Finding My Niche
I can vividly remember debates with family and friends over my major: biology, chemistry, psychology, neuroscience—which one should it be? What will set me up for the most success? What will future grad school admissions officers want to see? Or hiring managers?
In the next few years, while applying to MBA programs, internships, and full-time jobs, not once did anyone ask about the specifics of my major.
But before I explain why I think that is, let me tell you a little more about myself. I grew up outside of Boston and struggled with health issues my whole life. I came to Hamilton wanting to give back to and also improve the medical community.
For all four years at Hamilton, I had every intention of going to medical school. I took all the required courses, majored in neuroscience, and minored in religious studies. Upon graduating, though, I wondered what this whole “business world” thing was—it felt very nebulous at the time, but I figured I’d give it a shot before committing to medical school. I ended up in healthcare consulting at The Advisory Board.
Two days into the job, I knew that working on the business side of healthcare was a better use of my skills and interests: presentation and writing communications, mentorship and team management, and strategic problem solving for large-scale systemic issues.
Now into my seventh year post-Hamilton, I’ve worked for two healthcare consulting firms, received my MBA with a healthcare concentration from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and currently work in patient services for Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
I distinctly remember as a neuroscience major going into consulting, being nervous that I didn’t know financial modeling or how to advise a business. I didn’t even know what “business” meant! I articulated this concern to somebody I interviewed with, and they replied, “hard skills, like industry knowledge and technical know-how, are all teachable. In fact, we prefer to teach you our way. Soft skills, however, like communication, organizational leadership, resilience in the face of failure, and being a coachable team player are expectations from day one—and they take years of practice and experience, in a range of professional and extracurricular environments, to develop. This is what we’re screening for.”
So, Lesson #1: Don’t let the fear of lacking industry knowledge or specific hard skills like financial modeling hold you back from applying to a job or pursuing a particular career path.
Lesson #2: Don’t assume being at a liberal arts school will automatically propel you to greatness in these critical soft skills. You need to seek out opportunities in your classes, summer projects, and extracurricular activities to refine them.
So what can you do at Hamilton to develop these skills?
Communication: Don’t just take a class in public speaking, find club activities that force you to put those skills to practice. I had the chance to introduce a guest speaker for an event in one of the large KJ auditoriums. I was so nervous! But it was great practice. Do the same with writing. Write an article for an on-campus or off-campus publication!
Organizational leadership: Seek opportunities in clubs or on sports teams to lead. Get experience in formal leadership, where your role gives you a specific duty and set of responsibilities to be accountable for. Also push yourself to volunteer and lead events or programming without formal authority—companies love people who can take something and run with it even if it’s not a formal part of their job description.
Resilience in the face of failure: If you reflect on your time at Hamilton and can’t name at least one large failure, you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough! I ran for Student Assembly V.P. and lost. It was embarrassing and disappointing, but it gave me one of the best lessons I never asked for. I no longer worried about “what if I don’t get it” because I came out the other side perfectly fine.
Coachable team player: This should speak for itself, but whether it’s a group project, club outing, or varsity sports team, learn to work with others. Receive and give positive and constructive feedback. Learn to learn from others, and demonstrate a willingness to always seek opportunities to improve.
So, maybe you’ve already done all this, or have a plan to fill in some gaps in your Hamilton experience. It isn’t enough to just have the skills, you’ve gotta sell yourself. At the end of the day, that’s what resumes, interviews, applications really are: selling your specific experiences and skills through storytelling.
Lesson #3: Leverage the art of storytelling to communicate how you’ve learned and refined these soft skills necessary for the role. On your resume, give bullets that portray your specific contribution to a situation or project and the resulting outcome.
Remember that soft skills can be demonstrated through any type of project you describe on resumes and in interviews. Take chemistry or biology research as an example. Leave the jargon off and focus on things like—did you find an innovative way to test a hypothesis? Did you garner consensus among a group that had differing opinions? Were you asked to teach anyone something?
Look at Hamilton as a laboratory for your own personal growth. I recall being so focused on memorizing specific chemical reactions, and worrying that my score on the exam or ability to learn those formulas was the key to long-term success. What I know now in hindsight, is that the resilience, determination, and grit I learned from the exams was the much more important lesson. Even if I didn’t always do too well on them. (Sorry, Mom.)