Chat with Katharine Brooks, Author of “You Majored in What?!”

Today I had the chance to chat with the author of one of my favorite career books for college students and graduating seniors. Katharine Brooks is the author of “You Majored in What?!” and the Director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin. If you haven’t picked up this book yet, please do. Whether you are struggling to find a job, are unsure of what you want to “do” after college or have a case of the post-college blues this book is relevant. Katharine’s views mirror mine in many ways. Please meet, Katharine Brooks!

What inspired you to write, “You Majored in What?”

As a liberal arts major myself I loved my education but was never quite sure how it “fit” in the workplace. Later on when I started working with liberal arts students at a college back East (Dickinson College) I realized that they had the same questions and challenges I did. So I set out on a mission to find a career system that would work for them– since the traditional linear (“major in accounting and become an accountant”) approach wasn’t helpful. It took a lot of trial and error with exercises, assessments, etc., but I finally figured out what seemed to work for many students. I started teaching my system in classes but couldn’t find a textbook that covered the material, so… I wrote the book!

Give us a brief explanation of chaos theory.

Chaos theory grew out of an effort to improve our ability to predict the weather. Ultimately, though, the scientists and mathematicians learned that weather is too complex a system to be able to predict with any reliability. There are too many intervening variables and things emerge. Same thing with careers– they, too, can be influenced by unexpected intervening variables (a bad economy for instance) that can throw off any “predicted” plans.

In a tough economy, how should students change their job search strategy?

I think you have to be more vigilant. You need to have the best possible marketing tools– a targeted resume (not a generic one you send to everyone); a well-written cover letter that specifically relates your skills and knowledge to the job; and great responses to interview questions. You need to have an open mind and be willing to take a less-than-perfect job, knowing that you will learn and you will parlay that opportunity into a better one.

How do you recommend students handle the common and irritating question, “What are you going to do with THAT major?!”

I tell them to read my book. (Just kidding!) I tell them that they need to be the ambassador for their degree– they need to think about why they chose it, why they like it, and (this is important) consider how what they have learned has changed the way they view things. I use the example of the movie “Good Will Hunting”– depending on your major, you might view the film from different angles. A psychology major might focus on the interactions with the therapist, an economics majors might notice the different social classes in Boston, an anthropology major might analyze the cultures in the film, etc. Your major can change the way you view political, personal, and other situations. Know that and be prepared to tell an employer why that perspective will benefit the organization.

What was your college major? And how did you end up in the role you are into today?

I started college as a music major– but then I discovered there were people with talent in that field. 🙂 Actually, I liked music theory, harmony and counterpoint, but I realized early that I didn’t have the passion needed to succeed in that field. I played around with majors in English, psychology, and art history, but ultimately settled on sociology which was great because it applies to everything.

Here’s the quick version of my career path after college:

Human resources specialist in retail merchandising to social worker in an agency for the blind to grad student in rehabilitation counseling to school psychologist running a clinic at West Virginia University while getting a doctorate in Educational Psychology to counselor to college students to career services director and disability services coordinator at Dickinson College (also an Assoc Professor teaching film studies) to
Director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin.

Give us one tip for life after college.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re going to “do”– either with your major or with your career. If you can plan your career in advance, that’s great, but otherwise, just follow what looks interesting, and when something else sounds more interesting move to that. When you don’t like your job, learn what you can from it, and move on as soon as possible. Follow your interests and keep learning.

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.