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“Major” Decisions

Choosing a college major can feel like an overwhelming decision. Teen Ink asked Duke University Career Center’s Sheila J. Curran to give some expert advice. Here’s what she had to say:

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, friends. As soon as you reach high school, they’re asking you where you want to go to college. Their next question, invariably, is “what are you going to major in?” The answer is supposed to come tripping off your tongue, but your likely reaction is to want to bury your head in the pillow. The reality is that most teens are confused about their direction. Colleges provide plenty of majors that aren’t even available in high school. And what you are good at in high school may be very different from where you excel at the college level. To help you figure out the right major for you, here are some questions you should ask yourself.

Are you sure you want the subject matter of your major to be your career? If you major in accounting, employers will assume you want to be an accountant. A pre-professional major can be helpful if you know exactly what career you want to pursue when you graduate, but it can also pigeon-hole you.

Are you truly interested in a particular subject? If your passion is history, don’t be put off by the fact that you can’t associate history with a future job title. If you study a liberal arts subject, you’ll be gathering plenty of job-related skills, like research, communication and problem-solving ability. And if you study a subject you enjoy, you’re likely to work harder and get a better GPA.

Do you need to decide now? Many colleges allow you up to two years to declare a major. This gives you time to try new subjects and explore where they may lead. The vast majority of students change their minds about what to study — often several times — between the time they start college and the time they declare a major.

When you get to college, you’ll find plenty of advisors who are willing to help you plan your education, and tell you how to reach your educational and career objectives. So unless you have to commit to a particular course of study prior to going to college, tell your family “I haven’t decided on a major. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”

Five Smartest Moves for Liberal Arts Grads

Smartest Move #1: Discover where you want to go

If you thought finding a job after graduation was the most difficult thing to do, think again! Far harder than the initial job search is figuring out exactly what you want to do. The difficulty is that when you’re in college you have very little time, and you may not be inclined towards self-reflection. One way to get started is to take the instruments commonly offered by your careers office, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or the Strong Interest Inventory. You won’t magically find direction, but particularly if you work with a career counselor, these instruments can help jumpstart your thought process.

One piece of advice: be willing to jettison preconceived notions about success. It doesn’t take too long when you’re in the real world to discover that no amount of pay will compensate for a miserable work situation. In particular, don’t be swayed in your career direction by those around you as graduation nears. Resist the temptation to follow the pack and forget who you really are. Often, that means remembering who you were, and what you loved as a child.

It’s actually quite normal to graduate from college without being completely sure of your direction. There are a number of reasons for this. First, you may not have been ready to think deeply about your career while you were in school. Second, you may have tried a number of different fields, but still not found direction. And you may just need more time for exploration or reflection. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t sit still. Find a job. Work through a temp agency. Do information interviews. Intern in an interesting company for a few months. The first key is to put yourself in situations where you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The second key is keeping talking to people, especially those who love their jobs. It’s not easy to put in the amount of time necessary to find your passion, but it’s well worth it.

Smartest Move #2: Get experience

Without exception, all the people in Smart Moves, had early work experiences, either on or off-campus. They did co-ops and internships, and played leadership roles in clubs and organizations. Often internships and low-paid clerical or service jobs after graduation offer you the only way to get your foot in the door. That’s particularly true in fields like entertainment, where many recent grads find themselves working in the mailroom. It’s the classic “Catch 22”. You have to have experience to get experience. And often, you simply have to pay your dues.

To make the most of your experiential education, before and after college, it’s worth remembering a few things: First, whatever you’re asked to do, do it well. Second, remember that all experience is good experience, even if it tells you what you don’t want to do ever again. Finally, always be looking around you. Who’s doing the really interesting jobs? How did they get there? Do you like the culture? What do you see that you’d want to avoid in a new job?

While you’re on a short-term assignment, it’s a great time to get into the habit of LUNCH. Invite someone to join you for a brown bag or a sandwich and get to know them. The more people who know you and like you, the easier it is to find career allies who will help you down the road.

Smartest Move #3: Build social and networking relationships

The graduates profiled in Smart Moves could write the book on networking. Networking is important for everyone, but it’s critical if your passion is something unusual like being a stunt actor or working for a major league baseball team. The more outrageous your ambition, the more likely it is you’ll need help getting there. Unfortunately, building social and networking relationships is one of the hardest skills for any young person to master.

Here’s a tip to get you started: In your career toolbox, you need two items. The first is an elevator speech, and the second is an eyeball paragraph. Both seek the same goal, namely to convince the person you’re talking with or writing to that they should spend more time with you. In the case of the elevator speech, you need to prepare a thirty-second response to the question “Who are you and what are you looking for?” For an eyeball paragraph, you need to make sure that the busy person who reads your email has a compelling reason to answer it! Some people, like family friends or graduates of your school, may be pre-disposed to help, but you’ve got to make it easy for them to do so. Your pitch needs to be concise and well thought through.

Building your network is a key skill for graduates at any stage of their careers. Whether they’re former bosses, friends, business acquaintances, faculty, or your hair stylist, people in your corner can make all the difference. They’re great sounding boards, wonderful confidence builders, and above all, probably your best source of job leads. Don’t hide your passion. Let everyone know your career destination, and you won’t travel alone.

Smartest Move #4: Identify your competence gaps

The higher you move in your career, the more likely you’ll be confronted with tasks and responsibilities with which you’re unfamiliar. Knowing what you don’t know is important. But far more important is figuring out how to acquire the knowledge or skills that you lack. In other words, you need to identify and fix your competence gap.

Assessing this shortfall, you need to ask two key questions: “Is the skill necessary for a field in which I want to stay?” and “Would the skill help me to achieve my future goals?” If the answer to either question is yes, you need to find a way to close the gap. The graduates in Smart Moves used the following methods to obtain the knowledge they needed:

1) Pursued further education, e.g., business or law school

2) Identified professional development opportunities offered through their organizations

3) Sought assignments that would help them to practice new skills

4) Found mentors who would act as sounding boards

Most important, you have to be open to assessing what you know and what you don’t. Be open to feedback. Ask for it frequently, and adjust your course based on what you hear.

Smartest move #5: Find your “hook”

Anyone who’s been admitted to a very selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or a highly risky venture in which you’ve been successful. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

Liberal Arts Grads Meet the Real World

I met my first helicopter parent in September, 1995.  He called demanding specialized career services for his son. No matter that the young man had only just matriculated at Brown University.  His problem?  The son had met some fellow students who had convinced him to study philosophy instead of computer science.  It wasn’t necessary for the parent to tell me what was really on his mind:  “What on earth can you do with a degree in philosophy?”

When it comes to liberal arts and careers, there’s a black hole of ignorance that is often filled with myths and assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that you can’t possibly find employment unless you supplement your liberal arts degree with a more practical second major like Economics.  But look around.  Contrary to what you might believe, there are few cultural anthropology grads driving cabs.  And, there are no support groups, to my knowledge, for unemployed history majors.  Salary and position after graduation are influenced more by the interests of the liberal arts grad than the subject matter of her degree.

Regardless of actual post-graduation results, it’s a rare liberal arts grad who doesn’t have some trepidation about the future. I had my own encounter with reality when I immigrated to the United States.  The temporary agency I approached took one look at my newly-minted degree in Russian and Persian and advised that they might be able to find me a minimum wage job—if I learned to type. Luckily, as experience proves, where you start off bears little relation to where you can end up. The question is, “how do you get from a liberal arts degree to work you love?”


The “Easy” Way

The easiest way for liberal arts grads to find high paying, high prestige jobs is to impress recruiters from the investment banks and consulting companies that recruit on campus at top colleges.  But there’s a catch:  you have to possess not only a high GPA but also a demonstrated interest in–and talent for–the kind of work you’re pursuing. In addition, you’ll need something that sets you apart from other candidates. The way you distinguish yourself may not necessarily relate to the content of the job. Christina, a history grad from Stanford University, was hired as associate consultant by the consulting firm Bain, Inc. because her work founding an HIV/AIDS organization allowed her to demonstrate creativity, passion and a drive for results.


The “Normal” Way

The on-campus recruiting route usually accounts for fewer than a quarter of the graduating class.  Many of their liberal arts peers would have you believe that they had everything figured out—often in the form of more school.  They talk convincingly of becoming doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists.  But behind their eloquent certainty often lies a deep insecurity about the future.  Even at graduation, most liberal arts students are unsure what they really want to do. And if, many years after graduation, you’re still not clear about your direction, you’re not alone.

You may find solace and the advice you need through “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career”, a book which I co-authored with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald.  Smart Moves illuminates real career paths through the stories of twenty-three liberal arts graduates from nineteen different schools. Their examples serve as powerful inspiration to anyone who wants to discover a path to career success.

The Smartest Moves to Career Success for Liberal Arts Grads

How do you get from a liberal arts degree to finding work you love? Through the stories of the graduates we interviewed, we discovered five “smartest moves” that were a key factor in everyone’s success:
-Figure out who you are and where you want to go
-Get experience
-Build social and networking relationships
-Identify and fill your competence gap
-Find your “hook”

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

Easier said than done.  And it’s more rare than you might think.  In Smart Moves, only Ally identified her passion at an early age.  Ironically, she chose a particularly difficult career—actress and director.  But the strength of her passion helped her overcome the bumps in her path to success. You can certainly find direction from assessment instruments such as the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  But if you don’t identify an ideal career position through your assessments—and you probably won’t—don’t despair.  You’re more likely to find the work you love by starting with smartest move number

.

Get experience

Liberal arts grads can follow just about any career they want to. Unfortunately, the multitude of options can be overwhelming. The solution? Trial runs.  It can save time later on if you experience different types of work while you’re still in college.  Cara, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, laid the groundwork for her career in marketing by working on the school radio station. Sharon discovered her passion in fashion through internships. Others try on careers by proxy—conducting informational interviews with alumni, parents, friends, or anyone else who will share both smart moves and dumb moves.  Luckily, there’s no time limitation on getting experience.  If you didn’t explore different career options in college, build time into your schedule to do so now.


Build social and networking relationships

Conventional wisdom says that connections are the best way to find work. But what happens when the career footsteps of family members lead you in an undesirable direction, and you’ve exhausted your external fan base? Don’t balk at talking with people outside your immediate social circle.  Sure, you’re most likely to find good connections among the colleagues in your professional association.  But you can often find help in the most unlikely places. Ray ultimately found his way to a position as Indiana Jones stunt double through his hair stylist.  She didn’t personally know the man who was running the auditions. But she was, in Malcolm Gladwell’s vernacular, a “connector”.


Identify your competence gaps

One of the best ways to get ahead in your career is to look not just one step, but several steps, ahead.   Find your ideal job and work backwards.  Assess what required skills, abilities and attitudes you already have, and identify the areas in which you need to develop.  After seeing a teenage friend die of leukemia, Brad knew he wanted to alleviate unnecessary suffering on a world-wide scale.  A lofty goal, indeed.  With a degree in biology Brad had a good academic background.  But he needed practical experience in a number of areas.  Since graduation, Brad has systematically identified and eliminated his competence gaps by working in the pharmaceutical and financial industries, and volunteering in a Foundation that awards funds for health-related projects.

Find your hook

Once you’ve found your ideal position how do you stand out from the crowd?  Sometimes simple things will make the difference, like sending handwritten thank you letters immediately after an interview, or researching your interviewer’s background on the Web. Other times, your strategy needs to be a little more creative.
All graduates, no matter what their educational background, can benefit from studying the career success of others.  But when career direction and the paths to success are less clear, stories take on additional significance.  If you’re a liberal arts grad, find stories that have meaning for you.  The more you know about the career paths of those you admire, the better able you will be to find your own direction.

First published in BusinessWeek.com

 

Designing Your Own Career Makeover

The holidays are coming!  So what’s on your wish list?  A Caribbean cruise? Playstation 3? Tickets to the revival of Les Miserables?  All great choices.  But the best gift—the one that you ultimately appreciate the most–may be the one that you give yourself: a career makeover.

When you’re busy and you’ve established a routine, it’s easy to put career thoughts on the backburner. It’s like your health.  If a body part doesn’t actively hurt, you’re not forced to pay attention. In the same way, your career may seem on track. If you’re doing well and there’s no evidence of trouble on the horizon, it’s tempting to keep your head down, work hard, and maintain the status quo. But if you do that, you may not see opportunities that better match your values and interests.

Once you start looking around you may also find that your concept of career is no longer accurate. Employees now move jobs and change careers regularly. And there aren’t hard and fast rules for getting ahead anymore.  Mid-career professionals can learn something younger grads already know: When it comes to finding a path to your ideal position, you’re the one in the driver’s seat. Don’t count on anyone taking you along for the ride.

So if you want a career makeover, where do you start? Here’s a four-pronged approach.   First, examine yourself.  Second, identify a good fit. Third, think like an employer.  And finally, get your own board.

Examine Yourself

Your first task is to put yourself under the microscope, analyzing your preferences in the context of your career so far.  When you consider the positions you’ve held, think about the work itself, the people, and the environment.
•  What did you love? Did you relish, for example, being the go-to person—the one who always got things done?  Were you part of a team that worked cohesively and effectively?
•  What did you hate? Did you constantly bristle at the boss who looked over your shoulder? Did being in a cubicle pouring over Excel spreadsheets drive you nuts?
•  What skills did you feel proud to have possessed or developed? Did you learn to be a great manager?
•  What characteristics are important to you in any job? Is work-life balance a critical component?  Do you know that you need challenging work?

Identify a Good Fit

Your next task also requires some introspection and investigation.  When you’re considering where to work, it’s hard to resist money and prestige.  But the savvy job seeker knows that neither factor really matters unless the job opportunity is compatible with your style and personality.

The first step is to size up your current organization, evaluating  organizational culture, the nature of your work responsibilities and supervision.   Ask yourself whether your talents are being used effectively, whether you have the opportunity for professional growth, and if the way you’re supervised is consistent with the way you like to work.  Ultimately the definition of fit comes down to the question of “are you happy going to work each day”?

Fit is something that may change over time.  Perhaps you no longer want to work 80-hour weeks.  Perhaps the person who hired you has left and the replacement could kindly be described as “the boss from hell”.  Part of having a career makeover is figuring out whether your current employer is still good for you.

If your analysis indicates that switching employers is a prudent move, how do you find a good “fit” somewhere else?  Many companies have comprehensive websites that explain their culture and values, so that’s a good place to start.  But a much better strategy is to find someone who works in the organization to give you a personal assessment.  Your alumni office may be able to point you to an appropriate contact. Sometimes employer rhetoric and reality don’t match!

Finally, you need to identify a series of  “fit” questions to ask your prospective employer.  They’re questions like “what kind of person does well in this organization?”,  or “how would you characterize your management style?”.  The time to do this is when you’re in the hiring “sweet spot”–after you’ve been offered the job and before you’ve accepted!

Think Like An Employer

Once you’ve identified where you’d like to work, visualize the hiring manager at your ideal employer reading your resume and cover letter. Imagine she’s reading hundreds of applications and within 10 seconds she’ll make a decision whether to pursue your candidacy.

When most people talk about their experience, they emphasize the areas in which they have achieved the most.  But your highly developed technical skills and ability to create top quality websites may be perceived as irrelevant in a sales position.  The key to thinking like an employer is to focus like a laser on the requirements of the position, and put your relevant qualifications front and center. Consider the format of your resume and the way you’ve ordered your accomplishments.  Do the required abilities show up first?  Does your cover letter make it easy for an employer to visualize you in the job?

Obviously your resume needs to be easy to read, up-to-date, with no typos.  But your application materials also need to shout out “I have the qualifications, the experience, and the enthusiasm you need. I can add value.”

Get Your Own Board

Everyone can benefit from an outside review when they’re going through a career makeover.  Have you set your sights too low?  Do you have a major skill, like fundraising, that you developed through your volunteer work but is nowhere to be seen on your resume?

Appoint your own personal board of advisors—people whom you know and trust, but aren’t hopelessly biased in your favor. Often the best people are former bosses or colleagues. Good advisors support, but they also critique and ask difficult questions.  They’re the people who can help you identify your competence gaps and suggest how you can make up for a lack of experience or education. They’re the ones who’ll tell you how to strengthen your cover letter or find a “hook” to rise above the competition.  An added value is that your advisors will intimately know your interests and aspirations.  Treat them well, and you’ll find them a great source of referrals to people in their own network of colleagues.

2007 is a great time for a career makeover.  The job market is robust and excellent opportunities abound, particularly for those with college degrees. But that doesn’t mean you have to move on. After you’ve done your homework, you may decide that the best place to be is exactly where you are now.

If that’s the case, don’t think you wasted your time going through the four steps. This work will help you be much better prepared when you are ready to make a move. Anything that makes you count your blessings is truly a gift!  Happy holidays.

Negotiating Pay and Perks for New Grads

Almost one and a half million new grads will enter the workforce this summer. Graduates with good grades, internships, and job search savvy will often have their choice of job offers.  But some of the best and the brightest will flunk their first real world test:  they’ll incorrectly assess the economic value of the positions they’re offered.

While students are in college, they typically seek work opportunities that fit their class schedule and pay well. Convenience and salary are the key determinants.  But after graduation, there are many other factors to consider.  The smart grad will carefully examine issues related to cost of living and benefits, as well as salary.  They’ll also understand when and how to negotiate to get the best possible compensation (salary and benefits) package.

Cost of Living

Many new grads head to the bright lights of the city.  They know that places like New York and Chicago are expensive, but few know exactly what that means to their lifestyle.  Consulting a website like salary.com provides a wake-up call:  If you think a job offer of  $30,000 in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina is too low, consider that you’d have to make almost $49,000 to have a similar standard of living in San Francisco. Perhaps you’re willing to have a smaller apartment, or live in an area that’s not quite as safe. You may even be prepared to eat ramen noodles a while longer. But it’s best to know where and how you’ll need to compromise if you’re determined to go to a particular high-priced location.

Benefits

Few student jobs provide benefits, so their value is often under-rated. But when you graduate, having good benefits can be essential.  For one thing, you’ll most likely no longer be covered for health insurance. And even a small accident or operation like an appendectomy can cost you many months’ salary.  If you buy temporary insurance as an individual, a basic policy will cost close to $100 a month, without prescription coverage and with high deductibles. And forget about pre-existing conditions:  they’re probably not covered. Check out the health insurance coverage that comes with your job:  sometimes it’s fully paid for you; other times you have to contribute.  The amount of your contribution can vary significantly.

Graduates often overlook 403B or 401K plans—particularly if they see the word “retirement” attached to them. The fact is, these plans can not only provide a forced savings plan, but also significantly increase the value of your compensation.  Many companies will give you a one-for-one match up to a certain percentage of your salary.  For example, you contribute 3% of salary and the company will contribute an additional 3% to your retirement fund.  Universities and other non-profits are often substantially more generous, requiring you to simply contribute a small percentage of your income in return for as much at an 8% match.  That’s the equivalent of getting an 8% pay hike!

Other benefits may be worth a great deal or nothing at all depending on your personal circumstances.  If you spend a lot of time in the dental chair or at the eye doctor, dental or vision plans will save you money.  If you want to pursue your masters’ degree while you work, be on the lookout for educational benefits.  And if you like to keep in shape, be aware that corporate gyms can save you upwards of $75 a month.

New grads, in particular, lament the fact that they no longer have a winter, spring or summer vacation.  If vacation time is important to you, check your job offers carefully. You may find you have to wait a year before you can take even two weeks off.

Salary

Comparing salaries should be easy. But the figure you’re quoted may include other financial compensation, for example, a signing bonus or relocation funds.  Unfortunately, you’ll receive these extras only once.  There are two important items for recent grads to consider: your base salary, and when you’ll be eligible for performance-based raises.  Some companies start with lower salaries but have six-monthly reviews that can financially catapult you over your peers working for companies where length of service is more important than performance.

Negotiating the Compensation Package

If you’ll be one of hundreds of college grads hired for a particular company, you may have no opportunity to change the compensation package.  On-campus recruiters, for example, usually have set policies on salary and benefits.  And unless you have a “hook”, like having worked for the military for several years before coming to college, it will be hard for you to make a case for why you should be treated differently.

However, the majority of employers do “just-in-time” hiring.  In other words, someone has to leave before they’ll even recruit someone new.  If you’re offered one of these positions, you may have more flexibility. Follow these steps to increase your chances of success in negotiating a better compensation package:

Identify what benefits are important to you. Know the prevailing salary for someone with your background and experience in the type of work and organization for which you’re being considered. Check salary comparison websites.  Better yet, network with someone in the company to find out what people in this kind of position typically make.

Call the organization’s human resource department and ask if there is a salary range for the position. Recognize that most salary ranges are divided into quartiles.  Usually new graduate hires will be given a salary in the first quartile of the range.

Check the human resources website for information on benefits.  You’ll be surprised how much information you can usually find.

Wait until you’ve been given a job offer before you try to negotiate either salary or benefits. The hiring manager has to be committed to you, before he’ll appreciate these types of questions. You’ll need to ask after getting the job offer if there is any flexibility in the terms of the compensation package.

Recognize that, unless you’ll be working for very small company, it’s easier for management to increase salary, add items like moving expense reimbursement, or give additional days off than it is to enhance benefits like health insurance.

Be professional. Resist pressure to give an immediate answer:  it’s perfectly acceptable to thank the manager for her offer, and say you remain very interested, but need time to think about a few issues. Once you’ve agreed to changes or you’ve accepted an offer, don’t go back and try to renegotiate.

Don’t expect that you’ll be able to put an employer on hold indefinitely while you gather job offers.  If you’re pursuing other opportunities, it’s acceptable to call those employers and tell them that you need to make a decision on another job offer. Ask if they are in a position to make a quick decision on your candidacy.

Use your resources.  Many careers offices welcome calls from new grads who are trying to decide whether to take a particular position, or who want an expert opinion on the relative value of job offers.

Recent grads are often thrown by questions about salary.  The first rule of salary negotiation is that the person who states a number first, loses.  This is particularly true if you’ll be working in business, but your experience has been in the non-profit world.  You can finesse the salary expectations question by saying that you’d expect to be paid the same as someone with similar background and qualifications, or that you’re willing to discuss salary when you’re further along in the process.

The most important thing to remember is that the “sweet spot” time for negotiation is after you’ve been offered a job, and before you’ve accepted it!  When employers want you, but they don’t know how much you want them, you’re in the driver’s seat.  Use the time to assess your needs, your values and your opportunities.

Strategies for the Career Fair

How many times have you remarked that it seemed like only yesterday that you left high school?  Now you’re much closer to your college graduation, and you probably can’t imagine the next stage of your life – being employed.  Will coming to the Career Fair get you a job?  Probably not.  But by following some of the advice below, it can move you several steps ahead in the job search.  For those of you who are “just looking”, have fun, get information and save the advice for when you’re ready to find a job.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person “across the table” representing a company. They’ve often come a substantial distance and they’re on a mission.  They want to convince YOU that they should be your employer of choice.  But this goes both ways: YOU have to convince them that you are their candidate of choice.

How do you do that?  Here are some key ways to getting noticed:

Dress and act the part. Dressing as though they’d already selected you for an interview is always helpful.  Even if you have a 4.0 and tons of extracurriculars, you probably need to forego the body piercings if you want to have them give you a second look. (The right kind of second look.)

Read the company’s website.  You’ll usually find the url’s of Career Fair attendees listed on your career center’s website.  This can save you a lot of time, and the research will make you appear more focused.  It can also help you avoid going to tables of companies in which you are no longer interested.

Make sure you have a targeted approach.  If the employer sees you weighed down by the freebies of dozens of other companies, they may not take you seriously.  Plan to spend at least 5 minutes at each organization in which you’re really interested.

Wow the employer with intelligent questions.  If you’re just looking, you can ask questions like “So what does your company do”.  But if you really want to get noticed, ask them their reaction to articles you’ve read in the news about the company, or more personal questions like “what do you like best about working at xyz company”. (It’s probably a good idea to make small talk first!)

Go to a table when there aren’t too many people around.  Employers hate to stand waiting for someone to come to them.  Get up early, be the first at the table of the employer in which you’re most interested.

Build a relationship.  This is hard to do if there are a lot of students in line, but if you can spend 5-10 minutes chatting with the recruiter, they will remember you a lot better. (See 3) above: get up early!)

Don’t assume they wouldn’t want you because you have a lower GPA.  There are plenty of instances where good human relations skills (aka, the fine art of intellectual schmoozing) has made up for resume deficiencies.

…and talking of resumes

Make sure you leave the organization a copy of your resume that highlights your background and talents, particularly as they relate to the kind of job in which you’re interested.   (You may need to have more than one version of your resume.) A career fair is the one place that your resume always has to stand alone, without a cover letter.

Check out when the employer’s information session will be held.  Ask the representative at the Career Fair whether you’ll be able to continue your conversation with them at that time.  Often companies send different people to the Career Fair and Information Sessions, but you’ll still impress them with your knowledge of company activities.

Ask for the representative’s business card and ask if you can follow up with them after the Career Fair.  Then, FOLLOW UP! Doing what you say you’re going to do sets you apart from most applicants.

GOOD LUCK!

The Over-Qualification Quandary

Will 2008 be the year you finally make good on your resolution to give up the daily grind and find work you love? Perhaps you’re a lawyer who’s painfully aware that being in a courtroom isn’t as much fun as it looks on TV. Or, maybe you’re a baby boomer, whose concept of retirement is an opportunity to do meaningful work, rather than joining the golf crowd. Unfortunately, downshifting or changing your career is easier said than done, even when you have a lifetime of experience in a wide variety of positions. To be successful, you’ll need to jettison some old assumptions about how to find jobs.

When you’ve applied for positions in the past, you’ve proudly listed accomplishments. You thought climbing the corporate ladder was a plus. And in your old life, it was. But when you’re applying for work in a completely different field or at a lower level, your stellar resume may be treated with suspicion.

A potential employer, who hasn’t been privy to your soul searching, is likely to see multiple red flags in your application. The hiring manager can’t understand why, for example, you would want a job that pays perhaps a quarter of what you’re currently making. She may doubt your sincerity, commitment, or understanding of the work environment. Worse, you may be perceived as not having the basic skills for the lower level work. So, you’re not only overqualified, but under-qualified as well, and your application is likely to be consigned to the circular file.

This means that you are going to have to find a way to tell your story. And you can’t do that with a standard application or a laid-back “come and find me” approach. The key to getting your application to the top of the pile is focus, preparation, and a fair dose of chutzpah.

Focus

It pays to know exactly where you want to work, why you want to work there, and what you have to offer. Don’t waste your time applying online to hundreds of jobs or going through headhunters. Replying to job ads is another recipe for disappointment, because your application, by itself, will raise the dreaded red flags. Preparing careful approaches to twenty employers will get you much further.

Always do on-line, in-depth research on your targeted employers and their personnel. The more you discover, the better you’ll be able to identify where you might fit within the organization. And advance information about the background of your future boss or interviewer can be invaluable.

Preparation

Throw out your old approach to resumes and cover letters. When an employer reads your application, he doesn’t want to know about your 10 years of progressively responsible experience in a different industry. He wants the answers to “red flag” questions. Your new resume should demonstrate that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities for the open position—not one several levels up. And, your new cover letter should provide a compelling argument for why you want the position for which you’re applying, and why you’re the right person.

A good way to re-invent yourself on paper is to do a combination functional and chronological resume. In the functional part, you can easily zoom in on the experience and characteristics your new employer needs, highlighting accomplishments in each area. Don’t forget your volunteer work; it may be the most relevant experience you have. And remember that when you list the positions you’ve held, you get to decide how far back in your work chronology to go. You don’t have to include that first job out of college—or even your first few positions. Nor do you have to state your date of graduation.

I once avoided being viewed as over-qualified by not sending a resume at all for a position that was significantly lower than the one I’d left when I moved from Washington, D.C., to Rhode Island. I simply wrote the hiring manager a three-page letter describing how I thought I could be helpful in the open position. The letter got me in the door for an interview, and only after I was hired was I asked for my resume.

Chutzpah

However compelling your application, you have to find a way to reinforce your value through a face-to-face meeting. There is no substitute for personal connections, so cultivate relationships with friends and fellow alumni who work in your chosen field. Find like-minded people through CivicVentures.org, or—for women—thetransitionnetwork.org.

Any time a trusted person puts in a good word for you with an influential person in your desired field, you have a major advantage. Ultimately, of course, your goal is to get an interview for an open position, but with a little chutzpah, you can often get your foot in the back door, even if an opportunity doesn’t officially exist.

Dan was a seasoned international business executive who wanted to transition to a lower level position in academia for his final working decade. He focused on North Carolina, moved to the area, researched target institutions and departments, read job descriptions of open positions, and prepared his resume. Then he got to work making calls requesting informational interviews. With his foot in the door, and a good story, Dan was referred to many other department heads. He started by asking for information. But after several “informational” interviews, he ended up with a job in the international studies department.

Over-qualified does not mean unemployable. Your background and experience provides much material with which to work. But recasting yourself in a new light requires a different mindset. With focus, preparation and chutzpah, you’ll soon be on your way to a more fulfilling life.

First published in BusinessWeek.com

Job Search 101 for College Seniors

If you have a 3.9 GPA, a multitude of extra-curricular activities and a winning personality, read no further.  For everyone else, follow these tips and you’ll be the one walking out of the interview with the job offer:

Find a Career Advisor.  Everyone can use an advocate in the job search, so make friends with a career advisor. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms.  Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school.  So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

Pay attention to the content of your cover letter.  The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you.  Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job.  Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others.  Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors.  Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect.  When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”.  It matters.  Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

Have your resume critiqued.  The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted.  But there’s another reason to get a critique:  to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible.  What image does your resume give of you?  If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

Don’t rush.  It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job.  Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one.  Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off.  If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions.  Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job.  Make them feel special!

Project enthusiasm.  If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it.  You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy in hiring the right person.  To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job.  In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

Be selective where you apply.  That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money.  However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach.  Think of it this way:  You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions.  On the other hand, if you do ten really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

Follow through.  You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application.  Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls.  In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received.  However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

Build relationships with adults!  There are plenty of people who want to help you find a position if you give them a chance. Faculty, staff, former employers, career advisors, friends and relatives can all be invaluable resources for identifying opportunities, promoting you as a candidate and, except in the case of family members, acting as a reference.  The more people know about you, the better able they are to sing your praises.

The Career Advantages of Study Abroad

What’s your dream?  Touring castles in Scotland?  Walking on the Great Wall of China?  Working to improve the lives of women in rural Uganda?   If you’re thinking of studying abroad, there’s no end to the places you can go, things you can see, and subjects you can study.  At many top schools, like Duke, Tufts or Brown, over a third of the junior class take the opportunity to complete part of their education out of the United States.  Even if your school doesn’t have an extensive study abroad program, you can often get credit from a different school.

Multiple benefits accrue to those who spend significant time in another country, and a significant proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about study abroad as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on.  You’ll find that all foreign experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.

Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing.  They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for different points of view.  They gravitate towards students who demonstrate maturity, initiative and creativity.  All of these assets can be demonstrated through your study abroad, but it’s going to be much harder to set yourself apart if you’ve taken the “easy route”.

It’s not hard to find the “easy route”:  that’s the one where you go with your friends to another country; all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the American-style apartment where you live with your classmates.  In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which country you go to, because all your classes will be in English, possibly even taught by your American professors.  You’ll undoubtedly have a somewhat different experience, but to do the “easy route” is to forego some of the major advantages of your time away.

Consider these ways of standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your “hook”.

  • Study in the language of the country wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few weeks. (That’s assuming the native language of the country isn’t English!) You’ll smile when your potential employer realizes you really can conduct an interview in your fluent Spanish.
  • Live with a family, rather than with fellow Americans.  You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture and how things work:  great for a question on cross cultural communications.
  • Select courses that take advantage of your study abroad location, such as Art History in Florence, or a study of lemurs in their natural habitat of Madagascar.
  • Seize the opportunity to do an internship, volunteer assignment or work in the place you’re studying abroad.  You’ll get a completely different view of the country if you work with the local community.  It may also make you want to come back after college!
  • Experience things you’ve never done before, like joining a family for a religious celebration, or bargaining for a carpet in a souk in Morocco.  Not every experience is a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more resilient.
  • Explore, explore, explore.  Make your own arrangements.  Take trains and buses. Get off the beaten path.  Find villages that are not on any tourist map.  Talk to the local people in their own language—however bad your pronunciation.

Study abroad can be a welcome relief from the rest of your studies, or it can be the most formative experience of a lifetime.  It can be just one more item on the resume, or it can provide the most colorful examples in your interview.  If you take a few calculated risks, plan in advance and take advantage of all study abroad has to offer, you will become that “memorable candidate”—the one who truly gets the employer’s attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that will stay with you for a lifetime.

First published in Going Global, Transitions Abroad, and the Duke University Study Abroad Guide

Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Foreword for Parents


“Career is not what it used to be; it’s much more interesting”

One week into a new term.  The message on my voicemail was from a distraught father, claiming that his student son needed intensive career counseling.  Returning the call, I inquired, “What year is he?” “Well, actually, he’s a freshman,” replied the father. “In fact he’s still in orientation.  But I need your help.  You see he’s always loved computer science.  He came to Brown because he knows you have a great computer science department.  Trouble is, he’s met some wonderful people and now he’s convinced that he should study philosophy instead.”  There followed a pause, and then the father said what was really on his mind. “But what can you do with a degree in philosophy?

Actually, you can do just about anything with a liberal arts degree as the  stories in this book so vividly attest.

But if you’re like most “millennial” parents, you won’t be satisfied by such vague pronouncements, and maybe not even by statements from Fortune 500 CEOs who say “we love liberal arts graduates.” Wanting the best for your children, you’re eager to know how you can help them make the most of their liberal arts education—while also preparing them to get off the family payroll!

Identifying and happily settling into a career that matches a heartfelt passion isn’t easy for anyone. Think back:  how quickly did you identify your own passion? How long thereafter until you brought your career and your passion in synch?  Have you yet?

In a recent Duke University survey of its soon-to-graduate seniors, over half claimed that their primary source of career advice after graduation would be their families. But most families are ill-equipped to help with post-graduate career decisions. Your own college or work experiences no longer provide a good enough compass to guide your son or daughter from point A (graduation) to point B (career success). Why?  Because in recent years the career landscape has changed dramatically.  Choice has exploded, new careers—like “usability specialist” —have been invented, and the Internet has changed everything about the way people look for jobs.  Examine the myths in chapter one. Did you think they were true? The reality for today’s liberal arts graduates may be very different from what you expect.

Suzanne Greenwald and I wrote Smart Moves because there’s a black hole of ignorance between graduation and career success. You’ve read in the media what’s “out”: commitment to a single career, a continuous upward financial trajectory, and lifetime employment. You probably even know what’s “in”: managing your career, moving frequently, seizing opportunities.  Much less clear is how a liberal arts graduate actually identifies and follows his or her passion. With so much personal happiness riding on this seldom studied but quintessential career imperative, we thought we’d search for answers by looking in depth at the lives of a small but very diverse group of liberal arts graduates.

The stories and voices of these twenty-three graduates fill most of this book. Their lessons are not prescriptive, and don’t come with a money-back guarantee. We can’t tell you a fail-safe formula to conjure up career readiness or a six-figure salary.  There isn’t one. So much depends on interests, talent, personality—and luck.  But the collective smart moves of our graduates, which we’ve gathered into seven career lessons, do provide a framework for success. As you consider career realities in the twenty-first century, you may be surprised to learn that:
•Major doesn’t equal career.
•Graduate or professional school may not be the best choice immediately after graduation – if ever.
•Your son will probably not get his first job through on-campus recruiting, but he may still benefit greatly from career office resources.
•Internships may prove more valuable than a second major, or summer school—and often the most valuable internships are unenjoyable ones.
•What happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside.
•The best first job after graduation doesn’t have to be the most prestigious, or the most lucrative; ditto the second job and the third.
•There truly is a career value to a liberal arts education.

The final chapters of Smart Moves are devoted to stories from some of the most interesting liberal arts graduates you’ll ever meet. Liz, an American studies and art history major, is now the cheese buyer at one of America’s most celebrated cheese shops. Theresa, a philosophy majors, runs her own small non-profit, providing technical support to other non-profits that can’t otherwise afford it. Brad is a human biology major, who’s combining his work in finance with his interest in third world health issues.

If you’re looking for a quick rundown on which colleges and universities our graduates hail from, what undergraduate majors they pursued, and their current position, just turn to the story chart at the back of the book. Perhaps we’ve profiled someone from the college or university that you attended.

And speaking of you, perhaps now, a generation out of college, you’ll discover this book helpful to you as well as your children.  We strongly believe that you’re never too old to learn – or to change jobs.  You may not be able to go back and re-live your college years, doing everything right this time around.  But there are plenty of tips and insight in these stories to inspire you to action—whether you’re contemplating a mid-life job or career change, or battling a full-blown mid-life crisis

Perhaps you intend to give Smart Moves to a son or daughter in need of career direction.  Or, you may discover like me, that your wonderfully smart and charming second son has no intention of reading this or any such book until after he’s made his post-graduate career mistakes.  If that’s the case, recognize that the best you can probably do for now is to ask the right questions and steer him in the appropriate direction for advice, support and knowledge.

Career planning is like learning to walk and talk.  Everyone does it in his or her own time. Those who walk first don’t necessarily grow up to be dancers and sprinters. And those who talk late–well, some of them grow up to be actors and newscasters and virtuoso mezzo-sopranos.    Read Smart Moves for your sons and daughters and read it for yourself. There’s enough inspiration to go around.

When Your College Graduate Comes Home

This summer, there are more than 100,000 unexpected guests at the family dinner table. They’re adult children — the ones who’ve just graduated from college but expect to remain, at least temporarily, on the family payroll. Some may have jobs that don’t pay enough to support the lifestyle they expect. Others want to get a head start on paying back loans. But most simply don’t have jobs at all.

I can relate. I have advised students and alumni on their careers for decades, first at Brown University, and currently as director of the career center at Duke University. My own son, a 2006 Colgate University graduate in philosophy, has also recently rejoined the family. It is small comfort that I am not alone.

A May 2005 survey showed that a quarter of the class of 2006 expected to spend more than seven months living at home, up from 23 percent of the class of 2005. I now join the hundreds of thousands of parents forced to become a personal career counselor for an “adild” — an adult child.

For most parents, the role of advisor is familiar. From early childhood, parents have imparted wisdom to their children on everything from first dates to how to get into a good college. And children have heeded their advice — keeping parents on the cell phone speed dial.

It’s not surprising, then, that parents would be co-opted in the search for post-graduate employment. But the role of career counselor to an adild is fraught with problems, not to mention the kind of emotional angst that can divert retirement funds to psychotherapy. Parents and their adilds have the same goal: success in life. Unfortunately, definitions of career success and strategies to achieve it vary substantially from generation to generation. What parents may consider the “perfect position” may leave an adild cold, no matter what its prestige and pay.

In the absence of direction, it’s easy to revert to the old “law school/grad school” option, especially if parents are willing to pay. This is a potentially risky proposition: The financial rewards of such an education, if it’s not required for a particular career, may not justify its expense.

It’s the savvy parent who understands how much he doesn’t know about the career landscape for recent college grads. In the past 30 years, since parents were in school, career options have exploded, attitudes changed, and strategies fine-tuned. Advice that may work brilliantly for a mid-career changer may be totally inappropriate for a new grad. The best way for parents to help their adild find a job may actually be to avoid giving them any specific career advice.

Avoiding advice does not mean withholding support. Support can be as simple as helping an adild set short-term goals and identify strategies to achieve them, or encouraging her to return to her college’s career center for help, even if she avoided it like the plague in school. Career readiness comes at different times, and unemployment has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the need to learn effective ways to present abilities and qualifications. Given the number of times an adild is likely to change jobs, an excellent résumé, cover letter and interview skills are critical.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is to encourage their adild to find her passion. This is often one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes the discovery only happens by trial and error, working in a number of “not-quite-right” positions. Family, friends and acquaintances can all help, by providing insight into different careers and valuable connections.

One final piece of advice: Set a time limit on living at home without a significant contribution to household expenses. Careers take off more rapidly when graduates take responsibility for their decisions — good and bad — and learn from them. Almost every successful professional has taken risks and experienced failure. The lessons that come through such experiences are invaluable, but much less likely to happen if there is an ever-present parental safety net.

Even if parents enjoy having their adild at home, they need to let go for the sake of their child’s career. Once they do, they’ll be able to return to all those activities they put on hold while raising children. In the process, they’ll be giving a priceless gift to their graduate.

First published in 2006 in the Louisville Courier-Journal and The News and Observer

First Jobs Are Less Important Than You Think

First jobs after graduation are critical to career success. That is the conventional wisdom of college students and their parents, alike. But a new survey of recent graduates from Duke University indicates that this assumption is inaccurate. And placing too much emphasis on first jobs is a short-sighted strategy.

The “Five Year Out” survey of the Duke University Class of 2001 was commissioned by the Career Center to identify how careers evolve for new graduates. 540 graduates responded, a 42% response rate.

Sheila Curran, Fannie Mitchell executive director of the Career Center, highlights the differences in the way the Class of 2001 viewed careers before and after graduation. “While 92% of the Class were initially satisfied with their post-graduation career choice, 36% changed jobs in the first year. Five years after graduation 73% work for a different organization, and 43% have changed careers at least once.”

Almost one in four graduates cited “lack of a good fit” as the reason for changing careers. To avoid career missteps, students need to spend more time exploring and experiencing different environments, for example through internships, prior to accepting a position, says Curran. And the career choice needs to be the student’s, not the parent’s.

The 540 respondents have held over 1500 jobs in the five years since they graduated, for an average of 2.77 jobs per graduate. Curran asserts that given the number of times graduates will be changing both jobs and careers, it is essential that students prepare themselves not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers.

“It is important for universities to provide ways for new graduates to get a toe-hold on a career path, for example through on-campus recruiting. However, it is infinitely more important that students develop work skills and personal characteristics inside and outside the classroom that will help them not just in their first jobs, but throughout their career.”

The Five Year Out survey also provides insight into how graduates find their positions. Fifty percent of the Class found their positions through personal connections. The importance of connections undoubtedly increases, the longer a graduate is in the workforce.

Parents continue to be involved in the career lives of their graduate children. Sixty percent of the Class of 2001 say that their career choices have been influenced somewhat or a great deal by their parents. Families contributed 8% of the job leads for graduates and were responsible for 7% of the jobs obtained.

The involvement of family can significantly impact the ability of graduates to find and obtain jobs. It is particularly important that universities assist students without such family contacts to leverage alumni and other relationships, says Curran.

Choosing a Major or Concentration

A number of years ago, I received a call from an anxious parent. He said he wanted urgent and specialized career advice for his son. It turned out that his son was only a freshman and had, in fact, just finished orientation at Brown University. The problem? The student had come to Brown proclaiming his desire to major in computer science and had been convinced by new friends in his first few days of college to major in philosophy.

His father’s lament rang loud and clear: “But there are no jobs as philosophers!” This concern was echoed recently by a group of guidance counselors from across the country who visited Duke University. I asked them to tell me the number one concern of parents. Unanimously, they asserted that parents wanted their children to use their educational experience to obtain a successful career.

As a parent, I understand this concern. After all, college often costs enough to require a second mortgage. As the director of a large career center, however, I know that parents often worry unnecessarily. That’s because I’ve seen plenty of philosophy majors who’ve managed to do everything from investment banking to law to starting their own business. Marshall Gregory, professor of English, liberal education and pedagogy at Butler University puts it this way. “In 35 years of teaching, I have never seen a student who really wanted a job fail to get one after graduation, regardless of his or her major…But I have seen many students fail to get an education because they were fixated on the fiction that one particular major or another held the magical key to financial success for the rest of their lives.” For guidance counselors, there’s a real balance between encouraging the educational aspirations of students and assuaging the fears of their parents.

Choosing a major is easiest for students for whom education is identified as a means to an end: employment. Some students identify their intended career at 18 and find a course of study that leads directly to that occupation. Obviously, if you intend to be an accountant, it’s a good idea to major in Accounting. If you want a career related to sports, Sports, Entertainment and Event Management could be a great major. Such certainty at 18, however, is rare. And if students are looking at higher education as an opportunity to grow and develop in a number of different directions, they may significantly limit their options by following a specific career-related path.

Top colleges may not even offer business or other pre-professional options. Still, students will often try to get as close as possible by choosing to study majors like economics that they perceive as more practical. College is too short, however, to pursue a major in which you have little interest. A recent survey of the class of ‘09 at Duke identified that 22 percent of freshmen intended to follow a pre-med curriculum. This expression of interest probably hadn’t changed much in four years, yet only seven percent of the class of ‘06 actually went immediately to med school. Were they unqualified? No. They either chose to wait a year or two before matriculating or they found other careers that turned out to be better suited to their interests and values. From a career perspective, there are few occasions when it is truly advantageous to select your major or course of study very early. Delaying the decision on majors may help students to enjoy college academics more, while opening up previously unknown vistas.

Many students come to college with preconceived notions about majors and their associated career possibilities. There are numerous myths that get in the way of good decision-making. The first is that major equals career. It doesn’t. The second is that it’s better to study something that’s practical, rather than a subject you love. It isn’t. The third is that you need to select your major early if you want a good job, and never change your mind. Not true.

For evidence that major doesn’t equal career, I encourage you to read the book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. One of the reasons I wrote this book with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald, was to demonstrate that you can do just about anything with any liberal arts or sciences degree. Smart Moves includes the entire career stories of 23 fairly recent graduates with liberal arts degrees who have gone on to do all manner of interesting things. All of them are off the family payroll. More importantly, they’re pursuing work they love and few of them are using the subject matter of their major. It turns out that your success after graduation depends much less on the subject matter that you study and much more on your demonstrated interests, aptitudes and experience. Plenty of other factors also come into play, such as personal characteristics, passion and persistence.

There’s also a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that it’s better to learn how to think in college than to study a craft. Time and again, I’ve been told by top people in the media that, for example, they would rather train a recent graduate with experience writing for the school newspaper and a liberal arts degree, than a person with a bachelor’s degree in journalism who was less well-rounded.

So that leads us to the final and most important question: How should students choose a major? Most colleges require major decisions to be made some time in the sophomore year, so it’s important to explore as much as possible in the first year to get a sense of the possibilities. Students should read course descriptions; talk to upper-class students and professors, discover the career realities of alumni, and discuss their thoughts and concerns with academic and career advisors. Only if students are willing to explore interests, options and implications, can they make sound decisions about their major.

Sheila Curran is the Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke University Career Center, where she has served as an academic advisor. She is the co-author of a book published in May, 2006, by Ten Speed Press, entitled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career (www.smartmovesbook.com). Sheila regularly talks to students, parents and alumni about making the most of a college education from a career perspective, and writes a column titled “Curran on Careers” for BusinessWeek.com.