Improving Academic Performance

5 Questions to Ask When Evaluating a College Major

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Tue, Sep 18, 2012 @ 09:51 AM

I attended Indiana University in Bloomington, IN and majored in Finance in the business school.  IU has a very highly ranked business program, and many companies from throughout the Midwest and beyond recruit there.  A degree from the Kelley School of Business is a very direct way to position yourself for employment after graduation.  Each major, while certainly “academic,” also provides “job training” of sorts, which allows you to slot right in at a major corporation and start being productive in the accounting, finance, operations, or legal department.  Employers value that type of rigorous, career oriented training.

However, at the time, I also felt like there was something to be said for attaining a true liberal arts education.  So, also took the classes required to get a minor in History, a minor in Philosophy, and I was a class away from a minor in economics.  These were interesting subjects that provided a broader education and forced me to think in different ways.

I was amazed at the intellectual rigor and deep, critical thinking skills which the philosophy classes required.  They could make your head hurt.  And, the Logic classes in the Philosophy department were extremely analytical, and were basically a branch of mathematics.  I certainly wasn’t surprised to read the following article recently about how well Philosophy major do on standardized tests:

On the benefits of a philosophy major

Furthermore, when I graduated from IU, I took a job at a boutique strategy consulting firm.  At Marakon, I worked with Fortune 500 companies to help them make company-altering decisions, such as what markets to exit, which products to invest in, which customer segments to target, etc.  The job requires deep knowledge of accounting and finance, is highly analytical and quantitative, and starting in the first few weeks, you’re already introduced to clients and expected to behave and communicate in a business content with people who’ve been working in business for decades.

But guess what?  Marakon doesn’t really care what you major in, and in fact, prefers not to hire folks with undergraduate business degrees.  They simply look for kids who have demonstrated the ability to think analytically, communicate, lead, and deal with uncertainty.  In fact, a Philosophy major with the ability to deal with numbers is probably the ideal candidate.

In today’s economy, most people think it’s a good idea to choose a major with a direct link to a career:

    • Business major = job in business

    • Accounting major – job as an accountant

    • Nursing major = job in nursing

    • Engineering major = job as engineer

    • Education major = job as teacher

Of course, with unemployment where it is, this isn’t bad advice.  You need to think ahead about what doors your degree will open when you graduate.

However, I think it’s more important to choose a major that provides option value and demonstrates your ability to think critically.  In other words, an Engineering major is good because you can be an engineer, but also because you can be a consultant, marketer, teacher, or anything else – because potential employers will know you’re smart and motivated.

With all that said, here are 5 questions to ask when evaluating any given college major:

    1. Are you interested in it?

    1. Are you able to excel in it?

    1. What does it signal to potential employers?

    1. What is the most direct, typical career route for those with that major?

    1. Are there other ways to achieve the end point that major leads to without actually majoring in that subject?

In a follow up post, we’ll use these five questions to evaluate a hypothetical decision between a Marketing and Philosophy major.

What do you think is most important when choosing a major?