Choosing a major, building a career

In just four years, Wake Forest has become a national leader in helping graduates move from college to career. The key? Getting students to ask the right questions from their first days on campus. “What am I interested in learning?” and “What problems would I like to solve?”

Katharine Brooks recently joined Wake Forest as executive director of the Office of Personal and Career Development. She has been helping liberal arts students find rewarding careers for nearly 30 years — most recently at the University of Texas at Austin as the director of liberal arts career services. In this Q&A, Brooks, the author of “You Majored in What?” (Plume 2010), shares her ideas about personal and career development and best tips for choosing an academic major.

Q: How do you see your role in career development at Wake Forest?

For me, it all comes back to the curriculum and the students. I want students to understand the value of their degree — how their education has shaped their thinking; how they have a better understanding of their world; the skills they have acquired; and how they have a breadth and depth of knowledge that few others possess. And then I want them to understand how they can improve and change the workplace with that knowledge. So my role is helping students translate and articulate the value of their education to an employer and develop a strategy for tackling the job market or graduate school.

Q: To what extent does career success depend on your academic major?

A: Wake Forest students, like students at most liberal arts colleges, find employment in fields both related and unrelated to their majors. Certain majors, such as accounting, provide a necessary body of knowledge, but aside from some specific or technical areas, the relationship between your major and your ultimate career is tenuous at best.

Much of “employability” comes down to  your ability to articulate the value of your education to a potential employer. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter what major you choose. The major alone seldom determines one’s success in the job market.  What employers are also looking for are students who acquire valuable experiences beyond the classroom through internships, volunteer work, or study abroad for example.

Q: What advice do you have for students deciding on a major?

First step, research your choices. Talk with faculty members and advisers, as well as your family — but after that, it’s your decision. Think about what you have enjoyed studying so far, what you want to continue to learn at a greater depth, and how you might apply the skills you develop through your major.  Your best resource is yourself.

Q: How can students talk with their parents about their post-graduation careers if they have chosen a course of study with a less direct connection to a specific job?

You have to approach your education and any major decision strategically. No one major guarantees a job or career.  Think about the knowledge you’re acquiring, take advantage of courses that teach you valuable transferable skills, and take on leadership roles, internships and summer jobs that further develop your resume to reflect your experience and knowledge.

I have seen French majors become accountants and marketing specialists, history majors become pharmaceutical sales representatives, philosophy majors become CEOs and classics majors become doctors.  What I have seldom heard is any regret related to their choice of undergraduate major.

Q: Is higher education under more pressure to help students find jobs?

I’ve seen a change in the perception of career services offices on many campuses. Historically, career centers at many schools are almost an afterthought. They were never staffed as well as other key offices. But, in the past few years, I’ve seen a shift in the importance of the office. And that, of course, means that career centers are more visible on campus and need to continually improve their services to students and employers. Wake Forest has already positioned itself as a national leader in this area with a University-wide commitment to helping students prepare for a meaningful life and career after graduation.

Q: What would you like to see colleges do differently?

Liberal arts colleges in general have not done a good job combating the political and media commentary on the value (or lack thereof) of a college education. It’s hard because some of what goes on in a liberal arts college is intangible: how do you quantify the value of a professor whose lectures are mesmerizing and who teaches you to appreciate a work of art in a way that will stay with you for the rest of your life? How do you explain to someone who only sees bottom-line figures that there are other ways to value an education? We need to get better at articulating the value of our education through a variety of means: quantitative as well as qualitative.


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