When Does Major Matter?
On liberal arts campus, advisors of all sorts exhort students to “follow their passions.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say. Except that there might be.
As I wrote recently, “companies and organizations are looking for a set of diverse competencies that no one academic major provides,” so it will be your child’s job to translate what they learn on and off campus during their college years to the resume. Any good college should have excellent (though usually woefully overworked and underpaid) career services professionals to assist with that. (Parental/guardian help will likely be essential as well.)
What we are talking about here is what colleges sometimes refer to as “Major Choice Initiatives” or simply “Majors to Careers.” Because so many students flock to majors they are familiar with from high school or the ones they believe will land them the best job opportunities, typically English, economics, political science, and psychology, college faculty and administrators are obsessed with designing campaigns that will encourage students to think broadly about their choices. To do this, they highlight examples of alumni who have majored in German, philosophy, or anthropology and gone on to great success in finance or have become wildly famous in a realm of life far from their studies.
The most impressive majors to careers infographic I have ever seen is on Wellesley’s web site. It is an interactive visualization of alumni majors and their eventual careers. What I love about this is that it systematizes the anecdotal. It represents data on real people. This illustrates most pointedly that just about any major can lead to just about any career. Armed with this idea that majors and careers are not aligned as neatly as we might assume, and the research by NACE I cited earlier, you should feel free to encourage your child to explore courses and fields widely. We fetishize the major in spite of it making little or no difference in our eventual career opportunities in the majority of cases. What students really need to focus on is how the knowledge they gain and the skills they hone translate into the world of work.
However, there are times when it does matter. Ask any scientist or mathematician, and they will likely suggest starting with the basics as early as possible. As a college advisor, I never worried much though about the true mathematicians and physicists among the undergraduates. They found their way another easily enough through admission processes and personal contact. Faculty usually take great pleasure in mentoring undergraduates who have a serious interest in their field. After all, they are so much more interesting than the students they typically encounter in the “service courses” (the ones students take merely to fulfill degree requirements). If your child wants to pursue a “hard science” or math, all you have to do is make sure she or he finds the department and sits down with a professor or two or three to talk about their interests. Chances are once they have made themselves known, faculty will talk about them and work to make sure they are well mentored.
The other obvious case for early planning is engineering. The challenge here is also the choice of major because students frequently choose their main area of study based on misconceptions about the field and the job market. There are several tools that help students refine their decision-making process. They can and should:
- Read the course catalog to see how each engineering department defines the field. This may seem obvious, but it’s a step most students skip.
- Go over all of the course descriptions carefully, paying attention to which ones are required vs. optional. It’s important for your child to pay attention to their level of excitement about what they are reading there.
- Go to departmental info sessions to talk to faculty and current students about their academic work, research, internships, and challenges.
- Sit down with a faculty and/or professional advisor to learn as much as they can. Many engineering faculty mount entrepreneurial ventures outside of the university and do high-level consulting for industry, so they are especially fantastic resources for information about the world of engineering work outside of the academy.
- Find the student organizations of engineering students. Check out their events and attend a meeting or two to get a sense of their work. Many schools have chapters of national societies focused on the various fields as well as others that bring together aspiring female, Hispanic, black, and Asian engineers (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, and National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers). These are terrific venues for students to learn, find support, and network. Support is particularly important because engineering is a challenging academic road. It has to be. They are being trained to solve some of the world’s toughest problems!
There’s one final caveat to the major choice question, but I’ll save that one for another day.
 The Future of Work and What it Means for Higher Education, Part One: The changing workplace and the dual threats of automation and a gig economy, page 7.