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Starting college? Here’s how to graduate with a job

Science, technology, engineering, and math aren’t for everyone, counselors caution.

Mike Groll/Associated Press/File 2012

Science, technology, engineering, and math aren’t for everyone, counselors caution.

If you’re heading off to college this fall, all sorts of people have the same advice for you. Former teachers, your parents’ friends, The Wall Street Journal: They all want to help you get a job when you graduate, and they want you to earn enough out of the gate to make a big dent in your student loans, which means they’re nudging you to study engineering, math, or computer science.

Business leaders and lawmakers are always talking about how the economy needs more hard-science majors. The job market reflects this.

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Last year, the average starting salary for an engineering major was $62,655, tops among the eight categories of majors tracked in a Labor Department study. In 2009, the unemployment rate for math and computer science grads a year after earning their degrees was 6 percent — half the rate for humanities or social science majors.

So that’s the secret? Major in math or science, graduate, walk right into a good gig?

For most of you, no.

New research from Berea College in Kentucky and the University of Western Ontario suggests fewer than half of the students who start out as science majors end up earning a science degree.

Chalk this up to ‘‘misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.’’ Translation: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes are challenging, perhaps especially so for students less interested in the subject s than in chasing a lucrative degree.

As an economics reporter, I feel compelled to say that if you’re interested in science or computers, and you have the aptitude, then give a STEM major a shot. The economy needs more math and science grads to drive the big innovations.

As a former political science major, I’m happy to tell everyone who doesn’t fall into that camp that there’s hope for you, too. But you’ll have a better chance if you start thinking now about how to use your time in school to hone skills that will improve your employability.

Consider this your step-by-step guide:

 Step 1: Start thinking during orientation about a job. Several college career counselors say the sooner you turn your mind toward the work world, and what you’ll need to do to succeed in it, the better.

Spend some serious time thinking about how you’re wired, what you enjoy, and what sorts of jobs might allow you to follow your interests and get paid in the process.

‘‘The general advice we give students is, first and foremost, look at themselves,’’ says Lorie Logan-Bennett, director of the career center at Towson University in Maryland.

 Step 2: Don’t pick a job yet. With rare exceptions, such as aspiring doctors, you probably shouldn’t lock yourself in early on at a four-year school. Your self-exploration is likely to take a while and could include changing your major at least once. And your future job market is apt to change while you’re in college.

(Note to community college enrollees: The reverse might be true for you. You could save yourself money and maximize your future earnings by asking pointed questions very early about what degree or certificate you plan to pursue; how likely it is that you’ll complete that degree, given your academic record; and what sort of job prospects await grads in that field.)

Andy Chan is vice president for career development at Wake Forest University and a pioneer in a new wave of thinking about career counseling. His approach focuses less on steering students to jobs and more on preparing them for what employers need. ‘‘I teach students not to think about industries first,’’ Chan says. ‘‘I teach them to think about skills and functions.’’

 Step 3: Sharpen those skills. You might not know which jobs will be plentiful when you graduate, but economists have decent predictions. The sooner you start working to build those skills, in and out of the classroom, the better your odds of landing one of those jobs.

Broadly, think of those skills as ‘‘anything humans still do better than robots.’’

As economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard Murnane of Harvard explain, that means solving unstructured problems and working with new information. This is a big shift from in previous generations, when you could make good money just by being good at following directions.

‘‘Today, work that consists of following clearly specified directions is increasingly being carried out by computers and workers in lower-wage countries,’’ they write. ‘‘The remaining jobs that pay enough to support families require a deeper level of knowledge and the skills to apply it.’’

That means you need to read critically, to sort the important information from the junk quickly, and to try new approaches until you find a solution. Murnane says students need to learn to work in teams and ‘‘to write very, very well.’’ Levy says students should select classes that build those skills, with strict evaluation: ‘‘Look for courses where there’s an emphasis on project work that is taken seriously and graded seriously. So it’s not just plugging in formulas.’’

Career counselors say there are more granular skills all students should build, as well, such as mastering social media or computer coding.

Beverly Lorig, at Washington and Lee University, says you’ll need to learn to mine statistics for trends and analysis. ‘‘Data is the new need that every business and every industry has, being able to make sense out of data,’’ she says. ‘‘Whether you’re a history major or a finance major, you need to have experience reading complex data and understanding how to make good decisions.’’

 Step 4: Build your resume and your brand. Chan has a goal for students every year: He wants at least half to set up LinkedIn profiles. It’s partly to help them see the university’s connections in the work world. And it’s partly to get them thinking about entering the workforce, well before they do it. ‘‘Make a brand for yourself’’ is his advice. ‘‘What would make you more marketable than the average person out there?’’

If there is one thing every college career development official stresses, it’s how much work outside the classroom, particularly an internship or eight, can help students find jobs. Many call this ‘‘applied experience,’’ and they say employers demand it more every year. ‘‘We have seen the conversation change from desirable to expected, almost,’’ says Logan-Bennett. ‘‘If you’re graduating without applied experience in some way, shape or form, you really are at a disadvantage.’’

Employers spend less on training than they did a decade ago. They expect students to walk in ready to go.

 Step 5: Prepare to begin humbly. The upside of a constantly shifting job market is that graduates don’t need to worry as much about finding the perfect position, with the well-formed ladder of advancement attached. Industries and jobs and even individual job descriptions change overnight.

Chan reminds students they’re looking for a first job, not a lifelong one. He points many toward consulting, banking, sales training, digital media, teaching, or customer service, knowing they have plenty of time to advance. Too many students think they need to go into management or management training right away, he says.

‘‘People are trying to measure the value of your education by how much money you make in your first job out of school,’’ Chan says. ‘‘I think that’s messed up.’’

Chan is a good example of how you don’t have to be a STEM grad to go places. After college, he worked for a big management consulting firm, for Clorox Co., and in several marketing roles. He led an educational software start-up. He ran the career center at the Stanford business school.

His degree is in political science.

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