OPCD Expert Contributor – Dr. Katharine S. Brooks, Executive Director of Personal and Career Development
I call it THE QUESTION. It’s the question that compelled me to write my book, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career (Plume, 2009). The one that you’ve probably been facing (and maybe dreading) ever since you decided to attend Wake Forest. And it’s a question that you are likely to hear when you go home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
It starts out rather innocently: “What are you majoring in?” a favorite relative asks. But when you reply, the next question goes in for the kill, “What are you going to DO with that?”
So how do you handle THE QUESTION? What if you’re thinking about a major that doesn’t seem to have a lot of career options directly related? After all, no one seems to offer “philosopher” jobs. Or maybe there are seemingly related careers but they don’t interest you like “English teacher” or “Librarian.” Or maybe you simply don’t know what you plan to do after graduation, so regardless of your major, it’s an awkward moment. How do you handle these challenging questions?
Let’s start with some information that may help you think this through.
First of all, it’s OK not to know what you’re going to “do” with your major. Because you won’t really “do” anything with your major. You’re going to work in whatever field you select, and your major will influence how you think, and how you approach your field of work. Your major will have provided a perspective or way to view a situation and you will use the analytic, creative, strategic and other mindsets you have honed through your major to work in your chosen field.
It’s also OK not to know what you’re going to “do” generally, as in what career field you will pursue. College is a time to develop knowledge and insight into yourself, your interests, and your talents and skills. It’s a time to consider and explore a variety of career options. I often tell students to consider themselves in a “gathering information” stage: you’re collecting information and learning and you’re not ready to make a decision yet. So take the pressure off.
That said, you’re still going to be asked some difficult career questions. So here are 5 quick tips for navigating around them:
1. Remember that questions like this, despite making you uncomfortable, are usually asked out of the best intentions and with concern and kindness. Your relatives worry about you, they want to brag on you, they want you to succeed—but mostly, they want you to be happy. And deciding on and pursuing a fulfilling career can be one major component of a happy life. So try not to take the questions personally or assume that someone is trying to put you on the spot.
2. When you say what you’re majoring in, talk about your favorite class or professor. Tell people what you are learning or what you enjoy about it. Be a spokesperson for its value in how you find it interesting, how it’s changed your thinking, or what it has meant to you. Talk about the book you read that really made you think. Parents are often understandably concerned about whether their money is invested wisely in your education; demonstrating that you are invested in what you’re learning goes a long way to reassure them.
3. If you have some career ideas, share them. Mention that you’re thinking of becoming a ______, and then ask your relatives if they know anyone in that field. They may—and if they do, perhaps they can put you in touch with that person. You never know where that might lead—maybe an internship or a shadowing experience—or even a job!
4. If you have no idea what you plan to do, try saying, “I’m still investigating my options—what made you choose the career field you’re in? “ Getting them to talk about their own careers will take some of the pressure off you, and who knows what you might learn. Be sure to follow up with more questions if you’re interested—What would they do differently? How did they find their first job? At the end, thank them for sharing their insights. Tell them you’re looking forward to figuring out your own career plans.
5. Finally, the more you take charge of your future plans, the more confidence you will have, and the more confidence you will instill in others who care and worry about you. So—get started before the holidays. Read the OPCD website for lots of information about everything from internships to the job search to interesting employers or career options. Write or revise your resume (maybe you will want to show it to some relatives for their opinions), research career options, check out the OPCD’s First Destination Survey so you can see where other majors have gone. Get your career act together so that you will take the pressure off your relatives—and yourself!
Have a great holiday season and be sure to include the OPCD in your plans for the spring!