• August 30, 2015

Stop Asking Me My Major

One of my best friends from high school, Andrew, changed majors during his first semester at college. He and I had been fascinated by politics for years, sharing every news story we could find and participating in the Internet activism that was exploding into a new political force. Even though he was still passionate about politics, that was no longer enough. "I have to get practical," he messaged me one day, "think about getting a job after graduation. I mean, it's like my mom keeps asking me: What can you do with a degree in political science anyway?"

I heard the same question from my friend Jesse when students across campus were agonizing about which major was right for them. He wasn't quite sure what he wanted to study, but every time a field sparked his interest, his father would pepper him with questions about what jobs were available for people in that discipline. Before long, Jesse's dad had convinced him that the only way he could get a job and be successful after college was to major in pre-med.

My friends' experiences were not atypical.

Choosing a major is one of the most difficult things students face in college. There are two main factors that most students consider when making this decision. First is their desire to study what interests them. Second is the fear that a particular major will render them penniless after graduation and result in that dreaded postcollege possibility: moving back in with their parents.

All too often, the concern about a major's practical prospects are pushed upon students by well-intentioned parents. If our goal is to cultivate students who are happy and successful, both in college as well as in the job market, I have this piece of advice for parents: Stop asking, "What can you do with a degree in (fill in the blank)?" You're doing your children no favors by asking them to focus on the job prospects of different academic disciplines, rather than studying what interests them.

It is my experience, both through picking a major myself and witnessing many others endure the process, that there are three reasons why parents (and everyone else) should be encouraging students to focus on what they enjoy studying most, rather than questioning what jobs are supposedly available for different academic concentrations.

The first is psychological. For his first two years of college, Jesse followed his dad's wishes and remained a pre-med student. The only problem was that he hated it. With no passion for the subject, his grades slipped, hindering his chances of getting into medical school. As a result his employability, the supposed reason he was studying medicine in the first place, suffered.

The second reason to stop asking students what they can do with a major is that it perpetuates the false notion that certain majors don't prepare students for the workplace. The belief that technical majors such as computer science are more likely to lead to a job than a major such as sociology or English is certainly understandable. It's also questionable. "The problem," as my friend José explained to me, "is that even as a computer-science major, what I learned in the classroom was outdated by the time I hit the job market." He thought instead that the main benefit of his education, rather than learning specific skills, was gaining a better way of thinking about the challenges he faced. "What's more," he told me, "no amount of education could match the specific on-the-job training I've received working different positions."

Finally, it is counterproductive to demand that students justify their choice of study with potential job prospects because that ignores the lesson we were all taught in kindergarten (and shouldn't ignore the closer we get to employment): You can grow up to be whatever you want to be. The jobs people work at often fall within the realm of their studies, but they don't have to. One need look no further than some of the most prominent figures in our society to see illustrations. The TV chef Julia Child studied English in college. Author Michael Lewis, whose best sellers focus on sports and the financial industry, majored in art history. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, got his degree in philosophy, as did the former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina. Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, focused on mathematics. Indeed, with the Department of Labor estimating that on average people switch careers (not just jobs) two or three times in their lives, relying on a college major as career preparation is misguided.

I'm not saying any applicant can get any job. Job seekers still need marketable skills if they hope to be hired. However, in a rapidly changing economy, which majors lead to what jobs is not so clear cut. Many employers look for applicants from a diverse background—including my friend who has a degree in biochemistry but was just hired at an investment consulting firm.

That doesn't mean that majors no longer matter. It is still an important decision, and students are right to seek outside counsel when figuring out what they want to study. But questioning how a particular major will affect their employability is not necessarily the best approach. Although parents' intentions may be pure—after all, who doesn't want to see their children succeed after graduation?—that question can hold tremendous power over impressionable freshmen. Far too many of my classmates let it steer them away from what they enjoyed studying to a major they believed would help them get a job after graduation.

One of those friends was Andrew. He opted against pursuing a degree in political science, choosing instead to study finance because "that's where the jobs are." Following graduation, Andrew landed at a consulting firm. I recently learned with little surprise that he hates his job and has no passion for the work.

Jesse, on the other hand, realized that if he stayed on the pre-med track, he would burn out before ever getting his degree. During his junior year he changed tracks and began to study engineering. Not only did Jesse's grades improve markedly, but his enthusiasm for the subject recently earned him a lucrative job offer and admission to a top engineering master's program.

Andrew and Jesse both got jobs. But who do you think feels more successful?

Scott Keyes is a 2009 graduate of Stanford University, where he majored in political science.


1. dmaratto - January 11, 2010 at 04:43 pm

As an academic adviser, I think this essay should be required reading for all students (and many of us who work in higher education).

Liberal arts majors tend to be successful and well prepared for the work force, because they possess critical thinking, communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, which basically every employer wants. See http://www.las.illinois.edu/students/career/business/

I have advised many students who emphatically declared as freshmen, "I want to be a doctor," or lawyer, or banker, but when you question them further, you find out the enthusiastic future M.D. dislikes biology and chemistry, the would-be attorney detests public speaking and memorization, and the prospective financier got D's in high school math. "Why the heck do you want to study that?" Because their dad is a doctor; because their brother is in law school; because (this was so common until a couple of years ago) "the money is in" banking/finance/fund management. For some students, that influence is real hard to shake off. It's our job as advisers and higher ed. professionals to get down to what the students really are interested in and take it from there.

My own little addition to the story: I was an anthropology major in college, and was constantly pestered with questions from friends, family, and my own advisers (all but one of whom sucked, in hindsight) about what I was "going to do with THAT." As it turns, out ... college academic advising :)

Students: please consider all majors when you are freshmen and don't go in with a narrow mind-set. College is YOUR time to figure out what you want to do with your life. And please, use us, the advisers, we want to help you (really!) If you have bad advisers, like I did, ditch them and find a good one!

Parents: advise, don't push! Let your kids figure some stuff out for themselves. Trust me, it will save you grief and money later on.

2. markjohnson - January 11, 2010 at 06:36 pm

Great article. Wholeheartedly agree.

3. coachhillary - January 13, 2010 at 08:55 am

As an academic transition coach, I second the sentiments of dmaratto. The best thing students get from college is the ability to think critically and discover solutions to new problems. The workplace, like society, is constantly evolving, and where the money is now is not necessarily where it will be tomorrow. And as both the examples in this essay can tell you, just getting a job is not necessarily the best answer: the best answer is getting a job you love, and can grow with into the future. Most college graduates today will have 6-7 different jobs before they retire (if they retire!) so studying what you love actually makes loads of sense.

4. lowenstm - January 13, 2010 at 09:52 am

There are things that colleges can do to help. Bring more intentionality into instructions so that students following their bliss in liberal arts majors are more aware of the skills they are developing and can talk about them articulately and with concrete specifics.

And have an institution-wide approach so that all the relevant offices are on board. It's not good enough for academic advisors to be telling students these things if (e.g.) the career planning office is telling them something else. Or if admissions counselors always start their interactions with students by asking routine questions about prospective majors that presuppose the one-to-one correspondence of majors and careers. I don't mean to stereotype and imply that these groups typically do these things, the point is just that the insitutiion's approach must be across the board.

5. mbelvadi - January 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Setting aside for a moment the idea that if you study something you hate, you'll get bad grades/flunk out and thus not achieve the higher income expected of a college education, all this warm-fuzzy talk about how liberal arts majors teach valuable "critical thinking" skills which employers "want" seems to ignore the hard data. The studies I've seen seem to show pretty unambiguously that certain majors, most notably in the heavy math and science areas, result in higher incomes than liberal arts majors. If there are studies that conclude otherwise (note to author re: HP and GE chiefs, the plural of anecdote is not data), I would love to hear about them. I was amused that the end of the "Jesse" story was him switching to a different "top of the list in $$$" field, engineering. That's hardly supportive of the "major in whatever you like" argument. Would his personal story have come out as well if he had switched to art history or medieval lit?

6. unusedusername - January 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm

This is really bad advise. It is also the reason why so many college majors today are answering phones and waiting tables. College costs a lot of time and a lot of money. When you walk out, you really ought to walk out knowing how to do something.

7. dmaratto - January 13, 2010 at 02:10 pm

#5 and #6, I would refer you to the University of Illinois "business vs. liberal arts" website from my post: http://www.las.illinois.edu/students/career/business/ Granted, this is the liberal arts college trying to sell themselves, but the data is still valid. I would also refer you to this document from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2007/winter/art01.pdf

mbelvadi, I think you are right that graduates of programs in engineering and "hard" sciences tend to make more money than liberal arts majors, but that's sort of comparing apples to oranges. For one thing, engineering, chemistry, et. al. are specific fields: people get degrees in them to become engineers, and chemists, and that's what they do (or usually something closely related). Liberal arts, however, is an umbrella of many different subject areas and fields, and people who earn LA degrees go on to any number of jobs and careers, often including high-paying specialty fields like medicine, law, business, etc.

I actually know someone with whom I went to school who majored in art history, and now is a manager at a major Midwestern construction company, where she has worked for about 5 years. The fact that she got her degree in that area, and then found and succeeded in a career completely unrelated to Michaelangelo and Van Gogh, actually supports the idea that liberal arts majors are positioned to succeed in "the real world," as does the data I referenced above. She almost certainly doesn't make as much money as someone with a degree in aerospace engineering or biochemistry, but she's successful and satisfied nonetheless.

Pushing students into this or that field because "that's where the money is" (i.e. highest potential salaries) is, I think, a bad way to advise. It actually limits them, and I think sets them up for failure, because then you're basically telling them, "You'll only survive and succeed if you go into these 5 careers, otherwise you'll be a failure!" It also ignores their unique ambitions, desires, strengths and limitations. I could study for 12 years and never become an engineer, not because I'm not smart or talented, but because I am not good enough at advanced mathematics. Not every student can succeed or be happy in the top 10 fields that make the most money, and they'll drive themselves crazy if they spend all that time, money and effort to earn a degree in something they don't even like. I think the best solution is to present accurate statistics and information about every major and field, make suggestions based on the student's questions, and let them evaluate for themselves what they ultimately want to do.

8. phayashida - January 13, 2010 at 03:55 pm

This is a smart piece of writing. When I started my career in student affairs, I was simply sharing the process I had gone through - much like the author. I ended up in a very satisfying corner of higher ed - not student affairs - because I applied the principles the author describes above. I didn't have any experience to suggest that it was true or proven, but it made common sense to me. That's what our institutions seem to lack more often than anything else these days. The notion that someone should fork out the kind of money that a college degree costs and hate it - including the career that will inevitably follow - defies logic.

I have yet to meet someone who followed their passion and regretted it. If some want to wait for ironclad data before pursuing their dreams, more power to them. As for me, I'm trying to figure out where in my organization I could hire someone with Mr. Keyes' passion.

9. greenhills73 - January 13, 2010 at 05:36 pm

"It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating."
Oscar Wilde, The Model Millionaire, 1912 Not that you shouldn't pursue your passion, but if it doesn't pay the bills, why not make it a hobby? I am the parent of a 25-year-old living at home because she tried to follow her passion and found out that she can't earn a living at it. She got tired of not having any money and is back in school. She can't figure out what she wants to study, and my advice to her is, at this point PICK SOMETHING that will help provide a marketable skill or knowledge. After you've put in a day's work and can pay the bills, then you can do what's fun. Idealism can only carry you so far.

10. dmaratto - January 13, 2010 at 07:13 pm

greenhills, Oscar might have agreed with you in principle, but in real life he always followed his passions, of one kind or another (maybe a little too far, as it turned out) and he wouldn't have been such a great writer if he had not.

The idea behind studying a major you truly like in college is not to become a dilettante, or someone who sits around philosophizing all day and not working (a hardcore philosopher might ask "why work?"), or a Japanese literature major who makes coffee for a living. The point is to develop your intellectual abilities by stimulating your mind to learn new things, acquire new skills, learn how to communicate, be critical, and collaborate, seek out information, acquire it, and relate it to various topics, and think in ways you may never have thought before. Those are attributes any employer values, and that are applicable to any job.

My philosophy as an academic adviser:

1. If you major in a subject you really don't like or find interesting, you will be miserable in college, miserable at your job, and will probably wind up getting another degree or another job that you don't dislike so much, all of which costs you dearly: time, money, effort, and mental stress. Even though some people can "suck it up" and get through four or five years of school successfully in a program they don't like, I don't know of anyone who could slog through 25-30 years of a CAREER they really didn't like.

2. The majors "where the money is at" (i.e., the highest salaries) are either:

- highly specialized (certain subfields of engineering, chemistry & biology, certain subfields of business/management, etc.), and/or

- require advanced study and professional/graduate degrees (medicine, law, pharmacy, veterinary, finance, etc.), and/or

- variable and dependent on a multitude of external factors (where you live, the economic conditions and jobs available at the time you graduate, the amount of other job seekers in that field at the time, etc.)

... so blindly urging a student to follow a certain academic program based on "that's where the money is," regardless of any other factors, is silly and wrong.

3. "Marketable skills and knowledge" are EXACTLY what liberal arts majors possess. Communications, teamwork, critical thinking -- these are the things employers want, because they mean someone is mentally mature and capable enough to be able to deal with the various people, situations, and demands of a career in most any field. The other "on the job" skills you learn, well, on the job, through experience, and that cannot (nor should it) be taught in a college classroom.

I see no reason, therefore, to counsel students to pick a major other than that which interests them, which is plausible considering their academic abilities, and which gives them the attributes relevant to productive citizens of a 21st century democracy.

greenhills, why not encourage your daughter to think more broadly about her job search? It's so common for recent graduates (and their parents) to panic and slip into "Ahh, I can't do s@#t! I have no job, no prospects, and student loans! Jesus help me!" I know because I went through that, and because I've had lots of students who experienced that panic and frustration, too.

The thing to remember is that, even in a terrible economy, and even for people with degrees that might not have an obvious practical application, there are jobs to be had out there. If nothing else, why doesn't your daughter take the test to work for the Bureau of the Census, or something? Getting that first job is such an important mental hurdle to conquer, and it will help her develop useful skills, knowledge, and professional relationships, instead of automatically going back to school out of fear, or sitting around thinking she's got no options in life.

11. 11227291 - January 14, 2010 at 08:06 am

A delusional bubble I would wish to burst is that 'We can be anything (in a career sense) that we want to be.' This is not only false, but borders on delusional. After 40 years of career counseling I've come to the belief that what we come to most want to be is that which we can do well as long as it's intellectually or otherwise challenging enough to do. But please, don't tell students that they can be/become anything they want to be. It just is not so in most cases.

12. pathdoc - January 14, 2010 at 08:59 am

I am medical school faculty member and serve on the admission committee. If a student is thinking of med school, I would NOT encourage them to major in biology or chemistry unless they really have a passion for those subjects. Major in what you like and take the required prerequisites (biology, gen chem, organic, physics, etc). However, if you have a lot of trouble with those classes or can't stand the material, then rethink med school. Since most applicants are biology majors, majoring in something like Classics, French, Anthropology, etc makes you stand out a little during the interviews (but for goodness sakes, don't major in Art History because you think that the med school interviewers will think it is cool). One of my best students last semester was a Classics major (her major did help with the Latin and Greek roots of medical words).
I selected many of the biology classes that I did because I thought they would help me in med school. They did a little, but I regret not taking classes that I would never have a chance to take again (field botany, ecology, evolution).

13. pseudotriton - January 14, 2010 at 10:24 am

mbelvadi (#5) nailed it with his/her comment. It's no coincidence that Jesse got a happy ending and I highly doubt that he could have landed that lucrative job had his passion been in, say, 19th century Native American culture. And sounds like dmaratto is just getting a little defensive about liberal arts. I think the bottom line is that we should try to strike a balance between pursuing our interests and ensuring employability when it comes to career choice. Either extreme can potentially burn out a person both as a student and as a job seeker.

14. 12039333 - January 14, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Students should keep an eye not only on what they want to study, but on what fields they might want to work in, and pursue extracurricular activities and summer employment that will help them explore those careers. I was in school with a woman who is now a CNN correspondent; she majored in English and spent much of her free time working at the campus radio station. Art history majors might minor in business and move into management of non-profit or cultural organizations. Working on the yearbook or school newspaper or literary magazine might give a student a taste of publishing. Volunteer opportunities abound, and could introduce students to careers they didn't know existed. In short, there are many more ways to prepare for a career than just sitting in a classroom.

I tell my students that if all they want is job training, they can get it faster and cheaper in the tech school across town. (I also tell them there are plumbers out there who make more than I do.)But if they want an education, we can give them four years to expand their intellects, sharpen their wits, and build critical skills that will serve them well in many situations for years to come.

15. dmaratto - January 14, 2010 at 04:43 pm

#14 said it better than I could, and in fewer words :)

#13 you are correct, I am indeed defensive of liberal arts, because it needs defending. At a time when many people, even in higher ed., seem to think college should only be for "useful" subjects, and liberal arts is a waste of time, we need to stick up for the value of liberal arts education. Students and graduates who have broad interests and knowledge of many subjects, intellectual curiousity, and the ability to think about, analyze, access information, and yes, imagine things outside their own realm of experience, are essential, not just for the career world, but for our democracy to survive. I think one of the most important roles of the American university is to prepare students to be active citizens of a democracy, a role that often appears to be shoved to the back burner in favor of job placement, research, and the other aspects of academia. It's crucial for participants in our republican system of government to be able to think, criticize, and ask questions!

16. yoyono - January 15, 2010 at 07:32 pm

I don't normally comment on things but I felt compelled having read this article.

As an International Studies major, I agree with some things, disagree with others. Many people out there are either too quick to criticize or too quick to defend liberal arts. I think Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind hit the nail on the head in defending the philosophy, the classics, English, History etc. as legitimate, personally enriching, and challenging subjects... However, the social sciences (my major included) deserve to be put under the microscope. In political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, communication, etc., I have often found that relatively simple ideas that we all should know intuitively are reworded in pseudo-science jargon that reeks of academic b.s. Why is it that all of these majors are notorious for grade inflation and easiness? Why so many "isms"? Where does this author fit into the realist or core-periphery political dialogue!?! Yes, religion is important to people. Yes, people have identities and yes these are 'dynamic'... but do we really need teachers and classes for this stuff?

17. mbelvadi - January 16, 2010 at 06:41 pm

#16, I find it incredible that someone would criticize the social sciences, in comparison with the liberal arts, for its academic b.s. Have you tried reading anything written by the post-modernists? So far as I know, the only two well-known peer-reviewed hoax articles that got actually published have been in the liberal arts and physical sciences, none in the social sciences. Most of us probably have only one BA/BS degree and can't easily compare many different fields with such sweeping judgment. But my undergrad study in social psychology was absolutely life-changing - I would strongly argue that a single survey course in social psych would be a far more valuable requirement for all students to take than anything in literature. A good social psych course brings into play large swaths of what philosophy argues about (e.g. free will, the roles of individuals in their social context, etc.) and probably a whole lot of the issues that literature, with its apparent "fictional anecdote is meaningful data about human psychology" viewpoint, seeks to raise.

18. anon1972 - January 18, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Mbelvadi (#17), don't knock it because you don't understand it. Your characterization of what it is that literature, and literary scholarship, do is way off the mark. As for the social sciences, paradigms shift (and contradict themselves) at least as often there as they do in the humanities, and produce similar levels of fashionable jargon (which all too soon becomes unfashionable). Nor are they infallible -- let's not forget that most economists failed to predict the current economic disaster, and most political scientists failed to predict the end of the Soviet Union. To name but two embarrassing failures.

19. soulncountry - January 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Although I agree with the author, students pursuing studies in the U.S. as F1 or J1 visa holders cannot take such a liberal view when it comes to majors. Unfortunately, current employment rules for for F1 students in particular limit their work to experiences that are "directly related to their field of study". This has been interpreted by laypersons to be the student's major.

International students following a liberal arts curriculum would need to proceed with caution when going out into the workforce.

Hopefully, the reality of today's skills-based employment will make it into the employment rules for international students one day.

20. 12105049 - January 21, 2010 at 03:21 pm

Excellent article, something that I wish could be shared with more parents.
As a career advisor, I teach students in my career exploration class that there are different types of majors: (1)those that provide knowledge and skills that prepare one to enter a number of different jobs and (2)those that provide knowledge, skills, and training for entrance into a specific career field.
It's no surprise that parents and students gravitate toward the security of option 2, but if the student doesn't have the interest or ability to pursue those (often higher-paying) fields, then it is a waste of the student's and parents' time and money.
Far better to find a subject or two to study that will pique and develop the student's intellectual ability, while they also seek skills and experiences outside the classroom to make them attractive candidates for jobs after graduation. When this concept hits home to students, they are visibly relieved, and they feel more free to customize and enjoy their college years.

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