How important is selecting your college major before you go to college?  The short answer is…  Maybe, Not Much!

I think people, especially parents, put way too much emphasis on trying to figure out what major a student should pursue in college.  Often the student is subjected to a battery of tests to help determine a major.  I have found that the undergraduate major may not be as important as people are lead to believe.

“You don’t have to decide at 18 what you’re going to be at 48.”

I was on a radio program to discuss college education.  One of the hosts shared that his daughter had a Political Science degree from a local university and has spent the last two years looking for a job.  I responded that I had taught Political Science at that particular university and paused for a moment.

I tried to correlate Political Science degree and not finding a job.  I quickly scanned my vast knowledge of the job market and asked myself “Is she looking for an entry level Political Scientist position?”  I answered my own question…  “Baby, there aren’t any… never have been and probably never will.”  Maybe I’m wrong and you can comment on this to correct me.

We have to ask ourselves the fundamental question: Why do I need to go to college?  Well, most people respond, “So you can get a better job.”  OK – didn’t work this guy’s daughter.  Is there something missing in this equation?  Maybe so.  Let me have a crack at it.

If you are going to college so you can get a better job, then you need to major in something that would make you valuable and attractive to a potential employer or prepares you for an established career field.  I think there is absolutely ZERO demand for young political scientists at, let’s say, at Wal-Mart corporate.  But, I might be wrong.  Someone from Wal-Mart might need to correct me on this.

Let’s face it, most people major in Political Science (and English, and History, and Sociology, etc.) because they have a keen interest or even a passion for the body of knowledge.  From the perspective of preparing a person for a career in one of those fields, the career universe collapses to:

  • Teaching Civics, US Government, maybe Economics in high school
  • Going to graduate school to get credentials to teach or do academic research at a higher level
  • Going to graduate school to work for the government
  • Go to Law School
  • Pursue a field that doesn’t require a Political Science degree… but some place what you know can be put to use.[1]

There are very few pure practitioners in these fields outside of academia.  These people have graduate degrees and are somehow tied into a university for research or teaching.

So, what’s the solution?  Keep in mind this is coming from a guy with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice who has never busted anyone or wrote a parking ticket.  The degree hangs proudly on the wall.  My second doctorate is in Urban and Public Administration… nobody has asked me to be their Mayor.  It, too, hangs proudly on the wall, with a few more degrees in-between the two.

Most students will go through a heuristic experience once in college.  Students will discover new things and see old things from a different point of view.  This usually resets their perspective.  Most students will need to “muddle through” to find the path for them.

This is not true of all students.  Some are preordained to be engineers, genetically embedded in their brain at birth.  Others think they want to be engineers and change their minds during the first Engineering Calculus class.  Likewise for pre-med students.  First-semester sophomore chemistry – Organic Chemistry – a.k.a., “O Chem,” is usually the “weed-out” course for pre-med students.  About 2/3 of pre-med majors realize becoming a doctor is very difficult and demanding, and opt for something better suited for their level of willing sacrifice.

So my counsel:

First – unless you have a Damascus Road or Burning Bush experience, I would not be too hasty in selecting a major… and I would fend off all those who think you have to know what to major in before you even set foot on campus.  I thought I wanted to major in Computer Science.  I had never touched a computer before, but the major sounded cool.  After three weeks of manually punching cards (this was a loooong time ago), I rethought my career plans.

Second – Take a variety of courses.  How do you know you don’t like Geology?  Or Journalism?  Take your basics and an elective or two your first semester.

Third – Think Strategically.  If you develop a passion for Shakespeare but don’t see yourself teaching high school English, major in something more practical like Journalism or Business, and minor or double major in English.  Pursue a path that is both-and, not either/or.  Balance your passion with practical preparation for a job after you graduate.

Finally – It’s your life.  College is a place to learn.  I took Science Fiction Literature my sophomore year to watch monster movies and get an easy A.  Boy, was I wrong!  I was forced to learn how to dissect, sauté, carve up, and savor every morsel in literature, and barely escaped with a C.  However, I became impassioned with literature and was now equipped to enjoy and appreciate it.  Though I never majored in it, I have taught literature at both the high school and college level, and have written several complete English curriculum for high school and college.  Not bad for an unrequited cop and mayor.

Dr. Beasley

[1] Many Political Science majors find work in journalism and business because of better verbal and writing skills.  Information on Political Science majors.

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