May 21, 2019

Read Time

Some job-seekers report that they see positions being advertised that look appealing, but the hiring managers want applicants to have a degree that reflects a major in a specific field. Consider a few options if this applies to your situation.

Control the Narrative

If you think of yourself as a major and not a young professional with abilities, interests and motivations that could be of value to any employer, that’s what employers will see. When you dismiss yourself as a worthy candidate, so will employers. Remember that you control the narrative employers hear, and as you approach your targets, be clear what you have that they need and how you have demonstrated that you can address issues they face.

As a career coach, I keep up-to-date on current and future career and employment trends and inevitably, I come across articles highlighting the worst degrees for successful and lucrative careers. To land multiple positions and become successful, you want to consider STEM degrees; to set yourself up for a life of financial struggles, disappointment and even unemployment, stick to humanities or liberal arts degrees. At least that’s what the authors of those articles recommend. Even with companies like Google realizing that what differentiates successful employees are soft skills, the increased focus on STEM continues. This has created a disconnect between what’s communicated to college students and who employers actually hire.

Many have come to realize that it’s a combination of technical and human skills that will ensure meaningful success. In fact, a 2018 survey of executives and hiring managers confirmed that “when hiring recent graduates, employers place the greatest priority on a demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across majors.” Therefore, those completing STEM degrees need to also pursue experiences and engagements that enhance their soft skills; those completing liberal arts degrees need to pursue experiences and engagements that enhance their technical competence.

So if you are a student whose major is French or art history or religious studies, and you don’t see these as required for open positions, don’t despair and definitely don’t ditch your major. Although majors like nursing and engineering have obvious alignments with certain roles, and although graduates with STEM degrees on average do earn more than those with liberal arts degrees, it’s not the major that makes a difference but what you’ve gained by completing that major. A degree in French doesn’t mean you won’t get a job; rather, it means you need to think and work harder on clarifying your goals, exploring what opportunities align with those goals and learning how to communicate readiness for those opportunities.

What Motivated You to Choose Your Current Major?

Before embarking on a job search, reflect on what drew you to your chosen major in the first place. What were your expectations as you declared that major? How have they been realized in the course of your degree completion? During the reflection, explore the skills and lessons learned; be specific and come up with examples (stories) that confirm you have the skills you claim.

What Seems Intriguing Right Now?

After you’ve thought about your motivations to pursue a specific degree, it’s time to explore what inspires and intrigues you. What on-campus or off-campus engagements excite you? Who do you know that is doing what you’d like to do? How did they get there? If you are not sure where to start, check out your institution’s outcomes. Where have graduates with a degree like yours ended up post-graduation? I’m willing to bet that the employers and positions will be as diverse as the people who pursued those opportunities. Which ones appeal to you?

Once you’ve started to clarify your professional narrative, you can resume your job search in a more strategic way, and as you do so, keep the following three points in mind.

1. Focus on Skills

Employers understand that for career success, what’s more important is not a specific major but the skills you’ve gained throughout your academic and professional journey. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), however, though 76 percent of executives and 87 percent of hiring managers reported valuing recent graduates who have demonstrated the ability to apply learning in real-world settings, while only 33 percent of executives and 39 percent of hiring managers think that recent graduates meet that requirement. AACU also indicates that employers view most college graduates as ready for entry-level positions, not professional growth and advancement. With that in mind, it may be better to focus on developing and conveying skills that can help employers address real-life issues instead of worrying whether your major can help you find a job. To stand out, show employers that you not only have the skills to perform the role, but you also have the potential to grow and succeed in the field. In other words, present yourself as a professional, not as a student desperate for just any job.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has identified eight competencies associated with career readiness: critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communication, teamwork/collaboration, digital technology, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, career management, and global/intercultural fluency. Whatever your chosen major is, showing you have the above skills will make you more likely to secure meaningful employment. The onus is on you to communicate the value you can bring and the skills that will help you bring that value.

2. Identify Gaps

Along with confirming what competencies you have, it’s important to identify any skill gaps. This is vital but often overlooked by many college students. In fact, NACE has found that “employers tend to rate the proficiency of recent college graduates lower than do the students themselves.” In other words, where employers notice skill gaps, college students seem to see proficiency. To avoid being one of these students, note what’s missing and take steps to close the gap. Achieving that doesn’t mean pursuing another major. You have plenty of options to acquire those skills through bootcamps, volunteering, free online courses, paid online courses or self-study. That could in turn become a story that shows you as someone who takes initiative and is dedicated to learning and growing professionally, which is a competency employers value.

3. Grow A Network

A job search involving sending your documents to anything you see is no job search at all, and it doesn’t work. Regardless of what your major is. Establishing relationships with key people who know what you bring to the table is what ensures you don’t have to worry about having a major that doesn’t seem required for any advertised positions. In addition, although you may know the competencies that show career readiness, you need to find out how each is expressed in a particular professional context. Connecting with current and former employees in target companies helps you do that. For example, communication is a competency valued by all employers, but how that skill is demonstrated differs across positions and industries. You may want to dig deeper and discover what effective communication looks like in your target field. Having that deep knowledge can then help you polish your documents and stories to reflect you have exactly what employers need. Unless you are pursuing a specialized role, your major doesn’t have to be a determining factor for job search success.