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Any college student, past or present, knows the anxiety experienced when picking a major. The wealth of choices is overwhelming. Universities today offer more specialized degrees than they ever have before, which can be seen as either good or bad, depending on whom you ask.
At first glance, many majors, such as Renaissance literature or philosophy, seem designed to produce teachers on the subject with no alternate career options. Others, like ethnomusicology, appear so hopelessly specific that you don't know if you can even find a university that wants you. Once you consider how competitive the market is and that you might not want to be a teacher, you're left wondering what to do upon graduating.
You have options
If you earn a degree that doesn't lead you down a path like medicine or law, you do have options for a variety of jobs that you might not have considered when you declared your major. For many graduates, the soft skills they developed helped pave the way to a successful career.
Take, for example, philosophy major Tim Poindexter, the directory of community for Disaboom.com, an online community for people affected by disability.
"[My degree] has given me exceptional problem-solving skills, along with the ability to articulate arguments and ideas in a clear and forceful manner," Poindexter says.
The experience has been similar for Neil Gussman, who works at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a library and museum of chemistry in Philadelphia. Currently he writes about chemistry and its history for the foundation, but in January he will begin a one year deployment to Iraq with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as a chemical weapons decontamination sergeant for an attack/transport aviation unit.
"So you might think I have a degree in chemistry. I actually have a degree in humanities ... and a master's degree in American studies," Gussman says. He went from the army to college to a copywriting stint at an ad agency. He soon realized that the ability to write about technology would keep him employed in a society increasingly reliant on evolving gadgets and scientific advancements.
Although he initially drew upon his service experience to write about electronics in his early work, he took it upon himself to learn about chemistry, a subject he hadn't studied extensively. Like Poindexter's philosophy degree, Gussman's education provided him with the communication skills and mindset to work in a variety of successful jobs that weren't on his mind in college.
Finding the right combination
Brent C.J. Britton's degree is related to his job -- well, one of three degrees is. He has a bachelor's in computer science, a master's from MIT's Media Lab and a law degree. His path to becoming a lawyer was unorthodox but has been an asset, not a hindrance, to his career.
"It is the cross training that leads to success, the juxtaposition of two or more fields," Britton says. "Coming to a new discipline with the lessons learned from the former one gives you an enlightened perspective not shared -- not graspable -- by the entrenched experts."
Although the practical qualifications he needs to be a lawyer came from his law degree, he views his other degrees as the real building blocks for his daily approach to work. He likes to approach legal contracts as though they were software code that can be analyzed and perfected with the right set of eyes. He believes he can find the same inventiveness from other nontraditional lawyers.
"I will hire a lawyer with an undergraduate degree in music or poetry any day because they will bring a new, more creative perspective to my practice. They will question my core axioms, and they will thereby help to refine what I do."
Christine Sharer isn't a lawyer, but her road to the business world was just as winding as Britton's. She studied theater in graduate school, but now she is the CEO of the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation of Utah.
"I always thought a theater background was great preparation for business: It required you to work against deadlines and budgets, deal with diverse personalities in a high-stress environment and do complex planning and project management," Sharer says.
There are no guarantees
Although these professionals found a way to turn seemingly unmarketable degrees into lucrative ones, logic might lead you to find a program that draws a straight line to a related job. The problem is that a degree never guarantees you a job, and you won't necessarily be any more prepared for a job than someone who studied something else.
Jocelyn Brandeis, co-founder of PR firm JBLH Communications, earned a Bachelor of Science in communication arts from New York University. While the degree earned her a job in public relations as she hoped, she didn't find it taught her all she needed to know about the job's daily tasks. When Brandeis first began working in PR she found herself short on crisis communications skills and unsure of how to handle executives.
No education can teach you every lesson you'll need in your professional life, but when transferring a unique degree to the workplace, you might find that most valuable skills have little to do with the degree title and more to do with the lessons you learned along the way.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.
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