic “Grad Student Barbie” ( Source )

From my personal experience, I will say that studying Art History at the Master’s degree level was definitely a challenge for me because my mind did not operate along such abstract lines (I was also insanely busy because I worked my way through grad school at a regular job and could not dedicate as much time to my studies like an ideal grad student should). I had studied Art History in college, but I did not question much and took almost everything at face value while still managing to maintain an A average. Part of me wants to blame the American education system for that because of standardized testing– CSAP was instigated when I was in 4th grade, if I remember correctly– which demands memorization instead of critical thinking and is now being roundly abused for putting America at 17th place in world rankings . However, I could also say that I just have a more practically based mind and my intelligence is rooted in procedural memory, hence my love of crochet. Nevertheless, I managed to train my mind to think differently during my time in grad school, so even though it was especially hard at first, I eventually managed to succeed. Grad school is a challenge no matter what because it is designed to test you and make you question what you think you know. Many grad students complain about the work load, stress or their demanding advisors, and while I will not deny that all of that is true to some extent, it’s all part of the game.

Now let’s move on to talking about a real world application of Art History of which I can also speak from personal experience. As I discussed in my original post, there are a variety of jobs out there for which a degree in Art History is directly related, but one must know that they want to work in the arts and must get as much professional experience possible. I spent years doing internships, volunteering, and working contract positions in museums and galleries before I landed a full-time job. When I was about 16, I began believing that working in the arts was what I wanted to do, first as an art conservator; at 23– and after 2 years of rejections from art conservation schools– decided that I wanted to work as a registrar or collections manager in an art museum. I have had a passion for art my entire life, and my dad in particular had always encouraged me to do something I love rather than something I hate just for the money. I will say that Art History has given me many skills that I am glad to now have, especially critical thinking, research, and argumentation. These are good skills to have in many work environments, though it would be more beneficial to get an MBA rather than an MA in Art History if you want to make an effective argument in, say, a corporate setting. Still, the fact is that I love art, I love caring for it, and I find great joy in knowing that I am a protector of history ( as crappy as some of it may be ).

However, for a long time, I could not comprehend the realities of my teenaged decision to work in the arts. I was following the dream to do something I love, and that was all that mattered. I am now 26, and let me be blunt: working with a two art-related degrees is a bitch. I have found work– and again, I absolutely love caring for art– but I have had to resign myself to the fact that I am likely going to live a very modest lifestyle. At 16 years old, working at a dry cleaners 12-16 hours a week for $6.50 an hour, a salary as low as $24,000 a year sounded awesome because I had no concept of living in the real world. Furthermore, my degrees are so specialized– especially my BFA in Pre-Art Conservation– that I am going to have a hard time ever getting out of the arts should I decide that I want to do something else all together. Sadly, I am hardly an exception to the rule: almost everyone I know who works in the arts or in museums gripes about the high expectations and low pay; the amount of education we’re expected to get and the accompanying debt; the questionable job security (when the economy tanks, the arts and cultural sector tanks harder); and the lack of equivalent respect to other professions, particularly in comparison to business.

The decision to follow a certain career path ultimately comes down to one thing: whether or not you care about what you do. Caring about something and liking it do not always go hand in hand, and if you begin to dislike what you do to an extreme degree, you will likely eventually stop caring about it and become all around miserable. I often reflect on my current path and think about how I would have done things differently, as I frequently feel quite disgruntled about my grad school stress levels and future job outlook. Ultimately, I probably would have stayed the course I originally took because I cannot imagine doing anything else; however, I may have done a Bachelor’s degree in Art History with a minor in Business, then done my Master’s degree in Museum Studies. I wish I could be a lawyer, but I simply do not have the personality for it (although according to this fascinating article from the New York Times, lawyer prospects aren’t so shiny anymore because one will likely graduate with an average of $125,000 in debt and a 50/50 chance of getting a job). My dream job would be as a professional craftsperson, making hats and birdhouses and whatever the hell else catches my fancy, but I find that I need the personal and financial security of having a regular job.

Dumbledore and Voldemort, battling on.
( Source )

Is a degree in Art History useless? No, but be confident that you love it and prepared for the possible outcomes, like working in a niche market and a middle class lifestyle (as much as I would like to go off on a rant about the broken higher education system and lack of equal pay for equal work , I’ll save that for better writers than me). Is Art History hard? Yes, but again, so is everything that requires work. My best piece of advice is to think about what you value in life, which can unfortunately be hard when one is a teenager. I honestly think that it can be a good thing to take a little break between high school and college to get some perspective and real-world experience. If I had done that, maybe things would have turned out differently. However, there is no point in regret. As Albus Dumbledore would say, we must “battle on.”

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  • Posted by stefla in Art History , Museums
  • Tagged: #WPLongform , Academia , Career , College , Grad school , Opinion

One thought on “Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

  1. I really appreciate your practical and honest perspective! I have a BA in English and an MA in the History of Art. (“working with two art-related degrees is a bitch”!) Trying to get my second (or is it third?) career going as a freelance editor, which feels right. Probably what I should have been doing all along – I just didn’t know it. I don’t regret those degrees for a second, but they’re not going to get me a job all on their own. It seems to me that networking, that is, who you know, can take you a long way, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. I’m finding that people are almost always kind and want to help if they can, and that you never know where things will lead. I’m not a huge Joan Rivers fan, but I love this quote by her: “You go through any door that opens. In the beginning, you go through the doors. You don’t know which is going to be the one.” Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

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Recent Posts

  • Rediscovering my love of art through Vincent van Gogh
  • … And I’m still ambivalent to contemporary art
  • Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)
  • Back in the crafty saddle again (sort of)
  • How the Disintegration of Naples’ Cultural Heritage Affects You

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  • Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

  • Essay review: No More Play by Rosalind Krauss

  • Book review: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

  • Book review: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick

  • Essay review: Speaking with a Forked Tongue: Male Discourse in Female Surrealism? by Robert J. Belton

  • On studying Art History (a useless degree?)

  • Essay review: Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression by Benjamin Buchloh

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Florence and the Historian

Where the arts, crafts, and philosophy collide

Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

  • 1 Comment

It appears that the most popular post on this blog is On studying Art History (a useless degree?) . In fact, one of the most common search terms I get is some derivative of “Is an art history degree useless?” Unsurprisingly, I saw a pronounced spike in this type of search around college application time. My previous post discussed what one can do with an Art History degree at a rather broad level, as I am sure that there are other things one can do with such a degree that I haven’t thought of. However, I did get one search phrase once– “is studying art history hard”– that I would like to delve into a bit more, as well as more real world analysis of what it is like to study and work in the arts.

Brilliant man, Einstein.

Let’s start with the inspiring question of “Is studying Art History hard?” Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but so are most areas of study. Everything requires work whether you are good at it or not, and what it really comes down to is if you care about it. Things can seem especially difficult if your mind does not operate along the lines dictated by your chosen discipline. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

For Art History, there are different skills that one needs to acquire and cultivate, including (but not limited to): memorization, which is necessary pretty much anywhere but in terms of Art History means remembering scholars’ arguments, specific artworks, events, dates, etc; analysis, or being able to look at an artwork and scrutinize how it is made, what it means, and so on; critical thinking, which is tied to analysis and basically means reading between the lines and questioning an argument or artwork; efficient communication, both in terms of writing and speaking so that one can make an effective argument. When I started grad school, I had spent most of my academic and professional careers thinking in more practical terms (and I mean practical in the “practice” sense of the word): in art conservation and collections management, there are set ways in which one handles or takes care of an object, like not touching an antique silver teapot with your bare hands. Granted, many rules in the various academic disciplines are made to be questioned, as questioning and reformulating ideas are what drives knowledge forward (and since conservation is a very scientific field, it is as open to evolving ideas as chemistry is). However, unless someone develops a better glove than nitrile, I doubt that anyone will be changing how they handle silver any time soon.

Art History, on the other hand, is all about challenging and reinventing ideas because it is a very abstract area of study where things are almost always open to interpretation. For example, Surrealism is acknowledged to be a chauvinistic movement that relegated women to the roles of muses or artistic echoes of their male counterparts (Kay Sage loved Yves Tanguy, and it has been argued that her style was influenced by his, which some have counterargued is a reductive claim because it puts her in a secondary, almost copy-cat role); however, in the 1980s, scholars like Mary Ann Caws and Whitney Chadwick began to apply feminist concepts to Surrealism and argued that its focus on the psyche allowed women artists to explore their identities and develop as artists more than ever before. Chadwick even argued that Surrealism was a precursor to feminism, an idea that would have been completely outlandish before the 80s. But I digress– I have Surrealism on the brain because of my thesis.

Karen Zgoda’s classic “Grad Student Barbie” ( Source )

From my personal experience, I will say that studying Art History at the Master’s degree level was definitely a challenge for me because my mind did not operate along such abstract lines (I was also insanely busy because I worked my way through grad school at a regular job and could not dedicate as much time to my studies like an ideal grad student should). I had studied Art History in college, but I did not question much and took almost everything at face value while still managing to maintain an A average. Part of me wants to blame the American education system for that because of standardized testing– CSAP was instigated when I was in 4th grade, if I remember correctly– which demands memorization instead of critical thinking and is now being roundly abused for putting America at 17th place in world rankings . However, I could also say that I just have a more practically based mind and my intelligence is rooted in procedural memory, hence my love of crochet. Nevertheless, I managed to train my mind to think differently during my time in grad school, so even though it was especially hard at first, I eventually managed to succeed. Grad school is a challenge no matter what because it is designed to test you and make you question what you think you know. Many grad students complain about the work load, stress or their demanding advisors, and while I will not deny that all of that is true to some extent, it’s all part of the game.

Now let’s move on to talking about a real world application of Art History of which I can also speak from personal experience. As I discussed in my original post, there are a variety of jobs out there for which a degree in Art History is directly related, but one must know that they want to work in the arts and must get as much professional experience possible. I spent years doing internships, volunteering, and working contract positions in museums and galleries before I landed a full-time job. When I was about 16, I began believing that working in the arts was what I wanted to do, first as an art conservator; at 23– and after 2 years of rejections from art conservation schools– decided that I wanted to work as a registrar or collections manager in an art museum. I have had a passion for art my entire life, and my dad in particular had always encouraged me to do something I love rather than something I hate just for the money. I will say that Art History has given me many skills that I am glad to now have, especially critical thinking, research, and argumentation. These are good skills to have in many work environments, though it would be more beneficial to get an MBA rather than an MA in Art History if you want to make an effective argument in, say, a corporate setting. Still, the fact is that I love art, I love caring for it, and I find great joy in knowing that I am a protector of history ( as crappy as some of it may be ).

However, for a long time, I could not comprehend the realities of my teenaged decision to work in the arts. I was following the dream to do something I love, and that was all that mattered. I am now 26, and let me be blunt: working with a two art-related degrees is a bitch. I have found work– and again, I absolutely love caring for art– but I have had to resign myself to the fact that I am likely going to live a very modest lifestyle. At 16 years old, working at a dry cleaners 12-16 hours a week for $6.50 an hour, a salary as low as $24,000 a year sounded awesome because I had no concept of living in the real world. Furthermore, my degrees are so specialized– especially my BFA in Pre-Art Conservation– that I am going to have a hard time ever getting out of the arts should I decide that I want to do something else all together. Sadly, I am hardly an exception to the rule: almost everyone I know who works in the arts or in museums gripes about the high expectations and low pay; the amount of education we’re expected to get and the accompanying debt; the questionable job security (when the economy tanks, the arts and cultural sector tanks harder); and the lack of equivalent respect to other professions, particularly in comparison to business.

The decision to follow a certain career path ultimately comes down to one thing: whether or not you care about what you do. Caring about something and liking it do not always go hand in hand, and if you begin to dislike what you do to an extreme degree, you will likely eventually stop caring about it and become all around miserable. I often reflect on my current path and think about how I would have done things differently, as I frequently feel quite disgruntled about my grad school stress levels and future job outlook. Ultimately, I probably would have stayed the course I originally took because I cannot imagine doing anything else; however, I may have done a Bachelor’s degree in Art History with a minor in Business, then done my Master’s degree in Museum Studies. I wish I could be a lawyer, but I simply do not have the personality for it (although according to this fascinating article from the New York Times, lawyer prospects aren’t so shiny anymore because one will likely graduate with an average of $125,000 in debt and a 50/50 chance of getting a job). My dream job would be as a professional craftsperson, making hats and birdhouses and whatever the hell else catches my fancy, but I find that I need the personal and financial security of having a regular job.

Dumbledore and Voldemort, battling on.
( Source )

Is a degree in Art History useless? No, but be confident that you love it and prepared for the possible outcomes, like working in a niche market and a middle class lifestyle (as much as I would like to go off on a rant about the broken higher education system and lack of equal pay for equal work , I’ll save that for better writers than me). Is Art History hard? Yes, but again, so is everything that requires work. My best piece of advice is to think about what you value in life, which can unfortunately be hard when one is a teenager. I honestly think that it can be a good thing to take a little break between high school and college to get some perspective and real-world experience. If I had done that, maybe things would have turned out differently. However, there is no point in regret. As Albus Dumbledore would say, we must “battle on.”

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  • Posted by stefla in Art History , Museums
  • Tagged: #WPLongform , Academia , Career , College , Grad school , Opinion

One thought on “Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

  1. I really appreciate your practical and honest perspective! I have a BA in English and an MA in the History of Art. (“working with two art-related degrees is a bitch”!) Trying to get my second (or is it third?) career going as a freelance editor, which feels right. Probably what I should have been doing all along – I just didn’t know it. I don’t regret those degrees for a second, but they’re not going to get me a job all on their own. It seems to me that networking, that is, who you know, can take you a long way, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. I’m finding that people are almost always kind and want to help if they can, and that you never know where things will lead. I’m not a huge Joan Rivers fan, but I love this quote by her: “You go through any door that opens. In the beginning, you go through the doors. You don’t know which is going to be the one.” Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

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