Majors Without Clear Career Paths Give Some the Jitters

Looking back on her education, senior Marcy Bauer sounds a little wistful.

“I actually tried for two years to get a degree in something I thought I would be able to get a job in,” she said. But she disliked parks, recreation and tourism enough to leave it for the uncertainty of a language major.

“When I did Russian I knew it would be…” she trailed off, less than enthusiastic about the prospects she sees. “With a Russian major, if you get a job just you have to do something else.”

Backed by majors that do not lead down clear-cut career paths, students like Bauer can feel a little lost as graduation approaches.

But with the ability to think creatively and critically, to analyze and problem solve, students who study subjects like languages can go into virtually any field, according to Christian Anderson, assistant dean of the College of Humanities. At orientation, he speaks of these expansive possibilities in part to sooth students’ skittishness of majors that are not vocational focused.

Raymond Champoux, who will graduate in May with a linguistics degree, embodies Anderson’s message. Combining his degree with an interest in computers, Champoux is involved in developing software to help computers decipher human language. Right now, he works with syntax?teaching computers to understand how sentences are put together?for a local company. Work like his has produced software which can read news wires or notes taken by call center reps and pull out information.

After discovering linguistics, Champoux left civil engineering, his prior major. Like Bauer, he was taking a step into the dark.

“I was unsure of where it would take me,” he said. “I just knew I would enjoy linguistics no matter where I ended up.”

Bauer and Champoux are not unique. A love for the subject, regardless of application, often attracts students to the humanities, and the liberal arts in general.

“That’s a valid reason for selecting an academic major, but they should also think about outcomes,” said Stan Inman director of Career Services. He recommended students should ask themselves, “How can I make this work?” early on.

Generally, Career Services works most closely with the more job focused fields of business, engineering and education.

“But we don’t give any less emphasis to other areas,” he said.

When discussing possible careers and fields of study with undecided students, Assistant Director Susan Larsen is careful not to slight the liberal arts.

“I hurry up and quickly say we have many employers who look for people with bachelor’s, they’re not concerned with majors,” she said.

Indeed, a diploma, be it in accounting or middle eastern studies, can be significant for its own sake.

At the Business and Liberal Arts Career Fair a few weeks ago, 70 to 80 percent of the employers were looking at all majors, said Julie Swaner, a career counselor. Often, liberal arts majors tend to end up in career tracks parallel to those of most business students.

Bret Hortin came to campus recruiting for Intermountain Financial Group. He was looking for those with a “business related background.

“We don’t exclude anyone. I graduated with a chemistry degree from here 19 years ago,” he said.

A lot boils down to how a prospective employee can articulate how his or her experience and skills fit the position.

Kate Whetman, a career counselor for a variety of liberal arts majors, including English, recommends drafting a “functional” resum, one which emphasizes a students’ pertinent skills and caters them to the position.

However, the field is not always a level one.

The directions students take their degrees vary depending on their field. For instance, in social science and science, counselors arm themselves with information on graduate school preparation. But in engineering, graduate school is not such a priority among students, Inman said.

And often liberal arts’ students like Champoux need to step outside of their field of study to develop career oriented skills.

“If I were to have continued in just linguistics, my options would have primarily been within academia,” Champoux said. While a humanities major can springboard a student into many fields, often it requires extra school or work in that field, he said.

These students need to figure out early on if they want to pursue a career that will require specific skills. Then they can add the business minor or get the internship where they can acquire these skills.

“I see lots of things they don’t necessarily teach at the U but students pick up anyway,” said Swaner, a career counselor.

The hard part is figuring out what those added skills should be. And sometimes students’ own perceptions make those options harder to explore.

We “suffer from a kind of tunnel vision?all you can do is teach,” Max Freeman, a senior in English, said of himself and fellow majors. He plans to continue on in academia, and apply his love of literature to teaching and research.

“I know there are other options, but I’ve never explored them,” he said.

Ironically, Whetman says she sees the widest variety of job placements in Freeman’s field. The communication skills learned in English can take students many places, she said.

Anderson, assistant humanitites dean, hopes to give students more exposure to possibilities. The college recently drew up a tentative proposal for a Humanities Career Fair which includes a main information session and break-out sessions. “What to tell your parents about your career,” is among the proposed topics.

“What can we do to help students formulate job-seeking plans, not just for seniors who are panic stricken,” he said.

Inman’s vision for a Humanities Career Fair focuses on employers, building on the nonprofit fair Career Services sponsored this year.

“We hope to expand that and also add the government sector,” Inman said. He wants to include graduate school, creating a “smorgasbord” of options.

For like Champoux and Bauer choosing a major without clear career prospects can be a leap of faith, but according to Swaner the rewards may be worth it.

“Whatever loves you have should be how you base yourself. Who wants to live a life of quiet desperation.”

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