No, you don't NEED to study that

I teach freshmen every semester. A lot of them. In fact, in my world history course (HIST150: The West in the World), at least 80% of the 210 students are freshmen. Since I constantly encourage students to meet with me, I have had numerous discussions with students about their choice of major (or lack thereof), plans for the future, and career aspirations. What I have been hearing in one-on-one meetings reflects the consistent results I’ve seen in surveys I’ve conducted in my world history classes in the last 2 years. By now I’ve surveyed over 500 Ball State students, among whom more than half believe they need to pursue a practical major, and that they would have majored in the humanities or social sciences if they knew it could lead them to the career they wanted (see more here).

So, as another academic year is about to begin, it’s time to once again debunk some of the assumptions students come to college with. In short: You can get any career you want from pretty much any major if you focus on the right skills, so go with your heart, not with what some stupid “worst college majors list” you found online, or with what one uncle who has never been to college, told you to do.

1. What you study does not matter. It’s all about skills.

Beyond job-specific skills, most employers hiring college grads today are looking for a very similar set of skills across different professions: Writing by far tops the list (I’ve discussed this before here, and see my online writing guide for more), along with critical thinking, the ability to read, understand, and analyze a large body of evidence/literature/documents and present the results coherently and concisely (otherwise called: research skills), problem solving (also related to research), and digital literacy (and by this I mean more than just using MS Word or Facebook – think editing photos and videos, maintaining websites, etc.). In addition, employers do not want to hire provincial mindsets – people who have never left their home town or state or the midwest and know very little about the greater world – but rather seek curious, worldly individuals who have experienced other cultures in some form. Thus knowing foreign languages gives you a big advantage, even if your career does not require it.

What major should you choose then? One that does a good job training you in all those skills, and one that also requires (or leaves enough time for) studying at least one foreign language. Research shows – quite compellingly – that the humanities and social sciences (and some sciences too) do a far better job in training students for the job market than professional schools or business school (see the evidence here , here and here, as well as under the articles section). If income is what concerns you (and it should, at least to some degree), you may also be surprised to find that research has shown that while business and other professional majors make more money than humanities and social science majors the first few years after college, in the long run, and especially among those who attended graduate school, humanities and social science (and hard-science) majors end up earning more and having more employment opportunities (see here for the evidence).


2. The liberal arts open the door for the best graduate programs.

In the surveys I conducted among my students, over 70% claimed they have no shot at attending a top graduate program.

Yale Law School

The building that houses the law school at Yale University. Better work on those key skills if you want a shot at top grad schools like this one!

Well, there’s nothing you can do to worsen your chances of being admitted to a really good graduate program than studying something too specific, like in a professional program. That is because, while such a program opens some doors (nursing to become a nurse, etc.), it closes many others by not training you in a broad range of skills. Graduate schools – the key to earning more and finding a rewarding career – look for the very same skills I mentioned above. The competition is tough, especially for the better programs that would also fund you (I got my Ph.D. at Princeton without paying a dime; in fact, Princeton paid me to go there), so you want to build and develop as many of those skills as you possibly can during your time in college.

3. Pre-this, pre-that, pre-nothing!

There’s a misconception among students that if they want to attend a specific graduate program, they definitely need to major in an area directly related to that program, or at least to attend some pre-something program. By this logic, to get an MBA one definitely needs a business degree; to attend law school one needs to be pre-law; to be a speech therapist (which requires a master’s degree) one needs to study that in college too; to be a teacher one must go through the standard teacher training that leaves little room for taking any electives; and to go to medical school, one has to be pre-med.

Sounds about right? Think again. The best MBA programs in the country recruit most of their students not from business schools or other professional programs, but rather from the humanities, social sciences (with emphasis on economics), and sciences. Law schools couldn’t care less if you were pre-law, but would never take you if you don’t possess most of the skills I listed above. In fact, according to the American Bar Association, areas like history, English, philosophy, and political science are considered among the more traditional majors preparing students for law school. No matter what you major in, the emphasis, its website claims, should always be on “taking advantage of opportunities to develop your research and writing skills.”

Speech therapy and other such professional programs? Go to the website of the master’s program you are hoping to attend one day (see here for Ball State’s). You will notice that all you need is a college degree, but that degree does not have to be in the same area. Want to teach? There are numerous opportunities to pursue teaching after college without going through the standard training. Nothing wrong with that, though. I was an education major myself. But, if the only reason you are enrolled in a teachers’ program is because you want to teach and deep inside wish you could study something else, you should know that you have options. Teach for America is one of them, but there are others. And pre-med? True, medical schools require you to take a sequence of science and math courses known collectively as pre-med. But pre-med isn’t a major, and you don’t have to be a biology, chemistry, or math major either. You can take those courses and pursue a history or English degree. Medical schools in fact prefer candidates with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences, as they wish to train doctors who can also connect with their patients, not just know the science behind things. So no, your choice of major does not need to be dictated by the professional school you hope to attend 4 years from now.

4. Get some hands-on experience.

immersiveClassroom experience isn’t enough nowadays, and the best first jobs after college typically come from your own networking, not from applying to job ads. You want to find time to get real world experience while still in school, one that would help you build a professional network from which a job might potentially come one day: internships, meaningful student jobs (research/library, not dining), opportunities on campus that involve connections with the greater community (at Ball State, we have Immersive Learning), and study abroad. You can do all of these from most majors, but some would be less flexible with their programs, would not approve courses taken elsewhere so easily, and would leave you little time for this sort of real-world exploration. One thing I love about humanities and social science majors is that they are very flexible (about half the courses are electives), and leave ample time to take courses outside your program.

5. Double major, or add a minor or two.

This is especially important for business, journalism, tcomm, and other majors where students dream of a glamorous career but then have to compete in a job market flooded with people like them, many of whom come from better schools. In other words, your chances of running a major corporation or being a TV news or sports anchor with only a Ball State degree in that area are slim to none. Sure, there’s that one famous dude who made it. But for every one like him, there are thousands who ended up with mediocre careers who cannot even afford to repay their student loans. Want a real shot at that career? Focus on the skills I mention above, and add another major or a minor or two to show people looking at your transcript and resume that you are different, that you have the “edge” over other candidates. Think about it: If you had to hire a reporter for a newspaper and had two candidates, one with a journalism degree and the other who was a double major in journalism and French, who would you likely take?
These are just a few points to think about as you enter the wonderful world of college. It is always a good idea to talk to someone more experienced before making career decisions. If you are an incoming freshman at Ball State, feel free to get in touch with me as the semester begins. I would be happy to sit with you and talk about making the career choices that are right for you.

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