What does it mean to “apply” your degree?

Across my advising appointments with students in 30+ Arts disciplines, one theme is clear: students want the opportunity to apply their degree in the workplace.

It’s easy to be discouraged when you’re seeking “jobs for ___ majors” only to find few employers who are specifically recruiting you. However, this mindset overlooks the many ways you can put your Arts degree to work. This article breaks down what it means to “apply” your degree, and why your major being listed (or not) in the “qualifications” section of a job posting isn’t the whole story.

How are job postings written?

It’s easy to look at job postings and imagine that every word is there intentionally. That isn’t always the case. Sometimes, job postings can be:

  • Generic, because the employer’s priority is to start the hiring process rather than to write the perfect job description;
  • Outdated, because the employer is recycling one from a previous hiring process even though the position has changed; or
  • Written as if the employer is replacing the departing employee (who had a degree in ___) rather than filling a role (someone who can do ___).

If a job posting sparks your interest but your major isn’t listed in the qualifications section, avoid assumptions that may lead you to eliminate yourself from the competition. There are relatively few professions that are regulated, like nursing, and therefore legally require a specific degree and license to practice. If the posting includes a clause like “or related field of study,” use your resume and cover letter to illustrate how your coursework and projects have prepared you for the role. Use LinkedIn to identify professionals in that role or similar roles, and view their qualifications—you may be surprised to see that people who have your “dream jobs” likely majored in a variety of different disciplines. You can even connect with these professionals to ask them for advice about entering their line of work.

You’re more than your major

Believe it or not, your major doesn’t define your career—or at least it doesn’t have to. When people think about jobs where they can “apply” their degree, they’re usually thinking of jobs that will draw upon the knowledge they’ve gained in their major. However, a degree is made up of many parts: academic knowledge from courses within and outside of your major, industry knowledge from your paid and unpaid work experiences, and skills you’ve developed through all of these academic and non-academic experiences. Try to think broadly and creatively about what you’re taking away from your degree, and recognize that “applying” your degree can mean applying any or all of these aspects.

Research studies reveal that most University graduates work in roles that aren’t directly related to the content of their major. Before you despair, consider the following:

  • Your degree is more than your major, and your major is more than its content. Your future job may not require you to recite Canadian history, but the history courses you completed will enable you to critically analyze a variety of texts, write effectively, and make connections between past and current events—skills that are valuable in many jobs.
  • Your major may be relevant in less obvious ways. Consider not just what you majored in, but why you chose your major in the first place. What does your reasoning reveal about your motivation and interests? For example, if you studied sociology because you love analyzing complex systems at a macro level, that drive could make you a great business analyst. Tell that story on this application, and save your focus on sociological theory for a different application.
  • Not everyone may want a job that is directly related to the content of their major. Over time, and with new life experiences, many people develop new interests and pursuing work that relates to those interests can be a marker of growth.
  • This figure of “most” includes graduates from all faculties! For example, not all engineering grads work as engineers, let alone stay engineers forever.

An alternative approach

The focus on “applying” your degree often reflects what we think our school-to-work transition “should” look like. Instead, consider focusing on how you actually want it to look: what purpose will work serve in your life? Maybe you really do want a role that relies on your expertise in art history, or perhaps you’re actually interested in a job that allows you to help people by leveraging the active listening skills you developed as an Arts Peer Advisor. Maybe you see your career as a vehicle for creating change on a certain issue. Maybe you’re looking for a job that provides a predictable schedule, solid salary, and secure prospects for the future. What’s true for you?

If you don’t know how to start answering these questions:

Many students question what they can do with their Arts degree, whereas I prefer to question what they will do with their Arts degree—because the options are endless.

Have questions or want to have a career conversation? Sign up for an appointment with Arts Career Strategist Carli Fink or other career advisors through CareersOnline by clicking the “Advising” tab at the top.