News Details: Holiday Survival Guide: How to Handle Pesky College/Career Questions

With the holidays right around the corner, it’s timely to address the most delightful pastime of this season: well-meaning, but perhaps misguided family members questioning you about your major and/or career choice at dinner.  On the one hand, it’s understandable.  They’re excited to see you since you’ve been away the whole semester.  And the most natural questions to ask college students are “what are you majoring in?” followed by “what are you going to do with that?” and for our seniors, “so you’re graduating in the spring...what are you going to do next year?”.  What they may not realize is these questions can be a source of great anxiety for students, regardless of your year or major.  So if you anticipate some or all of these questions could arise through the course of dinner conversation, read on for suggestions to navigate them as painlessly as possible.


“What are you majoring in?”

This first question will most likely be directed to younger students - first years and sophomores.  While some of you may have a clear sense of your academic direction, it’s important to remember that developmentally it’s perfectly natural to be exploratory and undecided on your major.  It takes time to explore your options and discover what’s going to be the right fit for you - your values, interests, personality, and skills.  If you fall into this undecided category, I’d recommend a cheerful response like “I’m taking some time to explore all the exciting options Notre Dame has to offer” and perhaps tell them about a few classes you are taking that are really interesting to you and why they are interesting.  This will convey that you are confident about your exploratory state - even if you don’t always feel that way yourself.  Perhaps you can pivot the conversation and ask them what they studied or what they do for work - that will help deflect some of the attention from you, especially if you’re not a fan of the limelight.  But if anyone gives you any grief about being exploratory, try not to let it get to you.  Make the best of the situation and try to change the subject.  If you have a few ideas about your major and you’re deciding between a few, go ahead and share those.  But be prepared for the follow-up question…


“What are you going to do with that?”

Ah yes, the favorite of many a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc.  You might get this question at any year in college.  Usually this question stems from the misguided notion that your major will dictate your career path.  There seems to be this commonly held belief in our society that a major equals a certain career path.  This cannot be further from the truth!  Granted there are certain career paths - namely accounting and engineering fields - for which it is valuable, if not necessary, to have a certain sort of educational background, but the list stops there.  Although you may be settled on a major, it’s natural to be undecided about a career - at any point in your college career.  You have a world of opportunities open to you with any major you choose.  I can recall telling people that I was an English major back when I was at ND.  Almost always the follow up question I got was “Oh, are you going to be a teacher?”  There was this tacit assumption that if you major in English you must want to be a teacher.  Teaching is a lovely profession but it wasn’t the right path for me!  So I would politely say “no” and attempt to change the subject.


This question can be a particular source of anxiety for certain majors - specifically those in Arts & Letters and Science (especially if you’re a science major not intending to go to med school or grad school).  Career paths can be a little more ambiguous for these students but that’s ok - rarely are paths as clear cut as they seem.  Still it can be a challenging question for any major because you may not really know “what’s out there” even if your major seemingly has a certain career path connected to it.  It’s important to keep in mind that when it comes to careers, the key things to consider are your values, interests, personality, and skills - not your major.  Transferable skills are of particular importance here (for example, critical thinking, communication, leadership, intercultural fluency, etc.).  These are skills that you are developing in any major (and through your campus activities and past jobs) that translate to any career field.  These skills are more important to your career exploration than your major.  The ability to recognize and articulate your skills is key to this process. 


So should this question arise and you’re not sure how to answer I would suggest you put on a happy face again and tell that kind relative that you are exploring a variety of possible career options and talk about all the amazing skills you are developing both inside and outside the classroom.  It can be really hard to change people’s minds that major doesn’t equal career (believe me, it’s a daily struggle for us at the CCD!), so you can fight as much of that battle as you want.  But at least you can rest assured knowing that you can do anything with your major and your amazing skills!  And we have lots of resources and data on our website to prove it.  So relax and have another piece of pie!


“So you’re graduating in the spring...what are you going to do next year?”

Seniors, this can be a hard question.  You’ve likely already gotten it many times so far this year and it will only continue to get worse as you get closer to graduation.  As much as it can feel like everyone around you already has a job lined up, you must understand that this is not the case.  Remember that everyone is on their own path and the timing is different for everyone.  Partly timing differences could be due to when industries typically recruit.  There are many that recruit in the fall - finance, consulting, accounting, engineering, large corporations, some government agencies, some marketing, technology, etc.  However there are MANY that recruit in the spring.  They engage in what we call “just in time hiring”.  These industries/organizations don’t know their entry level needs as far in advance as those other industries so they are more likely to recruit in the spring.  Many smaller companies in the fields already listed recruit in the spring.  Additionally if you’re interested in fields like advertising, architecture, design, education, entertainment, government, HR, marketing, nonprofit, post-grad service, PR, publishing, real estate, sports, etc. it’s likely you will start finding more opportunities throughout the winter and spring.  This is critical to keep in mind.


It’s also perfectly natural to be unsure about what you want, even though you’re a senior and you feel like you should have it all together.  Maybe you haven’t taken steps to explore industries yet - doing so will help you understand the options that exist out there and what you want your first step after ND to be.  Everyone is at a different point in the career development process - the CCD can help you with this!  So should you get this question at dinner, try to stay relaxed.  Ask those at the table about their experiences as a senior in college and how they decided on a career path.  This will give you useful insight and it will again deflect some of the attention.  Then after dinner you can go online and schedule an appointment with one of us at the CCD if you want to talk through your career exploration or job search further!


Final Thoughts

Although these questions can get annoying to answer, try to come at them with the mindset that your relatives are asking because they care and are curious.  If you can present a confident demeanor, even though you may not always feel confident, that will help your cause and perhaps stop them from asking more follow up questions.  At the end of the day this is your career and your life - you are enough and you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.


But if you have any relatives who just won’t drop the subject, switch gears to politics and slowly back out of the room - you’ll be out of the limelight in no time.  Then hop online and make an appointment at the CCD - we’re here to help you!



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maureen Baska is an Assistant Director in Undergraduate Career Services at the Center for Career Development. As a counselor, Maureen is a part of the Engagement Team working with first year students and sophomores to  reflect on their values, interests, personality and skills in order to help in their discernment process.