How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

3 Career Questions I'm Often Asked

What should you major in? What’s the best career? How do you get ahead?

Here are my answers to three of questions that readers and callers to my show have asked:

What should I major in?


Of course, it varies with the individual but here are a couple of my not-widely-held beliefs:

If the person really is a science/math/computer whiz, it may make sense to choose a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) major. But more often, I recommend not majoring in those. They're hard, not that interesting to most people, and these majors contain some very smart, hard-working students bringing down the curve. Also, if you end up switching majors, you'll find most of what you learned irrelevant to life or career. Most important, not withstanding what politicians say, there's already an oversupply.

A major I consider underrated and of wide benefit to one's career and life is theatre/dramatic arts. Studying and being involved in plays (whether as reader, actor, student director, stage manager, whatever) gets you exposed, again and again, to pieces of literature that focus on life's key issues. That repeated exposure is required for it to be transformative for you. A theatre major is more likely than most to make you a wiser human being. And if you spend some time on stage, you'll gain poise, an important and underrated attribute. Most people also find the theatre major fun.

What's the best career?

Again, of course, it depends on the person but I do have a few favorites.

One is optometrist. It offers prestige, a six-figure income, low stress, you succeed with nearly every patient, and there are few emergency calls. Optometry is not offshoreable and you won't get replaced by a robot. The training time isn't inordinate: four years after your bachelor's degree, or at some colleges, you can get a bachelor's degree and your Doctor of Optometry degree in seven.

Haircutter scores near the top of most job satisfaction surveys. Again, you succeed with nearly every customer and you're dealing with something positive--appearance. Plus, you get the chance to develop ongoing relationships with customers: After all, you get to chat with them every month or two. Haircutting is another career that won't get offshored or automated.

Clergy. You get to do unmitigated do-gooding and have a very varied workweek: from counseling the unhappy to preparing and delivering a sermon to planning for the church/synagogue's future. Yes, hours can be long and irregular. Pay often is bad but not always. This is another career that won't the offshored or automated.Tip: Prioritize nuance and true fairness over dogma.

How do you get promoted or at least reduce your risk of getting laid off?

  • Try to get to work for a boss who's ethical and a star or up-and-comer. You'll both learn a lot and such a boss is likely to get increasing responsibility, which could create new opportunities for you. 
  • Try to make your boss's life easier. You might even periodically ask your boss that explicitly: "How could I make your life easier?"  
  • Keep your antennae out for priority areas in the organization and in your field and get more skilled in one of those. 
  • You can't overtly brag but subtly try to get it known that you're a person who has good ideas and does fine work. For example, instead of just giving your best idea to the boss, you might bring it up in an email to others "for feedback." 
  • Try to be low-maintenance and well-liked by most people. 

Sometimes, your organization really has too little opportunity for advancement. If so, resist the temptation to stay put and, at least, subtly, confidentially, put feelers out.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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