I remember excitedly preparing for my college orientation just before Freshman year. I packed my bag for the weekend, studied a map of the campus so I’d know my way around, and imagined that this was the start of meeting my life-long friends. What I wasn’t prepared for was to show up and be one of the only kids who hadn’t picked their major yet. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and the stress of making the wrong choice weighed on me for the first two years of college.
In hindsight, I now know that few of us actually use the major we spend so much time picking. Research published by the New York Fed economists in 2013 shows that only 27% of grads work in a field that is related to their major. I wish I could go back and show this data to my 18 year old self, so I’d worry less about my major.
So how do you take that first step into a career outside of your major? It’s not necessarily as difficult as you might think.
Stop Asking the Wrong Question
Before we get too caught up in worrying that we’ve ruined our future career prospects by picking the wrong major, heed the advice of Dr. Michael Shafer, a retired professor from Rutgers University. After teaching for 25 years, he spent countless hours counseling students and former students looking to find jobs or escape bad ones. His advice starts here: with the understanding that most majors are meaningless.
Instead of asking yourself how to escape the natural career path from the major you’ve picked, ask yourself a better question: who do you want to be at 40?
Why 40? “This will be your career peak,” Shafer explains. “You will not remember what you majored in. What knowledge and skills do you think you will need to be the person you imagine being?”
If you’re worried that you majored in something that isn’t relevant to the career that you want to have, realize that in most cases, it really won’t matter.
Focus on Transferable Skills
Simon Royston, the founder of recruitment firm The Recruitment Lab, shares that we often put far too much emphasis on a major when employers don’t. What’s often more important are the problem-solving and transferable skills that you’ve developed during school or at other jobs.
“In my experience, recent undergrads are far too attached to their college degree subjects in their job search and actually miss the bigger picture. Just because you spent a few years studying a subject for a bachelor’s degree, it doesn’t mean this is an area you specialize in for the next 50!”
But that doesn’t mean that you’ve wasted four years in school learning things that are in no way related to what you want to do with your career.
Royston explains, “It is all down to potential, transferable skills and your ability to communicate. Having completed a degree gives you huge potential, a raft of transferable skills and hopefully some written and verbal communication skills. So relax, moving into a career away from what you majored in is only going to be as big an issue as you make it.”
When you’re thinking about applying to jobs outside of your major or that are different from what you have direct experience in, what transferable skills can you highlight that an employer wants to see?
When William Chin was leaving the military, his career goal was to get a job as a CPA or something related. His college major had been in Financial Economics, so that path made sense to him. But he soon realized that employers weren’t jumping to hire him and it wasn’t really what he wanted to do. So, he started over.
Chin took online courses to supplement some of his education and then applied for a six-month entry-level internship in web development at a community college to improve his skill set. That internship didn’t make him an expert, but it helped him move down a new path. “What it did do is strengthen the cross-functional skills that I gained in my finance degree while opening my eyes to a new world of technology. This made me uniquely suited to carry out “Business Analyst” or “Product Management” tasks, due to my understanding of business needs and foundational technical skills.”
He took that experience and continued learning, moving up in small companies until he finally landed exactly where he wants to be, as a technical product manager at Pickfu.com.
If you aren’t being hired into the field you want to move into, how can you continue to learn and build skills in that area? Online courses and internships are a great way to continue learning after you’ve left the classroom.
Play the Long Game
If you weren’t able to land the job or make your way onto the career path you were hoping for, hope isn’t lost. The average person has 12 jobs throughout their working career and some surveys indicate that millennials will change jobs even more frequently than that.
So what happens if you don’t succeed with your first attempt to set out on a new course? Jack Colletti, a Pittsburgh based sales executive and entrepreneur, advises playing the long game, which is a strategy he used to create a successful 25+ year career after leaving the Navy.
He suggests that if you fall short of getting the job that you want, try to get a somewhat related job at the company you’re interested in (or their competitors). From there, make your ambitions known. “Don’t be afraid to be candid with your manager (or HR) about your career path. Make it known that you ultimately want a specific role (and solicit their advice on how to achieve it). Many managers want to help further develop their team members, but it’s important that you communicate openly to achieve this.”
Just Do It
The last piece of advice is to find a way to start doing the work you want to do, outside of being hired for a job. Ellen Mullarkey, VP of Development for the Messina Staffing Group shares that this is especially relevant for people who want to work in a creative field.
“I talk to a lot of job seekers who want to work in creative fields. There are people who felt pressured to study finance or law, but their true passion is graphic design or photography. If that’s your case, you should just start doing it. You might have to work another job while you develop your portfolio, but nothing is stopping you from pursuing it. If you can develop a body of work on your own time, you can start to apply for those jobs.“
If you want to write, start writing. If you want to design, start designing. One great way to stretch yourself and do some good is to volunteer your emerging hard or soft skills for a non-profit, or do pro bono work for a local small business. Start doing more of the work you want to do now and eventually you may find someone who is eager to pay you to do it or an interested recruiter.
In many cases, majors only determine as much of your career trajectory as you allow them to. If you want to make a change, use these tips to start creating your own path.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.