Mike Kueber's Blog

November 17, 2012

Picking a college major

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 8:17 pm
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Earlier this week, I received an email from my son’s college, Franciscan University.  The email covered a variety of subjects (including next semester’s tuition), none of which particularly interested me.  Then at the very end of the email, there was a short essay on picking a college major.  The essay was titled “Pick a Major You Love,” and it contained the following sage advice:

  • Or at least like a lot — because you’re going to live with it for four years. Let’s face it: too many students pick a major because they think it will get them a job. So they go into something that’s hot right now, like computer science or marketing, because that’s where the jobs are or because Mom and Dad encouraged them to or because their guidance counselor suggested it. Not always good reasons.
  • You probably won’t excel at something you don’t enjoy. You’ll be unhappy, your work will be a struggle, and your grades will be mediocre. The mere fact that you get a degree in something doesn’t guarantee you a job in that field. You’ll be in competition with a lot of people who love the field, who excelled in it, and who got great grades. Who’s an employer going to hire: the passionate person with a 3.5 GPA or the unhappy camper with a 2.6? (And if you don’t love it as a student, what makes you think you’ll be able to stand it as a job?)
  • “OK,” I can hear you thinking, “now this guy is going to tell me about how it’s supposed to be about knowledge for its own sake, about the love of learning, all that intellectual stuff.” Nope. I’m going to tell you about how to get a good job: pick a major you love. “Yeah right,” you say. “How’s a major like English or History or Theater going to get me any job, let alone a good one? I don’t want to be a teacher and nobody can make a living in the theater.” (Actually, with the spread of regional theater, more and more people make a living in the theater. If you try, you might succeed. If you never try, you’ll never succeed.) The answer is that if you major in something you love — be it English or Theater or Psychology — you’ll work hard at it, you’ll do well in it, and you’ll learn usable skills, skills that will help you get a good job. Skills like reading carefully and analytically like writing clearly and precisely, like presenting yourself and your ideas forcefully and convincingly. Believe me, these are very marketable skills. Employers are desperate for college graduates who can think well, read well, write well, and present well. And you can learn to do all these things in any major. You can go into marketing with a degree in History. You can go to law school with a degree in Philosophy.
  • You may be skeptical about this advice, thinking, “What does he know? He’s in an ivory tower. He’s not out in the real world. He doesn’t know what they want.” But I do know, because it’s my job to know. I talk to employers all the time. I send dozens of students into the work force every year, and they tell me all sorts of things. If this were bad advice, they’d be telling me. And since I’ve been doing this for thirty years, my perspective is probably broader than your parents’ or your guidance counselor’s.
  • For most students, college is probably the last time you won’t have any serious responsibilities: no family to support yet, no loans to pay off yet, no job to worry about yet. Study what you love. Whether it’s Computer Science, Chemistry, or Philosophy, go for it.

The philosophy espoused in the Franciscan essay is consistent with a post in my blog almost a year ago.  My post, which was titled, “Is college for everyone?” included the following: 

  • I have never looked at college as a trade school.  Ever since the first of my four sons was born, I have asserted that, regardless of what he chooses for a career, I will feel I have failed as a parent if my son doesn’t want to go to college.  My philosophy is based on something I learned in college in – surprise – a freshman philosophy class.  Greek philosopher Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  And going to college is all about learning to examine life; to become an intellectual.
  • Good teaching does not make a course’s subject more interesting; it gives the students more interests — and so makes them more interesting.
  • But all parents should want their children to become open-minded and interested and to possess critical-thinking skills and reason.  And college is the best place for that to happen.

The difficult economy today is causing a lot of people to shift their attention away from the high-minded objectives of a college education.  Instead of focusing on college as a place to appreciate reasoning, open-mindedness, and continual learning, a discussion today is more likely to concern the job-training component of college or the burdensome school loans.  As the concept of a college education is redefined, however, we need to be careful that we don’t pour out the baby with the bathwater.

Btw – Franciscan’s essay was not original thinking on their part, but is an abridgement of a section in SUNY Oswego’s comprehensive guide for freshmen titled, “How to do really well in college.”   Included in this guide are suggestions such as (a) Go to class, (b) Study, (c) Read, (d) Don’t pledge first semester, and (e) Remember: you are not entitled.


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