Three Things I Wish I Knew before College

Career Paths Are Often A Twisting Journey

You have probably been asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” quite a few times.

How many times has your answer changed over the years? 

Most of you who haven’t graduated high school yet probably haven’t been exposed to the variety of career types that you could choose, but people still expect you to answer their question. The rush to choose a career doesn’t just appear in casual conversations. It also manifests in the way our education system is set up, often forcing you to choose a career path without experiencing real world jobs. If you choose to go to college, you are often required to pick a major just a year or two in, but does this mean you are locking in your whole future career based on a few college classes you took? 

In general, the major you choose in college has a substantial impact on your future career path, but I think the idea of choosing a career before fully experiencing it is not always a recipe for satisfaction in life. While students can experience some aspects of a few careers through job shadowing or internships while they are in school, opportunities to see what different types of real-world career paths are like are limited.

Looking back on college, there are several things I wish I knew in order to better set myself up for success afterwards. You might find something useful among these things

#1. Many jobs are very different from the way in which related academic subjects are taught in school.
One thing I wish I knew is how studying a subject in school does not always prepare you to work in that field. For example, many geology majors who take non-academic jobs after college, work in the environmental consulting field, where instead of applying what they have learned about tectonics or landscape formation, they might end up analyzing chemical contamination near factories or chemical plants. This happens to be the kind of work I did after college, but unfortunately, none of my professors in college or graduate school told me how different that work would be from what I learned in school. In fact, most of the work I did for my job were things I never even came across in school.

This disparity between ‘textbook knowledge’ from studying a subject and the way real world jobs are set up is not limited to geology and environmental sciences. As an example, many math majors end up working as accountants after finishing school. While they might utilize their analytical skills to do bookkeeping or prepare financial documents, it is a far cry from the differential equations or linear algebra that brought many of them to the subject in the first place. 

Schools and colleges should spend more time not only introducing students to new academic subjects, but also showing how that knowledge could be applied in the various jobs/careers. That would be beneficial for students as future workers and also help keep them more engaged in classes because they would see the tangible utility of what is being taught. 

Of course, not everyone attends a four-year college. Some might attend community college, or go to trade or vocational schools to become electricians, plumbers, technicians, etc. Others might work in a family business or start their own business. These are all valid options; we all have different goals in life, and each option could lead to happiness and success. Those who do attend college often pick a major based on whether they like a certain academic topic. This leads to the second thing I wish I knew.

# 2. It is important to see first hand what kind of job you want to get.
Because real world jobs can be very different from academic subjects, it is important to understand where you want your college degree to take you and what kind of job you want it to lead to. If you don’t know that as a student, that is okay, but I’d suggest you try to watch a few people who work in the field in which you want to major. If you can, talk with them, ask them questions or even see what they do on a day-to-day basis. That way, you’d know what you are getting into and aren’t surprised when you get there as an actual employee. Teachers often focus on teaching purely academic subject matter, but I think it is a disservice to students to not prepare them for jobs in the real world. However, since this is the case, it is up to you to prepare yourself for what you may find. 

# 3. If you major in a certain field and later find out that it’s not what you thought it would be, or don’t want to work in that area anymore, there are ways to change your career.
You don’t always need to go back to school for additional training in order to switch career fields. You can focus on the transferable skills that you gained from the field you majored in, and use that to find jobs where those skills may be needed. For example, if you majored in physics, but later decide not to work in that area, you still have quantitative experience in handling real world data and uncertainties. These skills lend themselves to a career in finance, for example, where you could apply the same concepts but in a different way. However, this idea of transferable skills is not always emphasized in schools. 

Since educational institutions don’t always emphasize how to be happy in a job after school, it is up to you, the student, to learn the skills you need for a career that makes you feel rewarded or happy. Sometimes, the work we end up doing may not be the same as the subject we studied or the field in which we trained. We needn’t feel obligated to stay working in a field we don’t like just because we majored in it. There are always other opportunities to use the skills we learned, and use them as stepping stones to acquire new ones.

By Skipping Stones Staff

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