First Gens: Navigating The “Now What?” of Majors and Careers

April 8, 2014

Support for first-generation college students getting ready to graduate and enter the workforce 

Choosing a career path is tricky business because you need to find a balance between what you like, what you’re good at, and where the jobs are.

First, consider geography. Are you a person who is willing to relocate anywhere in the country for a career? Are you returning to your hometown after college? Could you live abroad? These considerations are important because choosing a career you like, in a geographic area with no jobs in that field, is problematic. Here’s an example: If you live in a rural farming community and major in theater, your job options post-graduation might be limited. If you live in a metropolitan area with cultural attractions, you may be more employable.

Second, make sure you understand what each major entails and what careers it prepares you for.  I once had a student advisee proclaim she wanted to be a forensic anthropologist because she really enjoyed the TV show Bones. When I explained that forensic anthropologists generally hold at least a Ph.D. and include tons of science courses on top of anthropology and archaeology classes, she was surprised. Do your research.

FirstToFinishLogoPick something you can see yourself doing for a while. It doesn’t need to be 50 years, because these days employers and careers are much more liquid, but be able to envision yourself in a field for the foreseeable future. Don’t choose nursing because you heard the pay is good. Choose nursing because you appreciate science and want to help people. Don’t choose business because you heard there are a lot of jobs. Choose business because you have an entrepreneurial mind.

Selecting a major can be more difficult for first-generation students because sometimes parents are unable to help guide these decisions.

As an undergrad, I clung to my undeclared major for as long as possible to avoid making a choice — because I had no idea what I wanted to do. My parents were no help because as blue-collar workers, their only concern was whether I could get a “cushy” job with the county or state government (the gold star of employment in their minds). When I settled on a liberal arts major, they were flabbergasted at “what I would do” with a degree in psychology.

On the bright side, having no coaxing into a particular field can be somewhat liberating. You are free to choose a major of your liking, not mom and dad’s.

What tools and resources do first gens need to make a successful transition out of school?

As the Bachelor’s degree increasingly becomes the minimum requirement for obtaining professional employment, it’s important that recent graduates distinguish themselves from peers. Collecting as much work experience as possible during college is a real asset to new graduates. When I first began working in higher education, I was hired not because of my degree credential, but because of the laundry list of experience I had accumulated while an undergraduate. I was an orientation guide, a resident assistant, a tutor, a peer mentor, a student activities aide, and I had completed a six-month internship as part of my graduation requirements. Certainly this demonstration of ambition (coupled with good grades and a solid transcript) helped me break down the door to gainful employment. Sometimes, however, it’s all about luck and finding that one potential employer who sees something special in you. That’s how it happened for me, but that doesn’t exclude the new graduate from exerting some effort!

Develop a solid resume and cover letter. This doesn’t mean paying a consultant to craft the perfect document, but consult with a career counselor on campus, an acquaintance who actually does hiring, or a friend with a keen eye for grammar. If you’re entering the workforce with little work experience, it’s important to highlight your strengths and skills. Take your time completing job applications to avoid typos or misspellings. Remember, your paperwork is your first impression. To win employers over with your winning personality, you have to be invited to interview!           

Apply for jobs that are attainable. Students sometimes enter the workforce with unrealistic expectations and salary demands. We all started somewhere, even if “getting your foot in the door” means taking an entry-level position with low pay. I recently had a sit down with a student who announced that upon completion of her Bachelor’s degree she expected to earn at least $160,000 per year: Unrealistic. Sell yourself, but be humble. Employers are turned off by new graduates who appear over-confident and entitled. 

Network. No one’s going to come looking for you (in most cases) so put yourself out there. Join young professional organizations, become a volunteer at Chamber of Commerce events, create a LinkedIn profile and connect with those in the industry. Use your professors to make connections with those working in the industry. Chances are they know some people who know some people.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s a tough world beyond the walls of University Hall. While those loan payments kick in quickly, not all graduates nab a job right away. Avoid comparing yourself with your friends and how “successful” you perceive them to be (or how “successful” they portray themselves). Be patient, be diligent, and be hopeful that the right position will come along.

Laura Siko is a first-generation college graduate and director of off-campus sites for Northern Virginia Community College. She holds a master's degree in education and is currently pursuing her doctorate. 



This blog is part of the First to Finish College blog project, produced jointly by Demos and SparkAction.

Laura Siko