Advice on Choosing a College Major

If there’s anything teenagers need, it’s advice about life decisions.  If there’s anything that teenagers refuse to take, it’s advice about life decisions.  So, with the parents, relatives, friends, and acquaintances of young people in mind, I present some big-picture advice about college and college majors, for the benefit of teenagers you know.  I want to lay some groundwork that could be helpful to a high school student considering the vast array of colleges, college majors, student loans, scholarships, etc. out there staring back at him or her.  I will save the ‘college is a scam’ part for a future discussion

You may be asking yourself, “what does this weasel know about college?”  Hey, read the ‘about’ page here.  I have had more college than other weasels, and probably had more college than you, but I did it non-traditionally.

The key piece of advice is this:

Choosing the right college major is more important than choosing the right college.  OK, here’s the exception:  If you’re going to the Ivy League, the name of your school is more important than anything.  Are you going to the Ivy League?  No?  Didn’t think so.  So let me restate that: Choosing the right college major will have a greater effect on your job search, income, and overall happiness after college, than choosing the right college.  So spend a bunch of time on your major, and find a school that offers it.

Three goals for your major, in no particular order.
1. Choose a major you want to study
2. Choose a major you can do well
3. Choose a major other people are willing to pay you well to do

Now let’s discuss those three goals in more depth.

1. What do you want to study?  Look at what interested you in high school.  Look at careers that might make you happy.  Have a goal in mind when you show up to college.  You are not at college to go to college.  You are there to learn something useful that will set you on a good path in life, after college.

2. What can you do well?  In high school were you good at math?  Good at science?  consider math, science, computer science, and engineering.  Does math scare you?  Accept that and pick a field without math requirements.

3. What will other people pay you to do?  Below, I characterize majors roughly as (a) designed to get you into a career, or (b) designed to make you an educated person.  Some degrees do neither, and you should avoid them.  If you want to be paid for what you know and can do, consider a field that gives you knowledge and skills that translate directly into a job.  If your bachelors degree is there to get you into medical school, law school, or a commission as a military officer or foreign service officer, the ‘educated person’ approach is great.

A bachelor’s degree is expensive and takes up four precious years of your life. Make it pay off! You need a return on your investment.

Now we’ll characterize the majors.

The core of the University is the College of Arts and Sciences. Majors in the College of Arts and Science fall into three areas: the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences. The purpose of studying fields within these three areas is to become an educated person, not necessarily to get a job in one of these fields.  Typically, every college student is required to take courses in each of these three areas. In the past, all knowledge was thought to be interconnected, but today the three areas of knowledge seem to have little common ground. The one field which once bridged all three areas (Humanities, Natural and Social Sciences) is philosophy, which is now usually considered to be part of the Humanities.

A degree in history or English will not necessarily set you up for a job ‘doing history’ or ‘doing English’, but you will learn a lot, at least if it’s taught well.  Note: in the Humanities and Social Sciences, there are no commonly-accepted standards that will prove to anyone that the school taught anything, or that you actually learned anything.  In the Natural Sciences, there is an accepted body of knowledge that you must master, and analytic skills you must be able to demonstrate.  The one field that is more career-focused is computer science, which is often taught in the College of Engineering rather than the College of Arts and Sciences.

Typically within the College of Arts and Sciences, but not falling clearly within the three areas of knowledge above, are interdisciplinary studies (for example, Womens’ Studies). Many of these are recent developments (1960s onward)  in response to social change and student protest. Like the traditional majors, They also don’t lead to employment in the field of study. Unlike the older disciplines, they do not tend to produce educated people. These programs tend to emphasize political indoctrination over substantive and rigorous intellectual content.  I recommend strongly that you do onto waste your precious Bachelor’s Degree years studying ‘Studies’.

Outside the College of Arts and Sciences are other majors that apply knowledge to specific problems. The purpose of studying these applied disciplines is to get a job in these fields. Examples are Engineering, Business, Nursing, Education, etc. Each of these areas relies on the knowledge developed in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences as the basis for its own specialized knowledge. An obvious example is the relationship between Engineering and the Natural Sciences. An applied discipline which does not have as its basis one of the three areas of knowledge is probably more training than education, and doesn’t belong in the University.  If you want a financial return on your investment of time and money in college, and you want to see that return from your bachelor’s degree alone, these applied disciplines are your best choices.

A list of majors by category (incomplete but enough to get you going)

The Humanities
Philosophy, Religion
History
Language and Literature (English, foreign languages, Classical Latin and Greek)
Fine Arts (visual works of art)
Performing Arts (Music, Theater)

The Social Sciences
Psychology
Political Science
Sociology
Economics
Anthropology

The Natural Sciences
Mathematics, Computer Science
Physics, Astronomy, Geology
Chemistry, Metallurgy & Materials Science
Biology, Zoology

The Interdisciplinary Studies
Womens’ Studies
Black Studies, Native American Studies, Chicano Studies
Peace Studies

The Applied Disciplines (outside the College of Arts and Sciences)
Engineering (Electrical, Mechanical, Chemical, etc)
Business (Marketing, Accounting, Management, etc)
Education (Physical, elementary, secondary, etc)
Health Professions: Nursing, Veterinary Science, Pharmacy, etc
Forestry, Agriculture

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