THE BLOG

Don't Ask 'What Can I Do With This Major?'

02/24/2015 05:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

A really smart student of mine who has been getting stellar grades in Economics was considering it as his major. But he wanted to know what he could do with it. I have had that question regarding every subject you can name. And the reality is that it is a bad question. It is the wrong question. It assumes that the subject is what you will do. If you major in history you will be a historian and if you major in philosophy people will laugh and say where are the philosopher jobs. It does not work that way. There are tons of English majors who are not teachers of English or novelists. They are lawyers, ad execs and a myriad of other things that require great communication skills. Philosophy is often considered a good gateway to law or other careers where logic is required-- including technology.

The question is what skills will I get from this major that I can use in the course of my multifaceted career. Actually most students don't know that they will have multifaceted careers. They could have 8 different jobs before they are 30 and maybe 3 careers before they retire (most likely at 70ish.) What majors deliver are bundles of skill sets. Some will be more concentrated in one field versus another. So an Economics major will have more quantitative skills and an ability to read data. That could be useful for sure in finance, but also in market research for advertising strategy or strategic planning or consulting. Or one could become an economist. I know English majors who are lawyers, policy wonks, journalists, doctors... pretty much anything. English is particularly helpful for building skills in close analysis, reading and writing--as in communication skills. The Association of American Medical Colleges has announced that the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) will include a new behavioral sciences section --recognizing the importance of the humanities to the future of medicine and the need for doctors to understand how to engage with patients as people. Humanities majors can make great doctors. I know history and English majors who have been hired at Goldman Sachs. They had stellar GPAs.

So that is the other thing a major is. It is a delivery system for showing off how smart a student is. If a student finds a subject that grabs their attention and in which they are excelling then that is a good choice of major because they will have a GPA that speaks to their capacity to learn at its best. Round pegs in square holes will not work. Someone who dreams chemical formulae and is happy as a clam in a lab is often the student who would pay to not have to ever write a paper more than 5 pages. Whereas the student who revels in 19th Century British Literature flies at the sight of a test tube. There are those students who do it all with ease. But most of us have preferred modes of learning and taking in information.

However, that is not a loss. All areas of academic endeavor require reading--just some more than others--, as well as requiring research in the lab or the library, critical thinking about what issue is being posed, the ability to analyze data or other inputs and the ability to report conclusions cogently. I pointed out to one student, seeking to become a CSI (Crime Scene Investigator, like on TV) that the history course he was grumbling about was a great way to learn forensic skills.

What is frustrating to students is that we do not give faculty the information they need to share these realities with students in practical terms. A list of careers being pursued by everyone who majored in a department would make it easy for faculty or advisers to answer the question "What can I do with this major?" It would not be a satisfactory answer because there would be lots of things that people are doing with every major. But that is the point.

It would help too if someone were to explain to students exactly what skills they are getting at any one point in time. It would be good to explain that the reason for an assignment is because it will build report writing skills or build the capacity to work in teams or the ability to find obscure information.

For a long time there has been a drive to get students to major in what have been called the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. But recently the arts have been added to make the acronym STEAM. The reason for adding the arts is because creativity is also an essential skill in today's economy.

All of those skills will crop up, certainly in any managerial role or job. I have many stories from my years in the corporate world as well as my life as a college administrator where I was assigned projects outside my normal comfort zone and had to rely on what I learned in college of research or data analysis or documenting evidence. I was a Political Science major directing a creative services team in design projects. I was assigned to determine the right tech platform for sales training...a decision worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. You don't get to tell the boss that what s/he wants you to do wasn't what you majored in.

Finally it is expected these days that all college graduates, in addition to being able to write decently will also have the ability to engage in technology at a bare minimum to navigate Excel, Microsoft word, PowerPoint, and basic elements of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Knowing more is clearly better whether it is the ability to use LexisNexis, how to code or knowing other research platforms. Students majoring in any social science--Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, and certainly Economics should know how statistics work and have other skills relating to accessing and using data. Most jobs whether in the for-profit or not-for-profit sectors have some quantitative aspect ranging from budget management to gathering and reporting data on outcomes. These skills can come through the major or from other courses or from project work. But they are necessary.

That is also why colleges make students take lots of courses beyond the major so that there is breadth of learning and skill building and the acquisition of cultural capital. It is all good. Learning is good. What you can do with that major is whatever comes along. It is all good.

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Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide.