Your major is not the same as your job

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

John Muenzberg

John Muenzberg

Recently Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton said that students should choose degrees that will land a job after graduating and not focus on majors such as history.

This follows Gov. Matt Bevin’s comment that we should fund more engineering majors and fewer in majors such as French literature.

Last week, Brianna Willis wrote a fitting defense of majoring in history. Her list of the advantages is not only accurate, but it could be applied to all liberal arts degrees. One can also counter Hampton’s comments with employment information.

First, and most basically, when people dismiss academically-oriented majors, they are usually only thinking of their first job. It is true that some majors, such as engineering, have high starting salaries. A college degree, however, should not be about your first job, but the ability to move to your second, third or fourth job. Historically, the focus of a college degree has not been “job training” but educating the students in a wide range of areas. This, studies have shown, leads to promotions and raises later in life.

Second, surveys show that majors in the arts and sciences have employment rates as high as professional programs. One (non-rigorous) survey reports that history majors have an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent, while computer engineering is at 6.0 percent. Chemical engineering majors have 2.2 percent unemployment, while civil engineering is 12.3 percent. Communications is at 7.1 percent, but animal science has an 11 percent unemployment rate. The point is not to see who has the lowest unemployment, but to recognize that employment is not reserved for “practical” majors. 

Besides, an employment rate of 94.2 percent for history majors is a far cry from the assumption, actually voiced by some university professors, that liberal arts majors will be starving and without work. On the contrary, they will be earning a living, having studied what they love.

Third, numerous professions require graduate degrees, and the best undergraduate major may not be one in that field. For example, the top scores on the GMAT, the exam used for MBA programs, belong to physics, mathematics, engineering and philosophy majors. If you want to get an MBA, you may be better off studying history, English literature or chemistry, as those majors all have higher average scores than finance, accounting or international business.

Again, the point is not to brag about which majors have the highest scores. The point is that the title of your major does not determine what career you will have. This is why calling some majors “practical” is inaccurate. What is important is how you prepare for your future careers, and there are many ways to do that.

Let me close by using a good friend of mine as an example. He is an entrepreneur who owns his own business. Did he major in business? No, he majored in engineering. He worked as an engineer, and after 15 years, he recognized a need in his field and opened his own engineering firm in the hopes of meeting that need and succeeding at it.

The reason he was able to do this was because his university taught him critical thinking, writing and analysis skills along with the engineering training. All of those skills enabled him to evaluate the field and learn, on his own, issues in starting and running a business.

If you think this example is unusual, then note this: Matt Bevin’s major was East Asian studies, and Jenean Hampton’s was industrial engineering. Your major is not the same as your job.