Perhaps no question irritates college seniors more than this query: “What are you going to do after graduation?”
Liberal arts majors who don’t have a defined career track in mind may be the most anxious about their job prospects.
But recent data collected by Brandeis University, a top-tier, medium-sized research university outside Boston, belies that fear.
In figures collected on the school’s 2017 graduates, liberal arts majors fared as well if not better than their peers in high-demand fields like science or technology. In fact, every one of the university’s 2017 graduates who majored in comparative literature and creative writing are currently employed, according to the data. For English majors, the figure is 97 percent, with the remainder in graduate school.
“A liberal arts degree can afford you may opportunities,” said Andrea Dine, executive director of the Hiatt Career Center at Brandeis.
“English majors, for example, the industries they go into range tremendously, from education to consulting, computer science, journalism, advertising, marketing and PR,” she said. “One of the lessons that we want to tell our graduates is that they are most likely not going to get a job directly related to their major. That’s the norm. One’s career path is not a straight line.”
The data on recent graduates comes from surveys conducted annually by the Hiatt Career Center, which provides lifetime career counseling to alumni. The data is publicly available on the center’s website, Beyond Brandeis, and allows users to filter results by major and graduation year to see how alumni fare after leaving Brandeis.
The most recent survey found that 97 percent of Brandeis’ class of 2017 is employed, in graduate school or engaged in other meaningful activities. Nearly two-thirds have jobs, some at top companies like Amazon, Google and Goldman Sachs. Another 27 percent are in graduate school.
Nevertheless, Dine cautioned, college seniors should not be complacent about searching for a job.
“Even in a good economy, a full-time job search takes time and persistence,” Dine said. “No matter how vibrant the economy and labor market, a dream job will remain a dream until you take action.”
Alexandra Stephens, who works with Dine as associate director of alumni career programs and engagement at Brandeis, shared seven tips for those looking for their first job after college:
1. Be open-minded. Liberal arts majors should not assume they’re ill-suited for work in an advanced economy whose major growth industries are related to information technology, engineering and construction. As long as you’re willing to consider all possibilities, even if they’re not directly related to your major, you have a good chance of landing a job. “Don’t box yourself into any one path,” Stephens says. “Stay open.”
2. Your first job is not your forever job. The days when workers enjoyed lifetime tenure at a company and retired with a comfortable pension are long gone. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that workers had been with their current company for an average of just 4.2 years. But graduates still tend to approach their first post-college job with significant anxiety, fearful that the initial employment decision will determine their entire career. “Take pressure off yourself,” Stephens says. “That first job is not your final decision. It’s really just the first of many you will make.”
3. Do your research. Employers routinely tell career centers that students are unprepared, both for interviews and — if the job offer comes — for the actual work they are expected to do. So find out as much as you can about your prospective employer and that industry. Mine your network to find people who work at that company or in that field. Determine what salary is appropriate for a given position. Be ready to ask specific questions to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework and know what awaits you if the offer comes.
4. When applying, go for quality over quantity. Submitting job applications takes time, and it’s tempting to draft form letters and send them out widely. That’s a mistake. Tailoring a cover letter to a specific job and employer offers a chance for you to make a compelling case for why you’re the optimal candidate for that job. Don’t pass it up.
5. Practice, practice, practice. You might be able to gloss over your inexperience in a resume or cover letter, but it’s hard to fake it in an interview. Many career centers offer mock interview sessions as practice for those entering the job market. Friends and parents can play the role of corporate recruiter, too. Stephens even suggests recording your answers on your smartphone so you can evaluate your performance. Interview prep is a chance to rehearse your story so it’s compelling and seamlessly delivered.
6. Use your network. Virtually every college and university makes their alumni networks available to job applicants. Brandeis alone has a roster of more than 50,000 living alumni. Take advantage of them. Alumni often are willing to meet you personally to share knowledge and advice. They might even have a lead on a job opportunity. But that shouldn’t be your ultimate goal in reaching out to alumni. “The primary purpose is building relationships and building knowledge,” Stephens says.
7. Visit your college career center. Do it early and often, Stephens advises. Universities invest in these resources because they work. Career centers can help you identify your strengths and interests, polish those all-important resumes and cover letters, develop a job search strategy and connect you to recruiters who visit campus. “Doing a job search in a vacuum will probably not serve you well,” Stephens says. “So surround yourself with a team that’s going to be able to help you with these decisions.”