Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Gambling on the "Right" College Major

Welcome to Las Vegas: the higher education edition.

I heard an apocryphal story when I worked at The University of Texas at Austin. The story goes that during orientation all the first-year students were gathered in the football stadium grouped by school, with the business school students seated next to the college of liberal arts students. A chant from the business students started up: “No jobs. No jobs. No jobs.” The liberal arts students were quiet at first, muttered to each other, and came back with the chant: “Not afraid of our parents.”

People choose majors for all sorts of reasons, and some reasons are better than others. But let's start here: there is no one "right" major.

I just read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire.” As you might suspect from the title, the author, Dr. Peter Cappelli, expresses concerns that in an effort to make sure their education dollars are well-spent, consumers (parents and/or students) are focusing too early on majors and job-related curriculums. There is an advantage, he states, to waiting before selecting a major or career choice. It's an excellent article and worth reading.

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It is also interesting to read the readers' comments and opinions. Generally, responses to these types of articles fall into common advice-giving: students should focus on STEM (science, technology, and math) studies, and avoid the humanities or liberal arts; high schools should have better vocational education programs; not all students should go to college; or employers should offer better on-the-job and management training. All good suggestions if applied at the right time to the right person.

But discussions about college majors all seem to be about laying odds:

If I major in ____ what are the odds that I will have a job?  And not just a job, but a professional position that pays well.

Good luck setting that betting line.

I suppose doctors have to deal with this all the time: patients who want to know what the “odds” are about their condition. Doctors know that data can become irrelevant when the patient doesn't fit the study criteria. But, at least in the case of medical science, the data are often stronger and better researched. Medical journals are refereed, and their findings are scrutinized and vetted. Not so with outcomes data from college career services. Data collection at the college level is subject to the institution’s commitment to the research, budget, etc. Doctors are generally playing in a much better statistical field than college career counselors. (Here's a blog post about relying on statistics in career services.)

Some trends can be identified, of course. It’s commonly accepted that certain majors lead directly to specific careers and therefore constitute a “good bet.” Engineering, nursing, accounting, and finance majors are expected to do well in the job market. But even those general trends tend to fall apart when working with the individual student.

What happens when there’s a downturn in the industry, a student’s grades aren’t high enough to be desirable to employers, the student lacks communication skills and doesn’t interview well, doesn’t have enough or the right kind of experience, doesn't like the career field, or _____ ? And don’t forget that part of the reason jobs are more plentiful in certain fields is that fewer people are applying: once the applicants outnumber the opportunities those sure bets aren't so sure.

The major isn’t the only deciding factor in a successful job search: there are way too many other variables as noted above: interviewing skills, motivation, grades, experience, emotional intelligence, social skills, etc. Bottom line: employers hire a package of skills, not a specific major.

So let’s get away from this concept of the “major” and its so-called centrality in the job search. Let’s focus on the connections instead: the connections between the major and other courses the students take, the students’ experiences, their engagement in the job search process, their emotional intelligence, their specific spectrum of skills, etc.  Let's increase our odds by examining:

1. Why is the student in college?

  • What do they want to learn?
  • What do they need to learn?
  • Is college the right place to learn what they want/need to know?
  • Would another type of school or training be more appropriate (and less expensive)?
  • And, if so, is the student willing to drop the college route and choose a more appropriate one?

2. Why have they selected their particular major?

  • What do they enjoy about it?
  • Does studying their major energize them or motivate them to learn more?
  • What problems do they want to solve?
  • What skills do they want to develop?
  • Have they learned to articulate their majors' value meaningfully to a potential employer? 

(By the way, people often assume that only liberal arts majors have to "explain" their major to an employer.  But students who take a specialized major and then seek a job in another field face the same challenges.  So everyone needs to be able to articulate the value of what they have learned.)

3. What other courses are they taking?

  • How do these courses relate to their major or to a possible career?
  • How do the other courses advance their knowledge or thinking?

Future lawyers might consider a drama class or two; future dentists, a fine arts course; business majors, a creative writing class.

4. What are they doing outside of the classroom?

This is not about building up a resume with lots of activity. Are they being selective in taking on internships, part-time jobs, leadership roles in organizations, volunteering, or other meaningful ways to bolster their knowledge and experience?

5. How strong are their job-seeking skills?

There’s an axiom in career services that the job doesn’t always go to the most-qualified person-- it goes to the best job-seeker.

  • How much thought have they given to their career plans?
  • Do they have clear career goals?
  • Are they networking intelligently? Are they taking advantage of their school’s network to conduct information interviews with alumni?
  • Are they attending career-related programs that might give them new information or skills?
  • Are they practicing their interviewing skills?
  • Have they crafted a strong targeted resume and a good social media platform?

6. What are they doing to develop their emotional intelligence, social skills, and/or the Big Five personality traits?

A large percentage of one’s success is related to these so-called “people skills” or “soft skills,” and developing or enhancing these desirable traits can go a long way to increase the odds of success in the workplace.

And finally, after all this, will any of this activity guarantee a job?  No.

Because, in the job world, there are no guarantees.  It’s complex, and outside factors (like a poor economy) can intervene. But by focusing on all of these issues rather than just the major, a student has a much better chance of succeeding in the job market. I would take those odds.

©2013 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo Credit: Curtis Gregory Perry- Flickr Creative Commons

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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