Career Prospects of Different Majors

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Eight

The Big Picture

It's easy to fall in love with a job and find out the many degree options that could prepare you for that job—but what do you do if you fall in love with a major in college, but don't know where that will lead in the world of work? A carefully outlined three-step process will help you understand how to convert your college studies into job prospects, and that process starts by becoming familiar with the many programs available through your college's career placement program, including their major-career match website. Combined with a review of websites run by professional organizations related to your major, and a quick read of mainstream media articles on your major, it's easy to make some connections between your college studies and your plan of work, all while remembering the seven key career areas that tend to be available at one level or another, regardless of what you study—teaching, journalism, business, entrepreneurship, government, technology, or avocation/hobby, where you follow your love of your major on your own time, while finding a job in another field that meets your financial needs.

In the chapter Selecting a College Major, we talked about ways to discover different kinds of college majors, and ways to track careers back to certain majors. In this chapter, we're going to turn things around a little, and look at how to discover the careers that are tied to specific majors. We won't be able to talk about every major, but we'll use a system and point you to the right resources that will allow you to investigate the career options of any major, and discuss some careers that are available to you with any major, as long as you have a degree.

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Exploring Careers Online

Thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever before to get information on career options, based on your college major. A number of the easiest sites to use are tied to the career services pages of colleges and universities. This is one of the best programs available at most colleges, but most students don't even think of using it until they are close to graduating, or out in the world of work. Career services (also known in some colleges as placement services) offers information about how to select a major, how to investigate careers, how to search for jobs, how to build a resume, how to prepare for an interview, and more. All of these services are usually free to students, and many are free to graduates for their first year out in the workforce. Many career service programs also host companies and employers on campus, giving students the opportunity to interview for jobs with national and international firms without ever having to leave campus.

The key is to visit career services in your first few weeks on campus, since the best way to make the most out of the services they offer is to know what's offered, and the best times in your college career to use each service.

A look at some of the career placement websites shows some different approaches to connecting majors with possible careers. The career services website of the University of Washington offers a list of possible areas of employment, the major employers within each area, and strategies for pursuing those specific jobs. General employability strategies for the major are also listed, offering insights to students on what they should be focusing on in college in addition to the knowledge they're obtaining in the classroom. For example, when discussing careers in Accounting, UW suggests students consider joining the accounting and finance fraternity Beta Alpha Psi, and urges students to develop personal skills that are valued in accounting careers, including teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills.

The career service websites of other colleges point students to the easy-to-remember website, What Can I do With This Major? A quick comparison of this site to the University of Washington site shows much of the same information, but What Can I do With This Major? also offers links to related websites, including professional associations, information on job availability from the Occupation Outlook Handbook, and job postings. If you're wondering about the Occupation Outlook Handbook, it offers solid information about job statistics and availability, but it doesn't offer much in the way of connecting college majors to careers. We'll talk more about OOH in another chapter, where the structure of this information-rich site really shines.

Still other career service websites offer students more detailed information on each career related to the major, introducing the student to the kind of work done, a summary of the job requirements, points of interest related to the work (including information on starting salaries), and the top employers nationally in each of the fields. This is the approach taken at myplan.com, which serves as both a connection between majors and careers and a career awareness site.

A number of professional associations offer advice on the careers available in their field based on the major a student has. The American Psychological Association devotes a big piece of its website to careers for students with degrees in psychology, talking about the jobs available at each degree level, and explaining each different field available to psychologists. Sites like Engineer Girl (http://www.engineergirl.org/) go beyond general information and focus on the opportunities available to women with degrees in Engineering, including advice on how to prepare for the major. In exploring these options, make sure you're looking for information that tells you what jobs you can get with the degree, not what degree you need for a specific job. These are two different questions, and we'll talk about the second one in just a minute.

Finally, the degree-major connection is being picked up more and more by the media, where magazines and online media will offer short, focused stories on what students can do with a specific degree. Most of these stories focus on how much money each job will pay, and offers a brief overview of the nature of the work, along with an estimate of the need for workers in each field. (As an example, see here.) These articles can be a great introduction into a field, but serious students will want to add to this information by visiting a career services website that offers more detailed information about the major.

Given all of these resources, what's the best way to get clear, up-to-date information on the job prospects for a degree you're interested in? Follow these steps:

  1. Look up the degree using any of the career service websites. Most will lead you to What Can I do With This Major, so you might just want to start there.
  2. Look up the websites of any professional organizations associated with your major. These websites may talk more about the different degrees that lead to the same job, but at this point in your search, that's OK. You may be better off with a different major than the one you had in mind, if you want to secure a certain job.
  3. At this point, really open things up, and do a website search on “Careers for a _________ Degree.” You may end up with more career service sites, but you may stumble across a feature article or another professional website that offers a different take on your career. If this search is too large, try “Careers for a ___________ Degree in (name of your state).” This can give you some detailed information on the job prospects that are unique to your area.

As you complete your research, keep in mind that many websites will only provide partial lists of job possibilities. This is especially true with feature stories or magazine articles, where they sell the “exciting” jobs to the reader, or the jobs that pay the highest salaries. The financial side of a job is certainly an important one to consider, but it isn't the only factor to keep in mind when selecting a major and a career. There are many rich people who are unhappy with their career choices, while others who make far less in their paychecks go to work each day with a sense of excitement and purpose. Focus on the websites that include detailed discussions on the nature of the work; those will lead you to making the best choices.

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Choices No Matter What Your Major

Every major has career choices that are unique to the skills, applications, and solutions unique to that major. At the same time, there are some jobs that are available to almost every degree. While these jobs may vary in availability and pay, each of them is worth considering as you investigate any major, to see if there's a major-career fit for you.

Teaching

It's safe to say that any major where you earn a degree needs teachers, since the only way you earned that degree was to take classes from people who taught you in that field. The nature of education is always changing, but there is always going to be a need for those who guide, encourage, and instruct students, whether it's in a traditional classroom, online, or through guided independent study.

Elementary and Secondary School

The need for teachers in grades K--12 isn't as big right now, but it's heading for an upswing around 2024, as the birth rate continues to rise. Elementary teachers usually have to major in education, but many middle school and high school teachers complete their teaching qualifications by earning a degree in their area of expertise and completing one additional year of teacher training. This means that, as long as you have a degree in something that's taught in grades 6--12, there's a good chance you can become a teacher.

Community College

Community college attendance enjoyed a big increase during the economic downturn, as thousands of people who were suddenly laid off needed new technical or career training, and fast. That trend has died down as people are now back at work, but another trend is growing—students who attend one or two years of community college to save on college, then transfer to a four-year college to finish their degree.

Whether they go for training or transfer, community college students need instructors, and most community colleges will hire instructors who have a Master's degree or more in their field—and if you're in a technical field, you may be able to teach with just a Bachelor's degree. Many community colleges are starting to hire only part-time instructors, so making a career out of teaching at this level may require taking two or more part-time jobs, but if teaching at the college level is of interest, this is worth looking into—and since community colleges offer classes in more fields, there's a better chance you hold a degree in a field where they need teachers.

Four-year colleges

Almost all instructors at four-year colleges and universities hold what's called a terminal degree, or the highest degree that's available in their field. For most majors, that's a doctorate of some kind, but some majors stop at the Master's level.

Positions at four-year colleges and universities differ from community college positions. Faculty at four-year colleges usually teach less than instructors at community colleges, spending the rest of their time focusing on writing and research. If you'd rather spend your time working with students than doing experiments, community college teaching might be a better opportunity for you.

Like community college positions, full-time teaching jobs at a four-year college are becoming harder to find, so qualified candidates will have to have plenty of part-time (or adjunct) teaching experience and research background in order to secure a job.

Community education and private instruction

While many teachers look for full-time positions, other instructors look to teaching as a way to share something they love with just a few students at a time on a part-time basis. For these teachers, working through community education programs to teach workshops or short-term classes is one way to share their knowledge, while others will offer private lessons or tutoring to small groups of students or individuals. Teachers choosing this option will need to be real self-starters who are willing to reach out to existing community programs and propose new courses, do their own advertising and promotion, and keep track of their own expenses and income. This area of teaching isn't limited to an area where you hold a degree, as many teaching positions are available for teachers who have an expertise in hobbies like skydiving, woodcarving, and knitting.

Journalism

The traditional path to a career as a journalist has changed almost as quickly as the number of ways we get news. While the one sure way to having your name appear on an article read by thousands every day used to be a degree in Journalism, a different path of academic preparation is starting to emerge.
To be sure, a journalism degree is still a prime qualification for those seeking full-time employment at a newspaper, as well as most magazines. It's uncertain just how long the print editions of these media are going to last, but if they eventually fade away, their online versions are still going to be largely written by people who have studied writing, communication, and the ethics of being the public's eyes and ears.

At the same time, a growing amount of internet space, including online newspapers, is being turned over to writers who have an expertise in a field, and write about it. These authors (it's best not to call them reporters for now) generally have a degree in the field they're writing about (medicine, education, politics, the arts), and have taken enough writing courses to know how to do research, check sources, and offer insights that are as balanced as their publisher wants them to be.

This second approach to writing about the news is especially popular in the world of technology, where changes occur so rapidly, and at such depths, it's nearly impossible to understand just what's going on without a degree in the field. This is also the case with medicine, and with other areas that may not be in the news very often, but rely on a deep amount of expertise when they do.

Either path can lead to some kind of employment, and no matter which one you take, the time to start writing is now. From the school newspaper to the blogosphere, there is always room for a thoughtful voice who does their research and offers both sides of the story. There's no need to wait for college to begin developing your voice, and you don't even have to have a major before you start sharing your ideas with the world. All you need is an interest in why things are the way they are, and a willingness to listen and grow.

Business

Understanding the changes in the business world doesn't require you to look much farther than your phone, your computer, or your watch. When Steve Jobs launched Apple computer, he didn't have a Business degree; he had a vision of what computers could do. Over time, his business skills grew, but the legacy he leaves is more one of inspired thinker than disciplined businessman—and in leaving that legacy, he's opened the doors of business to people from all walks of like, who have degrees in all kinds of fields.

This isn't to say that the scientist who wants to go into business on her own wouldn't do well to take a couple of Business classes as electives, or the environmental studies major who wants to make social media videos shouldn't have a best friend who knows a few things about marketing. But changes in the way products are made and sold suggest that the traditional days are over when the inspired inventor handed everything over to the Business major, and stayed in the lab to develop more inventions. Innovators from all backgrounds are picking up what they need to know about business in online classes and college electives and running their own companies, often with great success.

As you think about the major you'd like to pursue, take some time to consider how that major is shared, distributed, or marketed to the rest of the world. What products are made as a result of understanding this major? What companies exist because of it? What events are attended, promoted, and talked about on social media that exist only because of this major? In answering this question, you're looking at the business side of the major—and if you don't see it, you're just looking in the wrong place.

Entrepreneurship

Closely related to the world of business, more and more people are looking to the world of self-employment to make a living. With a strong background in their field, clear communication skills, and the discipline to offer unique services and promote them, many college graduates are finding ways to produce, promote, and distribute products and concepts on their own, making the world a better place to live in along the way.

While business and entrepreneurship are closely related, it's important to remember that being your own boss usually requires much more discipline and planning than being part of a business team. It's always important to carry your own weight in the business world, but when you're in business for yourself, you are the business—and that's a difference not everyone wants to live with. Most majors have plenty of room for independent go-getters to create a new market; it's just as important to make sure you'll always be eager to get going.

Government

With millions of people pulling their paychecks from the United States government, there's a very good chance at least a few thousand of them are getting paid to do something that relates to the major you want to pursue. While some of them are more obvious than others (like political science and nuclear energy), a closer look will reveal government connections to the field you're in. Studying Economics? Who do you think prepares the budget and analyzes it every year? Thinking about environmental science? The federal government has to maintain vast acres of forests west of the Rockies. Love history? Every federal museum has to have historians to maintain the accuracy of the displays, and the State Department has historians and cultural experts in every country in the world on staff.

Finding a perfect match between your major and a government job may take a while, but the steps couldn't be easier. To get some idea of the areas of government where you could land, start with the web pages of the career service sites mentioned in the start of this chapter. Many of these sites will discuss the kind of government jobs—federal, state, and local—available to people with your academic background.

Finding a specific job is as easy as going to USA jobs for federal work, while state and local job postings can usually be found with an online search for “Job postings for the state of ___________”. Again, finding the right match for a unique major may take a while; then again, you may be amazed at the number of government jobs where someone who holds a degree in anything is qualified.

Technology

Much like business, the days of leaving anything having to do with technology to the code writers is over. Sure, you can make very good money learning code (no matter what degree you hold), but there are a number of tech fields looking for content experts to make sure the subject matter of websites, apps, and social media discussions is factually correct. Field experts will still turn it over to the tech crew to make the words and images look pretty, but those holding the degrees in other fields are the ones who make sure the words and images make sense.

Just as the tech world needs experts in other fields to make sure the information is correct, experts in these same fields are needed to make sure the technology is used in the right way where other field experts apply what they know. Many historians need to keep accurate records of events, but some historians need to keep track of the data collection tools used to record the events themselves. Ornithologists taking samples of fallen bird feathers have to use proper techniques to categorize their findings in the field, but those findings have to be catalogued the right way at the research center in order for the results to benefit the public at large. Starting with a degree in a specific field, combined with some training in technology as elective classes or a double major, allows the student to understand both the subject matter and the means communicating the subject matter—and that can be an awesome combination.

Avocation, or Hobby

There are a number of people who start out in their field with great enthusiasm, only to realize after a few years (or less) that, while they loved studying this subject in college, there's just no way they can make a living with the job options this field exists. Many of these people will then develop a two-part career and major interest, where part of their life is devoted to working hard at a job that meets their needs, while another part is devoted to studying something they love that can't pay the bills. This is why adults with kids of their own still play in rock bands on weekends; it's why people with factory jobs volunteer their weekends counting deer or identifying birds; it's why product salespeople offer to help the needy prepare their taxes.

Many people are fortunate enough to do something they love for a living, but when the realities of the job market or the economic needs of the individual prevent that from happening, there are still ways to follow the passion developed by your college major and make sure the rent gets paid. Looking around long and hard at all of the career options of a given major is the best way to make sure you don't have to choose between making ends meet and keeping a job you can't live without. It's also the best way to keep happy when that choice has to be made, knowing you've done everything you can to avoid that choice, and understanding how to keep the interest you developed in college alive and well.

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More Resources

Career Services, University of Washington

What Can I do with This Major?

My Plan

American Psychological Association (for careers in Psychology)

Engineer Girl (for engineering careers for girls)

The Richest (for business career options)

USA Jobs (for jobs with the federal government)

Match Major Sheets

The Most Valuable College Majors

Best College Majors by Job Potential

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