You Are Not Your Major: Students Find Their Own Pathways to Success

By Angela Barian

UW students walk along a pathway near Observatory Hill on a warm spring day.
Students’ pathways to success may have unexpected turns and bumpy terrain, but the UW’s many programs are here to help. (Photo: Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

For many UW–Madison students, choosing a major is a big decision. But even after choosing, many students and their parents wonder whether they made the best choice, what they’ll do as a career, or in some cases, whether they’ll be accepted into highly competitive majors and schools—and what to do if they’re not. In the midst of all these questions, how can Badger parents and families best support their student in finding their own path to success?

What Are You Going to Do with That?

When Raina Bloom started as an undergrad at UW–Madison, she wanted to be a high school English teacher. But she was disappointed when she saw that her sample schedule didn’t include any literature classes in her junior or senior year. Bloom says it was at that moment she decided to be an English major so she could, as she puts it, “read long books by dead people for as long as I possibly can.” Remembering the call she made to her parents to tell them that she intended to major in English, Bloom says, “…my father, a skilled tradesman, said, What are you going to do with that? And I said, I don’t know. And he said he was fine with that.” Bloom, now an academic librarian at UW–Madison’s College Library, credits her parents’ support in finding her own pathway to success.

But for many parents and families, it can be tough to stay cheerful in the face of such uncertainty, especially when you consider the trends. For example, about a third of college students will change their major at least once. About ten percent change multiple times. And while some majors at the UW are as simple as filling out a form to declare, others have competitive application processes that result in only a portion of applicants getting accepted. On top of this, research shows that fewer than a third of college graduates have jobs related to their major.

While stats like these can create feelings of anxiety in some students and their families, a number of experts here at UW–Madison emphasize this is no reason to panic. In fact, the UW is designed to help students work through every step of the process.

The Value of the UW

All experts agreed that UW students are off to a strong start simply by being here. Jonathon Ferguson, the Director of UW’s Career Exploration Center, says, “UW–Madison students generally do very, very well. We know from experience that most of our students do really well not only academically, but also gaining internships, professional experiences, and eventual success.” Sarah Jedd, Associate Faculty Associate in the department of Communication Arts, adds that at the UW, we focus on students having a breadth of knowledge as well as the deep dive into their subject area. “That prepares students no matter what they want to do after graduation,” Jedd says.

Here’s more good news: Ferguson says students have “a lot more control than they think they do” about what their career trajectory is going to be. So, where should students begin? Ferguson suggests that the Career Exploration Center is an ideal starting point: “The Career Exploration Center is the ‘first stop’ for UW–Madison students who are thinking about career planning,” Ferguson says. “Especially those who are undecided in what they want to do, in and after college.” Ferguson adds that the CEC can also refer students to the specific college advisor that will best serve their needs.

The truth is the major is just one part of success for students. “Graduating isn’t enough,” Ferguson says. “Having a major you’re happy with, graduating, those are important things. But they’re just a piece of what you need to be professionally successful.” 

The Importance of Skill Building

So, what can students do to help build a foundation of success? According to our experts, students can develop personal traits and qualities that allow them to work effectively with other people. These are what researchers refer to as soft skills. “In careers, as we know, you need to be able to work with many different types of people with different ages, personalities, statuses.” Rachelle Eilers, Senior Advisor for the Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Program at UW–Madison says. “To be able to communicate is one of the biggest things that can get you ahead.”

The National Association for Colleges and Employers agrees with Eilers. Their survey of what attributes employers want to see on students’ resumes show both written and verbal communication are the most in-demand skills. Their results also indicate that problem-solving skills, ability to work in a team, analytical skills, and a strong work ethic are in high demand.

One of the ways students can demonstrate these skills is by getting the Center for Leadership & Involvement’s Leadership Certificate. The certificate helps students gain understanding in skills and values of good leadership, and gives opportunities to demonstrate these skills to create positive change, while reflecting on their strengths and areas of improvement.

Eilers has many stories of students whose majors may not look relevant to their career on paper, but whose experiences definitely contributed to their success. “In some cases, the major doesn’t necessarily matter,” Eilers says. She adds that internships, research experiences, volunteering, mock interviews, and part-time jobs can all contribute to success: “It’s about experiences and skills related to the career area, and getting exposed to them, no matter the major.”

In fact, all UW experts agreed there is no such thing as a “useless major”—with one caveat. Ferguson says, “The only useless degree is one that someone has earned, but not grown from as a person.”

You Only Need One Yes

Sometimes, even the best-laid plans don’t result in what students expect. Some students apply to majors and schools that have highly competitive admissions processes and aren’t admitted. Others arrive thinking they know what they want to do and realize they don’t like it. Still others are unexpectedly inspired by a favorite course, professor, or internship.

What about students who find their original plans thwarted? Jedd says, “I think it can be very hard to tell in the moment what is bad news. Maybe you didn’t get in. But maybe you’re going to discover the love of your life vocationally, in a class that you take next semester. What looks like bad news in the moment can turn into life-changing great news. We don’t have the distance yet to know.”

Bloom adds, “This is such a good, safe place to fail, in whatever way you’re going to be confronted with failure.”

Eilers stresses that students should get practice “putting themselves out there.” Eilers mentions going to a career fair, taking a leap of faith and applying for that dream job, internship, or study abroad program can all develop this skill. “Just try,” Eilers says. “And know you’re going to have failures and rejections in doing so, but do it anyway. And for that, it doesn’t matter your major. If you can just put yourself out there and show the skills you’ve learned, that is going to make you a success. Persistence is huge. You only need one yes.” 

Listening, Hearing, and Referring

Parents and families are vital partners in their student’s well-being and success. What can parents do to help support their students? One helpful action is to just listen and comfort your student. “Generally speaking, listening and soothing, relaxing is a great way to go,” Ferguson says, adding, “That’s different than trying to solve the problem.” Eilers agrees: “Let them know that they’re okay. Give ‘em a hug.”

Another effective tactic may be to try to get to the heart of your student’s concerns. Ferguson notes that sometimes, students will open a conversation about choosing a major or career, but the root of their concern may be reservations about the world of work or anxieties about the future. Ferguson suggests to not just listen and talk, but to also hear them out. When you feel able to give advice, that can be valuable. But remember that at UW–Madison, we also have many experts on campus who are trained in being able to counsel students. Referring your student to campus offices can be a great strategy: “Listening, hearing, and then referring is really helpful for parents to do,” Ferguson said.

To the extent that it’s possible, try to soothe your own anxiety, too. Bloom says that this uncertainty can seem easily manageable from the outside, “but it’s different when you’re watching it happen to your child.” Eilers adds in her work with students, she’s found that, “whatever anxiety the parent has, that can pass down directly, where the student then takes on that anxiety.” But there are resources for you, too: The Parent and Family Program is here to serve as your ongoing resource throughout your studentʼs college career.

And remember that you are still an important part of your student’s life. Ferguson says that parents sometimes underestimate how important they are to their students: “Even if the students don’t necessarily show it to the parent, when they come in and talk to us, it’s pretty apparent that what their parents think and say is very important.”

Leave ‘Em On the Step

All of our experts agreed that the UW is dedicated to helping your student figure out their own pathway to success. “There’s not one single way to be a successful student,” Jedd says. “It’s all about figuring out what works for you. The UW has supports for any kind of learning needs. So, figure out what success is going to look like for you, in a non-judgmental way.”

Bloom acknowledges as a parent how tough it can be to let go, even a little bit: “Recently it was my daughter’s first day of second grade. The policy at her school is, starting with second grade no parents can go inside the school. You have to drop the kids off on the step. But some parents were following their kids inside, insisting that they be allowed in the building, and basically not trusting their children to engage in this bit of independence, climbing a flight of stairs to find their room. And I thought, hey parents, this is your opportunity to practice a skill that you need to get good at in an increasingly large-scale way—teaching your kid that you trust them, that they’re capable.” Bloom says it’s important to allow students to find their way, wherever they are in their education: “Leave ‘em on the step. They’ll figure it out.”