How to overcome a "bad" college major

Photo of Katerina Frank

(Author’s Note: I wrote this blog post over a year ago when I was searching for my next opportunity. At that point I had switched from the gaming industry to e-commerce and thought that I had mastered the art of adaptability and overcoming adversity. Now that I’m a Caiman Consultant, this post has even more meaning. Consulting on site merchandising has allowed me to take my scrappiness, creativity, and organizational skills to a whole new level. Being a consultant is all about looking for new opportunities, pushing past obstacles, and stretching the limits of what you thought was possible. I’m so glad that my “bad major” set me on a path to becoming part of Caiman.)

We've all read those articles about "the worst college major", or the "worst-paid college majors". You know, the ones that list the unemployment rate and average salary for people who were (seemingly) stupid enough to study those subjects as undergrads? They pop up like gophers every few months, ready to eat away at our self-esteem just when we thought we were rid of the pesky things.

If you're happily employed because of your major, then congratulations...but this article is not for you. However, if you're struggling professionally after studying something that doesn't get employers flooding your inbox and want to know how to move on, then I have some great tips.

My college major (music) has the dubious distinction of always making those lists, usually in the not-so-coveted Top 5. I won't lie, when I decided to change careers, it was very hard. Add to that a raging recession and caring for a newborn, and you have a recipe for long-term unemployment. Another truth: as much as I didn't want to believe those lists, my college major did hurt me in my job search since I didn't have the hard or soft skills for many industry jobs. But it didn't turn out as bleak as you might think. Once I figured out how to move forward, my career began to progress!

By the way, I'm not making a blanket statement about all the majors on these "worst" lists, there will always be success stories in any group. But if you're having trouble getting your career going or want to change careers, then re-evaluating your college major might be in order. So, how do you do that?

Find success stories. Seek out those people who turned your "worst" major into a major success. Ask them lots and lots of pointed questions to figure out how they did it. Establish a professional relationship with them. Even if that connection doesn't lead to a job, it will open your eyes to opportunities that are around you. People like to connect with others who share their background, especially since they're often the only ones on their team with that unique educational background.

Make a list. Write down all the skills you acquired through your major and evaluate how they might apply to other fields. For example, if you majored in history, then you probably did a lot of research and writing. That means you're very detail-oriented and (hopefully) have awesome written communications skills. Get help on making the list from somebody objective who doesn't see you as just the "art major" or the "photography guy".

Research. Once you have that list, scour job boards for positions that require the skills you already have. Take note of the other kinds of skills associated with these jobs and look for patterns. Certain required skills will appear over and over, and will give you a clue as to what you might need to learn in order to get the job. This might mean that you'll have to take a class or perhaps bootstrap yourself to get experience.

Don't limit yourself. If you have a specific career in mind, then you probably already know what skills you need to get there. Great! You're well ahead of the game. However, if you're still trying to figure things out, keep an open mind. Your research might lead you to a wide range of positions that you didn't envision for yourself, but look at them as opportunities for growth not limited options. Applying to many jobs might mean lots of rejection, but it also means potentially talking to recruiters and hiring managers, making connections, and getting your name out there.

Create projects for yourself. The biggest hurdle in career pivoting is having the necessary experience employers want. It's the most frustrating career Catch-22 there is: to get a job you need experience, but to get experience you need a job. Start out with creating an online portfolio for yourself, or set up a professional-looking blog where you talk about the things you know (you can see mine right here). No matter the content, you will learn wonderful web skills that many jobs require. Do some professional volunteer work that will not only make you feel good, but will help put much-needed experience on your resume. You can start right here on LinkedIn.

Remember, people who major in non-mainstream subjects are often accustomed to adversity. Many musicians, artists and actors that I've known are very resilient because dealing with rejection is a natural part of their profession. Use this strength as an asset. Believe me, it will take you far.

Note: all these tips are based on my own experience of switching from liberal arts academia to the tech industry. I would love to hear about your experiences, so don't hesitate to leave a comment on our LinkedIn page!