Picking a college major is one of the most important decisions a person ever makes. It is one of the first steps in finding your purpose in life. The choice of a major will significantly affect your career options and life satisfaction - what job you will have and how your life will unfold.
At the White House Correspondents Dinner, Obama took note of how high his approval ratings were - really high: "I haven't been this high since I chose my major!"
This decision is huge …and yet we expect college applicants to select their major with little or no assistance in career exploration and research. Expecting a 17 year old to choose a college major without guidance and advice is like giving a driver’s license to a 16 year old, without the driver’s ed and hours behind the wheel being coached and critiqued.
Yes, countless young people do choose without help, surviving and finding their own way into productive adulthood, but that is not the best practice. Too many run off the road …
Choosing the wrong college major can result in a pattern of disappointment and failure that will endure over time. Some people never recover, suffering from underemployment or unemployment, over and over again. Bad choices also frequently result in academic struggles and college failure.
This is not just an individual concern. The development of human capital is a global issue for employers. When there is a mismatch between knowledge and skills, a country’s productivity suffers.
With today’s highly competitive, technical and global economy, it is more important than ever that career planning start early. In academia, however, career education is too often a neglected subject - at best an elective course, rather than part of the core curriculum.
In an editorial comment (Nov 20, 2015), former Sacramento Business Journal Editor Jack Robinson noted: “The plain fact is that most of us find the perfect career only by accident… Through trial and error, with very limited information, we stumble into our life’s work…. rarely do young people get systematic, thoughtful advice on picking a career… Why, in the 21st century are we still wandering in the dark?”
After spending 40 years helping people find jobs - I could not agree more.
Systematic career guidance should be provided in high school and in college. When it is lacking, it is up to parents and students to seek out career information themselves. This is where some hand holding and helicopter parenting is a good thing.
A college education involves a substantial investment of time, money and effort. Students simply cannot afford to spend time shopping for a major, trying out this one and that, hoping to find something that fits. If you choose one that is not going to work for you in terms of your interests, skills and motivations, starting over is never easy - it’s not like returning a pair of shoes to Nordstroms.
Across the board, a college education still pays off - but some degrees pay more than others. Researching careers tied to various majors helps in understanding just what you are studying for.
The Hamilton Project (at the Brookings Institute) provides a really useful online tool for calculating career earnings by college majors. You can choose up to four majors and see a graph comparing the expected earnings and rate of earnings growth over the course of a career (calculated in 2014 dollars).
Choosing wisely also involves self-assessment - examining your interests, your motivated skills, your work values and priorities, and your passions in life (Chapters 5 & 6 online in The Serious Job Seeker).
I have counseled many new college graduates who set out on paths they thought were solid, only to find out that openings in their field were disappearing. A case in point is aerospace engineering - the market for job candidates is declining. You probably would not know that, unless you did your research.
Without research, you would probably also not know that many career plans do not pan out as expected. According to Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic (NPR - May 2nd, 2016), “The average American has more than seven jobs before 29 and about a third of those last less than six months.”
A little time spent doing a self-assessment - zeroing in on relevant careers - makes for a much more satisfying life. Unemployment, underemployment, or unhappiness are the alternatives if you fail to understand the messages coming from the universe.
Your choice for a college major affects the rest of your life. Think about it: do you really want to be sitting on the couch with your mom and dad when you are 35 because you chose the wrong major and cannot afford your own place?
Cici Mattiuzzi is a career counselor/executive coach and the author of “The Serious Job Seeker”. She served as director of Career Services for the College of Engineering and Computer Science at CSU Sacramento for over 30 years.