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Get Your College Degree Off the Couch and Into the Job Market

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 10/13/2011

Mom told you that you could to anything you want in life -- after you get your college degree. Now it seems that college grad jobs seem to favor all degrees, except yours. Really? Learn some innovative ways for making your degree work for you.

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    College Degrees: Statistics

    “Graduate” by Arkanosis/Wikimedia Commons via GNU General Public License Version 2.1 The Census Bureau has released its degree statistics spanning the time frame from 1980 to 2009. The data shows that there are more four-year degrees being earned by today's students (929,417 in 1980 vs. 1,601,368 in 2009). The figures also show an interesting shift in fields of interest.

    • For example, ethnic studies degrees increased from 2,840 in 1980 to 8,772 in 2009.
    • In contrast, bachelor’s degrees in education decreased from 118,038 to 101,708.
    • Liberal arts degrees went up from 23,196 to 47,096.

    With respect to available jobs, college degree holders are facing a sluggish economy. Which positions -- other than teaching jobs in academia -- actively solicit for a four-year degree in gender or ethnic studies? Another problem that today’s graduates face is the regional oversaturation of earned degrees.

    The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco refers to this phenomenon as “mismatches between workers and employers.” Workers present with a set of skills, while area recruiters are in search of other skills. The answer sounds deceptively simple: Move to a locale where your degree is in higher demand. Of course, if you have put down roots, started a family and are firmly plugged into the social fabric of your home state and city, this is far easier said than done. To get your college degree to work -- even if it comes from one of the nation’s top colleges -- you have to start thinking outside the box.

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    Taking a Hint from the Lawyers

    In 2005 the American Bar Association asked quite provocatively: “So what else can you do with your law degree?” In this case the organization tackled the issue of helping college grads land jobs in their chosen fields, even if they were not necessarily willing to enter the confrontational field of the courtroom. In addition, the ABA noticed the trend of law firm consolidation, which more or less eliminated the traditional path of entering a firm as an associate, working up to partner and then staying on in this capacity until retirement.

    So what was the advice for the degreed attorney who found that the playing field was different? New lawyers and recent law school graduates were urged to look back on the actual skills they learned and enjoyed. For some, this would involve the steps of intricate research, whereas others like the idea of organizing facts and presenting them in persuasive written fashion. As such, employment opportunities in public relations, fundraising and even medical administration beckoned.

    It is interesting to note that it does not take a professional degree, such as a law degree, to make these leaps.

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    Looking Past the Printed Degree Name

    • “User busy” by Rocket000/Wikimedia Commons via the GNU General Public License Version 2 Look beyond traditional fields of employment. For example, English majors usually look to journalism or public relations. Unfortunately, the fields are oversaturated with candidates; the Internet-driven shift in journalism itself has opened up the field to plenty of candidates without a "traditional" education. An integral aspect of an English degree is the ability to communicate succinctly; this skill comes in handy for educators, business managers, retail managers, sales managers and administrative positions.
    • Capitalize on learned skills. An advertisement for college grad jobs in the local paper might ask for four-year degrees in business. If you chose to embark on gender or ethnic studies, you might be tempted to pass by this listing. Not so fast! Part and parcel of these demographics-related degrees is the development of an intricate understanding of the groups’ psychological makeup. Business positions thrive on client or customer relationships; and psychology is a crucial proficiency in relationship-building. Go ahead and apply, while highlighting your understanding of business and demographics.
    • Sell the multiple benefits of your degree. The hiring manager may still be an old-school type of employer. She may have graduated a couple of decades ago and worked her way up in a time when a specialized degree meant more than it does today. Do not assume that the call for a mathematics degree in the job posting disqualifies a criminal justice major -- especially if you chose to graduate with a math-related minor. What the position might actually call for is a talent for data gathering and impartial evaluation, which would be right up your alley. Educate yourself about the business and the position; then highlight the training you received when earning the degree, which you believe makes you a good candidate for the field and the company.
    • Identify transferable skills. Is a philosophy major qualified to run a call center sales team? Will the art history degree holder have a chance at competing for the position of bookkeeper? In a traditional job market, the answer may be “no,” but in a recession, it is the savvy grad who can think on his feet who competes the best. Remember that to get your college degree in the first place, you had to develop character traits such a dedication, punctuality, critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and communication abilities. Even if you have one of the more esoteric degrees, put the effort and work it took to earn the bachelor’s degree to good use. Creatively weave these skills into job applications and highlight them on the resume.
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    Finding unusual ways for putting your degree to work depends greatly on your willingness and ability to showcase your overall accomplishments. That said, there are times when your degree may not be enough to open doors to a highly regulated field, such as health care or early childhood education. In these rare cases, it is imperative to augment the bachelor’s degree with a certificate or further training germane to the field of choice.

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