When distractions turn into careers

Watch for the turning point, and for opportunities outside your area of study

I’m getting together later this week with the guy who designed my website. We were both undergrads at the time and he was, I think, studying something in social science. Now he manages a team of web developers. The other day I spoke on the phone with another friend who graduated several years ago. He was in drama, and did odd jobs cutting grass and removing snow as his part-time job. Now he runs a successful landscaping business with nine trucks on the road. A good friend who started her first year in woman’s studies and subsequently rewrote the constitution and by-laws of our campus woman’s centre just joined me in law school. The list goes on and on.

It’s a long accepted truism of university education that most students don’t stay in the areas of study they declare as their minors, majors, and specialties. That isn’t news, right? Surely you don’t imagine that the thousands of students enrolled in psychology each year are all going to become psychologists in any sense. Or that the large number of English students will all become teachers, or English professors, or professional writers. For every student who ends up in a career that is logically connected to her field of study, there are probably two or three who end up doing something radically different. And that’s just fine.

One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that many students are far behind the curve on dealing with this fact. Right around when students are graduating, after their four (or more) years in university, they suddenly poke their heads up and say “hey, what am I going to do with this degree anyway?” And the career office hastens to reassure them that they can work in a variety of fields, and often cites the sorts of examples I led off with, and wishes them well. But the truth is that none of these stories, or the others I could mention, are the results of 11th hour panic. The students who moved smoothly into careers outside their areas of study are those who realized some time ago that their hobbies were turning into careers, and began to approach them as such.

As a new school year starts – whether your first or otherwise – I’d encourage all students to stay alert for the possibility that something you may think of as a distraction from your “real” work and career may in fact be turning into your work and your career. It may creep up on your accidentally but like any career it’s going to require some nurturing as well. You’ll want to start working on contacts who might employ you doing the thing you enjoy doing anyway, or explore necessary certifications, or fill in gaps in your training and experience. If you find yourself at the end of your degree and then start thinking about these things it’s already too late. (For those who are there already – better late than never – but it isn’t the way I’d recommend doing things all the same).

In terms of specific steps you might take to find a career where you hadn’t previously considered one, the possible scenarios are so varied I couldn’t possibly cover them all. But don’t dismiss your university resources as one source of advice and help, just because you’re doing something other than what you’ve studied. Universities may seem a little divorced from reality sometimes but not so much so that they haven’t realized their graduates are going into a diverse array of fields. You may find far more of relevance there than you’d ever have expected, and maybe even a contact or two to help you along.

Questions are welcome at [email protected]. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.