Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

You Majored in What?!?!?

Impractical interesting majors unite. Fight that ridiculous QUESTION.

I call it THE QUESTION. It's a question that every college student/graduate faces unless you picked one of those "practical" majors like accounting or engineering or computer science. The employer looks over your resume and there it is: the name of your college, the date you graduated, and then...YOUR MAJOR.

And the employer looks at you and says, "You're an English major. Why should I hire you?" Or words to that effect. It might be more like, "Hmm... that's an interesting major" with a not-so-hidden smirk. Or..."Why did you major in...". Whatever they say, behind that QUESTION is lurking the real question: "What can you do for me or my organization with that major?"

Well, impractical, creative, interesting majors of the world unite. It's time to fight the system and THE QUESTION.

Psychology majors who aren't psychologists. English majors who don't teach English. Philosophy majors who don't...uh...philosophize? Let's talk. Because my guess is that you've been bullied by that question in one way or another since you first declared your major.

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Now there's nothing wrong with knowing exactly what career you want (electrical engineering, for example) and pursuing a major that leads to that career. And if you're one of those folks who knows what you want to do, by all means go for it in the most direct way possible.

But the rest of us aren't on the express route. We might be taking the local, enjoying the different stops and scenery along the way. Wandering into new places, trying new experiences, seeing what works and what doesn't work for us. (See my previous blog on wandering as a career strategy.)

Because, as many of you already know, THE QUESTION is flawed.

It isn't, "What are you going to do with that major?", it's "What do you want to do? And how can you show through your major, and other aspects of your life, that you can do it?"

Because your major, while significant, isn't the final determinant of your career. You are. You decide what field you want to work in, what interests you want to pursue, what challenges you want to face. And your major, if you stop and think about it, will help you get there.

The linear thinking that says "your major = your career" may have been fine fifty, even twenty years ago, but in the 21st century where knowledge, adaptability, and learning are keys to survival, your ability to think, analyze and learn (which you got through your major) are your strengths even if superficially your major seems irrelevant to the literal job at hand.

So how do you deal with that employer who isn't sure how you fit in their organization?

Easy-- you tell them.

You chose a major that (hopefully) you found interesting and enjoyable to study. After all, that's one of the reasons people continue to major in these supposedly impractical subjects. So think about it. Ask yourself:

  • What have you enjoyed about your major? Why?
  • What's the best book or textbook you read? What was its focus?
  • What theories did you study? How might they apply to the "real world"?
  • What perspective does your major give you?

That last question is important and provides a valuable to answer to THE QUESTION. How do you approach your life differently because of your major?

In the classes I teach on "The Liberal Arts Major in the Workplace," I ask students to consider a film they like. How do they view that film through the perspective or lens of their major? Take a great film like Good Will Hunting. Someone with a degree in psychology might focus on the psychological issues in the film and the therapy sessions, an anthropology major might be intrigued with the different ethnic groups and social classes in the film, a math major might like the intriguing problems posed. The point is, your major brings a perspective to your life that you may not even realize. What you have learned has truly influenced you-- perhaps in ways you never thought about until now. And it's up to you to explain this to an employer.

Majors have changed over the years and many of the stereotypes just aren't accurate.

  • What are the stereotypes of your major?
  • How can you overcome them or explain to an employer why they aren't true about you? Can you say, "Now you might think that all there is to a ____ major is ____, but it's really more than that..."

For instance, many people just assume that English majors like to read and/or write. But have they considered that an English major is really about "perspective"? That English majors often read literature from around the world and from different ethnic groups giving them a new way to view the world and a deeper understanding of the human condition? That type of learning/thinking makes for a great therapist, human resources specialist, journalist, or even lawyer.

That, to me, is the ultimate value of those so-called irrelevant majors. They make a person more interesting, more knowledgeable, and less willing to accept superficial explanations. Just ask an economics major if it's easy to solve a problem like poverty. I suspect they'll tell you it can't be solved in the typical 30-second sound bite from a politician. But put that econ major in a nonprofit agency focused on helping the homeless and just watch what happens.

One of the most successful and smart award-winning advertising campaigns has been BASF's "helping make products better®" campaign. It's based on the notion that BASF, a chemical company, doesn't actually make the product, but rather the ingredients that go into it. What if you thought of your major the same way? Your degree makes you better at whatever you do, because your major has made you a more interesting, thoughtful person.

So, what are you going to do with that major? Take it as far as you can go.

Take some time to think about this. Be ready to talk about it intelligently at your next interview or in your cover letter. It could be the tipping point that gets you the job.

Want to learn more about what you can do with your major? Check out my book, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career.

I'd welcome stories about your interesting major and where you've taken it or where it's taken you. Those of you who are out in the working world, do you have a success story about your major to share with new graduates?

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Image credit: flickr.com

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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