This interview is with Katharine Brooks, Director of the Office of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin.
Tell me about your career path. How has your career unfolded into your current role as the Director of Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas?
My career is a perfect example of chaos theory at work. I wish I could tell you that I planned it out but I didn’t.
I started college as a music major. I switched to sociology (and probably took enough courses in English and Art History for minors, but the college didn’t have minors at the time). I really loved my liberal arts education and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Throughout college I worked at a gift shop at General Lee’s Headquarters in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When I was a senior, I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t ready to start graduate school so I took a job in retail — in a management training program at a department store in Washington, D.C. I told them I was interested in human resources and about two weeks into my job there was a tragic car accident involving the human resources staff at their store in Tyson’s Corners. I was asked to leave the management trainee role and work in that human resources office. I took on many of the responsibilities of a manager. I learned that what I most enjoyed in that role was interviewing candidates for jobs at the store. I worked with the restaurant manager who believed in hiring people with disabilities, so he taught me how to interview people to find their strengths.
Ultimately I learned that the only part of the day I really enjoyed was working with the individuals with disabilities, so I left that job to take a social worker position in a non-profit agency, the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. I had to take a pay cut to do that job, so I taught guitar lessons in the evening for a local music store. While working at the blind association, I learned that if I got a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation I could earn more money. And — I learned that if I got my degree from West Virginia University which had a terrific program in rehabilitation counseling — the degree would be free due to a federal grant. So off I went. I got a certificate in rehabilitation counseling, and in counseling.
During my time in the master’s program I interned at a state agency for the deaf which I found lacking in creativity. The atmosphere was very “9-5” and in my opinion people were more concerned about collecting their paychecks and reading the newspaper than serving their clients. So I found another internship at a clinic at WVU which provided assessments of children with developmental disabilities. It was very creative and interesting. I started working for them full-time when I finished my master’s, and then I started my doctoral program part-time in educational psychology — which was free because I was a full-time employee. I took time out from my doctoral program to get a certificate in school psychology. Ultimately I became the director of the psycho-educational clinic at WVU and worked with the pediatric genetics unit at their medical school. I administered over 500 educational, psychological, and vocational evaluations of children and adolescents with a variety of developmental disabilities.
I got to the “ABD” stage in my doctoral program, when I moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so my (now ex) husband could get a law degree at Dickinson School of Law. I got a job at Dickinson College as a counselor. I wrote my dissertation on learning styles, learning strategy, and achievement in liberal arts students.
I ended up staying at Dickinson for 19 years — as the director of career services, coordinator of disability services, associate professor teaching freshman writing courses and film studies, an academic advisor, residence hall coordinator — just a variety of stuff.
In 2002, I saw the opportunity to work with liberal arts students exclusively at a larger university here at the University of Texas and applied for the job. And here I am since February 2003. Since my time here at UT, I have developed credit-based college-to-career courses for our students. We have greatly expanded our services to students. I kept busy outside of work, too — I wrote a book on my career coaching system for liberal arts students, and was invited to write a blog for Psychology Today.
UT has been a great place to be creative and explore new ways to help liberal arts students in their job search. And I still play my guitar — occasionally at Antone’s.
I wish I could tell you I planned this, but I really didn’t. I just took advantage of opportunities that came my way and selected opportunities that aligned with my values and interests: helping people, psychology, career / vocational guidance, creativity, writing, independence, etc.
What key habits or things should students do every day, right from the start of college or grad school (and not simply during their senior year job search), to find a great career opportunity after graduation?
I think it’s most important to focus on what’s important to you — what do you care about? How do you want to make a difference in this world? Start volunteering or working with organizations or agencies that support your values — whether that’s a tech business, an arts organization, a bank, or an animal shelter. Move toward what motivates you.
Keep an open mind to opportunities — and always be on the lookout for a potential internship, volunteer opportunity, leadership experience, etc.
For me it was always about helping people (I know that sounds very generic), being creative, and finding jobs which allowed me to be independent and set my own schedule.
What is the single most important thing to keep in mind for students who want to transition from their chosen academic field to a career opportunity in a different field?
It’s all about transferable skills. Liberal arts students have “potential” — that’s what they’re selling to an employer.
I’ve had lots of different jobs, and the skills that have served me in all of them have been my “people” skills (listening / counseling) and my writing skills. My ability to write has always served me — my employers all noticed it and gave me special assignments or allowed me to create writing projects. Writing gets you noticed and recognized.
Students need to identify and develop their strengths — and learn skills that aren’t necessarily a part of their curriculum — develop strong computer skills, learn basic accounting, etc.
What is the single biggest mistake you see students make (or the most important thing they overlook) in their search for a great first job — or in successfully making a satisfying career switch later on?
I think the biggest mistake I see are the seniors who haven’t had any internships or work experience. They will say things like “I was focusing on my academics” or “We traveled in the summer so I couldn’t work” — but this sets them up for a very challenging job search. They will be competing with students who have lots of experience. Even if you travel, you can look into volunteer opportunities in the places you’re visiting. There are ways to acquire experience if you’re just creative about it. Start a blog — demonstrate your writing skills. Learn how to create websites with WordPress. Teach yourself Excel and Access. Read the textbooks for courses you wish you could take but can’t for some reason.
Get experience — even if all you learn is you never want to work in that field, that is valuable knowledge.
What big interesting career search trends do you see among soon-to-be or recent graduates who are starting their first career experiences?
I think one of the most exciting trends is the increased interest in entrepreneurial ventures and self-employment. Even if students aren’t quite ready to start their own businesses, they approach their work with that creative mindset and want to find work where their talents can be used and where they can have input into the direction of the organization.
What professions do you see are “up” vs. “down” now compared to 5 years ago among college and grad school job seekers?
I think banking careers are not as popular as they once were. The opportunities just aren’t as plentiful and many students have been turned off by the behavior of the large banks. I continue to see a lot of interest in government agencies such as the FBI and CIA. And volunteer type opportunities like VISTA, the Peace Corps and Teach for America continue to capture student interest.
What’s the most interesting / quirky / creative / crazy job you’ve seen a graduating student pursue?
I once had a student (from Dickinson College) who was a Latin major and admitted to medical school. She took a year off to drive the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile. She had a great time and I’m sure did very well in med school.