Few things induce more stress for students and their families than the college search process — until it’s time to declare a major.
The choice of a field of study that will prepare a student for a career they may (or may not) enjoy and that will (or won’t) be relevant in 25 years can send even the most well-prepared families into a frenzy.
Almost always, this anxiety stems from concerns about career outcomes. While it’s natural to focus on professional outcomes and return on investment, assuming a linear relationship between major and career represents a common misunderstanding of what a college major is and can be. The fact is, the relationship between major and field is hardly ever direct. Even technical fields include options: Is biology, biochemistry or neuroscience the “best way” to prepare for medical school? Answer: All are good. It depends on the student. And history majors go to med school, too!
Few incoming college students have firsthand, day-to-day working experience with a particular field, so it is understandable when they enter college undeclared. In fact, at many institutions, including Dickinson College where we work, students do not declare a major until the first or even second semester of second year.
Students should look at choosing a major as an opportunity to confirm, discover or expand their authentic interests. They should be asking, “What kinds of problems do I find most engaging? What kinds of problems am I best at solving? Where do those two categories intersect?”
When students choose a major (and campus employment, summer jobs, internships, etc.) by asking, “What’s the next opportunity that looks most interesting and important to me right now?” they will build a network that relates to and advances their authentic interests. Over time, this process will maximize the chances of landing a job they find meaningful and rewarding — personally and financially — and they are more likely to graduate in four years. At Dickinson, 96 percent of graduates from the most recent classes (2016–2018) completed their degrees in four years or less.
This is different from choosing a major based on an imagined, linear relationship between major and career*, which risks building a network founded on inauthentic interests that often land students in a field they don’t like.
Regardless of major, students need to do well in the classroom, and pursuing a field of study that matches authentic interests will help them do better.
Awareness and planning
With awareness and planning, students can pursue almost any career with almost any major. This is one of the advantages of a liberal arts education, whether that be at an institution like ours (a highly selective liberal arts college) or within an “honors college” at a large university. Why? With a focus on critical thinking, analysis, communication and collaboration (skills that any employer will tell you are the most critical and sought after in the workforce), a liberal arts education exposes students to the interconnectedness of the world. We can share countless examples from our college where the education — not necessarily the major — made students successful, marketable and prepared to pursue meaningful careers. Here are a few:
- L.L.Bean CEO Steven Smith majored in art history.
- Philadelphia Phillies President Andy MacPhail majored in American studies.
- Disney Channels Vice President Kristin Corrigan majored in Spanish.
- Justin’s Nut Butter Founder Justin Gold majored in environmental studies.
- PGA Tour Vice President Kirsten Nixa Sabia majored in political science.
This may seem obvious, but regardless of major, students need to do well in the classroom, and pursuing a field of study that matches authentic interests will help them do better. Students also must meet with their college or university career center early and often, especially to explore and define interests and networking opportunities and to identify the skills needed in the wider world. Students should pursue campus employment, volunteer opportunities, summer jobs and internships thoughtfully and strategically. And courses taken outside of the major should also be taken intentionally.
At Dickinson, courses in students’ majors usually compose fewer than half the total courses they take in college. We have carefully designed our graduation requirements to complement and supplement students’ majors. Will an English course help a pre-med student be a better doctor? Yes — in fact, more and more medical schools require them. Will a course in quantitative reasoning help a philosophy student? Yes — in the 21st century, students’ understanding of knowledge, decision-making, ethics and perhaps even consciousness needs to include issues like “big data.” And their understanding will prove practical in just about any professional field after they graduate.
How can you support and guide your student?
- Endorse the process of choosing a major as an opportunity to build authentic interests. A network that connects knowledge, skills, experiences and people about which a student cares and in which a student is invested is most likely to prepare students to launch in a direction that they’ll find rewarding and in which they will achieve success.
- Encourage your student to visit their career center regardless of whether they think they know the career they want or haven’t yet given it serious thought. Learning how to think critically about their interests, aptitudes, skills and values will enable them to build successful careers —no matter what changes the future holds for the world of work.
- Convey confidence. Students need confidence to imagine ambitious careers. And they’ll certainly need confidence when they send out resumes and go on interviews. Eventually, we all need to talk our way into our next opportunity. Understanding and having confidence in the relationship between major and career will help.
Remember, today’s market is hyper mobile, meaning students will change jobs and careers many times. Some of the jobs today’s first-year class will occupy haven’t yet been invented, and most, if not all, of today’s jobs will change as technology advances in the coming decades. All of that makes learning how to learn — not necessarily the major — essential.
*In accordance with current U.S. immigration regulations, international students who are approved to work in the U.S. immediately after graduation need to demonstrate a direct relationship between their employment and their major area of study.
Damon Yarnell, Ph.D., is associate provost and executive director of the Center for Advising, Internships & Lifelong Career Development at Dickinson College, where he has worked for eight years. Outside academia, he has used his liberal arts degree in fields such as project management and sustainable development. Tara Vasold Fischer is dean of academic advising at Dickinson College and has nearly two decades of experience within higher education, having spent most of her career in enrollment management. Her focus is on student navigation of choice. She also serves as the president of Dickinson’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (alpha of Pennsylvania).