Your College Major May Not Prepare You for Your Job—but It Can Prepare You for Life

Your College Major May Not Prepare You for Your Job—but It Can Prepare You for Life

How much does your college major matter? The answer varies a lot, depending on which industry you’re trying to break into.

For example, I’m a white collar worker, and work alongside folks with undergraduate degrees in history, finance, literature, and psychology. Yet I’ve noticed among medical professionals, it is generally frowned upon to dispense medical wisdom under the mighty authority of a BA in Film Criticism. Hmm. Curious!

I spend a lot of time working with recent graduates in the course of my Clark Kent day job. And I’ve noticed that a lot of them seem apologetic or insecure about their majors, especially when those majors don’t relate directly to the assigned task.

Just the other day, I was getting sloppy with my speech in a one-on-one meeting with a mentee, using too many unnecessary bits of industry jargon. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “but could you please explain what that means? I love marketing, but I only found that out about myself once I started doing internships in my senior year. It was too late to change my major, so I’m really behind.”

It kinda broke my heart! (And was totally my bad. I didn’t need to say “stakeholder feedback needs to be strategically leveraged against known best practices.” Not when I could’ve just said “clients are ignorant babies, ignore them whenever possible.”) There’s a learning curve for every new job, no matter how familiar you are with the industry. No reasonable person expects you to instantaneously intuit absolutely everything.

Remember your value

I think a lot of our readers could benefit from a healthy reminder that you bring great value to your job role just by being you, regardless of what you studied in school or learned in internships. In my observation, technical know-how and industry experience are far less important than the “soft skills” of managing people, priorities, time, data, and (most importantly) yourself.

Piggy and I have our own observations, but they’re based on the narrow experiences we’ve lived or observed firsthand. So I thought I’d float this discussion in our Patreon community. I asked donors for their insights into skills and habits they learned in their majors, and how it serves them in the job role they perform today. And like the dedicated employees of the United States Postal Service, they delivered!

The best advice comes from real, lived experiences—and the more diverse, the better. Here’s hoping this advice will inspire younger readers who are still deciding on this issue. But also, those more established folks who may be questioning the feasibility of a major career shift.

… Omg, a “major” career shift! Get it??

Here are some things that your “off-topic” major might teach you…

Listening to others and empathizing with their situations

Psych major here, who somehow fell into financial planning. I’ve never been particularly good at math; but you’d be surprised at how little of my job deals with numbers. I spend most of my days using my psych training to understand why clients are making certain choices, and meeting them where they’re at to help them stay on the path to their ultimate goals (regardless of what the markets are doing today!).

– Patron Heather

I majored in Finance, and now assist in tax accounting and financial planning. It’s kind of funny to admit, but to be honest, I use lessons learned from general ed classes in my everyday life more.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy in my college major and job. But with clients, communication and understanding them is key. Investing is almost the easiest part. They want us to hear their concerns and us to assure them in a simplified way. It was my communication, history, and ethnic studies classes that taught me how to do that.

– Patron Lacey

Here’s the takeaway

I love that two finance pros wrote in with the exact same observation!

Piggy and I are rank amateurs in the finance space—a phrase that begs the full pronunciation of the hard “t,” possibly while readjusting one’s monocle because one simply cannot believe what one sees!

But all the finance pros we love and respect have said the exact same thing. When people talk about money, they’re not just talking about numbers. Money represents their future, their dreams, their sense of security. And no one would feel satisfied entrusting their finances to someone who can’t convey an understanding and respect for those connections.

Staying persistent and goal-oriented

I went the very boring route of environmental engineering (yaaaaay being a PAID tree hugger). The most important thing I learned from college was how to get kicked in the teeth and knocked down and spit out the blood and keep going cause mama’s got a problem set due in a day. (And how to effectively google things. I’m considered the Microsoft expert because I googled it and clicked on the first link.)

– Patron McKenzie

I’m an engineer. I went to school for six long years for it. I have struggled for years with impostor syndrome and nearly quit to go live among the trees and goats of Jamaica. BUT! I persevered, and somehow I found a job that lets me put my loves of project management, traveling, and talking on the phone to good use.

Resiliency has been the key for me. Good GOD, engineering school is hard! You question yourself at every turn. I thought about quitting nearly every day of my sophomore and senior years, but I didn’t, because I knew that engineering is a very versatile field full of unique and interesting jobs. The resiliency I learned in school helped me to overcome obstacles and eventually come out on the other side even better.

It also helped me learn how to deal with the asshole Good Ol’ Boys that are in every engineering department ever, but that’s a story for another time!

– Patron Rachel

Here’s the takeaway

Heyyyyy, it’s Patron Rachel! Whose career soul-searching was featured on Season 1, Episode 5 of our podcast: “I Don’t Love My Job, but It Pays Well. Should I Quit—or Tough It Out?”

Clearly our advice worked out, since she’s back to offer this excellent advice on staying persistent. We’re geniuses.

Where’s the line between being a Quitty McQuitsalot, and a glowing-brained genius who’s embraced all the lessons the sunk cost fallacy has to teach us? Who knows! Adulthood is a long journey in search of this line. But when your loudest critic is the one inside your head, that’s your cue to tell that bitch to pipe down! You’re too busy Googling the answers to life, the universe, and everything to listen!

Becoming a trustworthy educator

Theatre Education, which is kinda two degrees shoved in one. I work retail now. My major taught me to not take things personally, how to quickly diagnose a problem, how to have seventy plates in the air and catch them all in the correct order before they shatter…

Probably the key skill tho: EMOTIONS MATTER. You will not get anything done with people that you lead if they are too uncomfortable to take risks.

I use all of this constantly. I promise all of you, if you have friends with education degrees who don’t teach in classrooms, they are absolutely using those degrees. I’m an adult who had to explain not only the concept of conditioner, but how to take a shower, to another adult. I am *still* an educator.

– Patron themaefive

Theatre major with dual-minors in creative writing and stage combat. By day, I am an administrative, computing, box office babe. And by night, I am still doing theatre and professional fight choreography.

The two concepts I’ve carried with: “Make your partner look good” and “Safety First, Safety Last, Safety Always.” It doesn’t matter how you look onstage, or how realistic the choreography may be. What matters is that you make your partner look good. It’s setting aside your ego in support of another. It requires trust, collaboration, communication, and vulnerability from both of you to succeed. And to take it further, it asks me to familiarize myself with mental health first aid, trigger warnings, sensitivity training, problem solving and solution offering – because even though the characters may be dealing with potentially violent scenarios, I need to protect my partner or the actors from that being their reality.

– Patron Shelby C.

Here’s the takeaway

I love a certain theme I see in both of these insights: that educators are leaders, and you cannot effectively lead anyone who doesn’t trust you.

Many of our donors are under the protection of Hera. D’you feel me? I mean wimminfolk. (Or at least I assume based on names, it is possible our Patreon group is 88% enbies with femme names, we ARE big on Tumblr!) Their insights definitely got me thinking about the fact that men are encouraged from a young age to lead through confidence.

And when you think about it, confidence is like: “Here, let ME do the trusting of me for you!

It makes me really excited to hear about a totally different approach to leadership, one that’s built on consent and validation, rather than bluster and dominance. I hope it makes you excited too!

Gaining an appreciation for diversity

I was a history/Asian studies double major in college. (Just… really friggin’ loved Chinese history, what can I say?) I learned that human nature is always the same, throughout all of human history. I learned that people since the dawn of time have just been making it up as they go along, even the ones whose names end in “the Great.” 

So I learned to appreciate people for all their faults and weirdness, to deeply appreciate the human nature that connects us all. Nowadays I’m a massage therapist and intuition coach, and I am able to connect with my clients very deeply, very quickly. They get to feel seen, heard, and safe, because I’m not interested in changing them into something they’re not. I love the humanness of the people I get to work with.

– Patron edensgardener

I majored in psychology and religious studies. Obviously, the psych degree was directly related to being a school counselor (though I learned a lot about statistics and data analysis which has been incredibly useful in my career).

Religious studies taught me that everyone is looking for a fulfilling life, but everyone goes about it in different ways. We all define it differently, and it’s deeply important to respect personal definitions. RS taught me to really consider people’s backgrounds and how most people are driven by core beliefs/values, which was very in line with the culturally competent/social justice bent of my training.

– Patron Friendly Neighborhood School Counselor

Here’s the takeaway

Diversity is often derisively viewed as a capitulation to appearances. Like, “We have to do it, because it would look bad if we didn’t!”

But diversity has a value that is so much broader and more real than that. It’s exactly as these two donors say. There’s so much to learn if you understand how humans are all different. And how they’re all the same.

Piggy mentioned to our Patreon donors that I’m currently working from my in-laws’ place. Our spider senses told us they needed some extra support with their newborn, so me and Mr. Kitty are playing on-site auntie and uncle. I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be pesky houseguests who came to “help” but just got in the way. Not sure what to do, I (a child-free individual) reached out to a friend, who’s a little older than me, and has a school-aged child who started life as a preemie in the NICU, just like my nephew. She’d been open with me in the past about how traumatic his birth was, and how much she struggled with anxiety as a new parent amidst all his health challenges. I knew she’d have some insights.

I sat back as this friend just poured fantastic wisdom into my ear. She gave us so many ideas of things to do. And as I absorbed all her wisdom, I thought… “Wow. I am so fucking lucky I have people in my life like this—people who have lived a totally different life than mine, who will tell me what they learned from their experiences, so freely, at the drop of a hat.”

That’s the real power of diversity. It’s about an affirmative observation that differences are inherently valuable, and systems that promote same-ness should be changed or dismantled.

Improving your social skills

I did my undergrad in ecology, realized I was miserable with the academia work-life-lack-of-balance, so transitioned over to engineering. Aside from the actual transferable technical skills like coding, the big thing I learned throughout my field ecology jobs was the extent to which social skills are job skills. If you’re doing field work, you’re typically working 50-60 hour weeks and also living together with all your coworkers, so, uh, being able to coexist more-or-less happily is a fundamental survival skill. In contrast, getting along with people in an office setting is a piece of cake!

– Patron Emily

I actually work in the field my major set me up for. I was a communications major, and now I’m a learning experience designer who develops virtual training programs. My major involved a lot of group projects that I hated as a freshman, but they wore me down and taught me how to work effectively in all kinds of groups, which was great preparation for the corporate world.

– Patron Zoe

Here’s the takeaway

I’ve often told my younger mentees that the #1 best career advice I have is don’t be a shit-head.

It’s not enough to say that former bosses, clients, coworkers, and career contacts are career gold mines. They’re the Mines of Moria! (“And they call it a mine… a mine!”) They’re the best possible source of all good things: job openings, career advice, promotions, connections, mentoring, etc.

Yet here there be Balrogs as well. You can be devastatingly amazing at your job, but if you’re a shit-head, it won’t matter one bit. No one will call you about an amazing new opportunity if they don’t enjoy talking to you.

So if you missed out on the life lessons about being kind, playing fair, and just being a generally chill person, college is an excellent opportunity to catch up.

Communicating clearly and effectively

I got my degree in English, specifically creative writing. Now I do policy work in state healthcare. My English degree taught me how to analyze text to get to the heart of what text means, but also (more importantly) how to communicate effectively in order to identify motives. This second part is important because if I know what a lawmaker is trying to accomplish, I’m more likely to be able to come up with alternatives that can get them where they’re trying to go, while placing a less adverse impact on my state’s healthcare system.

– Patron Michelle

My master’s is in rhetoric and technical communication. Both of these fields helped me while I was a graduate lecturer in college composition by reminding me that the most effective learning is tailored as closely as possible to the learner’s background and information needs. Obviously this can be more difficult when you’re dealing with a group of students instead of an individual learner, but it makes for a more rewarding experience both for students and for teachers. My degree helps me to clearly explain my processes, collaborate with my coworkers, and  to create documents that are more helpful.

– Patron Shelby M.

Here’s the takeaway

For most of my life, I thought I was a pretty good communicator.

But then I started blogging, which made me introspective about my writing. And that made me introspective about other things, which led me to the realization that I am a weird cackling witch who cannot spell excepting in runes, fluent only in the cawing of ravens and the tolling of church bells at midnight.

Seek feedback about your communication style, and treasure whatever you get. And for god’s sake, act on it! If people tell you you’re blunt, don’t pride yourself on that—challenge yourself to soften up so people can better hear your message. If you apologize too often, install one of those plugins that changes every instance of “I’m sorry” in an email to “thank you” so that your actually necessary apologies have meaning.

No matter your major, college is a great time to identify your communication quirks and fix them. When asked directly for feedback, no coworker will ever be as forthcoming and honest as a professor whose job it is to make you better.

Improving organization and attention to detail

Both my bachelor’s and master’s are in nursing. My major taught me to pay attention to details, organize, and create structure. I can’t even tell you how terrible of a procrastinator I was in undergrad because I thought organizing study schedules was lame. My first year in nursing school was a trial in frustration for my professors and the nurses in the hospital, as my disorganization hampered my ability to take care of patients. These skills I was forced to learn carried over well to my finances too. I need a systemic approach to attacking my debt and investing my money if I want to FIRE one day!

– Patron Kati

I majored in photography with a minor in film & video production. I’ve held jobs in both fields, but my current job pretty much involves looking at spreadsheets all day. Attention to detail is one of my greatest strengths and editing photos and video definitely contributed to that, and I also think my film background helped me to stumble upon the niche in the entertainment industry I’m currently in.

I’m not totally regret-free on going tens of thousands of dollars in debt to have a job where I copy and paste all day, and I wish my college classes had more practical information, but it was still a good experience.

– Patron Natalie

Here’s the takeaway

I appreciate Natalie’s honesty. We had a handful of comments to a similar effect: “I didn’t learn much” or “I learned too late.”

This is why in our article on choosing a future career, we urged y’all to think deeply about what your most disparate hobbies and interests have in common. If you dig deep enough, you’ll see unexpected associations that really illuminate who you are as a person. Knowing what skills you excel in, and which ones you suck at, is extremely valuable.

And speaking of executive functioning skills…

Learning how to be accountable to yourself, for yourself

As a history major, you get a stack of books to read and a list of papers to write. It’s up to you to structure your time. I got really good at measuring out how long the research and writing of papers will take, and how to meter out the reading. These planning skills still serve me today.

– Patreon Patricia

I double majored in psychology and communication/media studies! I’m a research analyst right now and I’m getting my Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction, and my end goal is to be an astronaut! I changed majors eleven times in undergrad due to undiagnosed ADHD and a heavy work schedule to afford college, so the computer science degree I dreamed of seemed unattainable. I always wanted to be an astronaut though! It’s cool to find this different way to get to the same end goal. 

– Patron Sydney

Here’s the takeaway

I am chilled to the bone considering people this smart read this extraordinarily stupid blog. Can you fucking imagine if we had FANS IN SPAAAACE?!

But seriously, I myself was diagnosed with ADHD at the ripe old age of 32. I’m torn on whether I would’ve appreciated this diagnosis in childhood (something I’m sure I’ll write about someday). But I definitely would’ve loved to discover it by the time I hit college. The self-knowledge of how your own brain works is among the most valuable gifts an education can give you.

Final words

I want to end with these final words, both pithy and wise…

My major taught me the soft skills of asking questions, learning to prioritize, and remembering that everyone has a story to tell; you don’t know what it is, so don’t make assumptions about their knowledge, experience, and abilities. An interest in lifelong learning is key to success. I ask every job candidate I interview if they have it.

– Patron Stacie

A huge thank you to our donors. I am so sorry I couldn’t include everyone’s observations! They were all so funny and smart and interesting, I read and reread them all. But every long-ass article I send to Piggy for editing moves her closer and closer to breaking up with me. And I just can’t have that!

If you want to support us, please consider joining this awesome group we have going on Patreon. You’ll get so much bang for your teeny, tiny buck! I could tell you about the questions, the content polls, the exclusive videos, but I’d be burying the lede because

<takes huge breath>


Yes. You read that right.

But you should go back and read it again anyway.

And when you’re done, come and join the fun on our Patreon.

7 thoughts to “Your College Major May Not Prepare You for Your Job—but It Can Prepare You for Life”

  1. I have a degree in English and now work in medical research. I got my first job in medical research because of, not in spite of, my degree. I was hired to write consent documents on a 6th-8th grade level so patients could understand medical-ese. I never took a science class above “rocks for jocks” in college and now I’m surrounded my science every day. I can’t imagine doing anything else now, but if you would have told me when I was an undergrad that I’d be doing this, I would have laughed in your face.

  2. So I studied history, but the most important life skill, given how the world turned out, came from my high school history teacher. Namely: “Just because something is written down doesn’t mean that it’s true”. Which is a fucking truism, I know, but 18 years ago, before the age of Fake News, it was fucking earth-shattering for baby me to think that there could be LIES in BOOKS. By the time social media happened properly, my body was ready.

  3. My education is a mix of soft and hard sciences, but the strongest job-relevant superpowers I have were honed during my anthropology training. I can (1) listen to other people talk for extremely long periods of time while still looking interested, (2) repeat back and summarize what others say and do, (3) take excellent notes, (4) tactfully steer unproductive conversations in more useful directions, and (5) make people feel heard even if I disagree with them and have to reject their ideas. It’s a combination that’s served me well in an office.

  4. My degree is in Environmental Studies and I graduated 5 years ago now. Right now I work as a shift supervisor at a popular coffee company, but everyday I wish I could be something else. My degree taught me to be observant to the way people interact among themselves and their environment. Much of my coursework involved writing, reading books and essays, and reflecting on how we can do better. Clearly there’s still more work to done and I wish to be involved in that. But there are hardly any advocacy jobs that actually pay a living wage, so I’m discouraged from trying. I want to help people to realize that it’s not too late. People are so apathetic now regarding our futures and I hope one day to help people see their own potential to make an impact.

  5. This article was all over the place and really hard to read. It wasn’t very succinct or funny like your other articles are. I didn’t feel like I was able to get a lot of helpful information and since it was hard to read I ended up giving up half way through. I hope you go back to your original style with future articles.

  6. My sister is an optometrist. She told me that out of her graduating class, the ones who built the most successful practices were not the ones who finished among the top of her class – they were the ones with the best people skills.

  7. I got a degree in industrial design and am now in school communications. Other than knowing how to make things look good (which is really impressive to people who don’t have a design background), there are 3 ways my degree has specifically helped me in work and life in general.
    1) Push every button. I’ve become the de facto IT support for an office of people twice my age because my degree has taught me that the best way to learn how to use software is to see what every button does (or look it up).
    2) Being resourceful. In school you design a variety of objects without any industry knowledge, so you often have to figure out how to learn quickly and effectively use what you already have or know.
    3) Using tools. This tied with #2 helps me be very frugal because now I know how to ~*make things*~ or at least figure it out. Example: I havent bought new clothes in awhile because I’ve mended or tailored most of the ones I have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *