My College:
Dear Adina

What's the Best College Major for a Good Career?

Adina Glickman


Dear Adina,

My student hasn't declared a major yet. Do you have advice about the best college majors for a good career (including salary) five or ten years in the future?


Dear Parent,

There are people who spend their time pondering and predicting just this sort of thing, and to be sure, it’s reasonable to look at our economy in the context of this past year and do whatever we can to reduce whatever uncertainty we can. (Click here to read the National Association of Colleges and Employers' salary projections for the class of 2021 broken down by major.)

I am not one of those people, though — but I appreciate the question as an invitation to say a few words about college majors, what it means to choose a major, and how to understand its relationship to developing a career.

First, let’s look at the relationship between majors and careers. I was sitting on a panel of advisors at Stanford University once along with Dr. Gabe Garcia, Associate Dean of Admissions from Stanford Medical School. A student asked him, “What should I major in if I want to go to Stanford Med School?”

And his reply was, “French Literature, if that’s what you’re into.”

Why? Because he was looking for students who loved what they did, had a curiosity about it and pursued it with vigor. The pre-med courses were secondary.

The idea here is that becoming a thinker, question-asker, do-er, and person who can commit are the human characteristics needed for becoming, in this case, a doctor. In fact, these are the characteristics that are needed for any young person to develop a career in any area. So whatever major gives the student a chance to be their most curious, thinking, doing, committed self is the major that will position them for developing a meaningful career.

The vocational skills and the pragmatic knowledge are learnable as the discipline becomes meaningful to the student. And what is meaningful at the time a student is in school may not be what is meaningful 5–10 years hence.

Second, because jobs and careers evolve quickly in a rapidly changing world, the best majors to choose to prepare for such eventuality are those that teach students critical thinking, oral and written communication, and problem-solving skills. Young people must be nimble, flexible, imaginative and resilient to turn any college major into a profession — even the ones that have clear paths like “lawyer” or “doctor.”

Because within any profession, the work itself is often not the hardest part. Instead, the organizational systems, the interpersonal challenges, and the opportunities to have a sense of purpose and fulfillment are the real mountains to climb. Learning how to be a good human who can work with other humans is the underlying curriculum of all college majors.

Finally, many interesting jobs 5–10 years out haven’t even emerged yet. If you look back 5–10 year ago, many industries were either just coming into form or didn’t even exist. We can be pretty sure that TikTok Influencer and COVID Test Site Manager were not on the roster of predicted professions when your kids were little.

Similarly, had I looked at good career ideas for 5–10 years in my future, Academic Coach wouldn’t have been listed. And though I don’t know your age, I will bet that, when you were younger, it’s very likely Facebook Post Screener, Web Content Developer and Product Evangelist didn’t exist. The headline here is that, because our world is changing so quickly, careers and jobs change quickly also. So try not to think about the purpose of today’s major as tied to tomorrow’s career.

A good major is...

  • Something that cultivates (and doesn’t kill) a student’s curiosity and interest in learning. Because to be successful professionally, people have to continue learning throughout life.
  • Something of real interest and consequence to the student. Because when it gets hard, it is the intrinsic motivation “this matters to me” that helps sustain a frustrated, tired or overloaded student.
  • A way of experiencing in some form how people think and do within a specific discipline. It can provide experiences that might prepare someone for a profession, but usually the experience of working in that profession is quite different from the experience of being a student in that discipline. Internships are fantastic experiences for getting a taste of a profession.
  • Not (necessarily) the first step towards a profession, because really no one should decide on their profession when their pre-frontal cortex is still growing. Imagine if decisions you made when you were 16 were things you still had to honor today. People change; we’re supposed to.
  • Not a lifelong commitment. It’s an experiment being made by a young person to immerse themselves deeply in an area. Deep learning literally changes the brain, which by definition makes for a changing person. Choosing a major is not tantamount to sealing your future in cement. In some ways, it kind of doesn’t matter what their major is; it’s more important that they do well in it.

A final note, that I suspect may be underlying this question, which is “How do I make sure my kid will fly from the nest and not crash and burn?” In short, we teach them how to fly, and we teach them how to navigate, and most of all we teach them how to pick back up and fluff up their wounded selves after they crash.

Yours,

Adina Signature

Have a question? Ask Adina

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at adinaglickman.com.

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