Major Regrets: What to Do When You Have Second Thoughts About Your Degree

Posted March 7, 2013

Brittni Ping, an international studies and French language major, soon found out after graduating college that just because a college offers a particular degree, doesn’t mean there’s an application for it in the real world.

She’s not alone. There is a large group of adults out there, perfectly capable adults who have college degrees and career aspirations, who regret their college major. Data from a May 2012 report by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development found that of graduates who would’ve done something differently in college, 37% would’ve been more careful about selecting a major or chosen a different major. And with some saying the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma, who has time, and who can afford, to have regrets about their degree choice?


Value of the Internship

Ping began an internship in Tel Aviv after finishing college and found that it was a great way for her to get her feet wet in her field.

"The internship was actually a part of the Glazer Institute, which I heard of through my school. It was my first job within the realm of the arts, which I am very passionate about," she said. "The internship gave me a good idea of what goes on behind the scenes and from a business prospective, and since my major was international studies, I really benefitted from learning how to mesh into a new work culture."

Ping said unhappy or disenchanted graduates should seek out internships, especially abroad. Like Ping, students may learn of these opportunities through their respective schools. After interning, Ping taught English abroad in France for a year, in order to bolster her French degree.

"Even though the work may be short-term, you’ll never be bored. You learn a lot of things abroad at a much quicker pace, simply because the environment is so different from what you’re used to," she said. "I believe experiences like this have the ability to set you apart also from job applicants who have never left their own state, for example."

Abby Kohut, career expert and blogger for AbsolutelyAbby, said her internships were extremely beneficial.

"They helped me determine the kind of work environment I preferred, the kinds of job responsibilities I enjoyed, and the type of manager I worked with best. When you regret your major, it’s important to take the time that you need to find a job that you won’t regret, and internships offer a perfect opportunity to do just that," Kohut said. "Plus, an internship gives both parties a ‘try and buy’ so that each can decide whether the match is appropriate."

Kohut suggested graduates looking for internships check out sites such as InternsOver40 and Intern Match.

"You can also find internships on large job boards such as Monster and Careerbuilder. The best way to find a job shadowing opportunity is to use LinkedIn to find individuals in the profession you are interested in and ask them for a shadowing opportunity. Typically, college career centers can point you towards these kinds of opportunities as well," she said.


Work Through It, Literally

Sometimes when graduates are stuck with a degree they deem as worthless, the only thing to do is get to work.

"In this current job market, you need every advantage you can get on your resume and ‘psychology undergrad’ does not open many doors," said Anna Gamel, who majored in psychology and decided to forego grad school and get a job to pay back some of her undergraduate debt. "It’ll take me many years of good work experience to make up for that degree."

She began by taking a job completely unrelated to her field.

"I took a random job assisting a contracted public relations team at a tech company. The initial pay was $13/hour and was found by a friend’s cousin who worked for a recruiting company," Gamel said. "Within the first three months, they fired the contracted team, asked me to take over all PR for the company, and brought me on as a salaried employee with a substantial raise."

Gamel said she was able to teach herself PR through trial and error and with the help of Google.

"I was able to train myself to be effective in PR because I pushed myself past any comfort levels I ever had. I worked long hours and would bring my laptop home to read PR blogs," she said. "I literally had to Google what a press release was before writing my first one. I had to build lists of influential media people and executives by researching them from the ground-up. I pored over top technology lists and learned what Google Alerts were so I could keep myself up to date on emerging competition."

Loren Guerriero said his liberal arts degree in general psychology didn’t leave him with much but temporary work and volunteering opportunities.

His first job out of school was wilderness therapy, or leading a group of troubled teenagers through hikes in the woods — he stopped because it got cold — and after that began counseling homeless youth in downtown Portland. Guerriero said he realized the life of a social worker was "chronically underpaid, underappreciated, and morally exhausting."

So he packed up his belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Mexico.

"I had run out of ideas and options in the United States, so I decided to do something completely different, and I was interested in Mexico because of its rapid and unequal economic development," Guerriero said. "Mexico is so close by, and so different, yet intimately connected to us. But to be perfectly honest, it was a wild card without a clear outcome."

Guerriero began volunteering with local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Mexico until he finally got his big break: an environmental justice NGO needed someone to translate its website from Spanish into English.

"Although I felt like I was adept at using computers, it was a stretch to work on a website. In addition, I was only an intermediate Spanish speaker," he said. "Regardless, I decided to take the job, even though I wasn’t sure how I would succeed. The steep learning curve — HTML and Spanish — forced me into many hours of trial and error, scouring the internet for tutorials and community discussions. I was surprised to find that I could pull it off with patience and self-paced study."

Because of the spontaneous trip to Mexico, Guerriero was able to make the most out of his degree.

"Ever since then, HTML has been a critical skill that has helped me get every job, each one forcing me to up my web ante. Without realizing it, the impulsive trip to Mexico sparked a new skill set."


Network Your Way to a Career

Possibly one of the best weapons a disgruntled graduate can use when networking are the various forms of social media.

"Networking is helpful for anyone entering a new field," Kohut said. "Use LinkedIn to locate individuals who are in the profession or industry that you are interested in, then ask for an informational interview where you can ask questions about why they entered the field, what they like or dislike, and what education is needed."

Gamel said all she had to go on when she took over her company’s PR efforts was a vague plan on a PowerPoint file. Her success relied on her ability to self-teach and network and she admittedly has networked herself into each position she’s had since college.

"I befriended some of the feistiest tech bloggers in the tech sphere and after two years was friendly enough to visit them in their homes," she said. I landed my bosses presentation slots at Proctor and Gamble, Harvard, MIT and Stanford University. We did conferences and expos in various states. I put on a press release party at the Ritz in Tokyo, Japan."

Gamel began her job not knowing what Twitter was and a year later was on a list in Portland as one of the top people to ‘follow.’

"I moved to a new city and had my sights set on a certain agency. I applied twice without luck, so I started networking via Twitter and found out the CEO would be attending a certain Tweet-Up," she said. "I went to the Tweet-Up and met as many people as I could until one person finally offered to introduce me to her. We chatted and I told her I would love to grab coffee sometime. Soon after, I was employed."

The key to networking, Gamel said, is stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

"I actually hate networking and going to a networking event alone is like pure torture to me. But, you have to do it," she said. "If you have a hobby that makes you employable, for example you’re good at writing, volunteer at a writing center and meet people who could help you find a job. Think of a field where you believe you could make your skills work for you — find people in that field and ask them out to coffee."


The MOOC Advantage

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) became extremely popular in 2012, as many saw them as a game changer in education technology.


With the opportunity to take classes for free, some of them for credit, graduates dissatisfied with their degrees can use MOOCs to enhance their resumes and possibly land them their dream job.

"Additional education whether free or credit worthy is valuable, especially in this job market," Kohut said. "If what you learned during the MOOC is relevant to your career goal, you can list it on your resume in the education section. You can also mention the class in your cover letter and in your interview, especially if the class helped you with your career choice."

Gamel said she considered going back to school for more education, but feels the additional debt would be hard to deal with.

"Before enrolling in MOOCs, I would try to talk to people in the industry I wanted to get into and research what MOOCs mean to my prospective employer," she said. "If I was already employed and thought it would help me move up, I would bring it up with my employer. I would try and get various employers or HR departments to chat with me about their thoughts on them first. I’ve been surprised at how receptive employers are about chatting with you regarding qualifications and what they look for in candidates."


The Importance of Being Realistic

Ping said students can no longer rely on good grades to come out with a well-paid, secure career.

"The business world just isn’t running like that anymore. Students do need to get As in school and have suitable experience through internships, but after that it’s about creativity and demonstrating how you stand out," she said.

Guerriero has similar opinions.

"By telling students that they can do anything, and trumpeting the inherent value of higher education, we sometimes miss the opportunity to teach the necessity of being technical and entrepreneurial in a the modern job market," he said. "The job hunt can be frustrating because a student is used to the pattern of applying for a program, completing the requirements, and receiving a certification. This thinking means that some individuals seek credentials perpetually, even without checking to see if that’s completely necessary."

Guerriero suggested recent graduates consider these questions before rushing to enroll in a program to acquire additional certification: What is the job I really want and what is required from this employer? Is it another degree or something else?

"This might be more education, or it might be volunteer work, an apprenticeship, or portfolio development," he said. "And don’t only respond to postings. Many opportunities are filled before they even make it to the public listings."

Kohut said many individuals make poor choices when it comes to their major because they are unaware of how their interests match potential careers.

It’s normal for students to have concerns about their job prospects after graduation, especially in this job market and especially if the choice of major doesn’t seem too promising. But, there are ways for graduates to combat these concerns, and ultimately find their way to successful and fulfilling careers.

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