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Andrew Colby, University of New Hampshire

“I like [fill in the blank], but what can I do with that major?” is the most often asked question from exploratory students to academic advisors at the University of New Hampshire’s University Advising and Career Center (UACC).

Preparing students for a career is not higher education’s primary focus. However, the question is understandable. We expect an action to produce an outcome, a direction. “Undecided” insinuates unknowing, and unknowing suggests lack of direction. We stress the need for critical thinking, developing transferable skills, immersion in learning situations, and studying a topic in-depth, i.e., the importance of college for the intellectual experience itself. Nonetheless, the anxiety over what happens the Monday after graduation weighs heavily from day one for students (and their parents); thus it demands our attention.

This is the concern common to a large portion of undergraduates, yet it receives little coordinated professional attention. What are the resources? Where are the resources? NACADA members can find career exploration resources in the Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources . At UNH, we use the University of Tennessee’s fine “What Can I do with…” information sheets, MonsterTrak’s “Major to Career Converter,” and our own Career Mentor Network, as well as handouts. Also available through NACADA is Virginia Gordon’s new book, Career Advising: An Academic Advisor’s Guide .

Early resolution increases the student’s opportunity to form an academic plan based on correct information that fits personal interests and does not fall prey to the major - job reality myth. A lot of student uncertainty comes from not knowing and not understanding outcomes of the major, especially when negotiating an academic plan with parents. (At UNH, we refer to the useful University of Tennessee “What Can I do with that major” handout as the “Parent Sheet.”)

UNH’s undergraduate population is representative of what can be found at public institutions that serve a large number of undeclared, or exploring, students. We advise Undeclared Liberal Arts and first-year English and Psychology majors - exploring students. There are 2,000 of these students, or about 18% of our undergraduate population. More specifically, we advise nearly a third of UNH’s entire first-year class.

The undeclared status troubles some students. Discomfort levels rise when exploring implies a lack of clarity and not knowing what the Monday after graduation will bring. UACC academic advisors help students form an academic plan by identifying interests, skills, and values and then connecting their findings to UNH majors, minors and programs. It is no different at other schools. Fortunately, the UACC is a combined academic and career advising center, and we have a team of career advisors ready to work with referred students and with whom we can strategize programs and activities. It is this academic-career connection that has greatly enhanced our work. (Find examples of other academic – career centers listed in the Clearinghouse .

We start working with students during their first year – the first semester if possible – to resolve the major - job reality myth. We focus our efforts on the improvement of academic advisors’ skills, so they can help students understand where choices lead, define post-university goals, and pursue options for non pre-professional majors. We capitalize upon our Residential Life expertise in coaching students through the “life” transitional issues so that advisors can highlight students’ important academic needs and insure that each student:

  1. knows the name of his or her advisor and how to make contact;
  2. understands how to develop an academic plan that focuses on a major, minor, supporting classes and extended classroom activities;
  3. develops relationships with faculty;
  4. understands how to find academic support services; and
  5. forms a plan, much like the major identification process, to determine the first-post UNH experience and to develop strategies and tools leading to options during senior year.

Academic advisors encourage students to identify interests and figure out what they need to improve while pursuing academic experiences of personal interest; networking with faculty, alumni and professionals; attending career fairs; researching internships; and developing a resume of experience outside the classroom. All of these experiences help students build an academic plan. While anxiety often remains, there is relief when students define their academic plans in a timely fashion.

It is important to remember that the real sticking points for students are not deeply rooted in anxiety, but tend to be practical concerns based on inexperience. Formal interest and vocational instruments can be valuable and play a role in the process. However, they should be employed after other techniques are tried and eliminated. Our aim is to encourage students to identify interests, skills and values, and to build problem-solving skills through an active process that puts them in new situations.

Students who design plans to investigate the major-career link navigate through problems, systems, and bureaucracies to discover processes on their own. After all, this process is an important part of higher education. Coupled with the identification of an academic plan, the advisor’s role is to help students prepare for independence by graduation, when no advisor will be there for guidance.

A google search titled “Linking Majors to Careers” turned up helpful college and university sites that address this issue. (Try it: you’ll find some useful information.) Many sites describe similar processes and list similar resources. This information coupled with theClearinghouse and the listserv sponsored by the Undecided and Exploratory Students Commission can help advisors access or borrow ideas that work.

I hope this short opinion piece generates a discussion of available resources and practices that schools use to sort out this practical but significant and common obstacle facing the vast majority of “exploring” students.

Andrew Colby
University of New Hampshire
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Colby, A. (2006, February). Advising the major - . Academic Advising Today, 29(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.