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What Have Your Learned in Your Major?

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When UW English major A. M. Benneter applied for a part-time job as an editor, she identified transferable skills she’d developed through her academic work: writing, editing, and critical thinking. She got the job. And she considers the UW’s Major Skills Workshop a big factor in her success.

Major Skills is a three-hour workshop designed to help students identify and describe the skills they have gained through their major. Nine Arts and Sciences departments—anthropology, biology, chemistry, drama, English, geography, philosophy, political science, and psychology—currently offer the workshop in conjunction with the University’s Center for Career Services. The sessions are facilitated by trained career counselors and departmental advisers who help tailor the content for their majors.

Students participate in an interview role-play during the Major Skills Workshop.

Students participate in an interview role-play during the Major Skills Workshop.

The session begins with a “before” and “after” demonstration of a job interview, with facilitators playing the roles of employer and job applicant. In both “before” and “after” demonstrations, applicants are asked what they learned in their chosen discipline. The “before” answer describes the subject content of the major and lists extracurricular activities, without expressing the value of these things to the employer. The “after” answer focuses instead on transferable skills gained from academic studies and emphasizes future potential to the employer.

“The result is often a revelation for students,” says Bonnie Lyon, a former academic counselor for political science, who developed the workshop with career counselor Susan Templeton and academic counselor Kelli Jayn Nichols. “When asked what they’ve learned in college, students often focus on course content. What they often aren’t able to see right away is that in the process of learning course content, they’ve also been developing communication, analytical, and quantitative skills that are valuable to employers.”

Following the demonstration, students participate in exercises and discussion that highlight the skills they have acquired in their major. The workshop ends with an interview role-play so that students learn to put the concepts into practice.

The idea for the workshop originated with Nichols, who felt that if students leave the UW unable to articulate what is distinctive about their academic studies, then one of the most important tasks of the University’s educators, counselors, and advisers has been left undone.

“Through the workshop, students begin to appreciate the nuances their major has added to the general transferable skills they develop in college,” says Nichols. “These nuances put a special stamp on their analytical and problem-solving abilities, which can be compelling when articulated clearly to an employer or a graduate school admissions committee.”

And there’s another benefit, says Nichols: “Recognizing these nuances can also increase students’ own perception of the value of their degree.”