If you're a college graduate, you've probably been asked at some point where you went to school and what you majored in. Judging by the pressure we put on high school students to choose the right school and the right major, college choice and concentration should be the most important factors in post-grad success. And while these choices are important—take a gander at the data to see what they say about how they affect alumni salary—the reality is that neither your school nor your major are absolute determinants of a successful career.
Yes, you should aspire to go to the best school you can get into (and afford), and you should definitely think about what you want to choose for a major. But, in the end, what you do while you're in school matters as much as, if not more than, where you go and which degree is listed on your diploma.
Create Your Own Destiny
"I went to a no-name school in Tennessee, so it was very unlikely that I'd end up at a large company like Microsoft," says Dallas Tester, a Developer Evangelist, who landed his first job there, straight out of college.
Working for Microsoft had been his goal since he was 16 years old. He found ways to get involved with the company via their Student Ambassador program, and participating in their Imagine Cup contest and winning third in the U.S.
"The best thing I did was take on extracurricular activities—TAing and being a Microsoft Student Ambassador," Tester says. His ambassador gig led to interviews and a job after graduation.
Your Guidance Counselor Was Right: You Need an Internship
If you're currently in college, or about to head there, you're probably already sick to death of hearing that you should be doing internships. If so, bad news: it's really true. Getting work experience while in school is one of the best ways students can prepare for life after college.
"I did NOT want to get an internship," says Sasha Pasulka, now Director, Audience Product Marketing at Tableau Software. "I was a B student. I wanted to spend the summer hanging out with my friends."
Pasulka's aunt, a recruiter, convinced her to attend a job fair on campus—by the simple expedient of not taking no for an answer.
"It was on a Saturday, and my sorority was having a pool party that day," Pasulka says. "I had no intention of missing the pool party. But my aunt showed up early to my tiny, messy apartment, instructed me to put on a nice outfit, took me to Kinko's to print out copies of my resume, and drove me to the recruiting fair. From that event, I wound up getting an amazing internship with Lockheed Martin, and they paid me—gasp!—$19/hr. It was more money than I'd ever dreamed I could make."
Pasulka returned to Arizona State University "with renewed drive" and earned a B.S. in Computer Science, and later went on to get an MBA at UCLA Anderson School. Other than one tricky physics class, she says she never got less than an A afterward.
...Even If It's Unpaid
Of course, not every internship is that well-paid ... or even paid at all.
"I can't stress enough how short-sighted college students are when they worry about landing paid internships," says Sarah Fenske, Editor in Chief of The Riverfront Times.
Fenske majored in English and Political Science at The College of Wooster, but landed a job right out of college at a mid-sized daily newspaper—no mean feat, considering that she wasn't a Journalism major and had no related coursework. Fenske's volunteer work with the campus newspaper led to an unpaid internship, which then led directly to her first job.
"Many unpaid internships will work with your schedule so you can take a paid job, too—in the summer of my unpaid internship, I was in the office only three days a week and spent my other days, and evenings, waiting tables," she says. "...Whenever possible, the key is to put the time in and, in the short term, care about learning a skill and making connections. If you're good at what you do, paid employment will follow."
How Important Is Choice of Major?
In fact, choice of major might not be as important as experience in the field. (Although it's never a bad idea to take some related classes, once you sense that your interest is headed in a certain direction.)
"Given that the average person changes jobs 10 – 15 times during his or her career, I think it's most important to choose a major that's interesting to you," says Alison Doyle, Job Search Expert for The Balance and CEO, CareerToolBelt.com. "One of the worst things you can do is pick a major that you think will provide you with lucrative employment, then end up hating the job you have. It's much better to spend time learning about what's important to you and then figure out where you want it to take you."
It's Never Too Early to Start Networking
College students would be well-served to think about networking sooner, rather than later. The connections they make in college can help them discover their dream career and then help them get hired in their new field. Part of the value of a "name-brand" school like an Ivy is the network that comes with being an alum. That doesn't mean that attending a school without a built-in network is a mistake, especially if it provides other opportunities at a price point that makes it easier to pay back loans—it just means students need to be prepared to build their own networks.
It's also a good idea to embrace the kindness of well-meaning relatives and family friends. Pasulka notes that her internship, which set her up for jobs at Honeywell and Northrop Grumman, wasn't just a good thing she did—"it was a wonderful thing my aunt did for me."
"I guess the lesson here is to build a support system of people who are more experienced than you and who have your best interest in mind—and then listen to them," she says. "Because, at a typical college age, you're probably kind of a moron."
Networking can also help you forge an atypical career path that's a perfect fit for you. Tom Cirrito, CEO and Founder, Filament BioSolutions, Inc., says that he's thankful for doing two things during his career as a Pre-Med student at Washington University, St. Louis: doing research from the very start ("not typical when you are pre-med, as it detracts from study time") and deciding to have a life while in college.
"I started as a lab rat at the age of 16, and understanding that lifestyle and the culture was the benefit," says Cirrito. "I did this but not just working in a lab, but volunteering to help out in the admin office, and becoming friendly (a.k.a building a network, and developing good relationships) with everyone in and associated with the lab, and even the clinical people."
His decision to stay social, while navigating a heavy course load might have changed the course of his career, ultimately shaping his decision to become an entrepreneur.
"I learned about people, which at the end of the day is what business is," he says. "...In fact, the experience contributed to my decision (perhaps the best decision of my professional career) NOT to go to medical school, and to get a PhD instead, which taught me a different set of analytical skills, and provided the optimal background for me to leverage my undergraduate research experience and ultimately become an entrepreneur in the life sciences."
The bottom line is that the college experience isn't just about choice of school or major, or even grades and academic achievements. Your college career is the first step toward the larger world of work that awaits you after graduation.
"The best thing students can do is to explore as many career alternatives as possible," says Doyle. "The more options you explore, the better equipped you will be to make decisions on meaningful employment after college—and the more employable you will be."