Of the questions that preoccupy incoming college students — financial, scheduling, housing, belonging — advisors report that the choice of major and career path is the most anxiety-inducing. After all, isn’t choosing the right major the ticket to a successful career and life?
Unfortunately, most students feel undue pressure to discover the perfect major. But unless they are headed for specific careers with precise knowledge or licensure requirements, the belief that the major is a direct line to a career is misleading, and a cause of widespread "dysfunction," according to Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The problem begins when students pick a major that is misaligned with their aptitudes, interests or personal values, yet they stick with it due to social pressure or a perceived lack of suitable alternatives.
To begin to dispel this dysfunctional belief, it is important to realize that the correlation between a major and a specific career is weak, especially in today’s global economy that creates and destroys jobs at an accelerating pace. We know from a LinkedIn study, for example, that recent college graduates will change positions "an average of four times in their first decade out of college.” Moreover, a Federal Reserve Bank of New York study shows that a staggering 73 percent of the nation’s graduates are employed in fields unrelated to their undergraduate major.
What should we conclude from these facts?
Skeptics will want to argue that universities are failing students by not delivering on an implied "major-to-career" promise. Indeed, a few outspoken politicians around the country have concluded that too many students are choosing the "wrong" major and want to defund majors – or even entire colleges – that do not lead directly to jobs.
While the sentiment is perhaps understandable, and university reforms are in order, there is a more accurate way to view this problem: reverse the perspective. If the statistical correlation between choice of major and direct career outcome represents only 27 percent of the college-educated sector of the labor market, why is this minority sector considered the norm?
This shift in perspective is potentially liberating for students as it suddenly takes pressure off finding the elusive “perfect” major while widening student focus to the full spectrum of available pathways into the labor market, including those in the liberal arts and social sciences. In this vein, it is also helpful to know that approximately 30 percent of post-collegiate hiring in the U.S. is major-independent and about 70 percent of employers are looking for a hybridity of skills that draw on different academic disciplines and experiences. This is according to the Collegiate Education Research Institute (CERI) at Michigan State University, which conducts an annual survey of 2,000 to 3,000 companies and organizations on topics related to hiring college graduates.
An important corollary, then, to the choice of major is an integrated approach to higher education — one that promises maximal entry-level options and the ability to pivot to a new career when market disruption inevitably strikes. An important new report by The National Academies of Sciences - Engineering - Medicine (2018) suggests that even employers in the white-hot STEM market seek agile graduates with integrated skill sets:
“Students and parents have increasingly focused their aspirations and plans on a vocationally-driven approach. Ironically, [...] many employers — even, and, in fact, especially in ‘high tech’ areas — have emphasized that learning outcomes associated with integrated education, such as critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and abilities for lifelong learning, are more, not less, desirable.”
Phil Gardner at CERI sums up the key point like this: "There are really only two choices for graduates who want a lot of options: be a technically savvy liberal arts graduate or a liberally educated technical graduate."
In the Lindquist College at Weber State University, we are advising students to think beyond the major so that they fully understand and can apply the skills learned in the arts and humanities while acquiring professionally-relevant crossover skills in technical or vocational fields. Other strategic approaches to thinking beyond the major include:
1) Designing the undergraduate experience with intention: Rather than treating college as a series of check-off boxes, students should discover in advance which skills and competencies are generally desired by employers and then reverse engineer the college experience as a resource to build on strengths and minimize deficiencies.
2) Being strategic about general education and elective coursework: Short of a double major or interesting major/minor combinations, students should strategically select general education and elective courses with the purpose of cultivating valuable foundational and crossover skills.
3) Translating academic learning into employable skills: Rather than think solely in terms of administrative units (majors, courses, credits), students should learn to identify and translate their acquired academic skills, competencies and experiences into terms that will resonate with employers.
4) Connecting knowledge and skills to other contexts outside the major: The act of connecting and transferring skills to new problems or contexts is an essential skill in today’s swift-moving economy.
5) Completing professionally relevant internships. The internship is by far the most valuable extra-curricular experience for learning to identify and articulate acquired skills and for increasing one’s chances of employment upon graduation. Around 95% of employers reject applications without professionalizing experiences.
6) Telling one’s story. Because the college degree alone does not tell a story, students should learn to narrate how they have intentionally assembled all of the pieces of their educational experience into a coherent, purposeful and compelling whole.
As we welcome one of our largest incoming classes to the Lindquist College this fall, we will be making every effort to prepare our students to “expect the unexpected” as they enter a complex world of work for which the college major is increasingly only partial preparation.
This commentary was written by Scott Sprenger and originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. Sprenger is dean of the Telitha E. Lindquist College of Arts & Humanities at Weber State University. Prior to joining WSU, Sprenger spent two years as provost at The American University of Paris and 21 years teaching French literature at Brigham Young University.