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 Rachel Klein, one of three campus career counselors with new books published by the Princeton Review, in her office at the Career Center. (Barry Bergman photo)

Three campus career counselors' nonlinear path to authorship
With a series of guidebooks under their belts, three staffers prove that careers - including their own - can lead to unexpected places

| 10 October 2007

On a bookshelf in Rachel Klein's office sits a poster that reads, "Resist the permanent career implant chip. You have the right to choose your own dead-end job!"

Garnished with whimsical artwork, the admonition is clearly meant to get students to lighten up, in more ways than one. Humor, Klein believes, is an indispensable arrow in any career counselor's quiver. And it's not as if most Berkeley grads will end up trapped in real-world versions of Clockwatchers or Office Space, movieland takes on cubicular desperation that have a special resonance for Klein, who suffered through several long-term temp jobs after graduating from UC Davis.

Still, the poster's real message - that the best career is a lifelong adventure, not a forced march to a fixed destination - is one many undergrads would do well to take to heart.

"Careers are becoming increasingly nonlinear, but students are increasingly linear in their approach to careers," observes Klein, whose own "circuitous" path led her to counseling five years ago and now, serendipitously, has made her a published author. Just because you happened to study English lit, she says, "You don't have to be an editor, or a teacher, or a journalist, although those are wonderful occupations. There are other options out there that might be a better fit. And students don't even want to hear that."

Klein, who's been with the campus Career Center for four years, is the co-author of one of three new books from the Princeton Review, What to Do With Your English or Communications Degree. Two other counselors connected with the center - Sarah Dunham, who retired in July after 25 years, and Jay Wall, now in his fourth year as a part-time counselor here - have co-authored companion volumes in the series, which is aimed at liberal-arts majors unsure of what awaits them beyond the campus.

"Like every English major, I always wanted to write," Klein says. "Who knew that, as a career counselor, I would get a chance to write these articles [for the Career Center website] and then get a chance to write a book?"

Taking a creative approach

The notion of broadening horizons, in fact, is a theme common to all three books. The authors don't advise students to "follow their bliss," exactly - at least not at the expense of networking, internships, volunteer opportunities, and other activities that can make them more attractive to potential employers - but suggest they take a creative approach to parlaying their educations and interests into careers that might not be on their (or their families') short lists. As Dunham writes, "[D]on't think that what you decide to do now is necessarily going to be what you'll be doing for the rest of your life." Did you know, for example, that Martin Luther King Jr. was a sociology major? (You would if you leafed through Wall's book.)

The three were approached separately by a Princeton Review editor - "I didn't even know until after I was done that Rachel and Jay were doing this," Dunham says - and experienced the joys and pitfalls of the writing life in their own ways. Dunham, whose entry is titled What to Do With Your History or Political Science Degree, had previously written only for the center's website and found the process of book authorship all-consuming. "I'm calling this book my summer of 2006, basically," she laughs, describing a full-immersion experience that required learning new interview techniques and battling the myriad frustrations familiar to writers and would-be writers alike. Now that it's finally published, she adds, "I'm so proud of it."

Only Wall, now in his fourth year at the center, had brought any professional writing experience with him to Berkeley, having authored articles for publications at UCLA - a former employer - and for the Wall Street Journal's job-search site, CollegeJournal.com. His book is aimed at psychology and sociology majors.

The stress-out diet

Wall, himself a psychology major who began his career in human resources at Lockheed Martin, soon discovered the corporate life wasn't for him, and eventually landed a job as director of employee relations at MIT. But after gaining 70 pounds he attributes to the stress of that job, he decided to "scale back a little bit," which, in his case, involved a lucrative stint managing properties in Massachusetts. "Things worked out well from an investment standpoint," he adds, allowing him to move with his wife and son to California to work at Berkeley. He now works three days a week at the Career Center, commuting from Elk Grove.

"I'm here because I love doing it," he says.

Love pops up with surprising frequency in the counselors' discussion of jobs and careers. Klein, noting wryly that "people tend to mock English majors more than any other major," has a simple response. "I never regretted majoring in English, because I loved it," she says. "I really, really enjoyed the subject matter. And I just think that if you love something, you have to pursue it, regardless of the application. And I think that may have had something to do with my very circuitous career path."

There is a life lesson, however, in that path. "Whatever entry-level job you take when you graduate from college isn't necessarily going to determine the course of your career trajectory. Things are going to change, and you'll meet people and you'll get ideas about what you want to do," she explains, noting that she sometimes draws from personal experience when advising students. "Few have a more pitiful story than me," she says, laughing, "and I'm kind of glad that I learned right away what I didn't want to do."

Temp work was "stifling," she says. "But it did give me a lot of time to really think about what my values were, and what I did not want to do. Which is a great place to start, I think, for most people."

Most people, of course, are not Berkeley students, who, despite their extraordinary qualifications, also have to contend with what Klein calls the "pervasive low self-esteem" that can result from the fierce competition at an elite university, and with "paralyzing indecision" about what to do once they graduate. Family pressures often add to the stress of thinking about the future. "There's a terrible fear of making the wrong move."

And that's where Klein comes in. She and her Career Center colleagues work at getting students to take the long view - to look at career development as a dynamic process, and to see themselves as more than the sum of their academic course loads.

"Sometimes people come to the career counselor thinking that something needs to be set in stone that will be the path from which you never falter," explains Dunham. "And everyone who's happy in their field seems to have taken quite a circuitous route. I don't know whether students, developmentally, get that yet. They think that once they have their bachelor's degree they're supposed to know what they want to do for the rest of their life."

Oh, the stories they hear

For Klein, giving students the tools to carve out their own career paths - whether via office consultations or with the aid of her book - brings satisfactions she never envisaged as an English major at Davis. "What's rewarding is that I get to hear people's stories all day," she says. "It's been really mind-expanding. I've heard some horrible, horrible stories from students about experiences they've lived through that I can't even imagine. And I've heard some amazing, triumphant stories. And even just your everyday stories about careers - a career is such a personal issue, and it influences so many other aspects of your life.

"It's just really, really interesting to hear how people ended up where they are," she says, "and to hear about their dreams and where they want to go."

Dunham agrees. "I think it's one of the best careers out there," she says. "Career counseling is a great opportunity, especially in higher education. And these students that I saw - maybe it's because they're at Cal, maybe it's because they're poli-sci majors, or whatever - but they're in a major life transition, and they've done all this great work on campus, and then they come into the Career Center and say, 'Well, now I guess I have to get a real job.'

"And then," she continues, "they realize they could actually keep being social activists, for example. Sometimes I feel I'm just being witness to the kind of 'aha' moment a student has where they think, 'Wow, that sounds really interesting, do you think I could do that?' And maybe they can't do it right away, but then they go off and start networking and asking people, 'Well, how did you get there?' And they start moving forward.

"It's kind of fun," Dunham says. "I love it."