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Does Your College Major Still Matter?


Forty years ago it was expected that a chemistry major would work in an industrial firm after graduating or, if he was pre-med, go on to medical school. Most graduates in the humanities and social sciences became high school teachers or went on to do PhDs. Your major in college used to matter. In the time just after WWII, what you chose to study as an undergrad determined your professional path.

Things started to change in the 80s, and the trend has continued well into the present. Today former French lit majors run tech companies and electrical engineering graduates work as bloggers. Lawyers work as PR consultants, MBAs as television pundits, and former History majors as investment bankers. The simplest answer to the question that constitutes this article’s title is: no, your college major does not matter. However, a closer examination of the topic is required.

To get your foot in the door of a professional services firm you must possess an undergraduate degree. No matter what your major, the fact that you got through an academic program shows that you have some understanding of timeliness and responsibility; it is also proof that you possess skill in critical thinking and written expression.

For example, there are many reasons why the local office of an international bank will hire a philosophy or history major. Much of the complex mathematical calculations that need to be carried out on any given day in such a company are now done by computers. Employees who can write a page of clean English are what the leaders in these institutions are most desperate for. They want people who can think and express themselves in a clear, coherent, and logical manner; and a string of recent articles indicates that many such firms are actively recruiting people who have majored in subjects unrelated to business, finance, or economics.

But it doesn’t follow that your college major is totally irrelevant—that you should choose your courses without any thought for the future.

While college is a time to experiment and to focus on what interests you most you should select your major with at least one eye to the future. You should not think that you’ll spend the next four years studying film and television, and having all the fun that such a major suggests, and then get a job at Goldman Sachs. Even if you are in a top state school or at one of the Ivies, you will face quite a bit of competition from those who have done summer internships and have already established networks and connections in the industry.

Or, you may have done well in math in high school and think it the easiest way to get through college so that you can pursue your real passion of newspaper reporting. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to get on the staff of even a local newspaper without going through J-School. The various schools of journalism serve as the gatekeepers of work in established media companies.

This leads to the further point that your undergraduate major matters if you intend to pursue post-graduate education. The best medical and law schools have always been tough to get into. Competition for places in the graduate schools of the other disciplines has also stiffened in recent years. Among other things, admissions boards want to see evidence of a candidate’s commitment to seeing the program through. Majoring in the subject is significant proof of that. If you are an outsider, so to speak, it will be harder for you to go up against those already inside.

The bottom line is that your college major does not as strictly determine your professional opportunities as it once did. But it is better to have some sense of what you would like to do after you finish college, so that you can take courses that will maximize your chances of getting a good job.

About Christopher Reid

Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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