Is college worth the cost?
The Curran Consulting Group explains how colleges can increase their value to students.
Is college worth the cost?
The Curran Consulting Group explains how colleges can increase their value to students.
Sheila Curran talks with Sara Nordhoff of the Forte Foundation in a webinar titled Smart Moves for Your Career: Positioning Yourself for Success in a Down Economy, January 21, 2009. The audience is women undergraduates interested in business, but the messages are applicable to all students and graduates. Sheila maintains that success in the job search is all about attitude, focus and strategy. The text of the webinar is below:
Sara: What does your crystal ball say about the employment outlook for college women?
Sheila: Well, Sara, there’s no doubt that there are dark clouds on the employment horizon. The US lost over a million jobs in the last two months of 2008 and conservatively, the projection is for 2 million more people losing their jobs in 2009. And by all accounts, on-campus recruiters are making about 20% fewer offers than last year. So, it’s going to be more difficult to find jobs—whether in business or some other field. But there are jobs out there. What we’re going to be talking about today is how to put yourself in the best position to get hired.
But first we need to talk about the elephant in the room…..
Sara: What is the elephant in the room?
Sheila: For those unfamiliar with the expression, the elephant in the room refers to something big that’s in front of your eyes but no one talks about. In this case it represents the fact that probably 50% of those listening are thinking in the back of their minds that if this “job” thing doesn’t work out the way they want, they’ll go to graduate school. In fact, applications to grad school at places like Duke are up over 30% from last year. Faculty are undoubtedly encouraging this trend.
Sara: Why shouldn’t recent grads go to graduate school? It’ll make a lot of parents very happy, and students will be be able to ride out the recession.
Sheila: My strong advice is if you weren’t seriously thinking about graduate school before the economy tanked, don’t jump on that bandwagon now. For a woman interested in business, grad school may just be a fast way to more debt, and may not increase your chances of getting ahead.
Sara: Students are probably not hearing much about why they shouldn’t go to grad school immediately after graduating from college.
Sheila: You’re right, but I posed the question to a number of experts outside academia. Here are their responses:
Expert #1, employed in NYC: It’s all about having work experience. A master’s candidate without experience is much less useful that a bachelor’s candidate with experience, and is therefore less likely to get the job
Expert #2, business career advisor for undergraduates and graduate students at a top university: Students with master’s degrees and no relevant experience often don’t fit into employers’ hiring plans. And, they’re perceived as being too expensive.
Expert #3: Highly successful businessman: Don’t go immediately to grad school. Get experience. I don’t care whether it’s working at McDonalds. More school immediately after college will not be to your advantage
So don’t believe me; believe the people doing the hiring in this economy.
Sara: Just to clarify, are you including MBA courses in what you said about grad school?
Sheila: No, MBAs are completely different, because you almost always enter business school with several years of experience. The hiring situation is also difficult for B-School grads, but the strategies we’re talking about today are equally applicable. And, just to clarify, there definitely are jobs where having an master’s degree could be to your advantage. My advice, though, is to not assume the benefits of a degree program you’re considering without checking out those assumptions with hiring managers.
Sara: So, if employers aren’t looking for women with graduate degrees, what are they looking for?
Sheila: They’re looking for KSA: Knowledge, skills and abilities. The good hiring manager, who’s been trained to interview (which is not always the case), is going to compare the needs of her employer to your qualifications. If your major doesn’t indicate that you understand the industry where you’re applying for a job, you need to find a way to show you have the required knowledge through courses, work experiences and possibly even extracurricular activities.
Skills and abilities are less likely to come from the classroom, but you can draw from all your college experiences—on and off campus. Hiring managers may make assumptions about your level of competence from your GPA and your major, but they don’t know about your skills and abilities unless you highlight them. That means specifically mentioning skills and abilities in your resume and cover letter and giving examples.
Sara: So what you’re basically saying is that in the absence of a personal connection, it’s your combination of relevant knowledge, skills and abilities that will get you the interview.
Sheila: Right, but getting the job is going to require that you ALSO possess three other critical attributes: A great attitude, clear focus, and a well-thought-through job search strategy
It’s interesting. If you ask most people what it takes to get a job, few will tell you about attitude, focus and strategy. But that’s what we’re going to concentrate on today. Because there are thousands of new grads out there with a great education, and even good experience. It’s the addition of attitude, focus and strategy that will help you beat the competition.
Let’s start by talking about attitude.
Sara: Attitude is one of those nebulous characteristics. What exactly do you mean?
Sheila: I’m using attitude in the employment context to mean four things: if you want to succeed in this market, you have to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. The fact is, most candidates don’t have the perfect blend of knowledge, skills and abilities. And if an employer has a choice between one slightly imperfect candidate and another, she’ll pick the one with the good attitude every time. An employer recently gave me an example of this. On paper the candidate for a technology sales position didn’t look as qualified as some of the others. But in the interview, her knowledge of the product line and genuine enthusiasm shone through.
Sara: The woman in your example showed her positive attitude through her enthusiasm. Is there anything more you want to say about being positive? For example, what strategies do you have for staying positive when there’s so much bad news around?
Sheila: Funnily enough, the first strategy I’d employ is not putting yourself in a position where the chances of rejection are almost 100%. Let me give an example: A student came to work in my careers office, with the clear purpose of getting first access to any available business-related job openings. Sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot by applying indiscriminately online for any opening. He didn’t get a job that way, and when he did hear back from an employer—pretty rare in itself—it was always a rejection. That can make anyone depressed.
Sara: Are you suggesting that college women not apply for jobs where all it takes is to apply on line?
Sheila: I know of instances where students have gotten jobs through sites like Monster or Craig’s List, but they tend to be lower level, commission sales, or technology jobs. Look at it this way, if you can easily find a job listing through an online site, so can thousands of others. So your chances will only be good if you can find some additional ways to get the employer’s attention.
Sara: So far, I’m even more depressed. What are the reasons to be positive?
Sheila: The number one reason is that it can get you a job. Let’s assume you have the basic skills and qualifications, and you’re invited for an interview. Genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity, and for the value you can provide, is infectious. People like to be around upbeat people, and employers are no different. So if you’re down about the job search, don’t let it show.
Sara: OK, let’s move on to your second point.
Sheila: OK, point #2, you need to have a pragmatic attitude. Easy example: Last year, you wanted to work in the investment banking industry. This year, unless you’re one of the few people who got hired from an internship—in which case you’re not on this call—you’ll need to expand your horizons to look for work.
Sara: What do you mean by “expand your horizons”?
Sheila: It might mean thinking “finance” not “i-banking”, and considering smaller companies, different geographic locations, or different ways of employing your interests and skill sets
Sara: Your third point is being prepared. But isn’t everyone well prepared for the job search in this economy?
Sheila: It’s certainly true that successful job hunters will spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the job search. So let’s test the notion of being prepared. I’d like our audience to think about the degree to which they would be prepared to do an on the spot telephone interview for a position in which they’re really interested, but for which they applied three months ago online. Being prepared means either having an extraordinary memory, or having records of your applications and interactions in an easily retrievable database. Of course, if the employer calls at 10am, and your computer is invisible under a pile of clothes and you still haven’t had that essential cup of coffee, it’s worth asking if you can call them back in a few minutes.
Sara: Do you have any success stories of students or recent grads who were particularly well prepared?
Sheila: Yes I do. Sharon comes to mind. She’s one of the women profiled in my book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads. Sharon was a buyer for a major retail chain, but she really wanted a job writing about the fashion industry. Here’s where taking graduate classes really was the right decision. Because Sharon knew that she couldn’t just move from retail to writing, even if she knew the field about which she wanted to write. So she signed up for an NYU evening journalism class. That was the first smart move. The second was to have her wits about her when she approached a woman on the subway as she was heading to class. She noticed the logo on the woman’s jacket was for Newsday, one of New York’s biggest papers. Sharon started a conversation about the woman’s work, and then told the woman about her interest in getting into the business of writing about fashion. Fast forward, and Sharon got a gig writing online articles about fashion. Of course, she couldn’t immediately give up her day job, but this chance meeting gave her the inside track to a new career. Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and she was prepared when luck appeared. That preparation gives you the confidence to take advantage of serendipity. It’s also a powerful reminder to develop your elevator speech.
Sara: What’s an elevator speech?
Sheila: It’s a short (up to thirty seconds) pitch for what you want to do. The idea is that if you found yourself in an elevator with a business leader who asked what you were doing in the building, you could tell such a compelling story that when you reached your stop that leader would want to continue the conversation with you.
Sara: So Sharon probably had the components of her elevator pitch in mind when she approached the woman from Newsday, and she was able to weave her pitch into the conversation. Sharon certainly has a good story, but how often does that kind of luck happen?
Sheila: Probably more frequently than you might think. When I was researching the book I coauthored on careers, I consistently heard people crediting their success to the fact that they were in the right place at the right time. You have to be prepared if you want to take advantage of serendipity. But realistically, most people have to be more persistent than Sharon, particularly when it comes to the job search.
Sara: Isn’t there a danger that employers will get annoyed with the persistent applicant?
Sheila: You’re right. So here’s the strategy. (This is assuming that the job you’re applying for isn’t going through the on-campus recruiting process, and that you have the opportunity to send a cover letter)
1) The last sentence on your cover letter should say how much you look forward to talking with the company about your background and experience and how you can add value to xyz company. Then indicate that you’ll follow up in 2 weeks to make sure that they have all the information they need, and to see if you might arrange a personal appointment.
2) Follow up at the appropriate time. The company will probably tell you they have your resume and that they’re not ready to make any decisions about whom to interview
3) Say that you’re still very interested in the position, and ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up again
4) If they give you a date, follow up at the specified time, starting with the statement that you’re following up as suggested by xyz person
If you follow these steps you’ll be combining persistence with respect. Of course, if you also find someone in the company to speak on your behalf, you’re golden.
So, we’ve talked about attitude and the need to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. Now let’s talk about why you need to be focused.
Sara: How important is it to know exactly what you want to do?
Sheila: It may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job. There’s a real temptation when you’re desperate to get a job to say you’ll do anything. But that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Employers don’t want to have to think about where they can use your skills. In this market, you have to be totally focused on what you want to do and how you can add value to the employer. Essentially, however much of a square peg you might be, if the employer has a round hole, you have to make yourself fit into that round hole. It’s all about making it easy for the employer to hire you.
Sara: So it’s good that students and graduates on this call probably already know they want to go into business?
Sheila: Yes, but let’s remember how many different areas of business there are. Having a general direction is great, but knowing specifically where you’d be a good fit is much better.
Sara: Are there any areas of business that are growing and where it might be easier to find work?
Sheila: You can find business jobs in just about any career field, so it’s worth following the news and anticipating which areas are growing and where federal stimulus money may be spent over the next year. Areas where there may be opportunities are sustainability and energy conservation; risk management; areas of the federal government; health care, and education. But don’t wait until everyone else finds those opportunities. Take the initiative to go down to your local Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development office and find out who’s starting businesses in the area where you want to work. Sometimes working for a start up can give you an education you’d never get in a larger company—even if you do have to do your share of filing.
Sara: Any other suggestions for someone who’s totally clueless about career direction?
Sheila: Yes. I’d hightail it over to your careers office and ask to take some assessment instruments to see where your talents and interests might best be employed. Don’t forget to debrief the results with a counselor to make the most of the assessment. And then investigate potential fields of interest, for example by reading the Vault guides. Many careers offices provide access to Vault guides online.
Sara: We’ve covered attitude and focus. Your next point, Sheila, is that college women need to have a strategy. Why is the job search strategy you use so important these days?
Sheila: Strategy is what’s going to help you beat the competition. You should have both a micro strategy, which you employ when you’re applying for a specific job and a macro strategy for how you run your whole job search. And by the way, the strategies you use for your first real job can be employed at any time in the future, too. Let’s start with micro strategy, as in how you approach a specific job opening.
Sara: Can you back up for a minute and talk about how our audience can decide what to apply for?
Sheila: Yes. Here are some basic rules. Only apply if
1) You have at least 75% of the qualifications, and 100% of the really important ones, like being a college graduate with experience
2) You know you can psyche yourself up to convey interest in the employment opportunity in both your documents and in an in-person interview
3) You’re willing to spend time researching the job and the company, and figuring out how you can add value to the company
Remember, the job search is not about you. Until you get the offer, it’s all about the employer.
Sara: So where does the strategy come in?
Sheila: You have to be more prepared than the competition. That means going way beyond the job description and the website to find out more about the opportunity, and identifying actual examples of what you’ve accomplished that relate specifically to the job at hand.
Once you’ve done your due diligence about the job, and found out more about the position and the company, it’s time to see if you can identify a connection or alumna who works at the company and who can give you the inside scoop. In your conversation with the contact, tell her which job you’ve applied for, and that you are very interested in their company. Your reason for talking to her is to find out how you can best position yourself to get hired. The key here is to build rapport—so much so that you gain a supporter within the company.
Sara: I think this is probably an area we’ll want to explore later in more detail.
Sheila: Yes, we don’t have time to go into too much detail on the micro side. So, let’s move on to big picture strategies. My first macro strategy point is that you need to choose your board of directors.
Sara: Are board member positions paid positions?
Sheila: Unfortunately no. These are knowledgeable people, who have your best career interests at heart and who will tell you the truth. That means, by definition, they are not your parents or your best friends who are way too biased.
Sara: So who should be your board members, and what do they do?
Sheila: They could include a faculty member, a career advisor, an alumna or sorority sister in your field of interest. They’re people who—based on your request– have agreed to give you feedback on your resume and cover letter, hear your elevator pitch, potentially even practice interview with you. Your board should be up to date on your thinking about career direction and be available to help you make good decisions. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening in your career search and listen to their advice carefully, even if you don’t take it. They may think of additional avenues you could explore, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re dealing with either multiple job offers or multiple rejections.
Sara: What else is on the list of macro strategies?
Sheila: There’s not a person I know who’d disagree with the idea that, however qualified you are, you have to network like crazy.
Sara: Networking seems like asking for help to many women, and makes them very uncomfortable.
Sheila: You’re right that it’s a new skill for many women, but before you say “I don’t want to do that”, it’s worth looking at the benefits. The more people who know you’re looking for work, and are impressed with your knowledge, skills and abilities, the more opportunities will open up for you. You may be more comfortable if you realize that all you’re supposed to be doing is having a conversation with another person. Most of the time you won’t be talking about the help you need unless the person you’re talking to offers the help first.
Here’s a tip for those of you who hate the idea of initiating a conversation about your career aspirations. Start with people you know, like relatives, who naturally open the door for you to talk about how school is going. Learn how to weave your future plans into the conversation. And don’t discount school advisors with whom you have a good relationship. One student I know asked the professor teaching an undergrad law class whether he thought she should go to law school. At first she was really upset, because he said “absolutely not”, but he followed it up with the comment that he saw her as being very successful in the entertainment business. And then he did something that really surprised her: he introduced her by email to his old college roommate, who was a film director in Hollywood. This student now works in the entertainment field.
Sara: I can see why you highly recommend networking. What’s next on your list of macro strategies?
Sheila: Here’s a very uncommon, but extremely useful strategy: identify and address your competence gaps. That means, in simple terms, consider the types of jobs you want to apply for, and identify where you don’t meet the qualifications. If you do this now, you may have time to fix the problem before you apply for the jobs.
Sara: Do all candidates typically meet all qualifications?
Sheila: No, but if you consistently see jobs of interest requiring a facility with Excel or Powerpoint, and you don’t know those programs, it’s really a good idea to learn them. Harpreet, another recent grad profiled in my book had excellent non-profit management skills but no formal grounding in business. So she deliberately applied to work at a consulting firm where she could learn good business skills. The key in this economy is “don’t give them any excuse to reject you”.
Sara: Just as a matter of interest, how long does it usually take for an employer to evaluate your application?
Sheila: You’re doing well if they even spend 30 seconds on your documents, so make sure one of your competence gaps isn’t the inability to proofread!
Sara: There’s a theme here, and it seems to be “employers have the upper hand, so give them what they want”.
Sheila: You’re right. The piece of advice I give most frequently to students and recent grads is to think like an employer. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you need to make it easy for an employer to hire you.
Sara: Can you make that practical? Take a resume, for example. How can you demonstrate “thinking like an employer” in a resume?
Sheila: Most of us have a lot of different attributes, and we’re very proud of all of them – or at least our parents are. There’s a temptation to a) put all of them down on the resume, including winning the jeopardy quiz in high school and b) send the same resume and cover letter to every employer.
Sara: Wait a minute. Are you saying that you need to customize every cover letter and resume?
Sheila: Cover letters definitely need to be customized for the employer, because you want to highlight how your accomplishments will help you be an excellent fit with the open positions. But it’s often helpful to rearrange your accomplishments on your resume, too, so that the most important items stand out more effectively. Here’s a tip. Give your resume to an acquaintance, and ask them to tell you what parts of your background, experience or characteristics stand out. It’s a great check on whether you’re actually conveying what you want to convey.
Sara: Isn’t it enough to just change the name of the company throughout the cover letter?
Sheila: I can assure you that companies sniff out the quasi form letter virtually every time. If you don’t write something really specific about why you truly want to work for the employer, they’ll probably ditch your application pretty quickly—that’s unless they’re doing what I call “hiring by the numbers”.
Sara: What’s “hiring by the numbers”?
Sheila: That’s when an employer doesn’t even want a cover letter; they just want to see that you have a certain GPA from a certain school, a particular major, and specific experience. If that’s the case, you truly have to be a round peg for the round hole, or you won’t even get a chance to shine in an interview.
Sara: Do you have any advice on resumes?
Sheila: There are plenty of good sources of advice on resumes, including professionals in most careers offices, but two things are very important. First, unless you worked full time before coming to college, make it a maximum of one page. And second, make sure you list accomplishments, not just job duties, and quantify what you did where if at all possible. Give your resume to a couple of detail-oriented friends to look over and make sure it’s word perfect. Spell check doesn’t catch everything! And don’t forget, the employer is going to be reading your documents with their requirements in mind. The easier you make it for the hiring manager to find your matching skill set, the better.
Sara: I’m sure there will be questions from the audience about how to best present yourself to an employer. But one of the things we said we’d do today was to highlight how to beat the competition.
Sheila: Yes. And that brings me to my last key point of strategic advice: Find your hook.
Sara: I think you’ll have to explain more. What’s a hook?
Sheila: A hook is some characteristic you possess, or an action you take, that separates you from your competition. Probably everyone in the audience employed some kind of hook to get into college. It could have been a particularly high SAT score, or athletic prowess, or starting a non-profit company. It’s the same idea when working with employers. Do you have something they can remember you by? It could be something personal like the fact that you climbed Mount Killimanjaro, or you could be like Theresa, who always writes personalized handwritten thank you letters to those who’ve helped, or interviewed her.
But even more powerful is the work hook. If you’re applying to work in a corporate area at Honda, being fluent in Japanese might be your hook. Or, you might have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond what was expected in each of your internships—and have the references to prove it. And don’t underestimate the opportunity for non-profit work to provide you with business experience hook. After graduation, Sara joined the Peace Corps in Morocco to learn a language, but in working for a small NGO there, Sara learned a huge amount about women’s small business development and developed an interest in micro finance. A skill set or knowledge that most people don’t have can be your hook.
Sara: So our listeners should think about their own hook, in the context of the work they want to do?
Sheila: You got it!
Sara: These examples are very helpful. Do you have any suggestions as to how students and recent graduates can find more helpful stories.
Sheila: Well, coming to webinars like this, and Forte Foundation presentations on campus, is a great start.
Sara: Yes, and many listeners may be unaware that Forte also has a section on its website called “Girl Talk”. That’s a place to continue the kinds of discussions we’re having in this webinar. What else, Sheila?
Sheila: I can’t say enough about the value of informational interviewing to get career advice from those more experienced, who’ve already made their mistakes. Many women are shy about reaching out for this kind of advice, but you just have to. Sometimes if you concentrate on asking questions about someone else’s career, you’ll be less self-conscious.
Sara: Who can you go to for informational interviews?
Sheila: A good place to start is with your existing connections: aunts, uncles, business colleagues of your parents. But you also have to mine your alumni network, and events where alumni come back and share their career histories. Those are particularly helpful if you can wangle a way to be a host. You may also find your career center a great source of referrals and information.
Sara: Can you talk about what students and young alums might get from your book.
Sheila. Absolutely. Thousands of people have found my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career to be really inspirational. That’s because it talks about careers in context. Smart Moves contains the stories of 23 fairly recent grads who found work they loved, and tells of the smart moves they took to become successful. (It also talks about some dumb moves, that you would hopefully avoid!)
Sara: How does your book relate to business?
Sheila: Actually the advice in the book is applicable to a career search in any career field, and quite a few of the people we profiled went on to get an MBA. When the book was used in the Engineering department at Duke, they changed the name to Smart Moves for Engineering Grads! It could easily be called Smart Moves for Business.
Sara: We’re getting close to the end of the formal portion of this webinar, so Sheila, do you want to recap the smart career moves our audience should be thinking about?
Sheila: Yes, there are essentially three things to always keep in mind while you’re going through the job search:
First: Keep a positive attitude—no matter what happens
Second: Be focused on what you want to do and where you can add value and
Third: Design a custom strategy for your career search and for any position in which you’re interested.
Sara: So any final words of wisdom?
Sheila: If there’s anything I want students and recent graduates to know, it’s this: The unemployment rate may be creeping up, but the unemployment rate for college grads is typically about half the national average. There are jobs out there, and there are smart moves you can make to get them.
So don’t hyperventilate; don’t feel you have to go to graduate school to wait out the recession. Know yourself and your skills so well that you can go out there and wow your future employer.
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.
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 .
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
Q. I graduated from college last year, and after many short term jobs, I’ve finally figured out what I really want to do: arts administration. Trouble is, my only relevant experience is from college. How do I get my foot in the door?
A. Congratulations on identifying your passion. You’ve saved yourself years of working in unsatisfying positions. But, you’re up against the classic Catch 22: To get experience you have to have experience. And in the world of entertainment, it’s also a case of who you know. Research interesting locations and organizations, and then focus on getting people in arts administration to know you and what you can do. If you’ve been able to save some money from your short term jobs (or you have a doting aunt), you could go “cold turkey” and find an internship in an arts organization which you admire. There are, of course, no guarantees here that you’ll find full-time work as a result—or that you’ll be paid anything. But with some diligence, you can find an opportunity that puts you in touch with arts administrators and helps you pick up essential skills.
If you can’t intern full-time, consider regular and extensive volunteer work. And don’t overlook the fact that lower level-level paid administrative positions, for example, in membership development or fundraising, can lead to higher level opportunities, You’ll soon discover that most people in arts administration started at the bottom.
One final piece of advice: Eat lunch. Make it a point to invite interesting arts administrators to join you and share their advice and knowledge about the field. Once they get invested in your success, you’re on your way.
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.
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.