Your College Major Does Not Define Your Career

COLLEGE STUDENTS RELY on tidy categories to organize their social and academic lives, identifying themselves and others by the dorms they live in and fraternities and sororities they belong to. Perhaps the brightest stamps young scholars use to label themselves are the subjects they study.

But as soon as they step off campus and into the job market, these classifications lose relevance. That's because your college major does not determine your career.

No one is employed as an "English major." Nor, for that matter, as a "biology major" or "business major." Although a few fields correspond with professions, such as engineering and nursing, most liberal arts degrees don't point to specific employment routes. Rather, they provide a set of skills that help job seekers navigate the professional landscape.

And it's those skills that hiring managers crave. In a 2015 Association of American Colleges & Universities survey of 400 employers, 91 percent agreed that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more importantthan his or her undergraduate major."

To decide which direction to head after graduation, focus on your competencies, not your major, experts advise.

"Employers are moving away from looking at major as the first thing," says Gihan Fernando, executive director of the career center at American University. "They're looking more at these soft skills."

A New Look at Liberal Arts

Students majoring in the arts, humanities and social sciences quickly tire of hearing lines such as, "What are you going to do with that?" It doesn't help that the question is usually accompanied by a smirk.

Yet jokes about "useless" liberal arts degrees are rooted in misconceptions about what employers are looking for. Few companies pay workers to analyze novels or run psychology experiments, but they do pay for the skills those tasks develop.

Employers are realizing "it's easier for them to teach the substantive technical skills a student would need in that particular job than it is to teach someone to write effectively," Fernando says.

The eight competencies employers consider essential are critical thinking and problem solving; teamwork and collaboration; professionalism and work ethic; communication; leadership; digital technology; career management; and multicultural fluency, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The Association of American Colleges & Universities developed a similar list, which also includes quantitative reasoning; innovation and creativity; ethical judgment; and self-motivation.

Liberal arts coursework teaches and strengthens many of those job skills.

Reassessing 'Safe' Majors

While liberal arts majors worry unnecessarily about their futures, students pursuing degrees in STEM subjects may assume career success is within easy grasp. Indeed, there's high demand for workers with expertise in science, technology, engineering and math.

But a bachelor's degree in the physical or biological sciences, mathematics or statistics is not always enough to guarantee a great job, Fernando says: "In those fields, frequently you need to have a graduate degree to be effective in the workplace."

The U.S. News Best Jobs rankings bear that out. Most of the top jobs, including statisticianphysicianorthodontist and physical therapist, require STEM training at the level of a master's, medical or other advanced degree. Research conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers about the class of 2016 six months after graduation shows that students who major in biology, math, physical sciences and health topics pursue additional education at higher rates than average, and also at higher rates than engineering and computer science majors.

Business, the most popular major among undergraduate students, holds promise, since many good business jobs are available to people with just a bachelor's degree, and 75 percent of 3,370 employers surveyed planned to hire at least one business major in 2018, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute's latest recruiting trends study.

But a business administration major is the equivalent of a liberal arts major in that both are generic, says Peg Hendershot, executive director of Career Vision, a job research and counseling nonprofit in Illinois.

"If you have a business degree and it's pretty general, with some classes in management, some in finance, promotion, operations and logistics, even that is hard to get hired out of unless you take internships in certain areas," she says.

This means STEM and business majors can't rely on their majors alone to land them prime positions. They, too, must think carefully about their competencies.

Discerning a Direction

Dispelling these myths about majors opens up myriad career paths for students. With so many options, though, some may find it hard to decide how to proceed professionally.

The discernment process requires you to think beyond just what you want to study in college. Ask yourself, "What kinds of contributions do you want to make to an employer when you leave and how are you going to demonstrate that?" Hendershot says. Pick your classes, clubs, internships and work experiences accordingly.

Then, get ideas about where the skills you're gaining might lead you by perusing "first destination" outcome data compiled by universities to track where graduates from each department end up.

For example, six months after commencement, students who graduated from American University with bachelor's degrees in art history in 2015, 2016 and 2017 worked for organizations including Disney, the National Air and Space Museum and One River School of Art + Design. Nearly half worked at for-profit companies, 38 percent worked for nonprofits and 13 percent worked for the government. Six percent were enrolled in graduate school while working.

Students who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2017 with bachelor's degrees in psychology found jobs at places including DeloitteBierman ABA Autism Center and the U.S. House of Representatives. Six months after commencement, 38 percent were employed, 39 percent were pursuing advanced education, 14 percent were enrolled in service programs, 2 percent were seeking work and 7 percent were engaged in other activities.

Outcomes data is available at the national level, too, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Looking at this information can help job seekers stay realistic when considering career possibilities. The skills they gain from particular majors will make them strong candidates for some jobs and weak candidates for others, according to Hendershot.

"Nothing is impossible," she says, but she warns it's unlikely that you'll "move into a field you're going to enjoy without taking responsibility" for gaining the competencies you need to succeed in it.

Selling Your Skills

When it's time to start your job search in earnest, let your skills guide you. Don't limit your interest only to companies and organizations that seem obvious based on your major.

"Sometimes our students fail to realize they have much more to offer," says Ryan Willerton, associate vice president for career and professional development at the University of Notre Dame.

It's worthwhile to attend a variety of career fairs and networking events on and off campus, even those intended for students from disciplines different from yours. Forty percent of employers who recruit at American University are interested in students of all majors, and 80 percent recruit from three or more of its schools, Fernando says. A quarter of respondents to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute study planned to recruit students of all majors.

When listening to recruiters at these events, ask yourself, "'Can I get excited about this topic? Does this resonate with me? Can I find a natural connection with this?'" Willerton says. When it's your turn to talk, practice selling your skills, not your area of study.

"Instead of introducing yourself as an English major, say, 'I'm interested in hearing about opportunities. Can you talk to me about what skills you are looking at in candidates? Qualities you see as being consistent with your most successful new hires?'" Willerton suggests.

Those conversations will be good practice for job interviews, during which "you need to be able to parse through your academic experience and articulate to employers what are the skills that you're bringing to the table," Fernando says.