How Important is Picking Your College Major?

In a day when comparatively few people work in the same area as their undergraduate studies, the question becomes—how important is picking your college major, anyway?

Some, like Jeff Selingo with the Chronicle of Higher Education, say, not so much. Others, like Tony Carnevale with Georgetown University, say it is very important. We actually think both positions are worth considering because they describe two sides of a coin that all young people should know.

Here is a quote from Jeff Selingo (full article here):

So does the college major matter? I posed that question recently to my roommate at Ithaca College, who like me, majored in journalism. He had known since middle school what he wanted to do—become a television journalist. Now almost 20 years after we both graduated, David Muir is an anchor and correspondent for ABC World News.

He works with plenty of people who do not have journalism degrees. The commonality among them, he says, is that “we all majored in what we were interested in. The curiosity and the willingness to adapt are more important than what the degree is in.”

These are many of the same qualities that employers say, in survey after survey, they want in future workers. Hiring managers complain that they often find today’s college graduates lacking in interpersonal skills, problem solving, effective written and oral communication skills, the ability to work in teams, and critical and analytical thinking. Employers say that future workplaces need degree holders who can come up with novel solutions to problems and better sort through information to filter out the most critical pieces.

This is very reasonable. Hard work, dedication, and developing good work skills can and will trump a college major. And though specific training is sometimes necessary, more and more employers are looking primarily for self-motivated, problem-solving team players with good communication skills.

Now, on the flip side, someone like Tony Carnevale is going to point out the doom that could await students with a degree that prepared them for a profession in decline. An article in Ed Week supports this notion:

High school seniors headed to college wanting to get the most of the degree should spend some time researching what they want to study, according to a new report about the economic value of majors.

Researchers from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analyzed wages for 137 college majors, as well as those who went on to earn advanced degrees, and found the oft-cited average earning boost of $1 million is misleading, as graduates in some fields can earn as much as $3.4 million more over a lifetime than those in low-paying fields.

The report released May 7 shows not all degrees are created equal.

Look at journalists. The career field is tanking. Since 2001, the number of journalists has dropped by more than 33%. In 15 years we went from over 70,000 to just 47,000 jobs across the country. Not a good trend! So what are the odds of doing something journalistic with all that training? Aren’t you more likely to let these skills (and money!) go to waste? Wouldn’t it have been better to get a degree for a career that is actually growing? Yes. Quite possibly. In this case (where the training is very specific to the job you want) we can see that choosing the right degree could really impact your career.

Now, obviously, there are still jobs in journalism. If you’re talented and willing to sweat for your dream job, then go for it! The world needs journalists like you. Just be aware that building a solid career could be tough. You want to make sure you’re up for that.

Another point to keep in mind as you pick your major: Figure out the competition. If you know that national demand for journalists is declining and you also know that the US is producing more graduates with journalism degrees than there are available jobs, then logic says you’ll be battling for those positions. In 2013, there were almost 41,000 journalism graduates for less than 1,800 openings. Not a good ratio! It means that beating out the competition for those few remaining jobs could take a lot of hard work. We aren’t saying you should shy away; we’re simply saying every fighter should know what they’re up against.

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So, how important is picking your college major? Well, if you are interested in the ease of finding a good career—pretty important. You’ll want to study in an area that lines up with careers on the rise. But if you are willing to “climb every mountain” no matter what, then we can tell you that employers are looking for workers like you. Even better? Do both. Be savvy, but fight for what you really want. Our hope is that Find Your Calling helps you do just that.

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