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Your Major is Not Your Career

Your education at the University will prepare you for the complexities of the world of work and you will learn to develop strategic approaches to pursuing whatever career opportunities you choose.

That said, It is important to keep in mind that choosing a major and preparing for a career are not the same process. It's true that a college education will help prepare you for the job market. It's untrue that most majors lead directly to particular jobs. Instead, any major can prepare you for numerous job possibilities. A college degree does help you in the workforce, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.

We hope that college will be a time in your life when your task, for four years, is to learn all you can about human history, culture, and behavior, as well as the information and theories involved in mathematics and the natural sciences. As you do this, you acquire specific skills — how to define a question, how to investigate possibilities, how to articulate your findings and theories, how to write, problem-solve, organize, research, and think critically. These are the transferable skills you will use in the workplace and in your life outside of work. And they can be learned within any major.

Given this, your choice of major usually does not determine your career options after college. There are exceptions, of course; if you want to be a nurse, you need a degree in nursing. But you might be surprised to learn how much flexibility exists even in technical fields. Some engineering positions are filled by graduates with degrees in math, biochemistry, geology, forestry, and physics, and well as engineering. Most history majors do not become historians. They become stockbrokers, advertising executives, and IRS agents; they manage convention centers, bank branches, and racetracks; they become the President's Chief of Staff, they sell sailboats, they advise UW undergraduates.

Further, simply majoring in an area which looks as though it might lead to a high paying job does not mean you will do well in that major or enjoy the work in that area. Employers hire and promote people on the basis of the quality of their work, and the quality of their work usually depends on how much they enjoy it.

What do I want to do?

It is fine to ask, "What can I do with a major in ______?" But it is equally important to ask, "What do I want to do?"

While you are in college, you must answer two big questions. What do I want to major in? and What type of work would I most enjoy after graduation? They are not the same question. A major is a field of academic inquiry, and a subject you will study in depth. Your selection of a major should be based simply on your own curiosity. What most interests you? What subject is most fun to study?

In choosing a career, however, you must consider much more than just what kinds of courses you like to take. (Taking courses, after all, will not be your career.) For example, what kind of people do you like to be with? Do you prefer questions with answers, or questions that lead to more questions? Do you enjoy physical challenges? Do you like persuading people to change their minds? At the end of the day, is it important to you to see something physical and tangible, that you made that day?

How to investigate possible careers

To find a satisfying career, you must make a good match between your interests and the demands of a job, and between your personality and a work environment.

Most students find choosing a career much harder than choosing a major. You probably haven't been exposed to very many fields before coming to college, and you'll need to do some research.

It is very important that you make career investigation one of your goals while you attend the UW. Students who prepare ahead may find more satisfying jobs after graduation. Career investigation is a process; there are no quick answers, and it takes some time. Fortunately, the UW has many resources to help you.

Make use of the UW Career Center

The Career Center offers counseling and workshops for students at every stage of career exploration. You can research job fields, learn to write a resume targeted at your intended field, and practice interviewing, and much more. It also hosts many career fairs throughout the year. Find out what employers are looking for by meeting them in an informal setting.

Pursue career counseling

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and Strong Interest Inventory (SII) are widely used career assessment tools, and you can take both of these at the UW Counseling Center. The results of the MBTI can help guide your choice of academic major, career direction, and foster understanding and appreciation of individual differences in interpersonal relationships. The SII identifies interests and compares this information to the likes and dislikes of individuals in over 100 occupations. Where there is similarity in interest, there is likely to be job satisfaction. Results from the SII include a list of careers that may be of interest, as well as general “themes” to consider when choosing an academic major and/or career direction.

Participate in experiential learning

At any stage of your thinking about careers, you should start looking into getting some related experience. In particular, you should consider participating in one or more internships. As a student intern, you can gain valuable work experience at any of a large number of businesses, government offices, and non-profit agencies.

The Center for Experiential Learning houses the Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center, the Undergraduate Research Program, and the Pipeline Project, all campus offices that can help you connect to internships and volunteer possibilities that will get you out into the real world. If you think you might be interested in international trade, you can actually work at the Port of Seattle. If you think you might want to be a lawyer, you can volunteer at the Public Defender's Office. If teaching or research looks interesting, you can tutor at a local school or work with UW faculty on a research team.

During any one of these activities, you will learn about further career resources and get some ideas about what to do next. If you will take these practical steps, you can enjoy any major you like at UW and be confident that you can make your way in the workplace.

Enroll in GEN ST 350: Navigating Career Options

This is a 3-credit, Credit/No Credit course designed to assist you with your personal exploration and discernment process concerning possible careers. Elements include identifying your strengths, assessing your interests, and participating in group interaction and discussion. 

Make use of the Washington Occupational Information System (WOIS)

WOIS is an online tool for exploring careers, creating goals for your future, making educational plans to reach your goals, and finding the training programs and the right schools to help you achieve your dreams. It includes career interest surveys, a great deal of information about careers and educational and training programs in Washington state, and the opportunity to create an online portfolio to store information about your awards and activities.

Peruse the Occupational Outlook Handbook

The Occupational Outlook Handbook is published annually by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has a listing for every career you can imagine, and each listing covers things like the training and education needed, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and working conditions.

Talk with a departmental adviser

Department advisers are a wonderful resource for helping you explore the question of "What do I do after I graduate?"

Browse "What can I do with a major in...?" websites

The Career Center publishes specific information on many subjects, and if you search the web you'll find lots of similar resources, as well as websites about career investigation and planning.