03/05/2013 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

Does Major Really Matter?

How many people do you know with history degrees who actually work as historians? Philosophy majors paid to philosophize? And psychology majors who are actually practicing psychologists? Probably very few examples come to mind. The original intent of a liberal arts degree is not to prepare you for a career, but rather to broaden your mind, and train you to analyze and communicate. Whether or not students deserve some level of career preparation for the amount they are paying is another matter and subject of debate in the higher education community.

Research from Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce shows that major does matter in terms of liberal arts versus specialized degrees: recent graduates who majored in the liberal arts and social sciences have higher unemployment rates than those who majored in career-specific fields such as education and health (approximately 9 percent versus 5 percent, respectively). And humanities and liberal arts majors earn less too: $31,000 per year, on average, in their first post-college job, compared with engineering majors, for example, who make an average of $55,000 per year following graduation.

Within the liberal arts, however, major doesn't really matter. In fact the idea is that a liberal arts degree will prepare you for a broad array of career choices. While the liberal arts fields may not prepare you directly for a career, the transferable communication and analytical skills you gain, in theory, apply to almost any job. Yet many students do not understand the connection between coursework and career skills in demand in the workplace. Articulating and applying those skills can often be a challenge.

A new book by Paul Hettich and Eric Landrum, Your Undergraduate Degree in Psychology From College to Career (to which I contributed a chapter) helps make explicit the link between coursework and careers for psychology majors and recent graduates. Hettich and Landrum, both psychology professors (Hettich is retired), refer to transferrable coursework skills as "covert skills" -- how to learn -- as opposed to course-related content -- what to learn. They make recommendations for ways that psychology students can make the most out of their coursework to enhance these covert skills, but these tips apply to all majors.

Below are some highlights:

• Communicate "in a clear, organized, and persuasive manner" -- both in writing and when speaking in class. Communication skills are among the highest in-demand skills as reported by employers year after year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

• Read and analyze information critically -- when reading textbooks and researching for papers, actively evaluate and connect different sources of information.

• Be punctual -- this may seem obvious, but one major difference in the "real world" of work is that your job and salary depend on this. It's good to start practicing this habit now.

• Make meaningful contributions to teamwork -- the working world requires working with others, and adapting to their styles. Take advantage of group projects to practice collaboration and leadership.

Students should be aware of these critical links early on, before senior year. Many institutions offer First-Year Experience seminars that prepare students for the rest of their college coursework through the development of skills such as notetaking and planning. But making this explicit link in the classroom setting can motivate students to succeed in their coursework and careers. It may also make them feel like they are getting their money's worth out of college. No matter the intent of a liberal arts degree, most students are going to college to get a better job.

Hettich and Landrum provide advice for using psychology skills gained through coursework to identify the job best suited for your personality and interests. Psychology majors don't need to be restricted to jobs in the field of psychology. Hettich and Landrum provide a long list of potential careers for bachelor's degree holders in psychology. Some, such as child development specialist and social worker, are directly related, while others -- computer programmer, fundraiser, information specialist and management analyst -- may not initially occur to psychology majors as a career choice. In fact, any liberal arts major may not initially think of looking beyond the field of his or her major as a career choice, but probably should.