Choosing a College Major

August 13, 2015

Professor Larry GomesIt’s fall 2015! Welcome to UW-WC’s new academic year. By this time you have already settled the issues relating to your course selection, number of credit hours, financial aid, etc. However, one question that that will occupy your mind during your stay here at UW-WC is the choice of your college major. Whether to be a philosophy major or not to be? To be an Engineering major or not to be? To be a Finance major or not to be? These are the questions the high school, college freshmen and sophomores along with their parents struggle every year across the U.S. Most of the high school, college and university counselors while advising their students emphasize that the students should follow their passion while choosing a college major without paying attention as to whether or not that major will land a job after graduation. While there is some element of truth to this advice and it sounds very academic and idealistic, the harsh reality of the job market is a different experience. A four year college degree is expensive and warrants a sizeable amount of investment.  Most households do not have enough savings to pay for their children’s college education. At college graduation, the average student debt today is around $30,000. However, student debt can be considerably higher than this average amount, exceeding $100,000 at many private and out-of state colleges and universities. At the same time, several studies show that 4 in 10 college graduates wind up taking jobs that do not require a college degree. This is especially painful for graduates and their families when they have spent so much of their own savings and begin their career with a huge student debt. At the same time, the prospect of availability of a job should not drive the choice of a major without paying attention to the student’s interest and aptitude in that major. While considering a college major, a student needs to strike a good balance between passion/interest for a discipline and marketability of that discipline in the job market. The goal of this short piece is to give a few tips and directions to aspiring college students like you as you work on choosing a major that will shape your professional career for years to come. Choosing a college major is an expedition filled with passion, uncertainty, changing technology, cost, changing economy, etc. As you start this expedition, keep the following items in mind.

A Thorough Assessment of your Interests: This is the starting point of your voyage. Here you don’t burden yourself with the prospect of finding a job after graduation. Here you have the luxury of exploring your dreams. What do you want to be when you grow up? What interests you? What excites you? As you look at the professions of your parents, your older siblings, relatives, friends’ parents, what types of jobs and careers entice you? Ask your parents and older siblings and relatives about their jobs. What do their jobs entail? Using your smart phone or iPad, Google the job descriptions of various professions that inspire you. As you read on, do you get excited about the narratives of those jobs? Keep on exploring.

An In-Depth Check Up of Your Aptitudes/Abilities: Here we get serious. Do I have theacademic ability to pursue my dream profession?Over the years my neighbors, friends and relatives have asked what courses their children should emphasize in high school so that they will have a good grounding when they go to college. I have always told them that they need to have a strong foundation in two disciplines: English and Mathematics. You will excel in college as well as in your professional career after college if you know how to communicate, written and oral, and how to compute. Your aptitude in mathematics will make the selection of a major in college close to your passion and marketability, whether it is finance, engineering, psychology, economics or medicine. The command over English will enable you to share your knowledge with others through research and practice. Reading comprehension and writing is a must for any major in college-- science or liberal arts.For whatever reasons if you missed the opportunity to have solid grounding in Math and English in you high school, here at UW-WC we have program in place to make the deficiency. Besides classroom activities, reading outside books-- fictions, adventures, non-fictions, biographies enhance our comprehension, writing abilities and critical thinking. Many students think that aptitude in math is a special gift, and since they didn’t inherit it, therefore they conclude, “I am not good in math”. This is not true. Research in learning theory have shown that with hard work and diligence difficult material can be grasped –step by step, incrementally, and eventually mastering the subject. Everything around us: music, art, architecture, smartphones, tablets, video games, nature, medicine, universe, etc. is a display of mathematical equations and equilibriums.

What You Value Most in Work: After your thorough assessment of your interest and aptitude in a major, the next one to examine is what attributes in life you will value through your work. Will you be able to reinforce your value-driven life through your work and professional career? Examples of values include: status, helping the most neglected in the community, empowering the youth, leadership, security, charity, creativity, and many others. How much positive vibration do you want to radiate throughout your greater community through your work? You might say that if I don’t have decent and stable job, the pursuit of one or two of these values would be just empty words without any fulfilment. Yes, this observation is certainly true. Yes, you will also make mistakes in the journey of choosing your professional career. Don’t get crushed with your mistakes. Rabindranath Tagore said, “If  you shut your door to  all errors  truth will be  shut out.” However, if you stay focused on your career goal and equip yourself with the necessary academic tools starting early, you will accomplish your mission in life.

It’s Time to Narrow Your Choices: You have made an assessment of your interest/passion, abilities and values that you want to uphold throughout your professional career. Now is the time to narrow your choice and focus on choosing a major. In doing so, be realistic and be practical. Given that you are prepared and committed to excel in Mathematics and English, choose an applied major like engineering or accounting. However, if your passion lies with arts, theatre or humanities and money is not a relevant variable to define your success and happiness in life, go for it. Should you delve into humanities or liberal arts major, your financial success in these areas could be enhanced if you incorporate the idea of being an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is someone who comes up with an idea of a new product or service and eventually commercializes it in the market for a living. Entrepreneurship cuts across all subjects and major. Keep in mind while exploring career goals that today’s economy and today’s job market are technology driven powered by tiny microchips of tiny dimension. Today’s most valuable company in the world is not in auto industry or steel industry or oil industry, but in the computer industry: Apple Corporation is valued at $730 billion by market capitalization.

It is an exciting transition from high school to college. I still fondly cherish my joy and jubilation of being admitted to Notre Dame College having graduated from high school. I felt so proud of myself when I had written Notre Dame College next to my name on class notebook. Just being in College is itself a lifetime experience. You have registered for your first semester classes based on your advisor’s recommendation. However, you have still not decided on your major. Don’t panic! Many students start their college by checking “undecided” when it comes to identifying a major. You have your freshman and sophomore years to explore your interest and aptitude. The junior year could be too late as you might find out that many of the course that you took during the first two years at your college will not be counted towards your major. As a result it might take additional semesters and financial resources to graduate.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In the fast-changing economy we live in, it is even difficult to predict the availability of jobs four years from the time students begin their first semester in a college. The worst scenario could be that you choose a major based on your job market research, but upon your graduation you begin to apply for those jobs which might not exist anymore. Today, you have to value your college education in terms of future earnings and employability. It might sound boorish or unsophisticated, but it is a stern reality of the modern world that we live in. Besides, you are investing a huge amount of financial resources and your valuable time in earning your college degree, and you want you to earn a rate of return equal to the opportunity cost of your investment. Eventually you want to choose a major that will usher a career you are comfortable with and let you earn an income you aspired to earn to enjoy a decent living.

 

Gomes teaches Economics at UW-WC.