My step-daughter, Catherine, is about to graduate from college.  She’ll have a B.S. in Health Science in a few weeks and, despite the fact she has some solid relevant work experience under her belt in addition to her degree, she’s less certain than she’d like to be about her professional prospects.  She envies her older sister, an accounting major who is now a CPA working in public accounting because she had a pretty linear path from college to lucrative employment.

We’re led to believe that “successful” undergrads segue from business studies to business careers or nursing studies to nursing careers or engineering studies to engineering careers.  They’re the ones to emulate: they have it all figured out!  It’s too bad—actually it’s ridiculous—that the media, employers and well-meaning parents and family encourage this one narrow model  because the truth is most undergrads have plenty of career-seeking adventure left after they collect their degree.  Many struggle to find a path from education to paycheck.

But we live in uncertain times.  The growing threat of continued economic weakness is driving an overwhelming collective urge to be safe, get a job, find a way into financial security despite the uncertainty.  The higher the worry level, the greater the urge to land that good job, that sure thing.  And college must surely be preparing us for that, no?


The fallacy of the linear career path comes under direct attack in You Majored in What? by Katharine Brooks, a guide to help students align their many qualifications and interests with job prospects.  Dr. Brooks is the Director of Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas, Austin, and in this book she discounts the notion that specific majors lead to specific jobs and instead encourages students to be open to a range of possibilities.  Career certainty is not what she advises.  Explore, be open to opportunity, bring together your experience, interests and education, and don’t assume you should have it all figured out already, despite the pressures around you to be Something because you majored in Something.  You Majored in What?  is a practical, conversational, insightful guide for students who have interests, experiences, classes they like, role models they admire, languages they speak, songs they’ve written, cars they’ve fixed, countries they’ve visited—recommending ways to assemble the pieces and parts of their lives and examine the many outcomes possible.  It isn’t the case that one clear path emerges from the examination method she recommends.  Instead, the point is to see the possibilities, to relax about uncertainty, and to head out in many directions with confidence.

I bought Catherine (my step-daughter) a copy of this book, and another for my son, who’s headed off to college this fall.  I recommend it to every undergraduate who doesn’t have a linear career path already mapped (English majors, case in point) and even to students who think they do.

2 thoughts on “Career Certainty is Overrated

  1. I appreciate these insights and would like to insert a hopeful story. I got a call from a very successful local company asking for a reference for an MBA graduate who had been my assistant for two years. The grad student had earned an honors degree in history and a master’s degree in history before completing his MBA. His value to me as an assistant was immense because he could think, research and write in ways that reflected so clearly his deep background in the humanities. Suddenly I found myself on the phone with a corporate manager who wondered what I thought of this student. I couldn’t help but be 100% honest. “I value his training in history more than his business training and feel his ability to ask and pursue answers to questions is something most for-profit organizations could really leverage.” So, I’d put a stake in the ground that the MBA alone wasn’t what this guy should appreciate. He was hired – surely not because of my reference yet now this manager calls me once a year to see who else I’ve noticed and might send his way. He raves about my history/MBA guy. I think what newly-minted undergrads need to learn is that pursing their passion, loving to learn and building excellent thinking skills should yield so many opportunities. I promote with our daughters the idea of respecting teachers & the classroom, worrying less about grades and more about passion for learning and pursuing whatever major makes their hearts sing. Let’s hope I don’t regret that focus as one daughter will graduate with a degree in psychology in just two years… Oh well, I’d love to have her come live at home again… 🙂 Thanks for your blog Susan! Such great topics!

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