A number of years ago, I received a call from an anxious parent. He said he wanted urgent and specialized career advice for his son. It turned out that his son was only a freshman and had, in fact, just finished orientation at Brown University. The problem? The student had come to Brown proclaiming his desire to major in computer science and had been convinced by new friends in his first few days of college to major in philosophy.
His father’s lament rang loud and clear: “But there are no jobs as philosophers!” This concern was echoed recently by a group of guidance counselors from across the country who visited Duke University. I asked them to tell me the number one concern of parents. Unanimously, they asserted that parents wanted their children to use their educational experience to obtain a successful career.
As a parent, I understand this concern. After all, college often costs enough to require a second mortgage. As the director of a large career center, however, I know that parents often worry unnecessarily. That’s because I’ve seen plenty of philosophy majors who’ve managed to do everything from investment banking to law to starting their own business. Marshall Gregory, professor of English, liberal education and pedagogy at Butler University puts it this way. “In 35 years of teaching, I have never seen a student who really wanted a job fail to get one after graduation, regardless of his or her major…But I have seen many students fail to get an education because they were fixated on the fiction that one particular major or another held the magical key to financial success for the rest of their lives.” For guidance counselors, there’s a real balance between encouraging the educational aspirations of students and assuaging the fears of their parents.
Choosing a major is easiest for students for whom education is identified as a means to an end: employment. Some students identify their intended career at 18 and find a course of study that leads directly to that occupation. Obviously, if you intend to be an accountant, it’s a good idea to major in Accounting. If you want a career related to sports, Sports, Entertainment and Event Management could be a great major. Such certainty at 18, however, is rare. And if students are looking at higher education as an opportunity to grow and develop in a number of different directions, they may significantly limit their options by following a specific career-related path.
Top colleges may not even offer business or other pre-professional options. Still, students will often try to get as close as possible by choosing to study majors like economics that they perceive as more practical. College is too short, however, to pursue a major in which you have little interest. A recent survey of the class of ‘09 at Duke identified that 22 percent of freshmen intended to follow a pre-med curriculum. This expression of interest probably hadn’t changed much in four years, yet only seven percent of the class of ‘06 actually went immediately to med school. Were they unqualified? No. They either chose to wait a year or two before matriculating or they found other careers that turned out to be better suited to their interests and values. From a career perspective, there are few occasions when it is truly advantageous to select your major or course of study very early. Delaying the decision on majors may help students to enjoy college academics more, while opening up previously unknown vistas.
Many students come to college with preconceived notions about majors and their associated career possibilities. There are numerous myths that get in the way of good decision-making. The first is that major equals career. It doesn’t. The second is that it’s better to study something that’s practical, rather than a subject you love. It isn’t. The third is that you need to select your major early if you want a good job, and never change your mind. Not true.
For evidence that major doesn’t equal career, I encourage you to read the book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. One of the reasons I wrote this book with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald, was to demonstrate that you can do just about anything with any liberal arts or sciences degree. Smart Moves includes the entire career stories of 23 fairly recent graduates with liberal arts degrees who have gone on to do all manner of interesting things. All of them are off the family payroll. More importantly, they’re pursuing work they love and few of them are using the subject matter of their major. It turns out that your success after graduation depends much less on the subject matter that you study and much more on your demonstrated interests, aptitudes and experience. Plenty of other factors also come into play, such as personal characteristics, passion and persistence.
There’s also a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that it’s better to learn how to think in college than to study a craft. Time and again, I’ve been told by top people in the media that, for example, they would rather train a recent graduate with experience writing for the school newspaper and a liberal arts degree, than a person with a bachelor’s degree in journalism who was less well-rounded.
So that leads us to the final and most important question: How should students choose a major? Most colleges require major decisions to be made some time in the sophomore year, so it’s important to explore as much as possible in the first year to get a sense of the possibilities. Students should read course descriptions; talk to upper-class students and professors, discover the career realities of alumni, and discuss their thoughts and concerns with academic and career advisors. Only if students are willing to explore interests, options and implications, can they make sound decisions about their major.
Sheila Curran is the Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke University Career Center, where she has served as an academic advisor. She is the co-author of a book published in May, 2006, by Ten Speed Press, entitled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career (www.smartmovesbook.com). Sheila regularly talks to students, parents and alumni about making the most of a college education from a career perspective, and writes a column titled “Curran on Careers” for BusinessWeek.com.