“I Want to Major in Something that Makes Money”

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Part of my job as a college instructor includes “academic advising,” which is where I meet with students to discuss their progress toward their degree. Frequently, the first time I meet students and ask what they want to major in, they reply, “I want to major in something that makes money.”

I get what these students mean. Students and their families are sacrificing for school and a lot rides on their success. Like many people, they believe the diploma they are handed at graduation is the key to unlocking a standard of living they may never have had before, and they want that key to lead to as much as possible.

However, there are some problems with this way of thinking.

College Degrees Don’t Always Lead Directly to Jobs

A degree from a liberal arts college usually does not lead to a specific career. Yes, if you study engineering then you’ll likely end up working as an engineer, but most majors are intentionally broad and designed to develop general, soft skills that can be applied to many jobs. This means that when you graduate from college, you still have to find a career and learn the skills necessary to advance in it. What you learned in college will help you, but it may not relate to your job as closely as you expected.

If you want a degree that leads directly to a specific job, then technical education might be the better path for you.

It’s Hard to Succeed at Something You Hate

Some jobs are very much in demand or high-salary, but may not be right for you. If you major in something you’re not good at, you’re more likely to struggle, less likely to stay motivated, and less likely to be successful in a career using that skill set. In contrast, if you’re doing something that you like (or at least don’t hate), you’re more likely to be an asset to your employer and successful in your career.

The Majors that Make Money May Surprise You

We’ve all heard the jokes about English majors who work as baristas or art history majors living in their mom’s basement. But there’s not as much truth to that as you’d think.

In May of 2018, Derek Newton wrote about higher rates of unemployment among business and education majors than liberal arts majors, and in October 2018, CBS News reported similar findings. This might partly be because these are some of the most popular majors in the United States and so the market is over-saturated. Majoring in something just because you think you will make money is not always a safe bet.

Most College Graduates Struggle Initially

Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you’ll be in demand on the job market. Most college students graduate with little valuable work experience. Yes, you may have waited tables or sold clothing or even run a register at a fast food place, but those jobs don’t necessarily give you the skills you need in an office environment. This means you may have to humbly accept the work you can find before you move into the work you want. Remember, other people have paid their dues and you will have to, too. The good news is, studies show that employees with a college degree are likely to advance more quickly in their career than their coworkers without degrees.

The Degree Matters Less than What You Do with It

Your college major does not define you. Being creative with your skill set and continuing to add new skills is the best way to move into the job you want. Plenty of people with liberal arts degrees work in their chosen fields…and plenty of people with liberal arts degrees are successful in other fields. For example, Steve Ells founded Chipotle despite majoring in art history, and Judy McGrath, an ex-MTV CEO, majored in English.

Maybe you think Ells and McGrath are exceptions to the rule. Admittedly, their level of success does make them unusual, however, lots of people end up working in a field different from what they majored in. Yet often if you ask them, they find ways to apply what they learned from their major. One example is Lindsay Weirich, who uses skills she developed from her communications degree to make a living creating painting tutorials on YouTube. Similarly, I had a student who turned his theater degree into a lucrative sales job, claiming the confidence and people skills he honed in college taught him how to generate excitement for the products he sold.

The Upshot

There’s no way to see into the future and determine the best major for your career. Many factors impact how successful a college graduate becomes, some of which are difficult to control, so picking a major just because you think it will get you a job or help you make a lot of money probably isn’t the best decision. Instead, when picking a major, consider the following:

  • Do I have any talent in this area, or is everything in this subject really difficult for me? Similarly, am I working hard in this major, or am I never being challenged?
  • Do I have any interest in this area, or am I constantly bored by it?
  • Does this major offer any concrete skills I can demonstrate to employers, such as communication, computer, or research skills? What skills am I learning along the way as I complete assignments for this major?

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