Selecting a college major

One of the challenges for most students is deciding on a major for college. It is true that some students know what they want to major in. It is a small minority of students however. Most of us have a few ideas, but nothing concrete.

Selecting a major is a collection of decisions, assumptions, sole searching, trade offs, and researched ideas. Take it seriously, this is a big decision. Take your time, it isn’t easy. Take comfort in the thought that it isn’t a final decision. It can be changed if life takes you in another direction later. Putting effort and thought into this decision can end up saving you a lot of time, anguish, and a ton of money.

Allow me to share with you some thoughts about selecting a major. I am going to present a few foundation ideas before delving into the details of selecting a major.

The Foundation Ideas

Your major really does matter – When I started college in the early 1980’s, the prevailing wisdom at the time (mostly among people who did NOT have a degree) was that any major was good enough. The thinking was that by having a degree, any major, you have shown yourself to be educated and have the ability to learn and that is what future employers are looking for. This wisdom turned out to be wishful thinking!  What you major in really does matter for your future success in the job market. This is becoming more and more defined as the population of under-employed people with ‘worth less’ degrees increases in size (please note the space in that term!).

Allow me to define what a ‘worth less’ degree means before I get into serious trouble. When you earn a degree in something, you have been certified as having developed a certain level of expertise in a given field. In our free market society, some fields are valued more than others. I purposefully am avoiding saying that some fields are more important than others. That is a subjective argument beyond my willingness to engage. It is an objective and measurable fact that some areas of expertise are valued higher in the markets. For the past hundred years, science and engineering have always been at the top of that value list because they are positions that are directly tied to creating new products, technologies, and generating wealth. These are degrees that are not easy to earn, require a lot of work compared to other degrees, and graduates are in short supply. Other majors are, according to the job market, valued lower and are therefore worth less in the free market system we live in. Electrical engineers start at about $90,000 per year. Theater majors usually start at the prevailing wage of Starbucks or Home Depot: $20,000 a year (I was once a theater major, so nothing but love to my brothers in the arts!).

I have opted to use the term “worth less” to be slightly offensive, to shake you into realizing that there are options and differences between majors that you really want to consider.

My point here is that you are likely to have a list of potential majors you are interested in. PLEASE do some research to determine what a degree in that major might be worth after graduation. It may or may not change your thinking, but for your own benefit be sure you fully understand what the implications are before heading down that road.

Supply and Demand – You are headed for graduation an into a market where people compete for financial success. There are two sides to this market. One is supply, the other is demand. The relative value of a person in the market place of employment is the value and supply of their skills vs demand for those skills.

Dishwashers work very hard. It is tedious work that is very low on the compensation scale. Why? Dishwashers require about 20 minutes of training. Replacing a dishwasher is easy since just about anyone who can fog glass with their breathe can do the job. This is a case where the supply is large relative to demand. Expect to get minimum wage.

Engineers also work very hard. A good engineer has many years of college. They are not easily replaced. They are short in supply. The demand for engineers is greater than the supply of engineers. This is a good situation for the engineers as they tend to have a wide range of opportunities that all command high salaries and usually very good job security. Replacing a skilled engineer can take a company up to a year. Companies will typically do everything they can to attract and retain engineers. Expect to get maximum wage.

Between these two extremes are where most people exist. One of the hard parts you need to do is figuring out how to find where you can be comfortable on this supply and demand curve. The ideal is to have a job with the highest demand and lowest supply that is something you find interesting and rewarding.

Value in specialization – Specific knowledge can be a key way to keep yourself in demand. Generalized degrees are often not in high demand. You might find a major in ‘General Philosophy’ to be of personal interest. However, you don’t often see job listings for people with General Philosophy as desirable educational background. There isn’t market value there. Many other general degrees are interesting and socially worth while, but are not going to generate market value for your skills. As a very broad generalization, anything degree that ends in “Studies” tend not to be specialized to the point of increasing your value in the market.

Part of your balancing act is to find a level of specialization that increases your value to future employers yet preserves your own passions and interests.

Your life is going to change – I know a lot of students who have passions they have developed in high school. I love passions, I support passions. Not all passions make good career choices. This is especially true in high school environments which tend to have measures of success and social status that don’t transfer into the larger and more complex ‘real world’. Your hard earned successes in high school athletics, cheerleading, band, and other activities in school are not likely to follow you into or after college.

This can be a bit of a challenge. You have built your high school success on a series of choices and infrastructures that really only exist in high school. You are now about to leave those, and it can be a little difficult to make the transition. Sorry, you are going to have to prepare for it. While you might have easily made the cheer leading squad at your high school, don’t make the assumption that getting into the cheer leading squad (or football team, soccer team, etc) at college is going to continue your success and social status. It won’t. College is different. Though campus might really appreciate the football team as a whole, most students couldn’t pick a specific football player or cheerleader out of a lineup. You might have been a big fish at your pond back home, but you are now in a much bigger lake with a lot more fish.

My point here is that your college choices need to reflect your future, not your past. You should be very proud of your accomplishments in high school. You should also consider if trying to continue your high school endeavors is a useful expenditure of your time and money. You need to decide that, but please put some thought into this. Make informed rational decisions.

Lets talk about Passion – If you spent much time at all around successful people, you will find some common traits. The biggest trait is passion for what they are doing. They typically enjoy their work. They are typically good at their work. The two are correlated. Most will tell you that you need to love what you do and do what you love. Sounds like sage advice, but it is also vague advice. Let me expand on this subject a little.

Passion is important – Before you run off and declare yourself an engineering major, you need to self reflect on your own passions. There is much more to selecting a major that you will be successful at. Don’t select a major based on a chart of the highest starting income. You need a major that you have a passion for. This is a difficult thing to do as a high school student. Typical students don’t have a very wide range of experiences to draw from.

To make a good transition, think about your high school passion and try to diagnose why you like that passion. What is it about that activity that makes you want to do it on a constant basis. Make a list, and be brutally honest.

There are going to be social aspects to this that you can’t ignore. Being a cheerleader (or football player, soccer star, lead in the high school play) is going to get you recognition and social status in high school. It is OK if being popular and recognized is part of your list. It is important. You may feel a little self centered admitting it. That’s fine, we are doing a very self centered activity in exploring your passions.

There will also be interest and personal achievement that make an activity a passion.

Lead by example! Here is mine. In high school, I was really good in shop classes. I mean really good. I was a star in the wood shop, metal shop, welding shop, and was the shop teachers assistant for several periods a day. I was very well known for being able to do just about anything in shop. At graduation, I was given an award for outstanding achievements in the industrial arts. Of course, when I left high school I fully intended to be a cabinet maker or carpenter. It was my passion and a place that I really felt comfortable. Being ‘shop guy’ was part of my identity. I ended up not doing that! Hmmmm…. Not making my argument for passion very convincing!

My self reflection on this: I liked building things, the recognition of being good at building things, being king of the shop. When it comes to building things, I liked not only the act of building, but the creativity in designing. I possessed the skills needed to express my creative ideas in physical form. I liked planning the details, adding features, thinking about how things would get used, serviced, maintained. I liked fretting about little details, selecting materials, thinking through the steps and processes on how to build. Details like the fit and finish made for much bliss. I appreciated how the tools work, how the tools helped. I appreciated the ability to make my own tools if needed. I liked the recognition of others when I finished a project. I like success. It validated my efforts. It validates my identity. I loved the applause.

Could it be that my passion wasn’t actually in the specifics of shop, but more in the ability to plan, design, build, and finish projects? I am thinking, now that I have had many years to reflect about it, that I really wanted to be an engineer but just didn’t know it. That is where I ended up. I am an engineer.

My point here is that your activities and interests often times are masking your true passions. Your passions are likely to be wrapped up in the answers to ‘why’ you like your subject rather than the specific skills. Think about this for yourself.

Is it a Passion? – Is there a way to measure passion? I have been trying to consider this for a while. What is the measuring stick for passion. Passion is important because people who are passionate about a subject or idea are the ones who will be most likely to succeed. There are hundreds of years of evidence for this. Most recently with a HUGE population of passionate people in just the last 30 years starting all sorts of new projects. But how can I give you a way to measure your passion for something without having to be tested for it?

Here is my simple check list: If you went to Barnes and Noble and hung out in the magazine department, what would you browse? What is the last non-fiction book you read or purchased? What activities do you consider a high interest hobby? What do you think about doing before falling asleep at night? What would you get up for at 5am to do?

These are my cheap and unscientific indicators of what might be a passion.

My point here is that a true passion is a subject that you will teach yourself. A subject that you will research yourself. A subject that you will seek assistance in learning. A subject that you are eager to try and learn more about. If you don’t have one, do not worry. We just need to find yours. Many people don’t find their passions until they have experiences in college. You do NOT need to make a final decision on your major or your passions to head down a path in college.

Is it YOUR passion? – Be sure to consider this carefully. Is the thing you are passionate about your passion, or that of someone else? Parents are often times guilty of imposing their passions on to their children. They do this with all of the love and great intentions one can muster. They are really trying to be helpful and are still in the parent mode of mother knows best. She has been making decisions on your behalf for nearly your entire life. They can’t help it, it is their world. It sometimes works out, but often times does not.

It is true that students may end up following career paths that are familiar to them. Nothing is more familiar that the career path of your parents. There is nothing wrong with this if you as an individual decide this is what you wish to do. However, insure that it is something you are passionate about. For every success story about the doctor who had parents and grandparents who were doctors, you can find three or four stories that started that way and didn’t work out.

Passions with an ‘s’ – Hopefully, you will have multiple passions in life. You don’t have to pick just one and ignore the others. That would be a shame. I liked wood shop. I liked metal shop. I liked science and technology. I liked theater. I liked being a stage hand. I liked the art of keeping very busy. I liked big machines. I liked being responsible for projects. 30 years after high school, turns out I still like all of these things.

Passions Change! – Being passionate about a subject is very important. As with all things, your passions are likely to change over time. I still like woodworking, but honestly I haven’t done much in the past 10 years. I have the tools, but my interests of just changed to other things. Your passions are also going to change.

Is there a career path for your passion? – This can make the use of your current passions as a direction for the future a little more fuzzy. You might be a star at riding motorcycles or BMX, but will that passion build you a career doing that? Probably not. Not a lot of 45 year old BMX riders make a living. Might it inform your decisions? Of course. Perhaps you would like to be in the industry, but as a business person, engineer, or other person who has talents that can be applied to the industry.

This is actually true for a lot of passions. Your involvement in the passion might be through another avenue rather than as a practitioner. You might like to play video games and would like to make a living in the video game industry. The people who can make a long term living in that industry are the onces creating products and services for the practioners. Software engineers and marketing people are the ones who make a living in the video game industry.

I think as a general statement: Transferring your passion into a career may take you into diverse fields of study. It is a very good thing for you to have diverse knowledge. It opens your world to a host of different options. You can also use the fact that your generalized knowledge about a subject may have better market value that extremely specific knowledge. An engineer who can design a BMX bike is likely more valuable in the market than a BMX rider.

Selecting a major

In case you hadn’t noticed, I have a lot of opinions about passions. I think you get the gist of what I want from you. Now let us switch gears and talk about some of the decisions that you need to consider to find a major.

There are a lot of decision points that go into selecting a major. You may already have a list for yourself. I am going to throw out a few ideas. Unfortunately, no algorithm or spreadsheet can help you make this decision. I think making a list of the pros and cons for a wide range of issues may help solidify and confirm the decisions you are making. In the end, you will need to decide your level of commitment, your passions, and your prospects for completing your major successfully.

My list of things to consider

I tried a few ways to present this, and I think a list is as good as anything else! So here is my list of ideas.

When in doubt, pick a general area of study as a starting point – There are a few broad categories that you could consider starting down without getting too specific. For example, most science oriented fields will have very similar pre-requisite classes. Same is true for the arts, business, and other courses. So if you are thinking of doing something in science but don’t know for sure, start out with classes that head in that general direction. Most engineering classes, for example, require calculus and engineering physics. Doesn’t matter if you can’t  decide between mechanical, electrical, or computer science. They all have the same requirements. As you become more comfortable in that area of study, you will find something specific to major in.

Finances vs your major – This is a big one, especially if you are considering using student loans as a funding source for your major. You need to investigate the expected salary that your field of study may produce and set some spending limits on your education. There are a number of horror stories out there about students with art majors and $150,000 of student loans to pay for them. These folks are graduating from college so far under water that their chances of post college success is limited. My very rough rule of thumb is that your 4 year total student loans shouldn’t be more than 0.72 times your expected starting salary. How I arrived at that number is the subject of a very long discussion. So if you plan to borrow about $15,000 a year for 4 years, you will owe $60,000 on your loan. To do that, you need to make $82,857 a year to be comfortable paying that off. That is a LOT of money. DO THE MATH! If you need, find help from someone who can help with the math.

Double Majors – Many students feel the need to express their multiple passions in the form of a double major. Something just sounds wonderful about saying “I double majored in computer science and history”.  There is another side to this. As a manager hiring engineers at Microsoft, I was always stymied at what to think of double majors. Did this person focus on what I need? Are they really good at computer science or history? Are they actually now a passionate expert at both, or am I about to hire someone who is just OK at two subjects and not expert in either?  There was a distinct chance this person was very well rounded in their education, but still I often felt that this person was distracted or indecisive. I think I passed on most of the double major candidates. Please consider this carefully. Why are you double majoring? If you are doing it because you have a very strong desire for two degrees, so be it. If you are doing it to make a more impressive resume, I would suggest single major and do really well at one valuable thing.

Honestly I would have been more impressed with a BA in history and a masters in computer science.

Geography vs your major – You should consider some practical knowledge about your future plans. If you were born and raised in South Dakota, your family is in South Dakota, and you someday wish to raise your family in South Dakota, then majoring in theater, film, marine biology, deep water diving, aeronautical engineering, or commercial investment banking may not make the most sense! Will you be able to find a career in that geography? Probably not. Some majors are only useful in geographic areas that support such industries. Many industries have centers of attraction. Aeronautical engineers tend to be in Seattle for example because that is where the majority of the work is found. Chances of finding work as an maritime engineer in Oakesdale, WA are pretty slim.

The bottom line – I have talked about passion, touched on a few points about marketable skills, and a few points about finances and direction. Did any of this help? I hope so. But what about your major? That my friend is up to you to figure out in a rational, thoughtful, and well researched way.

Can you know your complete path today? Honestly, no, you won’t know exactly what that path will hold. You can, however, arm yourself with some rational decisions and researched information to start heading down a road that will bring you success.

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