Major Confusion

The path to success rarely depends on selecting the right major.

Nor is a job assured by studying a given discipline. Nonetheless, when discussion of majors arises ‘be practical’ and study something ‘relevant to the workplace’ are constant refrains. Yet, what is ‘practical’ and ‘relevant’ in the workplace?  The practical and relevant today might become dross in just a matter of years.

Apparently, one such practical and relevant major is business, which covers everything from accounting and marketing to real estate and entrepreneurship. Over a fifth of the bachelor degrees granted in recent years are in business, which is double that of the next most popular major, social studies/history. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the major, concerns have been voiced that business graduates, while capable of discounting cash flows, are lacking critical thinking and problem solving..

Consequently, many undergraduate business programs including Georgetown’s and George Washington’s are beginning to incorporate the lessons of history and philosophy into finance and accounting. Wharton’s undergraduate business students make sure half their classes are in the liberal arts.

So, what are the majors with the lowest unemployment rate?  According to Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce, the majors with the lowest unemployment rates include (starting at the lowest): nursing, elementary education, physical fitness, chemistry, and finance. On the flipside, the majors with the highest unemployment rate: Information Technology (almost 15% unemployment level), architecture, anthropology, film, and political science.

Information Technology (IT) is a case against jumping into a major solely because of its job placement potential. In the recent past many believed there would never be sufficient numbers of IT specialists. Now, however, a large portion of these highly trained specialists are out of work. All majors go through cycles, even in the world of high tech.

The importance of major selection pales even further when you consider The Chronicle of Higher Education Survey of Employers (2012). What most employers find most important are internships, then employment history, and then the major. In other words, most recruiters are more concerned with what a job candidate has done rather than what he or she has learned in the classroom.  

In any case, if one is still inclined to select a specialized major, keep in mind that the employers are telling the schools and job applicants that the skills most needed are good written and oral communication, adaptability, time management, decision making, and problem solving. These are considered ‘soft skills’ but they are also transferable skills, which means any good job will demand them. Delay committing to a specialized major for as long as possible. That gives you time to determine the market for whatever specialized skills that major teaches.

Delaying selecting a major until a student has had time to survey the field and gained experience across a range of disciplines is invaluable. The more time students have to experiment, the better these students will know their preferences and capabilities. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that British students, who must declare majors as entering freshmen, were 20% more likely than their peers in Scotland, who have till the end of their second year to declare a major, to end up in careers quite different from their major. It’s even more preposterous to believe high school juniors and seniors will properly select a promising major. This is evidenced by 80% of the ACT test takers who graduated in 2013 and claimed they knew what major was best suited for them. The ACT, which contains the Holland Interest Survey, noted that a little more than a third of these students actually chose a major that remotely matched their interests.

Knowing yourself and acting accordingly is not easy in life, or in the selection of majors. Realize that the world is more about you than what you major in.