Today, I spoke with Katharine Brooks, who is the director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored In What? In this interview, Katharine talks about how college students should select a major, the fact that your major isn’t your career, questions college students ask her, job search tactics and more.
Why is choosing the RIGHT major in college so important? Should people choose it freshman year or wait?
Actually, there are probably a lot of “right” majors depending on what career you want to pursue. And since most first-year college students don’t know what career they will pursue they would be wise to look at several alternatives. Students should think about what they enjoy studying, where they like/enjoy the classes and professors, and what books they would read whether they were required or not. That will indicate their focus and interests and make it more likely that they will enjoy their classes, get good grades, and get to know professors well for good recommendations later on.
With a few exceptions (such as engineering) most majors will lead to whatever career they would like. Even medical school only requires about 6 science courses– students can major in whatever they’d like as long as they do well in their classes and in the science courses.
There’s nothing wrong with selecting a major freshman year– sometimes it will help you get into desired classes more easily. Just be prepared to change your major somewhere along the way! Most students do.
How does your major affect your career after college? If you choose one major can you still do something different?
Your major is not your career. In some cases there is an obvious relationship– an English major becomes an English teacher, or a chemistry major becomes a chemist. But in many cases, the major is simply a body of knowledge which can be utilized or transferred into any career. Latin majors become doctors, drama majors become lawyers, biology majors become therapists.
I call that the question that haunts every student: “What are you going to do with your major?”
It’s not “what are you going to do with your major?” It’s “what do you want to do? And how can you show through your major, your experience, your knowledge, etc., that you can do it?”
3. What are the top three questions college students ask you about?
- How can I get a job in X with a major in Y? That is, just what you’ve asked above. “How can I get into this particular career field when I’ve majored in ____?”
- How do I convince an employer to hire me?
- How do I decide what I want to do?
(In other words, I think your questions are very similar to what my students ask.)
How do you talk to a student who has no idea what they want to do in life? What do you suggest they do?
I talk to them for a few minutes to see if I can uncover what’s behind the indecision. It’s usually one of three things:
- They don’t have enough information to make a decision— maybe they don’t know enough about what’s out there or they are lacking information about a career field or who might be hiring. In this case, we identify areas to research and maybe try an experiment or two– like an internship or a “shadowing” experience.
- They actually have too many ideas about what they want to do and they aren’t ready or don’t want to commit to one path. This is what usually happens with liberal arts students– they like so many things, it’s hard to settle for one idea. So I tell them they don’t have to. We create a map of “possible lives” (Chapter 5 in my book) to identify all the possible careers/interests someone has and then we start working out the best system for pursuing the ones that interest them the most at the present time.
- Sometimes indecision is a mask for depression, anxiety, or other issues. It may be that the person is chronically indecisive about many things. In this case it usually shows up in how they decided which college to go to, etc. Sometimes someone else has made all the important decisions for them. In this case, I determine if counseling or other assistance is needed. And then I go back to the possible lives map and help them brainstorm ideas.
What are your top three job searching tips right now?
- Be flexible. This isn’t the year to be too picky. Be flexible about the job– where it’s located, the field it’s in, etc. Be willing to take a chance and experiment even if it’s not the “perfect” opportunity. In my book I discuss small experiments they can conduct that will get them one step closer to their ideal job.
- Always focus on what you’re learning. Every job teaches you something– even if it’s only that you don’t want to work in that field anymore. If you focus on opportunities to learn new skills, gain new knowledge, you never know where that information might come in handy somewhere else. I gained a lot of knowledge about job interviewing in my first professional job in a human resources office for a major department store because I interviewed job candidates for the store. Little did I know then that ten years later I would get a job in a college career center and spend much of my career teaching students how to interview.
- Have the best resume, cover letter, and interview responses possible. Have your resume and cover letters reviewed by several people including career services staff. Practice your responses to interview questions and be prepared to explain why you are the best candidate for the position. Know your strengths, explain the value of your education to your interviewer, and tell compelling stories that make the employer think– and remember you.
Katharine Brooks, Ed.D. is the director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of You Majored In What?: Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career. A nationally recognized career coach, trainer, professor, and counselor for more than twenty years, she is also the creator of the National Association of Colleges and Employers Career Coaching Intensives, highly successful, sold-out training sessions for career counselors. She has a doctorate in educational psychology.