At my university it is that time of year again: advising. Every semester I have a number of my students who will come into my office, we will talk about the coming semester, they will give me their schedule and be off. However, I seem to be having an odd number of students questioning their very being. They don’t know what to do? And by that I mean they don’t know what to do with the rest of their lives? They are like I have no clue what I want to do after graduation. I even have students who want to pay more to get a minor so they can delay graduation. Unfortunately, there is so much pressure for these students to “know” what they want to do with the rest of their lives that they stress themselves and me out.
I have five students this week change their major twice because they were questioning what they wanted to study. Now that is a bit unusual and maybe the uptick I see in this anxiety is because I have a fairly high advising load. Part of my duties at my university is that I am a faculty advising fellow. That basically means that, in addition, to my major advisees I advise about 125 students who are first-year and/or transfer students.
All I can try to do is decrease their anxiety because here are a couple of dirty little secrets I have learned in 20 years of teaching. First, one’s major just gets you in the door. Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that a major is important. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be a professor. But when it comes to determining ones future, unless it is graduate school (and even then it isn’t an absolute gimmie), your major is not the determining factor in your career or even getting your first job. In my opinion, the key is what you DO when you are in college. Getting good grades, an internship or two, getting involved on campus, and studying abroad are all intangible things that may or may not have anything to do with the major. If one does those things I think they will be successful in the market place. One of the current buzzwords phrases on campuses across America are what are called “high-impact practices.” High impact practices are things like undergraduate research, studying abroad, internships, being exposed to diverse audiences, campus involvement and other experiences are what can really matter in one’s college years. So I would have students focus much more on those high impact practices than whether or not they have the perfect major.
The second dirty secret I have learned is that knowing what you want to do now is probably going to change within five to 10 years. Millennials, on average, will change careers at least 4-5 times in their lifetimes. Notice I said CAREERS NOT JOBS. So that is another reason why pursuing the “right” major isn’t as important as getting well-rounded skills and studying something one is passion about. If you are more likely to change your career ever five years or so the specific major you had may or may not make a difference. It really is the skill set that you develop.
So my message to students is this: study what you are passionate about. Study what you are interested in. Getting a job after college is much more dependent on getting the degree AND what you do while you are in a university setting. Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain majors you should pursue if you want to get involved with post graduate work or something. For example, I would expect that students who are communication studies majors will NOT be going to medical school right away primarily because they haven’t had any experience with the courses they would need (e.g. lots of chemistry, biology, and math). That doesn’t mean they couldn’t become medical doctors, but those COMM majors would probably have to go back to school to take some more coursework.
My message to parents is this: relax about what your kids are studying. Be more concerned with the fact that they are doing well in school. Are they taking advantage of their university experience by getting involved, pursuing research opportunities, getting internships. What major they specifically study is, to me, secondary to these larger ideas. Again, that doesn’t mean a major is not important. If you want to pursue finance then you should probably get a finance major instead of underwater basket weaving. But for their immediate job prospects and certainly in the future the major is not as important.
To those students who don’t know what they want to do I say this.
Who cares. You aren’t supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your life at 18. No one does. Very few people are in the same position at 18 when they are 65 and if you are then you have led a very focused and possibly unexamined life.
Take the time to explore. It is ok. I know you are paying for school. But the important thing is that you graduate with a degree that you want to do and you engage in these larger practices. I can’t guarantee you a job after you graduate, but you will be much better off than the person who merely gets their degree and does nothing with their years at a university.