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Careers Café

Why you should lose the degree-focused career list

These lists are not useful because they are built around a tiny part of what makes you a good job candidate.



If careers were linear, the logical topic for this post might be “careers you can do with a degree in X.”

Lists are seldom inspirational – or even very useful when it comes to identifying career options. While lots of university career offices have lists like “Careers for X majors,” I’ve yet to meet a client who said that a list solved their indecision. For that matter, I’ve yet to work with a career advisor who thinks that career lists will set anyone on their future path. Typically, the lists are there because, if they aren’t, someone will ask why there’s no list.

Part of the reason why someone will ask is because it feels efficient to have a list. Surely, there is a set of careers that make for logical next steps after degree X. The problem is that your most logical career options will likely depend more on you and your environment – your skills, your life circumstances, the labour market where you’re willing to work, your values, your motivations and interests – than on your degree.

That’s because degree-focused lists tend to zero in on content knowledge and one or two key skills. They’re built around a tiny part of what makes you a good job candidate – often around the most trainable part.

Does this mean that the sky’s the limit, and it’s just as easy to become a computer programmer with a sociology degree as with a computer science degree? No, but it does mean that you shouldn’t automatically reject options on the assumption that you’d absolutely need to complete retraining in order to make a career transition.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick mental survey of friends and acquaintances with graduate degrees in English – and no other degrees. The “Careers for English majors” lists typically include options like teaching, writing, journalism, public relations, marketing and publishing. My quick mental survey included software programming (yep), consulting with large non-profits, career counseling, and project management along with more expected careers in research coordination, marketing and speech writing.

As a hiring manager, I wasn’t convinced that an applicant could fill a role just because they had a relevant degree. The people I worked with were successful in their roles because of their personalities, the skills they had developed (no matter where they developed them), and their motivation to do the work well. Their degrees provided relatively little insight into whether they could or wanted to do the work.

My next few posts will focus on exploring and preparing to make yourself a competitive candidate for roles that might not share content knowledge with your degree. After all, that’s where most people end up – working in careers they never expected to have when they chose a major.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Don Millard / May 4, 2016 at 11:20

    Any sort of credible information regarding career options stemming from post-secondary education/training – listed or not, is valuable for both students and parents. I would recommend taking a look at the University of Regina’s “Exploring Your Options” document which has proven to be very informative and useful.

    Don Millard, UofR Senate Member – Regina

  2. Whitney B / May 4, 2016 at 14:01

    This is refreshing to hear. Without a professional designation, it’s hard to identify a specific list of careers people can (or should) aim for with their given degrees. I’m tired of hearing from a couple well-meaning relatives that I am not working in my field. I have an MA in English… what is my “field”?

  3. Janet MacDonald / May 5, 2016 at 13:28

    The list is just one of many different resources a student contemplating a career should use. I think it can be useful, as long as it is used as just one piece of several others in the career determining process. It should be seen as a tool to get them thinking and researching, not as an answer. Same goes for interest testing; some students do an interest test or two and think that’s it. But the matches are more of a starting point than and end point. Today’s students’ work future will very likely have at least one and perhaps several different careers over the course of their lifetime. If we can show people that career exploration is a process, one that requires thought and self-awareness and includes many different factors,and teach them the steps to do it properly, then they can apply that process at various times in their lives, as their situations change. I think teaching the process is the key.

  4. LIsa ter Woort / May 30, 2016 at 10:06

    Hey Liz,

    This was a really lovely article and I am looking at it from the perspective of a Mom who has two daughters starting to think about university as well as a professional in international student mobility.

    Looking forward to your next contribution!

  5. Rosemary Kay / May 30, 2016 at 15:27

    Hi Liz,

    Thanks for sharing your insightful perspective on career decision-making, and clearly explaining why the linear degree-focused list could lead both the career explorer and the hiring manager down a narrow path towards a dead end.

    Best wishes, Rosemary

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