“What’s your major?” is a classic campus icebreaker—a fail-proof question you can bust out in any small talk scenario. If you hate small talk, as I do, the question provides the perfect opportunity for the other person in the conversation to do all the talking. It is the college equivalent of the adult dinner party mantra “What do you do?” but without all of the baggage.
When the question is posed to me, however, I find it difficult to answer. I view my major as largely irrelevant. I follow requirements loosely and take courses that I hope will make me a wiser (and, if it happens to work out, more employable) person, regardless of what program they fall under.
Some view this as an alarmingly casual way to approach such an expensive endeavor as college, but new research shows that unless you’re pursuing a career in a highly-specialized or technical field, prospective employers want to know you’re a critically-thinking, versatile communicator—not what your major was.
According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of the private-sector and non-profit executives surveyed agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than undergraduate major.”
Even more of the respondents, 95 percent, said their companies consider interpersonal skills a priority when hiring.
Sarah Kersey Otto, Eastern Michigan University’s director of career development and outreach, echoes these sentiments.
“In some fields, like accounting, it’s very much going to matter if you have the specific degree you need for work in that area,” Otto said. “But for more open occupations, so many employers want you to have a college degree and a foundation in terms of public speaking, communication, writing, teamwork skills and critical thinking skills, but don’t necessarily care about your major.”
But a Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce report on the economic value of different majors shows that if your primary reason for attending college is to make as much money as possible, the major you choose can mean a lot.
If raking in the big bucks is your goal, you’d be wise to settle in to four years of studying petroleum engineering, the major with the highest median income of $120,000 per year, rather than counseling psychology, with the lowest median income of $29,000 per year.
Being responsible for the growing minds that will run the country someday won’t gain you much more in terms of annual income—early education majors earn a median of $36,000. The exciting field of metallurgical engineering, however, will net you a cool $80,000 per year. In fact, if your major has “engineering” anywhere in the name, don’t worry about a thing; you’ll be fine.
For the rest of us, especially those inclined toward humanities, arts and education, what we gain from our college experience in terms of interpersonal and problem-solving skills will be infinitely more useful to employers than the exact concentration of our studies.
If you’re not concerned with how much money you make in the future and aren’t in a technical field, don’t worry about your major—instead, use your time in college to take classes that challenge you to develop your communication skills and become a better critical thinker.
In the end, the ability to demonstrate those traits will not only help your post-college job search, but also your experience as a human being in the 21st century.