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How Much Does Your College Major Really Matter?

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For some students, choosing what to study in college may be as stressful as figuring out where to apply. But does your major really have to define your career? A 2014 study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that just 27 percent of college grads work in a field related to their major. And there’s no shortage of real-life examples: actress Eva Longoria has a degree in kinesiology; singer Sam Hunt studied economics; former Boeing CEO James McNerney pursued a degree in American studies.

“One of the things you’re supposed to do in college is figure out the rest of your life. But how can you possibly know it before you even start?” poses Larry Eby, director of admissions at Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Del. “That’s a big ask for a 17-year-old. Not all students have an eye toward employment following college.”

Dr. Lisa Dolling concurs. “There are two primary goals of education, and one of them is learning about oneself. So students—especially when they’re in high school—shouldn’t stress,” says Dolling, who is provost and vice president for academic and student affairs at Rosemont College in Rosemont, Pa. “It’s OK not knowing what they’re meant to do or be.”

At most schools, incoming students don’t need to declare a major—and they can maintain that uncertainty until their second year. During that period, Dolling recommends that freshmen and sophomores sample what they can. “The first two years are a time of exploration,” she says. “I think that’s the value of general education requirements—you get to taste so many things.”

From an admissions standpoint, there’s “no negative connotation to [applying] undecided—at least for us,” says Eby. “Students entering college without a clear idea should probably focus on making certain their schedule covers a lot of different areas, exposes them to a lot of different opportunities and doesn’t lock them in.”

“One of the things you’re supposed to do in college is figure out the rest of your life. But how can you possibly know it before you even start?”

During those first two years, students should also make an effort to get involved in clubs, pursue internships and try job-shadowing experiences. Meanwhile, academic advisors, career services and other on-campus resources can help point them in the right direction.

For those looking for more certainty, Eby recommends looking at the Department of Labor’s projections of employment opportunities based on major and researching leaders in an industry of interest to see what they studied. “Chances are you’re going to be quite surprised,” says Eby. “The further away from college you are, all that matters is that you made a commitment to doing something for four years and followed through.”

Faculty members are another great resource. Dolling encourages students to forge relationships with multiple individuals in various disciplines. “Find out who the really dynamic faculty are,” she says.

Students should stop by during office hours and be proactive about cultivating a relationship that will ultimately give them varied perspectives on areas of study. “The more time goes on, the more we see interdisciplinary curricula,” says Dolling. “It’s important for students to see the perspectives from different vantage points, from different disciplines, even from different faculty members in the same discipline.”

Regardless of what students choose to study, it should be something they’re passionate about. Thanks to increasing cross-disciplinary fields and on-site job training, students should be well equipped, no matter the degree. “What’s most important is that they select a major that gives them a passion for learning and enables them to learn about themselves,” says Dolling. “They can convert that to any profession.” 

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