What Is a Major Worth?

This article from Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye today: “A New Tool Breaks Down Earnings Potential for Different Majors.”

Okay, so I’m going to put aside the inherent problem of equating the value of an academic subject with money. Moving on from that gigantic thorn, let’s add on that maybe I’m old school (yup!) but are people really selecting their major based on earnings potential?

Understanding Practical Reasons People Equate Majors with Careers

I mean, look, I get it. Student debt has skyrocketed as public universities have had to offset the loss of investment in state funds with tuition increases. So I do see the value in a tool like this for getting real. After all, you just won’t understand the impact that $80,000 of student loans will have on you 30 years down the road when you’re still making gigantic ballooning payments. And I do know that there is some subset of the population out there choosing a major or grad degree based solely on earnings potential. But is that the norm?

Other Considerations When Choosing a Major

I know I had no clue what to major in, except something that could hold my interest long enough to graduate. Something I was authentically interested in.

Turned out to be anthropology, if you’re curious.

And I knew that I wouldn’t be making loads of money as a result of my choice, and yet that didn’t matter to me.

This tool presumes that what matters is the amount of money you could make; for some, that is exactly what matters. But for so many more of us – including nearly all of the people I work with – what mattered was not the paycheck at the end of it, but the ability to go into work that would hold meaning. We are all smart. We all recognize that working will constitute so much of our adult lives, and so why shouldn’t we pursue something that will prepare us to contribute to our communities, societies, and something that we will find satisfaction and pride in, regardless of the “cost”?

And what of the people I work with who chose a major solely for the prestige or salary only to find themselves feeling empty or disengaged a few years down the line?

Your Major Doesn’t Have to Be Your Career!

I work with loads of colleagues who majored in liberal arts, humanities, education, social sciences, and general all-purpose majors that aren’t associated with one specific career path and we all turned out just fine. Even though some of us do carry boatloads of debt (ahem, Millennials, you are not the first to face this issue, ask any Gen Xer!), we made our choices. 

And though we joke about how “useless” a degree in our major may have been, I don’t actually think any of us believe that. Useless has become shorthand for: the economy in which we live does not value our skill set and knowledge as much as, say, software developers or engineers. I would hazard a bet that those who chose a major and field of work because it was interesting or because it gave us the potential to make a real impact on subjects we’re passionate about are more likely to find more engagement and meaning in our careers than those who chose something because they’d be making tons of money.

Parents & Guidance Counselors: Your Kids Face a Different World

One of my biggest questions is who is this tool for? It feels like it could be used to steer learners who are keenly into one subject (photography, social work, women’s studies, whatever) into choosing a more “practical” path. Granted, this is a parenting trope as old as time, but one with real consequences. Anyone who is 10 years into their career who chose what others (read: often parents footing the bill) thought they “should”do instead of what they themselves wanted may have some interesting insights.

Parents, guidance counselors, and the like are really, truly, trying their best to make others’ lives easier when they give this kind of advice, but such advice is based on what they experienced, through *their* lens, within the context of the economy and workplace challenges they faced. Things are constantly different and rapidly evolving. So advice on what does / not work has a time stamp on it and will expire soon. All the more reason any of us in such a position have to step aside and let grownups (and that’s what college “kids” are), identify their options, and research and make their own choices.

No Point Planning for A Volatile Economy

Does this tool take into account how rapidly things change in our volatile economy? It takes the average undergrad 6 years to complete their degree. And 6 years can be a lifetime in the workplace. Today’s average employee stays at their job 4-5 years (less if you’re a Millennial), and even within that 4 years, your work itself is likely to change dramatically. Companies and industries that were once a sure-thing can go belly-up; jobs, services, and skills that were highly in demand can fall out of vogue so fast. And of course, things that didn’t even blip on the horizon can suddenly be needed.

Instead Plan for What Matters

Again, maybe it’s just me and the work that I do, but I get loads more career advice questions from folks who are looking for jobs with meaning – at any point in their working lives – than “I need to make a lot more money.” I’m not going to deny that making more money wouldn’t make life easier, nor that you shouldn’t take a good hard look at student loans and costs and time for a degree.

But I would also strongly encourage any client of mine to then spend the majority of their efforts taking a good hard look at themselves to discover what they innately are interested in. Then we’ll find a way to make that path work, rather than try to make themselves a square peg fitting into a round hole to make money matters easier. 

I find it’s easier to make a go of this whole work thing when you’re working at something about which you are passionate, honing your craft – your brand, so to speak.