Do you remember the exact moment when you decided what your college major was going to be? Perhaps you had to fill out some form that officially “declared” whatever your major was, or take a test to prove you’d accumulated the appropriate amount of knowledge, or maybe you had to meet with the head of the department to get their approval. There’s usually some sort of formal process you have to go through with your school, but maybe we’re missing something.
Guest writer Chau Le realized that her major and her planned career path were based on a big misunderstanding. Here’s what she wishes she’d known earlier—and how you can apply this to your own process of choosing your major and beginning your job search.
Sitting in the career counselor’s office we’re often told as a default answer “to pursue our passions.” I think this can be great advice, but it’s not the entire story, and neither is “do what makes money.” What do I wish I’d been told instead?
“Do something that fits you; do something that works with your style and way of thinking.”
Wait, what does that even mean?
Here’s (the very, very short version of) my story: I originally majored in Chinese, but graduated with a degree in Liberal Arts instead.
Here’s the slightly longer version: I was in love with the Chinese language my whole life, so I thought I wanted to be a translator. Working for the UN seemed so cool. I studied Chinese intensively throughout college, and even lived abroad in Taiwan. I was going full-speed ahead, but forgot one thing: I had no idea what the life of a translator looked like.
It was upon arriving in Taiwan and spending a year speaking, reading, and writing only Chinese that I realized that I didn’t even like what a translator did.
I may have enjoyed learning Chinese, but definitely didn’t relish the life of a Chinese translator, which involved hours bent over books, deciphering tiny strokes of one character, figuring out how to eloquently and succinctly summarize a phrase from Mandarin into a coherent English sentence. Details. Focus. Linear approach. It did not match the way I worked.
My friend Sarah (not her real name) went through a similar experience. Sarah was passionate about linguistics, but outside of teaching and securing coveted research positions, she discovered there were few opportunities to work professionally as a linguist. And as passionate as Sarah may have been about syntax, like me, she didn’t relish the idea of doing research 40 hours a week.
After graduating from college, she started anew and began researching careers that were not only in high demand but that would also be fulfilling and suit her personality and work style. Since then, she’s completed her paralegal studies and has landed a full-time gig. Most importantly, she enjoys her job.
Was Sarah’s passion paralegal work? No, not necessarily, but it’s an occupation that matched her. At one point during our conversation, she jokingly said, “I like control,” which was referring to the fact that a paralegal has to be very organized. Not only is Sarah exceptionally detail-oriented, but she actually enjoys filling out paperwork, and at the end of the day she is a political activist, which makes working in law meaningful to her.
Looking at both of our experiences, I realize that there are three things I wish I’d done to find a career that actually fit me. I’m telling you now so that you have the chance to act while you’re still a student.
1. Participate in internships
How many times have you been told by a teacher or parent how important internships are? Too many, but for good reasons: internships are the way for inexperienced students to jump into their desired field and see if it really is their dream career.
Saying you’d like to be a lawyer is easy; actually going through law school and then being one might be a different story entirely.
Here’s another example—say you love dogs: your room is decorated with Boston terrier posters and your family’s St. Bernard has been with you since you were born. You conclude that your passion is dogs, and you decide to become a dog trainer (without really knowing what a day in the life of a dog trainer looks like). While pets may be your passion, you might happen to dislike teaching—it turns out that being a dog trainer requires a tremendous amount of patience with the humans that own these animals… something that isn’t your strong suit.
Job titles can be misleading, as can the image that you’ve built up in your mind about what a certain career involves. It might turn out that your idea of a job has no true bearing on the actual work you’ll do, so be sure to research and do internships to test the waters. (We’ve got plenty of internships listed over at AfterCollege, so be sure to stop by and check them out!)
2. Go on informational interviews
Outside of interning over the summer (or during the school year, or basically anytime you can squeeze in an internship), speaking to a professional working in your dream job is another way to get a realistic idea about that career. This experience is often called an “informational interview.”
Most people are more than happy to help and answer questions about their job and career path, especially if you explain that you admire them and want to learn from them.
Be sure to find out what a normal day looks like in that position, what your interviewee likes and doesn’t like about their job, how they got started and ended up in their current position, and what advice they have for you to get started.
It was near the end of my college career that I got on board with informational interviewing. I spoke to a communications specialist who was open, accessible, and very helpful. She gave me true insight into what her job looked like. Because of what I learned in the informational interview, I was fully prepared when I got called in for a job interview for a communications internship and knew what to expect when I started working later that summer.
And in the event that through an informational interview, you find out that a career in PR (for example) just isn’t right for you, move on! Maybe this is the chance to focus all of your energy on programming… or dog training!
3. Identify skills that pay the bills (Yes, seriously!)
Passion makes us stand out—whether it’s a love of writing, shopping, or building robots. But what people pay for are skills, so try to identify your abilities and decide what you need to cultivate.
Sarah, for example, was already a wiz at filling out paperwork that might give the average person a huge headache—she just needed to develop her legal jargon a bit more before she could formally become a paralegal. So she took classes. The legal jargon was learned, problem solved (it did take a year of intense study, though)!
Essentially, personality and character play into whether you’re hired or not, but the company is also hiring you based on the product you produce. That is why it’s important to identify and grow those skills they’re looking for. Luckily, they can be learned, and it’s only a matter of choosing what you want to do and working on developing the necessary skills.
Your goal while in school: Be aware and do your research. Find your strengths and understand that there are many occupations that might just be up your alley. Keep your options open by trying everything. You’ve learned how to use your research skills to write a paper or design an experiment—now you’ve just got to practice applying them outside of the classroom to the rest of your life.
Over to you! How did you choose your major? Was it based on passion, practicality, or something else? Let us know in the comments section below!
About the author: Chau Le is an avid globetrotting polyglot, who has an unhealthy romance with Nutella, an attraction to writing, and an addiction to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Read more of Chau’s writing at http://thetravelingcherub.wordpress.com.