Choose your career before you pick a college major

Too often, when I ask student veterans what they want to do with the college degree they’re working so hard for, they respond, “I have no idea.”

3 Catastrophic Errors and 3 Ways to Avoid Them

It certainly is ironic: Service men and women returning to civilian life often choose “the life of the mind” —  full-time college sponsored by the GI Bill, that is — without giving much thought to which major will bring them career and financial success. Too often, when I ask student veterans what they want to do with the college degree they’re working so hard for, they respond, “I have no idea.”

The 2010s labor market will not be forgiving to the millions of young people — including hundreds of thousands of veterans — who choose a college major without having chosen a career with the help of a professional advisor. About 44 percent of recent college graduates were underemployed in 2012, up from 38 percent in 2007, according to Current Issues in Economics and Finance, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In addition, some 19 percent of underemployed recent college graduates were working only part-time in 2012.

And for veterans — whose military service has delayed their post-secondary education even as many start their own families — it’s especially risky to embark on college without a career plan.

Of course no one should expect returning vets to figure out by themselves which college major will qualify them for a rewarding career. Yet simply by seeking a career counselor’s help early in their college experience, returning veterans can avoid the devastating disappointment of starting over or settling for less.

Here are tales of two returning veterans and their post-separation journeys — one a story of setbacks, the other an exemplar of a successful transition to a very promising career with the federal government.

Not Every Degree Will Get You Where You To The Career You Want

In the Army from 2006 to 2011, Sergeant Mariano Torres served as a helicopter technician in South Korea and as a squad leader in Fort Hood, Texas, and in Afghanistan. During his training and decorated tours of duty, Torres acquired many skills that are potentially transferrable to a civilian career, from maintaining Army aircraft and helping save lives in an air ambulance company, to training soldiers and performing complex administrative tasks.

Regardless of his diverse accomplishments in uniform, when Torres separated from the Army, he wanted his life and career to take a new direction. He took a web design course with an online college, but wasn’t convinced it would make a good career. Then “I wanted to be an entrepreneur and either start my own business or invest in a franchise,” says Torres, but he wasn’t sure how college could prepare him for that.

“I ended up taking a philosophy course and pursuing that major,” says Torres, because he enjoyed the intellectual endeavor and believed that a bachelor’s degree would qualify him for a career as a philosopher of education. He again distinguished himself, completing that philosophy degree with a GPA of 3.9.

But when Torres finally received sound career advice from a college counselor, it contained a very difficult truth: To become a philosopher, you need to earn a doctorate degree — an investment of time and money that he wasn’t in a position to make. If Torres had spoken with a college career services advisor much earlier in his higher education, they might have suggested a bachelor’s degree program that would lead to a well-paying job much sooner – ideally a professional occupation that would align with both his military experience and his desire for change.

At The Resume Place, we’ve worked with Torres to translate his military service and his major in philosophy into a practical set of administrative skills, featuring his studies of, and experience in, computers, communications, research and databases. But college coursework in logistics and transportation could have brought Torres much brighter prospects in today’s job market.

Lessons Learned from Mariano Torres

•    Think twice before setting aside all the training and experience you gained in military service
•    Research career paths extensively before you elect a college major
•    Make sure your career counselor is working for you, not just your college

Know How To Use Experience and Degree To Get What You Want

Sergeant Jeremy Denton, who served in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008 including two tours of duty in Iraq, graduated cum laude from the University of Baltimore with a bachelor’s degree in government and public policy in 2010. His coursework for that degree ranged from constitutional law to ethics to comparative government.

Soon after he completed college, Denton landed a federal civilian job as an intelligence analyst with the Maryland National Guard. With sound advice, he found a career that combines his military experience — ranging from database administration to electronic warfare to leadership skills he picked up as a helicopter crew chief — with his academic studies of how governments make and implement policy.

Even though he chose a liberal arts major over a classical pre-professional concentration such as accounting or law, Denton has succeeded by purposefully integrating his military training and experience with his college course of study.

Lessons Learned from Jeremy Denton

•    Get career advice as early as possible in your college career
•    Integrate your military experience with your college studies
•    Think creatively about which types of employers will value your unique resume most highly

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