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Dinner table with roasted Thanksgiving turkey. (evgenyb/iStockphoto)
Dinner table with roasted Thanksgiving turkey. (evgenyb/iStockphoto)

Career advice

Students: Here's how to answer career questions this Thanksgiving Add to ...

“What are you going to do with a degree in X?”

If you are a college or university student, and particularly one enrolled in a program with a degree title that doesn’t match a job title in today’s workplace, you’ve likely been asked this question by friends, family, your barber, neighbour, Uber driver, and other well-meaning acquaintances.

Thanksgiving dinner is a hotbed for this kind of grilling.

Getting asked “What are you going to do with a degree in X?” is not the same as the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” questions that you were peppered with during your childhood. At that point, it was cute to share your dreams of becoming a ballerina, astronaut, or, like me, an Oscar-winning actor. But by the time you’re working on a post-secondary degree, you’re one step from the workplace and the prospect of employment - or unemployment - is real.

Once you’re in college or university, the stakes are higher. Even if you do have a sense of what you’d like to do, it’s hard to know if you’ll be able to secure a good job in that field. And if you don’t know or aren’t sure what your next steps will be, it can be very stressful to communicate your plans.

Here’s a handy guide for answering the inevitable questions that will come up around the Thanksgiving table:

You don’t know, and that’s OK

Many people wrongfully equate your choice of degree subject matter with your ambition and career focus. However, in an environment of constant change, it’s nearly impossible to predict what hard skills and job training will be in demand by the time you graduate. Long-term weather forecasts often feel more reliable than labour market forecasts. Even if you correctly guessed that marketing, teaching, or mining engineering would be marketable five years after you first made the decision to study it, there are no guarantees about the long-term viability of those skills in the marketplace. While you may have to work harder to prove yourself to an employer at the entry level, your undergraduate education – whatever it is focused on – is preparing you for an adult life of consistent, constant learning, whether it’s through employer-sponsored professional development, bootcamps, online courses, or other outside education.

Ask me again in 2 to 5 years

There has always been friction in the school-to-work transition, regardless of what or where you choose to study. I’ve argued before that this friction is more pronounced in our generation because we were the first generation to grow up being told to “follow your passion” – creating an increased gap between what we expect from the workplace and what’s actually on offer. For those of you in the Arts and Humanities, I’ll be honest: It will be tougher to get that first job while you wait for employers to complete the shift from saying they value soft skills to actually implementing strategies that lead to real change. But the good news is that you can tell your families that while it may be harder at the beginning, the available data shows that you’ll be just fine five years after graduation, and your university or college education will make you better off than if you had entered the labour market directly out of high school.

There’s a lot more to post-secondary education than just education

In my last article, I wrote about all of the various opportunities to prepare for your career on-campus, outside of your formal education. Make sure to point out the activities you are involved in, the connections you are making, and the experience you are building. Inform your fellow diners that each experience you take part in on-campus is helping you to make good, informed decisions about your career by providing you with the opportunity to learn about yourself and the environment you will thrive in during your career.

Turn the tables – you might be surprised

When your uncle, second-cousin, or your Mom’s best friend corner you about your choice of study, try disarming them by turning the tables: What do they think students or recent graduates with your education and aptitude should or could pursue as a career?

A short while ago I met a recent graduate who told me that her aunt once asked her what she planned to do with her science-based undergraduate degree. The grad didn’t know, so she took the opportunity to turn the tables and ask her aunt if she had any feedback or ideas that may help her choose a path. The aunt suggested she leverage her passion for writing and proven ability to learn and apply in-depth details to a career in communications, a path in which she is now flourishing.

Lauren Friese is the founder and former CEO of TalentEgg, a campus recruitment website. She is a keynote speaker and consultant on digital media, millennials, and work.

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