Do Major’s Matter?
There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented — or disoriented — than the choice of a major.“Sometimes, even those who have already decided, when you ask them about their major [and how it will affect their job expectations], the answers don’t correspond with what they want to do,” says Mitchell Purdy, the director of the counseling center at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.Many higher education officials say that’s no big deal. Although certain specialized majors will prepare a student for a specific career — like engineering, computer science or accounting — the majority of graduates take jobs that do not have a direct correlation with their chosen career areas. Nonetheless, experts advise that the demands of the job market should be the main determinant of academic choices.Many educators and job recruiters — even from industries where one would think a certain level of expertise is needed — say the course of study isn’t as important as the technical and other cross-disciplinary skills a student acquires. Then again, just as many others say that the course of study is very important and that business and industry should play a prominent role in the development of college curricula. So not only are college students getting mixed signals about gauging and enhancing their marketability, college faculty are finding their job stability determined by the demands — and lack thereof — in the job market.
Major Decisions“We do an employer survey form that looks at majors and job placement and … there doesn’t really seem to be a necessity [for specific majors] in most of these companies,” says Dr. Philip D. Gardner, director of research at the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. “If the student has some technical expertise, then the major doesn’t matter. As long as they can demonstrate a set of skills, then they become attractive” to industry. For students of liberal arts, “a lot of [traditional, nontechnical] majors don’t have specific jobs related to their majors. They’re in fields like human resources, sales, communications, that sort of thing.” Gardner says.“Some organizations interviewing for certain positions will look at the degrees, like if you’re an electrical engineer or a supply chain major or something that requires a certain set of skills and knowledge,” says Lenroy Jones, assistant director of Career Services and Placement at Michigan State University. “But in some of the areas, it’s pretty wide open and a variety of disciplines will go into a variety of jobs areas.“I worked with a political science major who was getting ready to graduate and wanted to prepare to go into the business sector, in sales,” Jones continues. “That was no problem. He took six to nine credits of business courses and he became extremely marketable. When we sat down just before graduation, he had more offers than he knew what to do with.”As another example, he adds that currently, “an automotive company is looking for production managers and the position is open for all majors.”And Laura Levine, a college recruiter for America Online, says: “A specific major is not as important unless you’re looking for a finance position. Or [there are] some technical positions where you are looking for experts in that specific area. [Having a specific course on a college transcript] shows that you have an interest in it, that you have some expertise in it. Generally, we would prefer to see electrical and computer engineering degrees, but that’s not the only thing we look for.”
Marketable SkillsRegardless of their major, graduates are finding employment in record numbers. According to Gardner, all the employment rates for Michigan State graduates are high: 98 percent of engineering and computer science majors are employed or going to graduate school within six months of graduation; somewhere around 96 percent of the business majors. For the social sciences, the numbers vary from a low of 92 percent to around 96 percent. “They are the hardest ones to place,” says Gardner. “It just takes more time to find jobs in the humanities — and, more of those students go on to graduate school.” He also is confident the teaching market is clearing everybody that’s graduating.At Jackson State, Hackett says, “job availability is generally more limited in the liberal arts than in the technical areas. But there are still a lot of jobs out there for liberal arts majors. “We don’t do job fairs, but we do have a career fair to introduce our students to careers they may not be familiar with,” he adds. “A good example is the gaming industry, which is new to Mississippi. [The students] need to learn that the industry needs the accountants and the managers and the writers. There’s a lot more to it than dealing blackjack or poker.”And the job market is doing so well that race and gender differences aren’t as acute as they would be during times with less economic prosperity.“We interject [race] into some of our surveys but it just washes out,” Gardner says, noting that minority students are interested in the same programs and courses as White students. “Certainly minorities in the technology fields are having no problems finding jobs. But there are still a lot of issues involving minority kids being exposed to the technology.” “If you have your credentials and you’ve done the things you need to do, as a minority, you’re not going to be out there [looking for a job] for too long,” Jones adds. “It’s the same thing with gender,” Gardner adds. “In fact, it has been a beneficial time for women of all races. They are the ones going to college in increasing numbers. And if it weren’t for them, we’d really have some problems in the labor market.”
The Right ChoiceMost counselors also admit that the choice of a major is not necessarily a major life choice. Officials at the University of New Hampshire assert that 20 percent of all students switch majors between admission and the first day of classes and nearly 75 percent change majors at least twice before they graduate. University of Minnesota officials concur with those figures, adding that recent studies suggest that it is typical for students to test out four or five majors before making a final decision. And George Mason University officials advise that there can be several “right” majors for any individual student.These officials suggest that a student choose a major that captures the student’s interest, motivates them, makes them happy and allows them to use their strengths. They say that research indicates that people change careers several times throughout their life and in order to keep pace with the job market, students should be provided with a foundation of knowledge, skills and experiences that are useful in a variety of career settings.Additionally, officials at the University of California at Berkeley warn that selecting a major and pursuing a career just because it’s “hot” in the job market can be dangerous. With new career fields and new technology appearing on the horizon every few months, they warn that what you specialize in today may be outdated next week.And that can be of particular concern to the professors who are being hired to teach these new technology-driven majors.“Professors can get left by the wayside,” says Dr. Bruce A. Kimball, a professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development who has written several books on the history of academia. “If you start creating jobs for professors that are pitched to a particular vocation, those jobs could become short-term. The more you go in this direction, what is at stake is [an educational] superficiality. It has a very negative impact on the professorate because it tends to lead to viewing professors as technicians or people to fill specific job slots. The academic profession is more devoted to the advancement of knowledge [and this tends] to undermine the general mission of the professorate.“As a result, people will invest much less in preparing to teach. You get a dumbing-down of the education enterprise and you could get a dumbing-down of the professorate,” he continues before segueing into issues of financial security and tenure. “If you haven’t got the security that this expertise is valued by the university, then people are going to stop becoming real experts in these major fields. Who’s going to get a Ph.D. for a job that’s going to last only a few years?” But for students, the concern about their marketability goes right to the core of an age-old question for higher education.“Why do you go to college?” posits Jones. “In certain disciplines, it’s very clear — you want to be a doctor, you want to be an engineer. But a lot of students have no idea what they want to do, or it comes to them so late, and then [the only importance of the major] is to get out [of school with a diploma]. Even when I was in school, I found out that I could go into banking with a communications degree or a psychology degree or a business degree. Students today are very astute. They are looking for something to enhance their skills.”And the current emphasis on enhancing skills seems to be relieving the anxiety surrounding the choice of a major.“It’s an exciting time for students. Not just for those looking at small businesses, but for those looking to work for large, Fortune 500 type organizations,” marvels Jones. “They have the technical skills, the organizational skills, the communications skills to be successful at a lot of places.“It goes beyond the job market,” he adds. “Job titles change, majors may even change, but skills remain constant.”
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