Published June 06, 2012
As children it seemed like we all knew what we wanted to do when we grew up—teacher, fireman, astronaut, doctor. But by the time we hit college and have to pick a major, our career paths don’t seem as clear and simple anymore.
According to the The College Board, most college students change majors at least once--sometimes several times-- in their college careers.
“I think college students on one hand wait too late to make the decision and on the other hand, really put too much importance on what they’re going to major in,” says Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of McGraw Hill’s College and Career Readiness Center. “They seem to be looking for the perfect major because they mistakenly think what you major in during college is going to determine the rest of your life—it just turns out not to be the case.”
While students’ majors don’t completely define their job prospects after graduation, they should consider all their options before making a decision.
Type of School
Students that have a strong predilection for a specific industry or occupation, should look apply to schools specializing and well-regarded in that field, recommends Jeremy Hyman, co-author of The Secrets of College Success.
“That helps in the job market if the school is known to be distinguishable in that area—it really does give you an edge,” he says.
Interest vs. Hire-Ability
The experts agree that students should take courses and seek out a major that they have a real interest in as they are more likely to excel in a field that they are excited about.
“When students are invested in a subject academically, they are also likely to pursue opportunities outside of the classroom such as internships, research, and volunteer opportunities, where they can cultivate relationships with contacts in the industry that may even lead to a future job offer,” says Katherine Cohen CEO and founder of Ivy Wise and ApplyWise.com.
Although students should explore their academic interests, Livingston stresses the importance for students to be able to support themselves post-graduation, especially considering student loan repayment and a projected salary in that field.
“They have to both be passionate about what they’re studying, and take ownership and responsibility for how that passion is going to translate into the kind of lifestyle they want to lead,” he says.
Liberal Arts vs. More Specialized Degrees
A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that unemployment is generally higher among those with degrees in non-technical fields. Architecture majors face an unemployment rate of 13.9%, those with an arts degree face 11.1% unemployment and liberal arts majors have a 9.4% jobless rate.
Cohen explains that students who major in liberal arts or humanities may need to do additional research to find the roles and organizations that will be the best fit for their talents, interests, and goals.
“Students who major in more defined fields such as business and accounting have a clearer career trajectory, and therefore it may be easier for them to secure post-college employment,” she says. “Ultimately, students should focus on showing a potential employer how the skills they learned in college will translate to the professional realm.”
Hyman points out that one advantage liberal arts degree holders have over their more technical peers is the exposure to learning soft skills: good verbal communication, public speaking, writing, understanding text and analysis, which are valuable skills in many industries.
Making a Major Decision
Experts suggest that students use freshman year to get the required core classes and prerequisite courses out of the way to allow them to take a variety of subjects.
“Even if the school does not have a core curriculum, students should use this time to explore electives, talk to professors, academic, and career advisers, and adjust to college life,” says Cohen.
Hyman explains that taking a few upper division or advanced courses can help students see what a major is really like in addition to talking to upperclassman who are in a particular major that interests the student.
While there are schools who require certain majors to add an additional minor or major, Hyman suggests that students consider the costs of additional requirements before doubling or tripling up in majors or minors.
“Some students have a lot of minors, but each time you pick a minor, you’re buying into five required courses,” he says. “Even if there are a few courses in a particular field that might interest you, just take them as a couple of courses.”
College is an investment of time, money, and energy and while students should think long and hard about what is academically appealing, it is just as important to plan it out and consider the future in that particular field, says Livingston.
“Making sure that you have a plan to complete your diploma in a reasonable amount of time and then have a sustainable way to [make a living] when you are done is kind of an adult decision that a college student would do well to make early as opposed to late.”