Updated on 03.26.11

Review: You Majored in What?

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

you majored in what?I double-majored in life science and computer science. What on earth am I doing writing a blog about personal finance? Shouldn’t I be in a room somewhere writing data analysis programs?

The truth is that many people don’t follow a straight line from high school to their career path. Today, that path often goes through college, but quite often, it doesn’t involve studying the field that a person ends up practicing in their career. I dabbled in several different career paths during and immediately after college before more or less stumbling onto the path that I’m currently on.

In other words, don’t believe that your college major defines what you have to be doing for the rest of your life.

Of course, having a degree in a field outside of where you want to go with your career can be a challenge, and that’s the focus of You Majored in What? by Katharine Brooks. The book focuses on the person who finds themselves out of college and interested in entering a career path that doesn’t match their degree. What now?

1: A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings and You Find a Job
Brooks opens the book by simply stating that most people who depart high school, go to college, and choose a major do not follow a straight path from that point to a job in their field of study. Many different kinds of unexpected events can occur along the way, from an internal change within you to countless types of unexpected opportunities handed to you by others. In my own path, for example, I didn’t ever really expect that I would find my side hobby of writing turning into anything that could earn me significant money.

2: Connecting the Dots
Most of us spend our time spread across a lot of activities, many of which seemingly have little connection to each other. We don’t spend all of our time focused on one single area. We’re engaged in our professional area or our studies, but we’re also involved in community projects, various social groups, hobbies, and countless other things. Quite often, though, these things that we spend our time on have some deep underlying patterns that actually do connect them together. The career we should end up with should be one that taps deeply into those underlying patterns.

3: Mental Wanderings
Another element of finding the right career path, regardless of our area of study, comes down to how we think and what we think about. When our thoughts are idle, where does our mind wander to and how does it evaluate those things? People who do free-form associations, for example, excel in different areas than those who think in an orderly and linear fashion. People whose mind wanders to social concerns, for example, should be focused on different areas than those whose minds wander to music or wander to solving problems.

4: Wandering Beyond Majors and Minors
Transferable skills are key, in other words. Often, what you learn in college isn’t so much the material of your major, but how to study effectively and learn quickly, how to present, how to work in teams, how to work with others, how to be a leader, how to communicate ideas in a written format, how to manage your time, and so on. These skills are vital parts of many different career paths, and people who have them have a leg up no matter where they end up.

5: Why Settle for One Career When You Can Have Ten?
You don’t have to spend your life simply following one career path. I’m 32 and I’m on at least my third career path at this point, for one. The things that many people use as an excuse to stand in the way of switching career paths, though, is age, money, and education. These are traps that people create for themselves, and money often underlines all three of them. Being conservative with your money gives you the freedom to change careers and start anew if you wish. If you start piling up the debts and the commitments, such shifts become much harder.

6: Even Wanderers Make Plans
Career-hopping doesn’t mean that long-term goals are pointless. If anything, such a situation makes goal-setting on the three-to-five year horizon that much stronger, particularly if you want to successfully career-hop. Goals for financial success and self-improvement are particularly strong because they enable you to make a greater variety of personal choices when you achieve them, as you’ll have the money to support you and the skills to move forward.

7: Paging Dr. Frankenstein
Quite often, such wanderings can wind up being very lucrative because of the skills that are combined together. For example, a person who spent some time in China teaching English, followed by some years as a computer programmer, might find themselves being a very valuable technology vice president at an international corporation because of those combined skills. A programmer might transition into being a writer, then find that they’re very skilled at producing internet content because of the meshing of skills.

8: My Job as a Krackel Bar
A key part of career hopping is understanding how to write a very effective resume that highlights the skills you have that relate to the job you’re seeking. The advantage of career hopping is that you’ll often have a medley of skills and highlights to choose from (while a disadvantage is sometimes a lack of depth), so you should seek to make it clear that you offer a unique set of traits that stands out from the crowd.

9: Channeling Jane Austen
Brooks also argues that an effective cover letter is key to this process, which means that you’ll need to sharpen your writing skills to highlight your unique skill set. I think it goes even further than this, as a person with a unique skill set will often find many opportunities to write.

10: Wandering Into the Workplace
Often, a person with a “career wanderer” background will have an advantage if they reach an interview situation, as they’ll have a wide variety of experiences and stories to tell during the interview process. Before interviewing, focus on identifying stories to tell that will show off your diversity of skills and how they set you apart as a candidate for this particular job.

Is You Majored in What? Worth Reading?
As with many personal finance books, this book hits a home run with the specific target audience: if you’re a person who is struggling with the “right” major in college or is near the end of college and uncertain if they’ve made the right choice or is thinking of switching careers in the professional world (especially early on), this is a great book to read. It outlines many of the specific things that a person needs to do and to think about if they’re going to be a career-hopper, and I found the advice to be very solid (based on my own experiences).

Now, if you’re already very sure about your career path, this book won’t be of any real help to you. It’s very much focused on the career-hopper, particularly those who jump to career paths unrelated to their current career.

If you are a career-hopper or at least unsure of your path, though, pick this one up.

Check out additional reviews and notes of You Majored in What? on Amazon.com.

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  1. Hunter says:

    This seems like an interesting read, one that would open the mind of most people to a broader definition of career.

    I like to think of career as the entire journey. By definition we can’t career switch as it always belongs to us. The infinite twists and turns are cumulative, and all shape it’s future direction.

    At my time at Ford motor company the people that went the furthest generally had the most diverse assignments as their foundational experiences. I have seen this in the military too.

  2. Jon says:

    There seem to be a lot more tools out there now than when I was young for high school and college kids to get career guidance, so they can find something suited to their talents and inclinations, but I’m not sure how effective they are.
    The turns and twists of the journey keep it interesting. How much fun can it be to work at the same thing for forty years?

  3. valleycat1 says:

    Interesting – given that there’s a growing discussion going on about the need for more focused course work & the trend toward specific career tracks beginning as early as middle school. Last Friday I had a conversation with a friend who is firmly convinced the liberal arts degree is a thing of the past & totally useless. I don’t know of many teenagers (although there are some) who know themselves well enough to be able to settle on a career track that will serve them over the long term.

  4. MattJ says:

    “many people don’t follow a straight line from high school to their career path”

    Perhaps many people do not, but many do.

    When I was 12 years old I decided I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, working on rocket ships or fighter jets. I remember having to correct my father “No, I don’t want to be an astronaut – I want to build the ships that astronauts fly into space”

    Now I’m 36 years old, making excellent pay as a NASA contractor, working on rocket guidance, navigation, and control. I don’t exactly make the vehicles, (very few engineers really do) I just help make sure they fly where they’re intended to fly. Maybe my career will take me elsewhere in the future, but for now I’m living my dream.

    How awesome is that?

  5. jackson says:

    I graduated UC Berkeley with a degree in biochemistry. I worked in the medical field for a number of years. Currently, I am writing a financial blog and am into real estate and investing.

    The point is that our lives’ are always changing. Keep learning new things, challenge yourself, and have some fun in the process.

  6. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    Ugh. I could write volumes on this topic where it relates to corralling kids to decide what to do. In our district, students are expected to know their college path, college choice, and career choice by the 6th grade. If they don’t, they are encouraged to go to trade school. What was worse was they were asked how much was in their college fund and what the parent’s income is, and if kids don’t know, they are told it’s their RIGHT to know. I didn’t start college until age 38…I had plenty of time to figure out what major I wanted. Three quarters of the way through the program, I realized that something else might be of more personal interest to me. I kept at my path though and have degrees in Business Administration and Social Sciences (the 2nd one wasn’t planned but I had enough units to qualify so I was awarded it too). The problem is that when I started college, a degree was what I needed to even think about getting promoted – and when I finished – it was a minimum requirement to get the kind of job I was already doing. ’nuff said. Sore topic with me.

  7. Pattie, RN says:

    You mentioned that the subject matter of your major doesn’t matter much, but I content that for many majors, what you learn in school IS your career basis…nursing, enginerring..in fact, any “hard” science program is usually demanding. Not too many engineers get away with taking “Film Appreciation” or “The Art of Brewing Beer” as electives. In these fields, if you don’t “get it” in school, you can’t even start your career without passing the required Federal tests for license or certification!

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