I’ve been reading a variety of blogs about the process of choosing a college and major and feel that none of them really get to the point. All of them seemed concerned with long term happiness, though, which is a good place to start. One Forbes article advises students to identify their passions and make a plan. No kidding. Look both ways before crossing the street too. Another advises students not to focus on doing what they love, but to focus instead on financially viable educational and career paths. It’s always good advice to consider debt to potential income ratio in your educational choices, so follow that advice.
But it’s not necessarily good advice to pursue a job that you will hate because you think it’ll make you money. Some people can separate life satisfaction from job satisfaction, but many people can’t. Some people who make that choice aren’t very happy, and it shows in a variety of ways — miserable home lives, career burnout, and maybe late career switches that are costly in terms of both time and money. Heidi Grant Halvorson’s “The Key to Choosing the Right Career” provides an intelligent self-assessment measure — are you a promotion-focused person or a prevention-focused person?, which is something that you need to know — but knowing that won’t help you choose a career, as all industries have jobs for promotion-oriented people as well as jobs for prevention-oriented people. That self-assessment tells you more about what kind of job within a field that you’d enjoy than the field that you should study. There are, for example, art jobs for promotion-oriented people (producing original work) as well as art jobs for prevention-oriented people (commercial art), but both kinds of jobs are in the field of art. I want to help you decide whether or not to pursue art, English, business, or any other specific field. After you’ve selected a field of study, then you can decide what kind of job that you want in that field.
Before I get started, you should know that most community colleges and many four-year colleges and universities offer a variety of tests that can help you match your interests to a career. The ones I’ve taken have been fairly accurate for me, so if you have the opportunity to take one of these tests, I would recommend that you do so. What I’m going to say here is intended to help you think about the results if you’ve taken one of these tests, and to help you think about the big picture in terms of matching interests with careers and college choices whether you’ve taken a career planning test or not.
Before thinking about a career, though, you need to understand the different educational options available to you. I would like you to consider the difference between vocational education and non-vocational education. Vocational education provides specific training to do a specific job. If you pursue this kind of education, there’s no question about what job will follow, as your education is designed to prepare you to work in a specific industry. I’m not saying that people with a vocational education can’t do other jobs, just that their education is designed to prepare graduates for a specific job in a specific industry. Vocational education prepares students for careers in fields such as auto mechanics, engineering, architecture, medicine (doctors, nurses, radiology, etc.), accounting, education, and law. If you graduate with one of these degrees you’ll still need on-the-job training, but the degree itself gives you quite a bit of job training. That is what it is intended to do. A sure sign of a vocational degree, by the way, is that an internship or residency is a curriculum requirement in almost all schools that offer the degree.
Non-vocational degrees teach you a field of knowledge, and in the process develop valuable and specific knowledge and skill sets that are needed in many jobs, but they do not necessarily prepare you for any one specific job. Those who have graduated with one these degrees have been successful in many, many fields, but if you pursue this option you’ll have to learn how to sell yourself. Degrees in English, art, history, philosophy (and all the liberal arts), mathematics, and the hard sciences fall into this category. Non-vocational degrees can lead you to successful careers in the workforce, because most businesses believe that they can teach their employees the business, but they can’t teach them how to write, speak, work with people, or do math, which are skills students should have learned in college. Employers want students with strong communication skills (oral and written) as well as critical thinking and problem solving skills, and they say the same thing in survey after survey.
Some fields can fall into either vocational or non-vocational categories depending up their focus, such as business (but this is usually vocational), the human and social sciences, and communication (e.g. the academic study of communication vs. journalism, which is vocationally focused: by the way, journalism is a very bad idea right now).
So, how do you do the work of thinking through your career and educational choices? First, know yourself. I’m going to guide you through a process of self-knowledge that will help you choose a major. And then after you’ve chosen a major, I will give you some criteria for choosing a college.
First, are you good with words or good with numbers? Words are what we use to understand people and ideas. Numbers are what we use to understand the behaviors of and relationships among things. Of course we use words to talk about things and numbers to talk about people too, but I’m talking about the primary language of interaction, what we use to acquire raw data about our subjects. The primary language of interaction with people and with ideas uses words, while the primary language of interaction with things (natural or mechanical) uses numbers. If you’re a words person, choose a major that involves people or ideas. If you’re a numbers person, choose a major that involves things. If you’re good at both, do whatever you want. You’ll be successful in any field. If you’re not good at either, I have a message for you below.
Another way to consider the words vs. numbers question is to break it up into questions about interests and skills:
- Interests: are you most interested in people, in things, or in ideas?
- Skills: are you best at working with your hands, working with words, or working with numbers?
Right now some of you are thinking, “I’m not good at anything, and I’m not interested in anything.” That’s not really true. Look at your grades since sixth grade. Is there a pattern? Who were your favorite teachers? What did they teach? What do you like doing? Do you have a favorite movie or book? What does the protagonist do? Why do you like it?
If none of these questions help, if your grades have been average or below average, and if you have no discernible interests, I suggest that you start in community college and pursue an A.A., as this degree is very inexpensive, will meet general education requirements needed in any college major, and is easily transferable: in most states all community college credits are fully transferable to any four-year college or university within the state system. You can take electives while pursuing your A.A. to explore different areas, and you’ll also have a range of two-year vocational degrees available to you (such as an A.S. degree).
Once you’re enrolled in a community college, you can talk to a career counselor, take the tests that I mentioned above, and consider vocational degrees in growing industries such as energy, the sciences, medicine, or computer technology. If you really have no particular interests or passions, then at least be mercenary in your career and educational choices: what will make you the most money with the least amount of student loan debt?
If you think that you have answers to some of my questions, though, start thinking through your answers. Maybe lay them out on a grid:
Check off the boxes that fit and see where you have the most checks.
- Numbers+things? Engineering — the applied sciences.
- Ideas+Words? English, philosophy, psychology, linguistics — the liberal arts and theoretical study in the human sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
- People+ideas? History, communication, and the application-based study of the human sciences.
- People+words or people +numbers? Management, communication, and the human sciences.
- Numbers+ideas? Mathematics, computer science, and the hard sciences, especially theoretical study.
- Hands+things? The fine arts and trades.
I think you get the picture. Most career tests will get you thinking along these lines. Note that these are all very broad fields with very different sub-fields within them. The most that I can do here is get you looking in one or two directions.
My basic assumption is that if you’re good at something, that’s probably because you enjoy it, or maybe you enjoy it because you’re good at it. I’d really like you to think about that assumption for a while if you think that you’re not good at anything, and ask yourself what you’ve been doing with your life so far.
In less polite terms: get off your butt and you might discover yourself.
Once you’ve chosen a major, you will then need to select a college. I’ve said it before, and I hate saying it, but it bears repeating: name recognition on the degree is more important, initially, than your actual skills and ability. The brand name of your college will help you get in the door. Your actual skills and abilities will then determine how well you perform, so those do matter too. Apply to the colleges and universities with the most reputable names in your chosen field. If you don’t know which these are, research. US News and World Report rankings are much hated but are at least reflective of name recognition and in fact generate name recognition. Find industry journals and look for articles on job placement. Visit a business and ask around.
Minors are smart. If you major in a non-vocational area, develop a secondary skill — take computer programming, web technologies, marketing, management, public relations. English and art majors who have learned a programming language and web technologies have highly valuable skill sets. And for the record, some of my former English majors have been told in interviews that they would be immediately hired if they had these secondary skills. Similarly, if you’re in the hard sciences, take additional humanities courses. Take creative courses too — learn to draw or write poetry. You need to remember that you’re not a machine, and odds are your specific area of study will impact human beings somehow, so you want to understand people in all of their diversity and creativity. Humanities courses will help you gain that understanding.
Once you’ve chosen a major and identified a few schools that are reputable in that field, consider the following measures to help you choose among them:
- As mentioned above, US News and World report rankings.
- The return on investment of the degree, or in other words, the cost of the college degree compared to the income its graduates earn a few years after graduation.
- The college’s graduation rates — the higher the graduation rate, the better the student body and your chances as well. Don’t be too put off by a significant difference between four and six year graduation rates as some majors require extra time. Education majors at my current institution essentially double major in education and an academic field, so it’s very hard for them to graduate in four years, and they have to do so to meet state requirements.
- The college’s student loan default rates — which is a good sign of student success after graduation.
Notice that I’m not talking about jobs in fields like like sports, music, film, or theater (the performing arts). These are large industries encompassing a variety of jobs, including (sports) medicine, marketing, management, a variety of technical jobs, and more. If you’re interested in these fields, there are plenty of ways in. But of course everyone wants to be a rock star, a movie star, or a pro sports player. Let me give you some numbers about pro football that probably illustrate the dynamic in all of these fields. There are about 200-300 athletes drafted into the NFL every year (253 in 2012). Theoretically, competing for those spots are 85 players for each one of 242 NCAA Division 1 teams, or 20,570 players, not counting Division II or III players or free agents (of course, not all 20,000+ apply to the draft, but all 20,000+ theoretically could).
I can’t tell you that you won’t make it as a pro football player or a rock star, but I can say that the 1% who do make it have a very rare mix of luck and talent, part of which includes not getting injured (the Shmoop career guide works the numbers in more detail and comes up with about 7% for college seniors — but it’s hard to know how many free agents or underclassmen are trying out). If you’re going to college solely to play football, in terms of averages you’re taking chances almost equivalent to spending $140,000 (or the cost of a college education at an average four-year private institution) on lottery tickets in a single week. Sounds like great odds, but they’re still about 100 to 1 or a little bit better. In other words, if you’re going to college just to play ball and not get an education, you may as well spend your tuition money on lottery tickets. So play football or any other sport in college and love every minute of it, but take class seriously too.
Next — and I’m asking you to think way ahead here — will you be interested in graduate school? Does your undergraduate institution also have graduate programs in that area? Check the institution’s website to see what percentage of students go on to graduate school, and consider your undergraduate degree in terms of the viability of pursuing graduate study in that field too. Master’s degrees are always good choices, but Ph.Ds. in the humanities and human sciences as well as law school have a strong likelihood for high student loan debt and low employability.
So, to review the process:
- Identify your interests (people, ideas, things) and your skills (hands, words, numbers).
- Match these interests to a major.
- Identify the most reputable colleges for that major. Pick three or four or five.
- Choose among those by comparing graduation rates, student loan default rates, return on investment, and rankings.
After thinking all of this through, then I’d like to return you to that first article I linked to, the one that I picked at a bit for being obvious. It still asks important questions: who do you want to be? How do you want to live? Human beings aren’t machines: we need more than physical and financial support to live whole and entire lives. Think about the Vonnegut quotation posted up above too. If you’re inspired by your field of study, you will be inspiring to people who will recommend you for jobs or advanced study and to your employers. Remember, no matter what you choose — even if you do not choose — what happens is the result of your choices.
Other useful resources: