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?
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...
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.