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Major Career Plans

Most college freshmen have little -- if any -- idea of the type of career they'd like to pursue. Yet most schools want students to declare a major by the end of their second year. Whether you have specific career goals in mind or not, there are many possible majors that will serve you well in the job market or as preparation for graduate school.

Perhaps one of the worst ways to choose a major is based on how lucrative the jobs are in that field. "A lot of that stems from parents," says Jim Turnquist, director of career services at Michigan Technological University. Hearing that entry-level salaries in a certain field might be $60,000 gets students' attention. However, money is not the best reason to choose a career.

"Right away they're talking about salary, benefits and so forth," Turnquist says. "And my question to them is, 'Is this the kind of work you want to do?' I tell them that is the most important consideration."

"We encourage students not to come as first-year students with their minds completely set on a major," says Anne A, Skleder, dean of Chatham College for Women in Pennsylvania. "What that does is it really closes off opportunity." She advises students to take a variety of classes their first year, exposing them to new ideas and opportunities.

However, Skleder says there are exceptions: "If they're going to be an education major where there are really high levels of course requirements because of state certification. If they're going to do a five-year master's degree and have to follow a really strict schedule. Or, if they're in some of the sciences that are very intensive. What we're hoping is that first year, if they think they know what they want, they explore that, but also take a wide range of courses in case they change their mind."

When students don't know what they're going to do later in life, Turnquist recommends career counseling. Personality profilers, interest inventories and other methods provide realistic appraisals of students. Next counselors discuss the results with the students to see if the information provided makes sense.

"If it does, we give them a couple of possible majors and have them go talk to those departments to find out more about those majors," says Turnquist. "Once they've done that, they can come back to us and tell us what they think, and we help them narrow it down to a major they feel comfortable pursuing."

Ryan LaBar, a fifth year senior at Michigan Technological University did just that and got a big surprise. He had intended to study mechanical engineering, but then realized it wasn't for him. The career counseling process indicated scientific technical communications (STC) was a better match.

"Beforehand I hadn't even realized that we had an STC program here at Tech," LaBar says. "They pointed me in that direction and sparked my interest at the possibility of working at a cycling publication. Eventually I ended up interning at one."

All schools recommend or require internships, co-ops and other real-world experiences as part of a major. They can help you discover what you want to do, or more importantly, what you don't want to do.

Even if you already know your future career, it's still a good idea to visit your school's career services office. They can help you decide which major will give you the best chance of landing a great job when you graduate, or will make you a top candidate for the graduate school of your choice.

"There may not be a best-match major for many students," says Roger Young, director of career services at Southwestern University in Texas.

While engineering, accounting or education students know what majors they'll need, people hoping for a corporate job, for example, have far more options. "A way to pick a major might include matching with their interests by looking at the required courses they will need to take for that major," Young says.

For careers that don't require advanced degrees, Young says liberal arts is a good major. "Any kind of liberal arts degree, because of the broad nature of the degree and the multitude of transferable skills developed through it, offers students a solid foundation for a large number of different career fields," Young says.

Young also notes that a liberal arts education doesn't always have the hands-on, out-of-class applications and real life experiences employers are looking for. So internships or externships are especially important for liberal arts majors. Skleder says that any "broadening experiences" you can fit in to your major -- internships, study away, work-and-learn, study abroad, even work-study -- will also make you more desirable to future employers and graduate schools.

Students planning to go to law school or medical school don't necessarily need to take pre-law or pre-med classes. In fact, Skleder and Turnquist say that those specialty schools often prefer students with broad-based knowledge.

"We've been told by some of the top medical schools that they love our engineers. Because engineering has such a strong problem-solving curriculum, [students] seem to be able to handle the intense studying involved in medical school," Turnquist says.

Medical schools want more than students with strong backgrounds in math and science. "They don't necessarily want a student to have 100 credits in science, because they're going to spend their entire in-class medical school training in those areas. What they're not going to get in medical school is the literature and the social science and the understanding of people. They really want that educational background," Skleder says.

"For law school, it doesn't matter what you major in," Skleder says, as long as you've intensely read, written and spoken publicly. Philosophy, English, political science, psychology and business are all good majors for students planning on law school.

Yes, you can do something with a philosophy degree. But students might want to steer clear of more unusual majors for practical reasons. "There are some majors where they'll have more problems finding a job -- paleontology, archeology, even some liberal related majors," Turnquist says. "They're kind of ambiguous, from an employer's perspective. If an employer doesn't understand what your major is about, most likely they'll pass on you."

If you're intent on pursuing one of those majors, be prepared for a potentially long and difficult job hunt. In those cases, Turnquist says, "A student needs to pick a career field they enjoy, then accept and realize what's going to be involved after getting that degree to get the kind of career you want."

"For the most part, employers are less concerned with what specific educational background candidates have than with the fact that they (a) have college degrees and decent grades, and (b) have experience and skills related to the position," Young says. "A student with good skills and experience built through work, internships, leadership in student organizations, class projects and volunteerism -- regardless of academic major -- can be a competitive candidate."


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.