Now that you’re in late 20s or early 30s, you probably have a better idea of the career you really want (and the salary you really need to survive and thrive).
It may not be the career you thought you wanted when you were 20 years old and choosing a major.
When I was 20, I was positive I’d be a fiction writer. So I majored in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing (for some reason, only my mother told me you didn’t need a degree in fiction writing to write books).
After five years of supporting myself with painfully boring day jobs while writing at night, I realized I wanted to be a journalist – so I could at least get paid for writing.
But I worried that I’d never be able to because I didn’t major in journalism. In fact, I never even took one journalism course as an undergrad (I eventually went to graduate school and took one, but only one, there).
Thankfully, I never listened to the voice in my head that told me I wouldn’t work in journalism because I didn’t have the “right” degree. I applied for writing and editing jobs anyway. Eventually, I landed journalism jobs at Playboy magazine, Latina Media Ventures and Lifetime.
But after awhile, I became really bored with sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. I realized I really wanted to teach college students studying journalism. Again, I worried that I didn’t have the right degree. Most universities want full time faculty members to have PhDs.
But I applied for a lot of teaching jobs anyway. After two years and a lot of rejections, I landed one at a university that felt my professional experience was just as valuable as a doctorate.
Why I am telling you all this? To prove you can still attain your dream career, even if you don’t have the “right” degree from the “right” college. Here’s why and how:
For a majority of jobs, all you need is a degree – in anything
As the cost of attending college soars to nauseating levels, many wonder if college is worth it anymore. As evidence, these critics cite anecdotal evidence, like the fact that many tech companies, including Google, are increasingly hiring people who don’t have college degrees at all.
But most decent-paying positions require some college education. The big thinkers don’t exactly agree on how many jobs require a university degree. This year, researchers at Georgetown University found, “The economy will create 55 million new job openings over the next decade, and 65 percent, or 37 million, of these new job vacancies will require some postsecondary education and training.”
People with college degrees usually get paid more too. The Federal Reserve Board has found that college grads earn $830,000 more over their lifetimes compared to people without college degrees.
So yes, you should get a BA. But for many jobs, it doesn’t matter what field you earn that BA in.
“Some professions like accountant, nurse, physical therapist, occupational therapist, engineer, and pharmacist require specific college majors,” says Cheryl E. Palmer, M.Ed., CECC, CPRW, a career coach and a certified professional resume writer. “On the other hand, there are other fields for which a college degree may be helpful, but the major is not as important. Marketing, sales, advertising, retail management, buyer, community advocate, and many positions in the civil service don’t require a college degree in a specific major.”
Some studies prove her point. Payscale found that liberal arts majors who pursue careers in business ended up earning, on average, just as much as those who majored in business.
At Playboy, only one person on the editorial staff had a journalism degree. The one-time editorial director even had a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion. His personality, and creative skills, far outweighed his major.
So how do you land your dream job if you don’t have a degree in that specific field?
1. Learn what you need to know.
When I decided that I wanted to become a journalist, I read the newspaper front to back every morning for two years. I bought myself textbooks to teach myself how to write in a journalistic style. Today, I insist my students set up Google Alerts so that they keep up on news related to their industries of choice.
2. Network with people who do work in your dream field.
I never understood why “schmoozing” has such a negative connotation. When I went to graduate school to study, I took one course in magazine writing. The instructor was a full time editor at Playboy. I chatted him up before and after class, and more importantly, worked my a** off in the class to wow him. Sure enough, when there was an editorial opening six months later, he got me in the door.
3. Sell yourself when you write cover letters and in emails.
Any time you have the opportunity to talk to someone, or write someone, who does work in your dream field, seize the opportunity to demonstrate how much you do know about the field, even if you were zoology major. More importantly, interviews and cover letters are the times to showcase your personality. Studies have found that employers hire tend to hire people they like and think will fit in at a company. This often matters more than a person’s specific qualifications for a job.
What if a job ad says a degree in a certain field is required and you don’t meet that qualification? Apply anyway.
A former boss of mine once told me that job descriptions are what an employer’s wish list. They hope to find someone who meets every qualification, but know it may not be possible. Employers are flexible on some issues, like majors.
That said, in some cases, you might need more schooling. But keep this in mind…
You don’t always need to get a graduate degree – and the debt that comes with it
These tactics may work if you want to work in certain fields. But to get a job in other industries, you may actually need more formal education. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to graduate school.
“In some cases graduate school is necessary,” says Cheryl. “This is true where a graduate degree is the minimum requirement for entry into the profession. One example would be counseling. For most counseling positions you need a master’s degree at a minimum.”
I believe in graduate school – I went and it paid off for me. I also oversee the graduate program where I work.
But before you spend anywhere between $30,000 and $120,000 (the average cost of a master’s degree, according to FinAid.org), you should make sure you really, really want to learn more about the field, or that you need to have this degree to work in the industry.
Keep in mind that sometimes, you can get advanced degrees without taking on a ton of debt.
“For example, even though it is preferred that a person has a degree in education before becoming a teacher, there are alternative ways to enter the field, such as Teach for America or the programs that school districts have set up with alternative routes to licensure,” Cheryl says. “A degree is required before you can enter such programs, but the type of degree does not matter.”
Read lots and lots of job ads in your dream field to find out if you specifically need a Master’s of Arts or PhD to work, or if another type of degree or certificate will be enough.
“For many other professions, you can get certified, and that will suffice,” Cheryl says. “For example, if you want to become a project manager in the IT field, you can get your project management certification. Certifications have become common for other types of positions in IT as well. You can get certified in information security, systems administration, and virtualization. Certification is a shorter and cheaper route to entry for such fields than a master’s degree.”
Other resources to consult when trying to figure out what qualifications you really need to work in a certain field include The Labor Department’s Occupational Outlook Handbook and the College Board.
In the comments, share your stories about trying to break into industries your college degree didn’t quite prepare you for.