What Should I Major in? – Advice for College Students

August 29, 2022

Want to spend a couple of unproductive hours on the internet? Start by Googling “What should I major in?”. You’ll find countless articles with strong points of view. Some will sell the pragmatism of the hard sciences, engineering, or business. Others will tell you to pursue your dreams in drama, philosophy, or gender studies. Either way, these articles will be followed by dissenting reader comments diametrically opposed to the author’s. Articles imploring young people to “follow your passion” are littered with negative comments. Such advice is labeled as quixotic, privileged, and sure to result in a nation of theater majors who are buried in debt and sweeping floors at Burger King. Articles cautioning young people to pick a major that is “a good investment” are countered by anecdotal examples of billionaires. A common one is Steve Jobs studying calligraphy at Reed College accompanied by platitudes about “reaching for the stars.”

Here’s the truth: for some people the answer to “What should I major in?” will matter very much and for others it won’t matter at all. No global, one-size-fits-all approach is helpful. The only thing that matters is whether major selection is going to matter for you. Let’s take a look at the factors that you should consider.

I want be X so I need to major in X

In math, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In career planning, this can sometimes be the case but is not a hard-and-fast rule.

Many aspiring lawyers assume that selecting a Pre-Law major is their best bet. Interestingly, the American Bar Association states that it “does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education.” There are good reasons for this as average LSAT scores for those who major in the classics, philosophy, and math are far greater than those who studied law in undergrad. Criminal Justice majors actually have the lowest average LSAT score of any group.

Countless students with an eye on med school mistakenly believe they must major in the biological sciences. This can be a prudent path but is far from a compulsory one. In fact, only 58% of students enrolled in U.S. med schools majored in the biological sciences. The other half majored in everything from mathematics to the humanities. Yeah, but how do humanities majors fare on the MCATs? Well, out of all matriculated med students, the humanities majors actually outscored the biological sciences majors by a sliver of a point on the MCAT. This isn’t to argue that one could major in drama, avoid all undergraduate math and science coursework and jump right into med school. Medical schools all have prerequisites that include multiple biology, chemistry, and calculus courses. However, fulfilling these credits does not require you take those courses as part of a related major.

Don’t overspecialize 

Parents often fret when their college age kid elects to major in something like Latin or The Classics. The fear, of course, is that these are antiquated fields of study that will leave their child able to recite the works of Cicero in their original language but unable to earn a living wage. This fear, while understandable, may actually be obfuscating another more realistic fear, lurking in the unpredictable haze of the 21st century economic/higher education world—the fear of majoring in an overspecialized major.

Many colleges now offer flavor-of-the-month majors that are so overspecialized, one’s degree could quickly be made obsolete by the shifting winds of the modern economy. It’s easy to point to specialized jobs that have disappeared from the modern economy.  For example, bowling alley pinsetters or a VCR repairman. But a more subtle examination better illustrates the point. For example, within the IT field, thought by many to be rock-solid, certain areas of expertise are in demand while others have faded into oblivion. When the subfield of mobile communications  exploded, many tech giants like HP and Microsoft laid off workers en masse. Today, telecom companies like Nokia are laying off thousands of workers to free up money to invest in 5G networks.

Overspecialization examples

This is hardly a new pattern. The IT was a field on fire in the late ’90s and crashed in the early 2000s. Then, it ran wild again for a few years, crashed again in 2008…such is a life in a volatile industry. A successful IT worker over this time period needed to be a well-schooled generalist. Versatility, adaptability, and the ability to learn new skills were of paramount importance. Someone who made themselves into a widget in the IT world, possessing only a narrow skill-set, would have fared poorly.

Penn State offers a major in Turfgrass Science, which despite being around since the 1920s and producing countless golf course managers, is a prime example of an overspecialized degree. What happens if, a decade from now, golf courses switch over to yet-to-be-invented synthetic greens that require no expertise or maintenance? The University of New Hampshire offers a concentration in EcoGastronomy which focuses on hospitality and healthy eating. What happens if the trend in the U.S. toward healthy, organic, sustainable foods fades in the next decade?  We’re not saying that these highly specified majors are not the right choice for some students. Rather, we encourage you to engage in thorough research and approach them with caution. 

Passion matters

When it comes to landing your first job out of college or gaining admission at a top graduate or professional school, GPA matters. Here’s something you may not have considered—studies have demonstrated that students who major in an area that they are excited about earn higher GPAs than students who force their square peg creative self into a “more responsible” round hole. Further, passion for one’s major has been found to be a greater predictor of GPA than standardized test scores.

You might be thinking, “Okay, that’s all well and good, but how will my son/daughter earn a living?”.  Here’s a surprising stat for you. History majors who enter the business arena earn, on average, the same pay as business majors. By mid-career, philosophy majors enjoy a higher median income than architecture, accounting, or marketing majors. There are countless statistics along these lines and they all point to the same conclusion: major selection can influence future financial success, but it is not as straightforward as many parents believe.

What Should I Major in? – Final thoughts

Right now in every Corporate Finance 101 lecture hall, there are at least a couple of students daydreaming about British literature, documentary filmmaking, or Cold War history, perhaps resenting that parental or societal pressures and neuroses that have landed them in fields incompatible with their interests. We encourage these caged birds to fly away to a major better aligned with their own passions. Bright, talented, and articulate people will always find a pathway toward making a living. The field of study listed on an undergraduate degree is unlikely to change that outcome.