I’d like to focus on a student’s chosen major or course of study.
I’ll start by stating quite firmly that I am NOT a proponent of following your bliss when it comes to college studies --- unless following that bliss ensures employability and the ability to support yourself upon graduation AND also avoids incurring major debt to get a degree in the subject.
I realize fully that this not a popular stance in this country today and is contrary to everything many parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and popular culture advocate.
After all, the prevailing notion is that college is a time for students to explore and find themselves, to try as many different majors as they can until they discover one that will bring them fulfillment and satisfaction.
I say that’s utter nonsense.
The majority of us must - out of necessity – view college education from a far more practical perspective and determine what a 4-year degree will bring us in terms of future employment opportunities and earnings.
That means arriving at college with a pretty clear notion of what you want to do and getting right down to it so you can graduate as quickly as possible, with the least financial burden possible, and with the best credentials and qualifications possible that enable you to find a position that pays a living wage.
But, you say, “College should not be about vocational training and getting a job!”
Unless you’re one of the very rich who never has to work, the end goal of any college education is gainful and self-supporting employment.
The very idea that someone should spend $25-$55K - per year on college tuition to “find themselves” just freezes my brain --- and simply defies common sense.
Instead of that absurd approach, I would advise parents and students to take a look at some of the practices of immigrant families I know.
These Nigerian and Liberian parents push their children to excel in school, and they see education as key to their success in life. But they also steer them to specific college majors that are most likely to ensure well-paid employment.
This focus on practicalities for their children has made them among the most successful immigrant groups in our country. That's no small achievement.
The fact is that the realities of the job market today, combined with the cost of college tuition, make it absolutely imperative for students to be equally hard-headed and logical about their chosen major.
It’s easy to adjust a resume to reflect lower skills, if that’s necessary. It's impossible to add qualifications you do not possess. I have never in my entire life heard an adult express regret about working too hard in college. I have, however, heard many an adult express regret about doing the opposite and not pushing themselves hard enough in school. That's something to think about.
It's also good to remember that it's much easier to tolerate a boring job that pays well than it is to tolerate one that pays poorly. And the honest truth is that most jobs lack glamour and have plenty of mundane, boring - or worse - moments. But,unlike a low-paid job, a well-paid job offers the opportunity to buy yourself some financial independence at some point.
These are all points to consider when deciding what to study. You may think you want to be the next best-selling author, and that's great, so I'd say to go for it and study English lit. But I'd also say you should have a Plan B besides, and maybe double major in something else, too.
So here’s my advice to students and families about how they should approach the topic of choosing a college major or career path.
Research the specific coursework required for a college major you are interested in.
All too often students are surprised by some of the courses required in a given major, even after they have spent a couple of semesters at college. And sometimes that leads to students giving up or changing majors, thereby wasting precious time and money.
For example, many of my students like to play videogames, so they think they want to do game development. However, the coursework for programming is very different than what is involved in playing the games, so it would be good for them to find that out before they opt for that major. They may find after their research that they still wish to pursue it. Or they may find it’s not for them at all.
Having a clear idea before starting down a path of study is very helpful and can save you time, effort, and money.
Check out sites, such as the College Board for general information on typical requirements for certain majors.
But the best information can be found at the individual college websites themselves. They will typically list the required and elective courses and the sequence for each.
Knowledge is power, and it’s a good idea to be fully informed about what will be expected if you choose a certain major. That way you avoid surprises and arrive prepared to finish your degree.
Most college students do not give much thought to the job situation when choosing a major, and have little to no idea what they plan to do upon graduation, so this is crucial first step in making the most of your college education.
A good place to start is the College Board career exploration website. And here’s a helpful article that lists job possibilities for certain majors.
Once you know the kinds of jobs that are associated with certain majors, you can focus your studies and seek out work experiences, student activities, and internships to move you in the direction of gainful and meaningful employment opportunities in one of those areas.
It’s important to know if you can actually support yourself with your earnings from a potential job. Don’t rely on the hype from schools or colleges trying to get you to apply.
Check the facts about starting salaries and wages and what the range of earnings is in the real world.
Indeed, you may be astonished by what you find out.
Use sites such as Payscale, Glassdoor, and the U.S. Department of Labor website to get the information you need on this topic.
Don’t wait for graduation and your actual job search to discover what you can expect to earn.
Seriously, it makes no sense to spend time, energy, and money studying for something that will not be able to support you, or where the earning potential will be limited.
It’s important to know about present and future job openings in a field so that you can make a realistic and educated best guess about job security and the chances for future career growth and opportunity.
Here’s an example of what I mean. If, say, there are less than 1000 job openings expected in total across the country in a certain field, that’s probably not going to be a wise choice as a future career.
And if job numbers are actually declining in certain areas, that is also cause for considering other options.
Again, the Department of Labor is a goldmine of information on this. The site offers several varied search criteria to use in exploring different job and career possibilities.
Of course, as with any predictive tool, this is not even remotely 100% certain, and there are jobs coming in the future that we probably cannot even imagine yet.
After all, 20 years ago, nobody could have known about the huge role social media would play in our lives now. That's an entire job sector that never existed at that time.
Even so, the Department of Labor website is a good starting point for current information.
Different jobs and careers obviously call for different credentials, expertise, and skill sets beyond the coursework a college may demand in a specific major.
In fact, there’s often a disconnect between what academia requires to graduate and what the real world of employment wants in its employees.
Again, a good starting point to find general information is the Department of Labor site, as well as career websites and on job postings.
Spend some time checking out actual job postings on sites like Monster, Indeed, etc., to get an idea of what employers are looking for in these fields.
I really cannot stress enough how important this information can be in helping you make yourself more marketable on your path through college and before you hit the job market.
After checking the job sites to see the types of skills an employer is looking for in an area that interests you, the next step is to figure out what you have to do to acquire those credentials. Some of them may require specific coursework.
So choose your classes accordingly. Be mindful and practical when making course selections.
But beyond your regular college major requirements, you may notice that some employers ask for certifications in various topics, frequently technical ones.
Many of those can be earned outside of college, and will go a long way toward making your resume stand out.
Check out the free learning tools available online through MOOCs (massive open online classes), through most elite universities these days and via free websites such as Khan Academy.
Taking these classes does not earn you the certification outright typically, but can help you pass the required exams that will enhance your resume.
Other places to look for courses are companies such as Microsoft and Cisco, Udemy or Coursera.
It’s not always just technical skills that employers look for. Sometimes it is something like a foreign language skill, or evidence of organizational and managerial capabilities.
The point is that by looking at job postings, you can discern what you need to make yourself a viable candidate.
So, let’s say that after all this, you still have your heart set on studying philosophy, or theater, or acting, or English literature. I get it. I was the same way.
But my advice is to have a back-up plan.
I know many a college graduate who is in a poorly paid job they detest because they chose a major that they enjoyed, but employers do not value nearly as much. Or the jobs were few and far between.
Let me just say that it’s much worse to be in a low-paying job you hate than it is to be in a high-paying job you hate. With the one, you at least have the hope of someday achieving a degree of financial independence. With the other, you’re just on a treadmill to nowhere.
Keep that cold, hard reality in mind always when thinking about your studies and career options.
So, by all means, follow your bliss, but make that subject your minor instead of your major.
Or, even better, choose to double major. And choose a second major in a more practical, marketable field than the one that is your passion.
Yes, it’s definitely more work, but I can almost guarantee that you will be glad you have the extra credentials.
And if you still can’t decide what you want to do, then I recommend taking some time off before heading to college and incurring the tremendous expense involved in attendance. Discover yourself through work and volunteer stints, and by taking far less expensive classes at your local community college.
There are many jobs and careers that can be accessed through training, trade schools, apprenticeship, certifications, or a 2-year degree, all of which can be substantially less expensive than a 4-year program. (See my Word of Warning below)
The building trades, many jobs in the health field, and computer certifications are some areas that offer opportunities for job and career without a degree.
Because, despite what others may tell you, there will be future opportunities for college, and waiting a few years may mean you actually get far more out of it.
Without the floundering around, wasting time, and, of course, the money.
But all too often, students end up with big student debt, only to discover that their diploma is largely worthless. Community colleges and government-run certification programs are a far better bet. Check with your local labor office to find them. Other options include trade union apprenticeships, and legitimate private and public, tuition-paying vocational schools.
If you are not sure about one that you are researching, check the Better Business Bureau for any problems that students may have reported. And also check user reviews for schools you are researching on Yelp, Reddit, Grad Reports, etc., to get a real sense of what you are getting yourself into.