Your Degree Isn’t a Ticket to a Career

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About once a week, I get an email from a panicked student about to graduate from college (or recently graduated). They’ll tell me about how they entered into a major that they thought led to a great career, only to find upon graduation that they’re working at Starbucks or not working at all, as are many of their friends. A few of their friends have good jobs, but they’re “lucky.”

I usually swap an email or two with them, but they don’t usually like my responses.

Here’s the truth, though. If you graduate and your resume says nothing but “B.A.” or “B.S.” in your field of study and doesn’t include a single additional thing relevant to your career path, you’re not getting a job. In a competitive job market, with lots of people coming out of college with a freshly minted degree in your area along with lots of people in your field looking to move around to a new position, just having a degree is not going to cut the mustard.

Your degree alone is not a ticket to a career. Your degree alone is a ticket to stocking shelves at the grocery store during the night shift.

It’s a painful truth, but that’s the reality of it. That was the reality of it when I graduated, too. Ten years ago, I watched a big group of my friends graduate all together at roughly the same time. Some of us found jobs in our career path quickly. Others didn’t.

Our degree basically didn’t matter in this. All of us had degrees, but nowhere near all of us found work. The college degree we held was merely a baseline. It was just considered one required part of a resume, and if you didn’t have other parts to go along with it, you weren’t getting a job, not when there were others with more accomplished resumes out there.

What made the difference, then?

Did we have jobs or internships that related to our desired work? Do we already have some sort of professional workplace experience in the field that we hope to work in? A job at Burger King is useful in demonstrating that you’re willing to work, but it doesn’t mean half as much as someone who actually worked at a job in their field during their college years.

If you want work in your field, start looking around your community. Start with your professors. Do they have research labs that could use an undergraduate assistant? You’ll probably wind up filing scientific papers or washing glassware for a year, but that year is far more valuable in the hiring process than a year at Wal-Mart. Are there businesses or organizations in your community that might employ you?

Do you already know some people in the field? If you can actually describe genuine relationships with people already in your field, you have a big leg up. Those people might be able to help you find work. Even if they can’t, being able to mention those relationships in an interview helps because it shows you’re a person already looking seriously at what you’re doing for a career path.

This overlaps heavily with work in your field. The more you work in your field, the more people you’re going to meet that are professionals in your field, and the more relationships you’re going to have.

Do you have valuable extracurricular activities? Do your extracurriculars line up well with the work you’re hoping to do? At the very least, do those extracurriculars point toward transferable job skills that might be of use to the employer?

Clubs related to your major are a good place to start, as are volunteer groups. Taking leadership positions in those groups really helps as well.

Have you completed noteworthy projects? Can you show an employer the results of a major project that you played a primary role in developing (or developed entirely by yourself)?

Class projects are okay here, but the ones that are really impressive are the ones outside of the classroom, either from your free time or from your time at a job related to your work. Those kinds of projects demonstrate a willingness to take charge of a situation and make something big happen while also balancing the challenges of classroom work.

Students who come out of college with a degree and these kinds of things on their resumes find jobs. Quite often, though, I’ll see resumes from students who list just their degree and a few jobs they had at chain restaurants, and then they wonder why they can’t find work. When you’re competing with people with these things on their resume, you’re going to have a very, very difficult time coming out on top.

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