“What are you going to do with a major in _____?”

Here is a March 2008 article posted on MSN Encarta’s web page, regarding choosing a major and employability:

Does Your Major Matter?

Well-meaning oldsters still ask college students: “What are you going to do with that degree?” The question should be, “What do you want to do?” The major is just not that important anymore.

Any major prepares most students for most jobs. Internships are far more important than a specific major. Sure, if I don’t major in chemical engineering, I’m not likely to get a job in a chemical engineering lab, but even in high technology companies about one quarter of the management-track jobs are held by people without a technical degree.

College today is what high school was a generation ago. It is a basic introduction to knowledge and thinking, a basic entry ticket to a certain type of job. So what of the major? Isn’t it a critical indicator that the student possesses the skills needed to perform in that first-level, management-track job? Does it matter much at all?

Let’s ask corporate recruiters — the very people who go out to college campuses looking for the best hires they can find. It turns out, the No. 1 major that recruiters in America look for is “any.”

There’s a platitude among corporate recruiters: “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” They are interested in a certain type of eager, presentable young person, and not too worried about specialized knowledge. An articulate art major with clear goals is preferred over the business major without a clue.

According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, here are the skills they seek most, in order of preference:

Communication skills
Strong work ethic
Teamwork skills
Interpersonal skills
Problem-solving skills
Analytical skills
Computer skills
Technical skills
Organizational skills

A student who is engaged and involved in college could develop this skillset within any major.
Majors of the rich and famous
Louise Paradis, assistant director of the career center at Portland State University, got tired of students and parents asking “What can I do with a major in _____?” So she developed the Famous Majors Game, which she provides to career centers nationwide.

“I made the game as a way to share with students that what they study is not connected to what they ultimately do,” says Paradis. “Even though the game is skewed toward famous people, it still gets the idea across that your major is an academic focus, but it can translate into many job titles.”

For example, Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s satirical news program “The Daily Show,” was a psychology major. And Stephen Colbert, host of “Daily Show” spin-off “The Colbert Report,” majored in philosophy. YouTube founder and CEO Chad Hurley was an art major. And before earning billions of dollars in his self-made media empire, Ted Turner studied classics.

Paradis says, “I tell people it matters that your child gets a degree. It matters that they finish, that they study something that they enjoy, but only a few careers require specific preparation. It comes down to this: Do they have the skills the employer is seeking? Can the student articulate those skills to the employer? Can they communicate, solve problems, interact effectively in a group, think critically, do research, write to professional business standards? That’s what matters.”

Reed Allmendinger parlayed his poli-sci major into a job in management consulting in San Francisco.

“The reading and writing stuff is basically the same,” Allmendinger says. “But I did have to brush up on my quantitative skills [and] revisit some economics classes I took.”

He finds his background an advantage over some peers with more specialized educations.

“We do a lot of storyboarding, a lot of conceptualizing. … [It’s] probably better to have a wider breadth in terms of your major, instead of something just technically oriented.”

The power of the internship
It also helps to have the right internships while still in college. Ryan Miller studied philosophy and math as an undergrad, and now he designs cutting-edge software for a hedge fund in Greenwich, Conn.

“Studying analytical philosophy, one develops certain powers of critical thinking, the ability to deal with abstract concepts,” says Miller. “I don’t think it gets much more abstract than what one finds in a good philosophy department. Abstract reasoning, problem solving and even basic logic have been very valuable in my work.”

Miller says that software development is all about logic and problem solving. “The nature of the [hedge fund] business is that the instruments we’re dealing with are, to varying degrees, abstract — credit default swaps, variance swaps, index of credit default swaps on bank loans, options — all the math that goes into these products is huge. What hedge funds do is about as complex and sophisticated as the financial industry really gets, so the nature of the work gets quite abstract, like reading Russell, Frege or Wittgenstein, except it’s about money.”

Critical to his success, however, were two summers he spent working for a bank.

“I started out flipping burgers as a summer job, then I got an assignment in commercial banking, next, private banking, and finally equity research in Manhattan.” Internships are a critical component for translating a college education into employability.

Misconceptions about earning potential
The University of Texas at Austin did a study of earning power of alumni by major, and here is what the study author, Dr. Daniel Hamermesh, concluded: “We believe that the evidence presented here suggests that perceptions of the variations in economic success among graduates in different majors are exaggerated. Our results imply that given a student’s ability, achievement and effort, his or her earnings do not vary all that greatly with the choice of undergraduate major.”

Now, to be fair, they do vary greatly by two things: parental income, which no student can control, and graduate education, which is purely up to the student. The biggest single factor in lifetime earnings is post-undergraduate degree attainment. That does matter.

Eric Schwaab majored in international studies as an undergraduate, then became a financial adviser on Wall Street.

“In one sense your undergraduate education may have very little to do with what you end up doing in life,” says Schwaab. “But in another sense, it is the foundation. I learned how to read and write and think on my feet and hold my own in an argument.”

Those are skills essential for someone who must convince clients he’s capable of managing their money.

But, he goes on to say, “I found out though that communications is much more complex than just a good argument, and so I went back to school to get an M.B.A. in marketing, to better understand the challenges of good communications, particularly client acquisition. Undergraduate education should be more for broadening your horizons, breaking out of your preconceptions and predispositions from the world you grew up in. Graduate education is the opposite. It is more for honing in on very specific challenges. So it’s almost like undergrad is about expanding your mind, and graduate education is about focusing it back down on something narrow and important to you.”

It’s working out for Schwaab. He’s now an online marketing consultant in Boston, at double his Wall Street salary.

About the Author
Donald Asher is a nationally known writer and speaker specializing in careers and higher education. Some of his books of note include: How to Get Any Job with Any Major; Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent; Who Gets Promoted; and Graduate Admissions Essays.

He welcomes your comments: don@donaldasher.com.

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