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How Important is Your College Major? The Short Answer Is Maybe Not Much!

I think people, especially parents, put way too much emphasis on trying to figure out what major a student should pursue in college. Often the student is subjected to a battery of tests to help determine a major. I’ve heard it said, “You don’t have to decide at 18 what you’re going to be at 48.” I have found that the undergraduate major may not be as important as people are lead to believe.

I was on a radio program last Saturday (this is July 2010) to discuss college education. One of the hosts shared that his daughter had a Political Science degree from a local university and has spent the last two years looking for a job. I responded that I had taught Political Science at that particular university and paused for a moment.

I tried to correlate Political Science degree and not finding a job. I quickly scanned my vast knowledge of the job market and asked myself “Is she looking for an entry level Political Scientist position?” I answered my own question… “Baby, there aren’t any… never have been and probably never will.” Maybe I’m wrong and you can comment on this to correct me.

We have to ask ourselves the fundamental question: Why do I need to go to college? Well, most people respond “So you can get a better job.” OK – didn’t work this guy’s daughter. Is there something missing in this equation? Maybe so. Let me have a crack at it.

If you are going to college so you can get a better job, then you need to major in something that would make you valuable and attractive to a potential employer or prepares you for an established career field. I think there is absolutely ZERO demand for young political scientists at, let’s say, at Wal-mart corporate. But, I might be wrong. Someone from Wal-mart might need to correct me on this.

Let’s face it, most people major in Political Science (and English, and History, and Sociology, etc.) because they have a keen interest or even a passion for the body of knowledge. From the perspective of preparing a person for a career in one of those fields, the universe collapses to teaching or going to grad school to get credentials to teach at a higher level. There are very few pure practitioners in these fields, those who are have grad degrees and are somehow tied into a university and have teaching experience.

So, what’s the solution? Keep in mind this is coming from a guy who has a bachelors degree in Criminal Justice. I’ve never busted anyone or wrote a parking ticket. The degree hangs proudly on the wall. My second doctorate is in Urban and Public Administration… nobody has asked me to be their Mayor. It, too, hangs proudly on the wall, with a few more degrees in-between the two.

So my counsel:

First – unless you have a Damascus Road or Burning Bush experience, I would not be too hasty in selecting a major… and I would fend off all those who think you have to know what to major in before you even set foot on campus. I thought I wanted to major in Computer Science. After three weeks of manually punching cards (this was a loooong time ago), I rethought my career plans.

Second – Take a variety of courses. How do you know you don’t like Geology? Or Journalism? Take your basics and an elective or two your first semester.

Third – Think Strategically. If you develop a passion for Shakespeare but don’t see yourself teaching high school English, major in something more practical like Journalism or Business, and minor or double major in English. Pursue a path that is both-and, not either/or. Balance your passion with practical preparation for a job after you graduate.

Finally – It’s your life. College is a place to learn. I took Science Fiction Literature my sophomore year to watch monster movies and get an easy A. Boy, was I wrong! I was forced to learn how to dissect, saut, carve up, and savor every morsel in literature, and barely escaped with a C. But I became impassioned with literature and was now equipped to enjoy and appreciate it. Though I never majored in it, I have taught literature at both the high school and college level, and written several complete English curriculums for high school and college. Not bad for an unrequited cop and mayor.