Off to College? Choose Your Major Wisely

Posted on August 22, 2016


Okay, kids, it’s back to school time, and some of you are heading off to college.  Soon you will be faced with the decision of what to study.  Before you go prancing forth with some naive notion of “following your dreams,” be sure of some things:

1)  There are actually jobs to be had in your chosen field.  Where are these jobs?  How many jobs are there, vs. number of graduates per year?  How much do the entry-level jobs pay?

2)  If there are jobs out there, you have a hard, cold, realistic understanding of what they are like.  What kind of organization do you work for?  Where is the paycheck coming from?  How much chance is there for promotion or upward mobility?

3)  You have a good, solid chance of finding employment that will pay your living expenses and pay off your college loans sometime before you die.

It’s all very nice to dream of working with whales or studying the ocean floor in a bathysphere, but the reality is that with a degree in marine biology, you are far more likely to end up studying some snail population, having to beg for grants to do it, and living on peanut butter for quite a while.

Or maybe you love literature.  Unfortunately, about the only job open to a literature major is teaching literature.  It’s not exactly a burgeoning job market.  Hubby actually started his college days as a literature major; it was enjoyable enough, but one day pretty early on, the reality hit him:  what kind of a job could he get with a literature degree?  How many literature-related jobs were even out there?  So he made the conscious, self-interested choice to major in electrical engineering.   His thought:  major in business, or any kind of engineering.  His reasoning:  If you are trained in manufacturing things, marketing things, producing things, and selling things, you will find work.

Lila was not quite as forward-thinking.  Having majored in geology, I discovered that the really good jobs require a Master’s or preferably a Ph.D., and that means specializing to a painfully detailed level.  I mean painfully.  I know some folks from my college days who have been studying some particular layer of sediment for decades now.  I would go insane.

I was more practical in choosing my military specialty, the Signal Corps:  my reasoning was that everyone, everywhere needs communications, so this job could take me to any duty station; and if the military didn’t work out, well, I could always get a job for some phone company or cable TV company.  Fun?  Maybe not a super dream job, but hey, it would pay the bills.  Once you’re out of the nest and reality takes over, pragmatism outweighs starry-eyed dreams every time.  Well, it does if you plan to eat regularly, say, or have your own home.  Being saddled with an enormous student debt for a useless degree is not high on the list.

So how is a college-bound student to decide on a field of study?  Lucky for you, some folks at Georgetown University came up with some numbers on unemployment levels and entry-level earnings for various college majors.  You can check it out here, and see how your intended college major stacks up.

If you still plan to follow your own starry-eyed dreams of being the next Picasso or Jacques Cousteau or Quentin Tarantino, well, just make sure the couch in your parents’ basement will be available for a while.