Changing Your Career Path in College: What to Do

It’s not an uncommon scenario: you have the skill set, resume, and collection of internships that make you perfect for one industry. Then, midway through college, one of your internships or other experiences makes you step back and say, “Wait—maybe I don’t actually want to do this.”

While your heart may have been set on a particular industry since you were five, chances are, you’ll waver from your initial idea of what you want to do after graduation. But that’s okay! Whether you came to the realization after an internship or after talking to a professor, deciding to make a career change in the middle of your college career (or even near the end!) doesn’t have to elicit panic.

The truth is, most college students change their career paths many times throughout their education, and even if you’re a second semester senior, there ARE ways to change your path smoothly! We talked to Amanda Baker, assistant director of the Johns Hopkins University Career Center, for tips on how to make the transition.

1. Don’t panic

Even if you’re drastically changing what you want to do post-college late in the game, you’re not alone! There are several ways to make it work. The key is to start adjusting for the change as early as possible once you decide you want to switch—don’t worry that it’s too late.

“Someone should go into a field that’s a good fit for them, not one that they've been on the path [for] since they were six,” says Baker. “It’s better to find out [you want to change your career path] senior year of college than dropping out during med or law school.”

Be calm and realize that you’re doing yourself a favor by switching now rather than later. This worked for Misha, a collegiette from North Carolina State University, who switched her major from pre-law to public relations after she started to get sick of the pre-law coursework. “Some people were worried about me being a senior, but I thought it was the best decision and I wouldn't have to attend law school,” she says. Keep in mind that if you don’t like your major now, you’ll be miserable when you’re working in that field for the rest of your life!

“I was a math and English major my first two years of college, and then when I transferred, I switched to English and journalism,” says Hayley, a collegiette at University of Kansas. “My advice for someone changing career paths is not to hesitate, because the sooner you can make those changes, the closer you are to what you want to do.”

2. Meet with an academic adviser

Talk to an academic adviser about which classes you need to take, and a career counselor about which experiences you should start trying to get, like volunteering or working in a lab on campus. You may need to fill certain prerequisites for grad school if your career path requires further education.

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to switch your major to go to grad school or get a job in a different field, depending on what the field is. But having SOME background in what you plan on studying or doing after graduation will be helpful. Talk to your adviser to come up with a detailed plan and he or she can help you weigh your options.

This worked wonders for Suzzette, a collegiette at the University of Puerto Rico. Starting college with a law degree in mind, she realized how much she hated her classes and no longer wanted to be a lawyer. “I went to see a counselor,” she says. He helped her “take a leap of faith” as she enrolled in the communications school at her college. “Ever since taking the first class at the School of Communication during my second semester of my freshman year in college, I was in love,” she says.

Kirsten, a student at the University of North Carolina, experienced a similar situation where she went from wanting to be an orthodontist to a wanting to be a journalist. “I immediately went to advising [and] planned out my classes for the next three years,” she says. “I applied for multiple internships and started attending networking events that the [journalism] school advertises.” While she felt behind at first, Kirsten quickly realized that it was better to be a bit behind while doing something you love than struggling through a subject you hate.

3. Find transferable skills

Look at how you can rearrange your resume to fit your new field, Baker says. “If you’re drastically changing from one field to another, we recommend that you take the things you HAVE done in the past and look how to apply that to the future,” she says. Look at your past experiences and internships and see if there are any crossover skills that could apply to your new path.

“Suppose you were a social media intern and you were doing things like updating a website. If you decided to go into computer science, you would focus on the website things you've done,” Baker says. If you did coursework in history with the hopes of being a professor and now you want to go into journalism, focus on your attention to detail and the research you did that will help you with reporting. Or, if you did psychology internships and now you would rather go into marketing, focus on your people skills that will help you communicate with clients and co-workers.

When in doubt, focus on leadership skills, professionalism, customer service, loyalty, and teamwork. Those are all traits you wouldn’t necessarily learn in the classroom—but they’re key to almost every industry. Once you’ve identified which of your skills could cross over to your new path, update your resume by highlighting those things and focus on what you CAN bring to the table, rather than what you can’t.

4. Get as much experience in your new field as you can

Do everything you can to start acquainting yourself with your new field. Baker suggests internships if there’s time, research with a faculty member, and campus activities like organizations and clubs that will signal to the next person reading your resume that you’re actually interested in and dedicated to your new path. Decided that you want to be a teacher? Become a tutor. Switching to environmental science? See if you can get in on a professor’s research in any capacity. Even if the experiences are a small as joining a pre-law society or as big as getting to do a semester-long internship, those experiences add up and will better prepare you once you leave college.

5. Network, network, network

Whether you’re still toying with the idea of changing what you want to do or if you’re already charging ahead, it’s a great idea to consult with alumni, friends, industry professionals, and people at your school’s career center for advice. “Find people that do what you want to be doing and talk to them about what they do,” Baker says. “This will also give you some insider info about the industry and perhaps that company, so when you go on interviews you’ll understand what a potential employer is looking for.”

Start with your career center to look for alumni contacts, and then try reaching out to connections on LinkedIn. People will most likely be happy to talk to you! Ask your parents and friends if they know people who work in your future industry. Then, arrange phone calls or coffee meetings to talk about their jobs—what they like and don’t like—and if they have any advice for a collegiette hoping to break into that field. Send thank you notes after the meetings and then keep in touch. They’ll be critical contacts to have when you’re looking for a job!

 

Making a change from the career you thought you always wanted since middle school is scary—but it’s absolutely doable and totally common. According to Baker, most college students switch what they want to do SEVERAL times before graduation. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to succeeding in a new industry!