When you’re working toward your undergraduate degree, it’s almost expected that you’ll change your major at least once. Bouncing around a bit, academically speaking, has become almost a right of passage. But what about when you’re in grad school? Is it still okay to make a change, mid-study?
What do you do if you’re halfway through your graduate degree and suddenly decide your program isn’t what you had imagined? Or what if, after you complete your program, the jobs you thought you were training for are no longer appealing?
First, relax, because it happens to the best of us. Second, take a step back and think about why you sought out this degree in the first place, what skills you’ve acquired, and how you may apply them elsewhere.
Read on for advice on finding your dream job, no matter what you studied.
It’s okay to change your mind
Dr. Katharine Brooks, a career counselor and author of You Majored in What? Designing Your Path from College to Career, says that mid-school changes of heart around your career or course of study happen frequently and there’s no reason to beat yourself up.
Some people enroll in grad school during a career rut and occasionally, without a real plan. Others may come to learn that the reality of the degree program or career field don’t don't quite align with their expectations. Whatever the reason you’ve changed your mind, Dr. Brooks reminds readers that all hope is not lost.
“I see people get stuck all the time,” she says. “They’re mad at themselves, they have regret, and they are comparing themselves to others in their field. But education is always good because ... it never hurts to learn.”
As a law school graduate who isn’t practicing law, I understand that feelings of guilt and regret may come up. But you never know where you would be if you hadn’t chosen this path. Regardless of your degree, you have likely learned practical skills and expanded your network, so don’t automatically assume that you need to throw away the entire experience.
Take stock of your skills
The first step, says Dr. Brooks, is to think about what you’ve learned in your degree program, and how you may be able to apply those skills to another career field.
“You don’t need to toss out the degree because it doesn’t fit with your field,” Dr. Brooks says. “You’re developing some good skills regardless of the program. Don’t focus on the exact subject but on the skills you have acquired while you were studying.”
Maybe you’ve improved your research skills. Perhaps you’ve learned how to better understand technical writing. Sit down and make a list of all the skills you have learned in your degree program and consider where else they can be applied.
Find out what changed
Once you’ve chronicled your skills, take a moment to do some self-analysis. Think about what made you choose your particular degree program and why you aren’t interested in that field anymore.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Was the degree program what I expected?
- Am I still interested in the subject matter?
- Are there less jobs in the field than I previously thought?
- Are the jobs different from what I imagined they would be?
- Did I find something I enjoyed more?
- Did I learn the skills I thought I would learn?
There are two categories you may fall into. Either you are still passionate about the subject matter, but no longer interested in the types of jobs commonly available in that field, or, you have completely changed your mind about your chosen career path. Either way, Dr. Brooks says you can still put what you’ve learned toward a career you’ll love.
“I never worry that a degree is useless or irrelevant,” she says. “There are always ways to take what you learned in a subject and apply them to a field you are now interested in.”
So you’ve got new skills and you understand what sparked the change of heart. Now what?
Find that dream job
Let’s say you’re in that first category. Maybe you earned your degree in accounting, and love numbers and finance, but you hate the day-to-day work of an accountant. Find out what other jobs have something to do with accounting, even if it’s not the traditional path. To do this, talk to your professors or classmates, visit your college career center, and do some online research about what other types of jobs are out there. Maybe you’ll find a position somewhere where you can apply your passion for the subject matter in a different way.
What about the second category? For example, perhaps you earned a degree in accounting and decided you really want to be a nurse. If your degree is far off from what you really want to do, that may mean you need to go back to school or at least take a few extra courses. Find out whether your new field requires a different degree, more coursework, or if you can apply the skills you’ve learned to what you really want to do.
So, how do you find what types of jobs even exist?
- Start by doing your research on Idealist.org to see what organizations and jobs peak your interest. This may give you some ideas about what’s out there.
- Talk to friends, colleagues, people in your social media network, and anyone else you can think of who works in the field you’re interested in pursuing. Ask them how they got their foot in the door, what types of jobs they know about in the field, and what kind of skills or training is required.
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook publishes all sorts of statistical and background information about careers, including hiring outlooks and pay scales. One unique resource is the ONET Resource Center, where you can take a free test that helps you narrow down your skills and interests and then links to you a list of possible professions. From there, you can search for job openings in those professions on Idealist.org.
One more thing to note, says Dr. Brooks, is that if you’re going in an opposite direction, be aware that you may have to take a step back and take a more entry-level position so you can learn the ropes in your new field. Doing so may mean making less money or having less responsibility than you’d like, but it will help you launch your career.
How to talk about your degree
Once you’re ready to start applying for jobs, it’s time to think about how you’re going to frame your graduate degree program—both on your resume and during interviews.
Dr. Brooks suggests talking about any relevant courses you may have taken and what skills you acquired in each of those courses. There are ways to connect the dots if you’re creative.
You can even say something like: “I know that it’s hard to see the obvious connections between my degree and your issue-area, but let me tell you some of the things that make this degree relevant to the role.”
Remember that list of skills you jotted down earlier? Here’s your moment to present what you have identified as your relevant and transferable skill set.
“Whenever you’re in an interview think about the relevance of what you are telling the employer and why the employer would care,” she says.
Above all, be as positive as you can about the experience. Don’t try to hide your degree or act regretful or ashamed that you changed your mind.
For more information about grad school, check out 5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Thinking About Graduate School, and Graduate School: Which Path is Right for You, Parts 1 and 2.
About the Author | Samantha Fredrickson has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.