U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Public Domain
Source: U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Public Domain

Many college and even graduate students rightly worry that their education won’t make them career-ready. But you can improve your odds.

Choose your major early and wisely. Conventional wisdom is that most people should defer choosing a major until well into college. My clients have generally found it helpful to choose a tentative major while still in high school—That can help you choose on-target colleges to apply to. That’s especially true if you choose a major offered by few colleges. If later, you decide to change majors, it’s usually little problem—Most colleges offer many majors. A side benefit of choosing an uncommon major is that it may increase your employability. For example, if you choose entomology rather than biology, you’ll likely have less competition in vying for jobs and internships.

True, employability is enhanced by choosing a major that directly prepares you for a career, for example, nursing, computer science, and engineering, but other majors can also abet your career prospects. For example, my alma mater offers a major in rhetoric, which teaches reasoning skills, argumentation, and presentation. Such skills enhance employability in many fields, especially if you’re planning to go to graduate school for career-specific training.

Then there are majors that prepare you for a longshot career but can also prepare you for many more viable ones. For example, majoring in theatre, especially if it includes acting, builds poise, public speaking, and perspective-taking. Plus, because being in plays requires you to study works again and again, so you’re more likely to incorporate their life lessons, which can benefit you in and outside work. (Besides, many people find theater an unusually enjoyable major. Fun does matter.)

Geography deserves weight. In choosing a college or graduate school, know that a disproportionate percentage of people end up doing their career in that geographic location. So in picking a college or graduate school, imagine yourself living and working in that locale for a long time after graduation. How do you feel about that?

For example, some people like the idea of attending college in a bucolic bubble but not for a decade or more after that. I had a graduate-school-bound client who lives in Chicago and was attracted to Emory, Duke, and Rice because of the warm weather but decided she didn't want to continue living indefinitely in the South.

Choosing your professors. Two students can attend the same program at the same institution yet one can have a more rewarding experience. Key is in choosing the best professors possible. Some courses are required and there may only be one professor teaching it, but often you have discretion. You may even be able to take some courses at other institutions, in person or online. In any case, in picking courses, use scuttlebutt, syllabus review, and online professor review sites.

Choosing your advisor. It's often wise to pick a graduate program based heavily on the advisor. Pick someone with expertise in an area that's career-relevant to you and who, in an initial meeting, phone conversation, or even email exchange, seems compatible with you and eager to serve in that advisor/mentor role. A good advisor can help you navigate through your degree, open career doors, be a personal as well as career mentor, and even a friend. I’ve been lifelong friends with my advisor Michael Scriven.

Sometimes, an advisor is picked for you. Give that person a chance but if you sense that the two of you are a poor fit, find a more suitable advisor and if that person agrees, request the official change.

Deriving maximum benefit from courses. Even if two identical twins picked the same classes with the same professors, one could have a much better experience. Here are keys to making the most of a class.

Take only a modest amount of notes, the things you don’t already know that feel important to the professor and/or to you, especially for your career and life.

Ask the right questions. Ask questions to help you understand something important and/or could contribute something important to the class’s understanding. Some students ask questions to show how smart they are, that they could have answered if they paid attention, or that are trivial, not a good use of class time. If you're interested enough in such a question, email it to the professor. 

Adapt assignments. Allocate time to assignments based less on whether it will be on the test and more on how useful it might be for your career and life. If you can come up with an assignment for a paper or project that would abet your career much more than the standard assignment, ask. The professor may well appreciate your asking, not only because it reflects your desire to do meaningful work but because after seeing so many papers on the same topic, s/he may welcome reading something different.

Fieldwork. Fieldwork, internships, co-op education, and after-school/summer jobs  are education’s most career-related components. Often, colleges have a hard time finding sufficient good placements for students so if you can dig up your own, your professor may be grateful. Of course, consider choosing a placement that could be a career launchpad, ideally with a great supervisor. Do well at the right placement and you may find yourself with a job offer without having to compete with zillions of applicants.

Extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities can be career boosters.

  • Join and maybe even start a career-related club.
  • If you aspire to a career involving communication and influence, work at the student newspaper, radio/TV station, or student government. Or try to get on a campuswide committee—You may find a list on your campus's website.
  • Perhaps most potent, consider joining and becoming active as a student member of your future career’s professional association. For example, if you aspire to becoming an organizational psychologist, you might join the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and even propose to co-present with a professor at a talk at the next chapter or even national meeting.

Reach out to potential employers early. Do that long before you expect to get hired. Use family and friend connections, LinkedIn, or the professional association website to find potential employers. Describe what you’re clear and fuzzy about regarding your career and ask for advice. If, for example, the person suggests you read something, take a certain course, attend a particular conference etc., let the person know when you’ve done it and what you learned. That often can pave the way to further mentorship and even a job.

Use your campus career services. Starting even as a freshman, that can be valuable in career exploration, identifying target employers, reviewing your resume/LinkedIn profile, cover letter, and mock interviews. Part of what your tuition covers is career services. Not using them is like paying for a full tank of gas and not filling it to the top.

The takeaway

You’re spending a lot of money, time, and opportunity cost at college or graduate school. It’s easy to get dispirited by all the negative reports about a degree's value. While most of the problem resides in the institution, some can be controlled by you. These tips can help you make the most of your education, yes for career purposes, but also in becoming a more thoughtful human being.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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