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Guide to Choosing a Major

College students are getting some remarkably

bad advice on how to think about college majors.


Here is a smarter approach:


A Bachelor's Degree will help you earn a lot more money, but not because it trains you for a specific job. Instead, if you do it right, a Bachelors Degree will give you skills that are useful for many different jobs.


That's important, because most people will experience a number of career changes in their lifetime.


But if you do your college education wrong, you will end up with too few skills for too few jobs.


So to choose the right major, you need to understand what makes a bachelor's degree valuable, and what is the relationship between what you study and your future earning potential.


I will explain why the advice college students are getting is bad, why people are giving bad advice, and how to shape your college career, including your major, to maximize its value to you, including its future financial value.


Job Skills Training

First, it is important to understand the difference between vocational or professional training, which focuses on the skills needed for a particular job, and a 4-year liberal arts bachelor degree, which does not.

Don't freak out -- your college degree really will help you make a lot more money, but probably not the way you have been told.

Vocational and professional training is focused on the skills you need to succeed in a particular line of work, like nursing, accounting, plumbing, running a restaurant, or law.


The OTHER Skills You'll Need

But your four-year bachelors degree has a different purpose, which is to give you the skills you need to succeed in ANY job, or indeed in all of the difficult situations that will arise in your life, whether they occur on the job or not. 

And trust me, those difficult situations will occur. You will find yourself facing complex problems involving your family, friends, and potential partners in all kinds of enterprises. And you will face the the most difficult problems of all, too, like what to do with your life, and why?


Knowing the intimate details of the Krebs Cycle or how to operate some expensive equipment won’t help at all. 


What you’ll need instead are things like critical thinking, problem solving, historical perspective, mediation, leadership, emotional maturity, ambiguity tolerance, communication, the ability to understand competing perspectives, and good familiarity with human motivation.


So when you are thinking about job skills, keep in mind that the economy is rapidly evolving. Students should expect to change careers many times -- and even the jobs within those careers evolve rapidly, so the skills required to succeed within individual jobs change, too. And if you get promoted, it's different again.


You can't plan for that.


So what you need from college is not a particular skill set for a particular job, but the ability to manage change and the ability to thrive in a variety of environments -- AND you need to learn how to learn so that you can prepare yourself on the fly for whatever comes next.


Liberal Arts to the Rescue

The traditional liberal arts education was actually well-crafted for this purpose.


It turns out that if you can bring to your future problems the ability to see the situation as a psychologist would see it, and also as an economist would see it, and also as a natural scientist would see it, and also as a philosopher would see it, and a politician, and a sociologist, and an anthropologist -- and to recognize human behaviors that have already been described in drama, literature, and history -- you are going to have a very high chance of successfully engaging with the situation.


On the other hand, if you spend your four years at college focused mostly on the principles of civil engineering, computer languages, or cell-biology, without a lot of attention to the other disciplines, then with respect to most problems in your future, you will be at a distinct disadvantage compared to those who got a broader education.


How the Wealthy and Powerful Do It

That’s why the wealthy and the powerful in our society send their kids to well-funded liberal arts institutions that give them a broad foundation of knowledge including philosophy, literature, cultural studies, and the classics, with the chance to participate and lead a variety of student activities and organizations.


What those well-off students are getting is a Bachelors Degree in Leadership.  And with training, they will lead. And they will get paid like leaders, and they will be able to lead in a variety of situations.


After graduating, typically those well-off students will THEN layer on top of their leadership curriculum some ADDITIONAL professional education like Law, Finance, Diplomacy, Film-Making, or Medicine that will make them leaders in a particular discipline.


That’s where the real money is, it turns out.


Getting a BA in Biology prepares you to be a lab tech, whereas getting a broad liberal arts education prepares you to run labs, start businesses, and manage organizations.


But What About Technical Skills?

It’s not that technical skills don’t matter — they’re really important. But that’s not why you are in college. You are in college to learn critical thinking, leadership, empathy, systems thinking, organizational effectiveness, and the perspectives of many disciplines.


After you’re done with college, you can take your newly acquired wisdom to vocational school and learn how to bake or weld or nurse for an organization that will ALSO be able to trust your judgment. Or you can take your wisdom to professional school and become a physician, lawyer, accountant, or orthodontist who has good professional judgment.


But if you confuse vocational/professional school with liberal arts, then you will leave college educationally impoverished, because you will have some technical skills that you could have gotten elsewhere, but you’ll lack some of the judgment and perspective you need to best deploy those skills.


Your wisdom deficit will (1) limit your ability to advance in your field, and (2) give a leg up to others who sucked the marrow out of their liberal arts education.

Which Majors Earn the Most?

In case you don't believe me, it's time to destroy the assumption that people who major in the natural sciences make more money, and people who major in the humanities make less money. Check out the actual data.


You can find a thousand surveys that tell you that starting salaries are better for biology majors than for artists, and they are.


But look harder and discover what those salaries are like 15 years out, and what the range is like. It’s a very different story. Here is some detailed data, in the Wall Street Journal, which cares a lot about money, and is mostly read by rich people. It shows you where the top salaries are mid-career.


Wall Street Journal: Degrees That Pay You Back


Go ahead and click through so you can sort by the different columns.

I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data.

-- Mark Cuban

Shark Tank Investor

Dallas Mavericks Owner

A liberal arts education works in subtle ways to create a web of knowledge that will illumine problems and enlighten judgment on innumerable occasions in later life.

-- Derek Bok

25th President of Harvard University

I do think that a general liberal arts education is very important, particularly in an uncertain changing world.

-- Steve Case

Billionaire CEO of AOL

The reason that Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we've always tried to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.

-- Steve Jobs

Co-Founder and CEO of Apple Inc.

I started my career as a liberal arts major from Berkeley, wrote about enterprise IT for a few years, then followed my passion for the digital narrative into graduate school as well. My first project out of grad school was 'Wired' magazine.

-- John Battelle

Co-Founding Editor of Wired Magazine

I think a liberal arts education isn't necessarily about doing something with your degree; it's about becoming a critical thinker. And I think that critical thinking is so integral to being an actor.

-- Sarah Gadon


Salaries at Mid-Career.jpg

Science majors do okay, BUT, by mid-career the Liberal Arts majors aren't far behind, and are sometimes ahead. In fact, although they may be slower out of the gate, by mid-career, the top Philosophy, Politics, International Relations, and Drama majors do BETTER than the top Biology, Chemistry, Business, and Civil engineering majors (check the far right column, mid-career 90th percentile).


Even the median philosophy major beats the median Chemistry and Biology majors at mid-career. Nobody besides me alerted you to that, but you just read it in the Wall Street Journal.


And yet, I don’t recommend you take even this data too seriously, because it’s still not a very accurate way to think about college earning potential.


The reality is that your actual salary mid-career is going to mostly depend on things like how hard you want to work, how much you care about money, how good you are at cultivating connections, and things like that -- which has nothing to do with the major you choose. 


Most salary data lumps together the best student in the class with the worst student in the class. It doesn't differentiate between the scrappy student driven to start a new company, and the laid back trust funder who will only ever volunteer at non-profits. Factors like that -- your dedication, willpower, and commitment -- weigh much more heavily than your major in determining future earning power.


You can make a lot of money piloting a jumbo jet, or you can make almost none piloting a commuter aircraft, and you can do either one no matter what you major in in college. Stock brokers might get rich, but they don’t major in stocks. 


You get the point — there is not a close connection between jobs, income, and college majors, even though the world is telling you otherwise.


I am ALSO not saying that you cannot get some of the wisdom of a liberal arts education just from reading and living and watching life, because you can. And some students have picked up a lot of the liberal arts lessons before they even go to college, just from growing up in a household that practices what the liberal arts preach.


But for most people there is no faster, surer route to becoming an effective citizen and a successful leader than a solid liberal arts education. And if you are planning to get the most out of your college education — the most value, the most money, the best career options — you will need to go broad, not deep, which means that your major is less important than all the OTHER classes you choose outside your major.

And that has BIG implications for choosing a major, but we'll get to those in a moment. First, let's consider why they even have majors.


So Why Have Majors?

The purpose of a major is to ensure that you are not ONLY a broad thinker, but that you ALSO have the capability to and some experience in deeply exploring a subject. That purpose is TOTALLY not about job training. Remember: Most History majors do not become historians, most Sociology majors do not become sociologists, and most Literature majors do not become writers.


So, since you HAVE going to go deep in some area of study, it is important to choose a major that you not only find interesting, but that you are passionate about.


Why? Because you are going to have to spend long hours on hard problems. If it is an area that doesn’t mean much to you, the work will be harder, it will go slower, you’ll do worse, and you’ll learn less.


And that means that the life skills you were supposed to pick up from going deep in a discipline will have been imperfectly mastered. Later, that will hamper you in your job and limit your earning capacity.

So for success in college, your choice of a major DOES matter, but the most important factor is that it be something you care about — Philosophy, Sociology, Linguistics, Astronomy, Cultural Studies, French Literature, Mathematics — it doesn’t matter which. They all hold challenges. And they will all help you in your future career, whether it be in a trade, a profession, or as an entrepreneur, manager, administrator, or sales executive.

So here is what to look for, and what to stay away from when choosing a college major.


Electives Are Critically Important

Many majors today require that you take a LOT of classes.  That big required class load squeezes out most of your elective opportunities, and even co-opts some of your general education classes. 


You must avoid these majors EVEN IF you are interested in them, because they will do serious damage to your ability to get a broad education, and that broad education must be your priority.


This isn’t rocket science. The law of diminishing returns dictates that the deeper you go into a discipline the more focused will be your thinking, and the fewer mind-expanding moments you will be experiencing. Your tenth class in Computer Engineering won’t teach you nearly as much as your first class in Anthropology. 


Why Some Majors Undermine the Liberal Arts

You might wonder why colleges would allow academic departments to mandate more classes than is good for their students?


Well, it turns out that universities are not immune to politics, and in some schools the more students and classes they fill, the more money their departments receive, which increases their power and influence in a variety of ways.


As the departments battle each other for resources and prestige, the quality of student education -- including educational breadth and individual attention -- are collateral damage.


So all things being equal, prefer the major that has the fewest requirements and allows you to explore more additional fields. If you hear that a major has so many class requirements that you need to start in your first year or you'll never catch up, alarm bells should be ringing -- you and your liberal arts education -- the one you are paying a fortune for -- are about to become food for someone's budget.



Another nearly invisible trap occurs in colleges that purport to offer a wide variety of classes, but when you get there you discover that many of the majors are “impacted,” which means that you can’t necessarily get in to your first choice of major.


And there is a worse side-effect of impacted majors, too, which is that the even the lower-division classes are hard to get into for non-majors because students in the major have first priority. 


When you are looking at colleges, ask about impacted majors, and when you see a school with multiple impacted majors, that means the school does not have enough resources to meet its students' demand for classes. and you may not be able to get the education you are paying for.


Class Size

Another trap to worry about when it comes to the quality of your education is class-size. Large classes are okay under some circumstances, and if done in certain ways, but the learning experience in a large class is entirely different from the experience you’ll get in a small class. 


So check median class size at colleges you are considering. Higher median class sizes mean the college is under financial pressure and won’t be able to deliver you as good an education as it may be promising.



Finally, for most students, it is best to enter college undeclared.


The reason for this is because entering freshman have not had enough experience with the college curriculum to be able to choose the right major with much confidence. Seriously: Most high schools do not offer Psychology, Sociology, Linguistics, Economics, Philosophy, Italian Studies, or Art History. And the versions of History and Literature that ARE offered in high school are nothing like the real thing.


So when I see a student who enters college with a declared major, I see someone who is willing to make decisions with inadequate information, which means they are off to a bad start from Day 1. You'll have to break that habit eventually, so start now.

That doesn't mean that EVERY student who declares a major on their college application is mistaken. Even a broken clock is right twice day, but it is at best risky behavior. 

I also understand that some colleges actually REQUIRE students to declare a major in order to enroll, and other colleges force upon its students a now-or-never dilemma because there is no way into an impacted major after you begin.


My advice would be to avoid those colleges if at all possible.

But, But, But...Med School!

it is true that you can't get into Med School without a lot of science pre-reqs, and you have to do well on the MCAT, BUT if you do great in the sciences and great on the entry exams, it doesn't matter what your major is -- Biology, Chemistry...even Philosophy.  Seriously, Philosophy majors get into Med School, if they meet all the requirements. And Chemistry majors get into Law School.  Check it out. They don't often try, but there's nothing stopping them but themselves.  Seriously, check it out. Most Philosophy Majors don't apply to Med School, but when Philosophy Majors Do Apply to Medical School their acceptance rate is actually HIGHER than for Biology majors.


So now you know:

1. The purpose of your undergraduate education is to nurture broad mental aptitudes of general applicability, which will have a huge impact on your earning potential, but do not correlate with any particular job

2. The data that says STEM students have higher first year salaries is deceiving because Humanities and Social Science students often do BETTER in the long run

3. You can major in anything and still pursue whatever career you want; in fact, if your major too-tightly corresponds to your career, you may improperly narrow your education thereby harming your future career prospects

4. You should choose a major that you are curious and passionate about

5. You should avoid majors that have so many required classes that you can't get the breadth you need. In fact, the fewer required classes the better

6. Don't think of your General Education Requirements as a burden -- breadth is actually where you will find the most value, both for yourself and your career

7. Avoid colleges that have severe major requirements, impacted majors, or large median class sizes

8. If your parents, in their well-meaning love for you, think that you should sacrifice your broad liberal arts education in order to study Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math BECAUSE they think you'll make more money, have them read this, and tell them that you insist on a good long-term return on your education, and that there will always be time for vocational and professional training, but this is your best shot at developing the leadership skills you'll need no matter where life takes you.



That "Useless" Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket


Liberal Arts Majors are the Future of the Tech Industry

(Harvard Business Review)

Why Liberal Arts Will Rue the Digital World

(Boston Review)

Why a Liberal Education Creates Great Entrepreneurs 

(Huffington Post)

In the Digital Age, Students with Liberal Arts Training Stand Out

(USA Today)

How Silicon Valley Learnt to Love the Liberal Arts

(Financial Times)

Good News: Your Liberal Arts Degree Is Now in High Demand

(Big Think)

The ability to recognize opportunities and move in new - and sometimes unexpected - directions will benefit you no matter your interests or aspirations. A liberal arts education is designed to equip students for just such flexibility and imagination.

-- Drew Gilpin Faust

 28th President of Harvard (first woman)

I'm a huge fan of the liberal arts approach of teaching you to think, analyze, and communicate, then sending you out into the world to cause trouble.

-- Hilary Mason

Chief Scientist, bitly

CEO Fast Forward Labs

I do regret that when I went to college, I didn't have a liberal arts education. I got a BFA in musical theater, so it was a very directed toward what I was doing. I wish that I had expanded my horizons a little bit.

-- Heather Dubrow


Journalism students need to understand it and need a solid background in the liberal arts, in sociology, economics, literature and language, because they won't get it later on.

-- Harrison Salisbury

New York Times journalist

My personal advice is to go to school first and get a liberal arts education, and then if you want to pursue acting, go to graduate school.

-- Jillian Bach


I'm not a big fan of journalism schools, except those that are organized around a liberal arts education. Have an understanding of history, economics and political science - and then learn to write.

-- Tom Brokaw

NBC News Anchor for 22 years

I was fortunate in that I attended university in Canada in the early 1970s when you could take a true liberal arts degree with no programmes, majors or minors.

-- O. R. Melling


Contrary to what many parents tell their children about majoring in subjects like political science or philosophy, these degrees won't necessarily leave you in the poorhouse. It can depend on what career path you choose to pursue with that degree. Liberal-arts-school graduates see their median total compensation grow by 95% after about 10 years. Engineering-school grads, earn the highest starting salaries, yet see their paychecks expand just 76% by their career  midpoints. History-majors-turned-business-consultants earn a median total compensation of $104,000, similar to their counterparts who pursued a business major like economics -- whose grads earn about $98,000 overall at mid-career.

-- Wall Street Journal

Ivy Leaguers' Big Edge

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