What you thought of your major before beginning, and what you thought afterwards
February 19, 2009 6:07 AM   Subscribe

What did you expect going into your major, and what did you get?

I'm a sophomore in high school, and recently I've been innundated with college info envelopes. It got me thinking: I honestly have no major in mind that's both practical and appealing. All of my interests simply have no job potential whatsoever: English, history, sociology: these are majors that I can do nothing with. I am interested in biology and chemistry, and these do have viable careers associated with them, but I honestly don't feel like doing the research necessary to do these things.

So I ask MeFi a broader question, not just "what should I major in," but what you expected going into yours. Did you have the same worries I did? If so, did they turn out to be realistic? Or did you not have these worries, and then they panned out to be true? Please tell me what surprised you about the prospects of your major.
posted by Bleusman to Education (42 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm glad that you acknowledge that there is practically no job potential, especially these days, with an English, History, Sociology degree, but it seems to not really phase you.

You will not find a job.


And it might not seem like it's worth the research now, but unless you plan on going to grad school/law school afterward, which requires considerable research by the way, you'll be regretting not doing something more practical.

Unless you don't need a job and then, well...do whatever you want.
posted by Grimble at 6:13 AM on February 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you like bio and chemistry but aren't that interested in pure research, why not go into biomed or chemical engineering, which are more applied? You'll still spend time in labs, but I think you're more likely to see your work in the real world faster than if you were doing pure research.

Alternatively, why not do business, with a concentration in something useful, like accounting? My younger brother did that, and he had a job way before all his friends who were just in general "business" majors. You have to find something that actually trains you during school, not just gives you a base of knowledge.
posted by olinerd at 6:20 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

You will not find a job.

I'll have to respectfully disagree. While you may not have a job immediately, (which more "practical" degrees like biology and chemistry tend to offer) there are a lot of things you can do with a humanities degree. It just takes a while after college to develop the right experience for the industry you end up in, because your education is more general. I'm pleased as punch with my English degree, and I'm not an academic. I became an ESL teacher and now work as an editor.

That said, if you'd like to make a lot of money, then you are probably better off with a non-humanities degree. However, it's not as stark as Grimble makes it out to be.

To answer your question, I entered university expecting to get a degree in linguistics and then study semiotics (I loved Umberto Eco at the time). I ended up thoroughly disliking academia, and had a few years of wandering in the career wilderness until I found my way.

It's not for everybody. In your case, it seems that your concern about job security will push you towards something more practical.

Oh, and by the way - don't worry about having your major picked out right before you go to college. The best thing about the American higher education system is that we get the ability to test out a lot of things in our first year of university. Take some biology classes, take an English class. You can tease out your job prospects by talking with people in the departments, and even talking with alumni (the university can help you make those connections).

Kudos to you for thinking about this so early (sophomore in high school!) but - really - you've got a lot of time to decide.
posted by mammary16 at 6:39 AM on February 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Simply put, a 4-year degree is just evidence that you are capable of working on a long-term project and getting it done. It's quickly becoming almost an accreditation that qualifies you for white-collar labor rather than a marker that you even learned that much. You should not be so quick to knock English, et al. You would be shocked and horrified at the writing skills of most people, even those with "educations". A major that requires you to write well-reasoned essays may take you pretty far.

At the same time, for all but select majors such as engineering, a 4-year degree is no guarantee of any job. I double-majored in Computer Science and Economics. Turns out that C.S. without sufficient job experience and grasp of modern technologies is the "philosophy of computers." An undergrad degree in Economics is little more than the "philosophy of money," and while I know more about how money works than most, it didn't get me a job. If I'd leaned less toward theoretical and more practically toward finance or accounting, I'd still have needed to take tons of courses and get tons of experience.

Really what it comes down to is not so much your major as your work experience. College is there to round you out as a person, and teach you how to learn. Also, please don't forget that the successes in this world very often tend to be those who love what they do, and excel at it. If you really love English, you should go for it anyway, because in the long run you'd be more successful with that than a degree in something you believe will lead to a job, but you feel apathetic about.
posted by explosion at 6:40 AM on February 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

I majored in Computer Science from beginning to end, and I got pretty much what I expected. I wanted to be a professional programmer and I was already self-taught, plus I knew about the general job market and what kind of education is useful. My main fear was that since I was starting a notoriously difficult CS program, I wouldn't be good enough to make it, and it turned out that although I had to put in a lot of effort it was doable (although most of my friends who started as CS majors switched majors). The main thing that surprised me was that very little of the coursework actually taught me much about programming, I learned most of what I know about that outside of the classroom.

I think you're ahead of most people already in that you have accepted that you don't really know what you want to do. In my experience most people make the mistake of picking a major, realizing they hate it once they actually start taking the classes, and stick with it for too long because they think they have already committed themselves to it. My suggestion would be to do a lot of research about different majors, and have a long list of possible ones. It helps if you pick a tough major to get into when you apply, because often the requirements to switching to that major can be even tougher, but make sure you don't apply to some extremely tough major that will get your application rejected.

Once you start taking classes, stick to gen-eds at first and get a feel for what the courses in different fields feel like. Take a lot of "Intro to X" classes. At the same time, figure out what kinds of jobs are out there for different majors. Go to job fairs as a freshman and hand out your resume. Almost all of the people who go to job fairs are juniors and seniors looking for jobs or internships, and a lot of companies won't give a freshman the time of day unless you are a certified genius, but you'll get a lot of experience and insight early on so that you're not scrambling to figure out what you're going to do when graduate.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:42 AM on February 19, 2009

I went in as a triple (English/Psychology/Biology) and came out a double (English/Psychology). I really only wanted to do the two, but due to parental pressure about the whole 'you will not get a job if you have only the English major' thing, I wound up with Bio in there and flunked out of that major in the second semester.

The thing that always aggravated me was the stereotype (which is probably somewhat true) is that the first question you get whenever you tell someone you majored (or are planning to major) in English is: "Oh, are you a teacher?"

It was a bitch for me to find employment afterwards, and this was in 2006. I ended up going to grad school on a whim (long story), started working/managing an ice cream store, got the lovely MSA degree, and am now hoping to hear from the grad program that I wanted to get into in 2006 (but due to the issues of the Bio, ended up having such a shitty undergrad GPA that they turned me down) and have a lovely job that I am vastly overqualified for.

The job market is suckassed right now. Maybe by the time you graduate from college (6 years, since you've still got 2 years of HS left) things will have turned around, but if you can, do a double major in something you like and something that will get you a job.
posted by sperose at 6:43 AM on February 19, 2009

I should correct myself...if you don't mind spending years temping or doing whatever odd jobs you can get in a variety of fields as you try to pay off your student loans, and you plan on entering the work force when we're not in a recession and there are a plethora of jobs available, then yes...a humanities degree will serve you well.
posted by Grimble at 6:44 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I disagree somewhat with olinerd's comment about getting training, as opposed to 'a base of knowledge.'* My wife, myself, and many of our friends have relatively generic Bachelor's degrees and are getting along just fine. Solid jobs, decent income, great benefits, etc. I'm middle management in social services with my Sociology degree. My wife is executive level management in an environmental non-profit with a Political Theory degree.

Since you are still unsure about where you want to be heading as a career, pick a college that has options. Take a handful of 101 classes in a variety of subjects, chat it up with the career center about what degrees are useful where, and eat up any volunteer or internship opportunities. You'll be fine and you have plenty of time.

*There are certainly many careers where you do need specific training/certification, rather than a base of knowledge. Nursing, tech careers, business, etc. If you think you might head that way, you certainly do need to look beyond a liberal arts school.
posted by wg at 6:49 AM on February 19, 2009

Regarding bio and chem: there are things you can do with a science degree that don't involve research. Science journalism, for example. Patent law, and any legal profession involving science - they love to have people who actually have a solid science background. Administrative jobs where you're surrounded by scientists but not researching stuff yourself. (I don't think that bio/chem engineering would be great if you don't like research, though: while engineers may be more focused on applications, they're still working in a lab, testing things, etc.) If you're a good writer, you'll also have an advantage over many of your more monofocused peers in the sciences. However, if you end up doing bio or chem, I do suggest that you do a stint in a research lab. It's not much like high school lab classes, I promise. It's entirely possible you still won't like it, of course, but it's definitely worth checking out before you make a final decision.

Regarding my expectations when I chose my major (chem, focusing on biochem): I expected a challenge. I'm probably better at the bio side of biochem, but any good biochemist needs a solid understanding of chemistry. Sure enough, orgo was a pain and thermo/kinetics were pretty dull. On the other hand, I ran into topics that I never expected to enjoy - I'm not good at quantum mechanics, but it was really, really fascinating. And hey, I'm still doing science!

However, when I was a sophomore in high school, chemistry was not the major that I thought I'd choose. I love literature and writing, and I thought I'd be an English major. As everyone says, you don't need to know where you're headed now. Make sure to take a wide variety of classes your freshman year, and attend any info sessions held by departments you're interested in. You've got time to choose. If you're pretty good at both the humanities and the sciences - if you can write well and think analytically - you'll have a lot of opportunities after you graduate.
posted by ubersturm at 7:05 AM on February 19, 2009

I went in to Computer Science expecting lots of fun coding and finding elegant ways of solving problems. What I got was hardcore discrete math classes and machine-graded assignments with no reward for creativity. I changed majors to English (lit.)

I went into English expecting to have fun reading important literature and having intelligent discussions about the human condition. That's pretty much exactly what I got! I got fulfillment for my literary interests, developed pet theories, and enabled all of my future growth in the sphere of reading and writing. No regrets.

Unless you need a big salary or an ambitious career to be fulfilled, don't worry about being a humanities major. Rock your time at college. There will always be entry-level jobs in an office somewhere that will let you goof off can't prevent you from goofing off and scour the web for whatever you fancy for part of the day. Computer skills help alot, and being really smart about spending will help you get over the hump of an impractical education.
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:07 AM on February 19, 2009

I received a BS in Civil Engineering and got into a pretty cush consulting job. Good people, sort of interesting projects, nice income. However, within about a week I realized that I'm not an engineer. I'm just not enthusiastic or interested in it, and can never seem to bring any enthusiasm to the job. So, I enrolled in the local university in the English Major's program with a Writing Emphasis (as I had always written essays and short stories). My grade point average was much better than in engineering and I discovered something about academia that I didn't realize before: It can be fascinating, enlightening, and fun. I am quitting my Engineering job to obtain a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing this fall (this can be parlayed into teaching or working in the publishing industry. For me it just means lots of time to write over the next 2-3 years).

The moral is,I think, that doing what pleases you is more important than doing something "practical". I could remain an engineer and be stressed-out/burned-out by the time I am 30, but I've happened upon a different path and I know that it is something that I could work on every day for the rest of my life and be satisfied.

You said: "these are majors that I can do nothing with." And yeah, that's what my dad told me about getting an English degree when I was in high school. But the truth is that there are really pretty much endless possibilities. Many very successful people never even finished college. If you aren't sure what you want to do, take your first year of college (and right now) and read a bunch, do some traveling, make some new friends, get your gen eds out of the way. I think if you set out to get as much out of academics and life as you can between now and the 'drop-dead' date to decide that you'll find when that sophmore year of college starts, the answer to this question will be obvious to you. Good luck!
posted by nameless.k at 7:10 AM on February 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was a Radio, Television and Film major. RTF = rather than fail. My BA in Mass Communications has served me quite well. I had no expectations going in. I took courses that interested me. Eventually it led to a degree. I briefly considered a career in academia, but decided that perpetual poverty wasn't much fun.

Nineteen years later I'm still working for DoD. I make a comfortable living, work three days a week in the office and one day on telework. Many liberal arts majors work with me. One of the sharpest IT folks I know was a music major. My sense has always been that it's college, it's for learning, but a lot of folks look at it as trade school.
posted by fixedgear at 7:26 AM on February 19, 2009

I wholeheartedly believed, through high school and going into college, that I was going to major in economics and go to law school. In my second semester. I later left econ for physics, then a physics/world politics double major, then I transferred schools and ended with international relations. I suspect many people here could tell you a similar story.

With econ, I wasn't worried because it fit into the law school plan. With physics, I wasn't worried because I was too excited about learning physics to care. Once I made my way over to international relations, I came to terms with not getting a career in my field of study because I just don't want one. IR is just my fastest way out of college.

It's my understanding that the classes you take in college (and consequently, what major you take) are not nearly as important as what you learn while you're there.
posted by thewestinggame at 7:40 AM on February 19, 2009

A high school sophomore is too young to be dead-set on a major. I didn't decide on a major until my sophomore year of college. It's great if you have ideas of what you want to study because it will help guide you into classes you'll be interested in, but don't be surprised if your interests broaden, narrow, or change completely. And don't be afraid to try something else (because that's what college is for).

And here's a tip about applying:
Smaller schools and private schools will likely be ok with you saying on your application that you're undecided, but have ideas about what you want to study. Large and state schools, however, need you to make a choice. A trick a lot of people in my high school did to better their chances of getting into our state school was to maniuplate the quotas in their favor. In lieu of writing biology or finance (which is what they planned to do, but those are very, very popular majors), they wrote stuff like forestry and religious studies. As soon as getting there, they "switched" majors and just studied what they wanted. It's a little unethical, but if you're teetering on the line of only just maybe getting accepted to your dream school, anything is worth trying.

Anyway, good luck applying and eventually making your choices. I think the most important thing to take away from this is not to think you're a failure if you get to college and end up hating the subject you thought you'd love in high school.
posted by phunniemee at 7:50 AM on February 19, 2009

I think that I had a much clearer picture of what I wanted out of college than a lot of my counterparts. I had decided in high school that I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, so I filtered my college search through that. Turns out not a whole lot of schools offer that major, and in retrospect a mechanical engineering degree with a concentration in fluids might have given me more flexibility in the job market. I ended up with a double major in aero and mechanical engineering.

What did I want? Well, I guess I had a vague notion that I "wanted to build airplanes". I suppose I wasn't really aware of what went into that, but I certainly have a better idea now. And what do you know, I designed an airplane from scratch for my senior capstone. I still have the design somewhere, and I'm going to build a working scale model one of these days.

What I got out of my education was... well, a job for one. But a job that was not what I expected. I ended up working on computers; granted, they're computers that go into airplanes, but it's not the Skunkworks/wind tunnel/drafting table work that's glorified on the History Channel programs. Now I do government work, and it's closer to what I want - more mechanical stuff - but still not what I hoped to be doing back when I was in high school.

I guess the point is that, even if you go into a technical field that's supposed to tunnel you into a particular type of job, you're still not going to end up with that job. I still have a strong interest in my degree, even though I don't use it as much as I'd like, and it gives me a unique insight that other people in my department don't necessarily have.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:02 AM on February 19, 2009

Honestly, I was just talking about this in another thread. Your major matters, but not that much. I went in majoring in physics and expecting to do a PhD program. 2 years in, I switched to English and expected to do grad school for either journalism or creative writing. In the real world, I started getting jobs based on the fact that I was quick with computers. That wound up mattering far, far more than what I studied.
posted by COBRA! at 8:18 AM on February 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Everyone knows this already, but engineering is the most reliable major to study if you only want to get an undergraduate degree. I picked engineering from my college catalog cause I also had no idea what I wanted to do, other than not have to worry about rent, paying off student loans for the next 10 years, and so on. I really had no idea what would happen after 4 years, except was terrified into going into design or something super conceptual.

At the end ended up in a great job that I love that is not affected by this whole conomic downturn. thing... my boss even said one of the most secure areas was engineering-project management in the food industry (rather obvious). I'm not even in a staples food industry like say milk or junk comfort food like potato chips either; everyone's gotta eat.

From observing fellow similar aged graduates in the last couple of years, all the engineers are doing well and not being affected by the economy (even those at places like Boeing or military-affiliated manufacturing companies, maybe because they're cheaper than the expensive experienced old timers? Who knows). Those that went into sciences- even those that graduated from Cornell or other grand schools- fared better than those in liberal-arts/social science type of majors, but are not being paid as well and stabilized as those in engineering/computer sciences.
posted by Jimmie at 8:21 AM on February 19, 2009

People with Grimble's attitude about liberal arts majors really piss me off. I'm an academic advisor and I feel like I spend most of my time convincing students with Grimble's attitude that a liberal arts degree does NOT equal certain homelessness.

That said, Grimble is right that a liberal arts degree (English, Sociology, Art, whatever) ALONE will not get you employment outside of college. What WILL is what ELSE you do at college. You should be either working part time or looking for multiple internships, community service opportunities, and networking opportunities. You need to have a good resume when you graduate and connections into fields you're interested in, not the perfect degree.

Also, the whole "say you're going to be an unpopular major so you have a better chance of getting in" thing? FALSE. Please don't listen to that.

You're way too early in the process to know your major. 75% of undergraduates change their major at some point in college. Don't be afraid to be "undeclared" and give yourself time to explore.

That said, DO WELL IN MATH. Students with poor math skills have a MUCH harder time doing whatever major they want, because they're shut out of most science, math, and business majors. And if you're interested in those areas, explore them early, because they often have a lot more requirements than other majors.

If you have questions about specific majors, MeMail me. I have experience with a large state institution and two large private institutions and I can give you a feeling for what most majors are like.
posted by bibbit at 8:21 AM on February 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I entered college as a Literature student and that's how I'll finish. It's not my main thing, but my interest/job doesn't exist as a major, and I figured that (a) I could do this major, (b) it would help me learn how to read deeply and write, and (c) it would allow me some space both inside and outside of schoolwork to develop other ideas and skills. I underestimated how deathly boring I'd find some of the required Lit classes, and I underestimated how important and interesting some of the other Lit classes would be.

At first I didn't understand how valuable it is to be in a weird specialized space between fields, and that even though my pet fields seemed terribly disparate and contradictory, they had the potential to come together into something that makes sense. You might find that you'll take history, sociology, and biology classes and turn into an evolutionary psychology student who becomes a historical linguist. (Yeah, do that! It would be cool.)
posted by dreamyshade at 8:33 AM on February 19, 2009

Large and state schools, however, need you to make a choice.

I completely disagree. I went to a large school, and BECAUSE it was large I was able to change my major 3 times without a problem. I was allowed to sample from a large catalog of courses while deciding my major.

I think the most important thing as an incoming freshman (and you're not even incoming, you shouldn't be thinking about this at all. Why don't you get into college first and then we'll talk?) is that you remain dynamic with your expected outcome. Some people come in with an exact path laid out, which results in a complete meltdown when something doesn't go as expected (IE: not getting into Law school).

The fact that you're already thinking of the end game (a career) puts you a cut above most college students. Undergrad for some is a 4 year vacation.

As for my specific major... I knew being good at and educated in a skillset that most people loathe (math) would put me above every other candidate, regardless of grades, in a quantitative role. I walked into a Wall St. software company and was offered a job the next day. My competition were mainly undergrad business majors. True, they understood financial markets much better than I did, but I was trained on the job and probably know more than they do now. The point is: don't pick a major because it sounds good, or feels like a career is built in. A major is just a name. Choose a major with classes you want to take, that will leave you with a toolbox bigger than the other guys, and you can't learn from a book. Just my 2 cents.
posted by teabag at 8:34 AM on February 19, 2009

I went to college thinking I wanted to major in bio. And then I discovered that all the first-year bio and chem classes were apparently designed to do nothing but weed out anyone who wasn't dead-set on being pre-med.

I didn't have to declare a major until halfway through my sophomore year, and by then I discovered that most of the professors I really liked (I went to a small college where it was easy to get to know the faculty even if you weren't taking a course from a particular professor) were in the history department. I was a history major and loved it.

I drifted around for a couple of years after graduation, not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I fell into an editing job and I've been in the field ever since.

Don't trap yourself into thinking that if you major in A, B, or C you will necessarily get a job in those fields. Don't trap yourself into thinking that you HAVE to major in A, B, or C "practical" fields to get a job, especially if those majors are something you feel kind of meh about. Majoring in something you only feel meh about can be a great way to have a miserable college experience.

Leave yourself room in college to find out what you like. You may discover you like something that you would never have imagined.
posted by rtha at 8:34 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Former english grad here, won fabulous internship with Time, been happily employed at upper-middle paying jobs since graduation.

There is only one thing to remember about picking a major and employability after college: You get out of it what you put in to it.

Seriously, like others, I, too, saw plenty of people blithely waste away with their english studies then end up waiting tables after graduation because they were shocked to find that, hey! just writing really good shakespeare papers doesn't give you much on your resume.

The ones that succeeded, without fail, did serious thinking about what they actually wanted to DO after graduation, then spent years ahead of time building experience and skillsets towards that goal, regardless of the degree. I got an "english" degree but my first big job after graduation was a multimedia/technical designer for a huge corporation, what you might expect as an "art degree" position. I also saw people who volunteered for real world projects writing tech stuff for companies, or designing websites, or teaching middle schoolers, or editing local journals, and when they got out of college they not only knew their major-related stuff, they knew how to talk about their skills and apply them to real world situations.

THAT is what gets you employed. So don't put any majors on the blacklist, but don't expect jobs to be just handed to you because you graduated with X GPA in major Y either. You get out of a degree what you put into it.
posted by ninjakins at 8:54 AM on February 19, 2009 [8 favorites]

I went to college interested in psychology, and decided to major in it after a summer session and one regular semester. After two years, I realized that I wasn't going to get the kind of rigorous scientific education I would need to be a serious researcher at my university, so I transferred to a more research oriented one. After graduating I worked various temp jobs and waited tables until getting into a lab where I could get the requisite experience to get into grad school. I'll be starting a doctoral program in the fall I expected to learn the basics of scientific inquiry through a psychological lens, and that's pretty much what I got.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:54 AM on February 19, 2009

I had no idea what I wanted to do when applying for college. I had no interests in ANY subjects, but I did well in AP Chem, so I majored in chemistry. After doing research for 2 summers in college I realized that research was the LAST thing I wanted to do, and could not imagine myself ever liking a job in my field and was kind of terrified of making a huge mistake with my major.

Come senior year, I'm starting to look for jobs, and the career office in my college pretty much tells me "you're not going to find a job with a B.S., so just go onto grad school, don't even bother looking." Thanks college. So while all the engineering majors in my school had interviews handed to them by the career office, I had to go find my own companies to apply to because my school was not helpful in any way. So that was NOT what I expected.

Luckily, I found a job with my bachelor's degree at a large pharmaceutical company that does not involve any research at all, and I love it.

So you're lucky that you have interests in other fields as well as realizing that a science/technical major would probably give you more opportunities. And I guess my point is that if you keep looking, you can find a job in any field that is more to your liking, even if at first it seems like your opportunities are limited. Don't like research? Then keep applying to analytical chemistry jobs. Don't like analytical chemistry? Then keep applying to synthetic chemistry jobs. Same goes for everything you major in.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 8:54 AM on February 19, 2009

[. . .]state schools, however, need you to make a choice.

This wasn't true at the state school where I attended, FWIW. If you have the opportunity to enter college as an "undeclared" major, take it! Your interests will be changing considerably after high school, and if you go to a school with a strong liberal arts/social sciences foundation (general ed classes), there's a good chance your interests will be opened up to fields and majors you hadn't even considered. I had to stop myself from changing majors repeatedly in college, everything was so interesting. I mean, philosophy! Anthropology! Women's studies!

I graduated with an English degree and a philosophy minor in 2006. It took me two months to find a job, which was about average for my group of friends. It paid decently for an entry-level position and offered full benefits. I'm now getting a "useless" grad. degree. We'll see how the job search goes in May, but I'm more worried because of the economy, not because of my education.

I say, go for what you're interested in. As a high school student, chances are very unlikely that you really know what research entails--you might love it! But regardless, I think a smart, passionate person who knows how to market themselves will always be able to find some sort of work.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:03 AM on February 19, 2009

Keep in mind that what you're going in with might not end up being what you come out with.

When I was a sophomore in high school, all I wanted to do was be a film director. And even though I chose a college that didn't have a film school, I was still convinced I would be a film director, so I chose "undecided".

After my first year at college, I jumped into Anthropology. From Anthropology, I jumped into what was called "Religious Traditions of the West", a combination of Classics, Anthropology and History filled with awesomeness.

Yeah, occasionally, I get asked "What, did you want to be a nun?" but the sheer random awesomeness I got out of the courses far exceeded any worries I had about a potential job market. And, in the end, it wasn't my major that got me where I am, it was my hobbies. I designed websites for fun, and now I design them for money.

So don't feel that you have to choose something that'll tick some box on an employment form. Choose something you love, and just love it.

Plus, don't underestimate your choice of electives -- along with my anthro/religion courses (which included everything from Human Osteology to Taoism to Sacrifice in the Ancient World), I ended up taking a huge range of electives, like Genetics for non-science majors, Introduction to Architecture, Women and Technology, and a heck of a lot more. That gorgeous range of knowledge and experience means loads more than someone who's been sheltered in one department their entire time.
posted by Katemonkey at 9:03 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Before being 3/4 through my computer science major:

"man, this is going to be sweet"

After being 3/4 through my CS major:

"man, this has been pretty sweet, and also I have four jobs"
posted by ewingpatriarch at 9:38 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did not go to college expecting to get a job from it. I majored in Sequential Art (comic books) because I love them (though hate the American industry for them) and could see myself at the age of 70 still working on and thinking about comics. I went to learn and to be pushed to learn and encounter news ideas and people. By that measure, college was a roaring success.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:39 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Major one: Visual Arts and English. 3 years.
Major two: Film. 4 years.
What I'm doing now: stay-at-home dad.

Wife's major: Interior Design
What she's doing now: Manager, large department of a big national telcom company.

I know maybe 2 people who are doing what they "went to school for."
posted by chococat at 9:43 AM on February 19, 2009

Kudos to you for asking this question! Keep asking it to anyone who will answer and you'll get a better understanding of the varied college experience and how it translates to the real world.

Here's what I did: I really thought I wanted to be a graphic designer. I loved doing those kinds of art projects. Even though I got into every school I applied to, I couldn't afford any of them so I started in Junior College. I had a really great time there. I took the same classes as everyone at the expensive colleges, but with smaller class sizes and one-on-one instruction. I didn't even know there were giant lecture halls!

Then I took a graphic design class... and the teacher basically said we were going to be the starving artists of the business world. I ended up dropping the class. Jr. College is really great because you can take a bunch of classes in any field you want just to see how you like it and it's cheap. I took computer classes, sociology, psychology, and more. I ended my time there with a semester abroad in England.

Then I transferred to a big state school and I chose my major by looking at the college catalog and circling all the classes I wanted to take. Then I looked at what I liked the most and that was my major. It ended up being English Rhetoric (creative writing). I had a lot of great classes and I took a lot of East Asian Language and Culture classes too. But I did so much writing that I got totally burnt out on it.

I had trouble finding a job after college, but that was because I lived in a rural area to stay close to my family. All of my friends (who majored in business management, computers, and technical theatre) moved to the city and have good jobs there.

I now work at the jr. college I liked so much as a library clerk, but I was a columnist for a while and have done other stuff. I'm taking night classes to get a Library Technical Assistant certificate, because that's something I became really interested in. Jobs are still hard to find this far away from the city and suburbs, but I think I'll do ok.

College ended up giving me:
-Excellent writing, researching, and analytical skills.
-Even more experience with computers in a variety of fields.
-The ability to catch on to stuff quickly and think ahead.
-The importance of showing up (to class, meetings, clubs, and everything else).

What college didn't teach me:
-How to get a job
-How to be happy
-How to know what was right for me

Here's what I wish I knew at your age:
-If I was really focused on wanting a job, I would have studied something in computers like IT, networking or web design.
-I should have gotten all my foreign language classes out of the way in high school, because it's waaaaay harder in college.
-There are jobs I couldn't even dream of that I don't even know exist, one of them might be the perfect fit so don't try and choose a single job now. Be open to new things.
-I didn't have to wait until college to do what I wanted to do! If you are interested in sociology now, read about it, do some experiments, or start a club. If you are into history, find out what history majors really do and do some projects. If you like English, read How to Read a Book, create a poetry blog, or write for the school paper. Follow every interest. Pretend you get to do exactly what you want now and if you like it someone will pay you for it. Really. Just do it. I wish I had taken pictures even though I didn't have a photography teacher. I wish I would have just started my own Anime/Manga club. I wish I had done some mythbusters style experiments in my backyard. Do what you want now. Don't wait until some teacher says you can or you think it will lead to a good job. Create your own opportunities to learn what you want. By the time you get to college you'll have some excellent ideas about what to study.
posted by CoralAmber at 10:03 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just about any major can be turned into a Real Job. But the key is being willing to walk the walk when it comes to doing what is necessary to succeed in that field. I like history, but I knew I wasn't willing to get an MA or PhD in it and become an academic or go work for a museum/nonprofit someplace. If you major in a field that requires heavy life commitment (like grad school) or serious internships/programs, or both, then you'd better be willing to commit to that with everything you've got. Otherwise you are putting yourself in debt for nothing.

My advice, if you are unsure, is to try a lot of different classes your first year (or two if financially feasible), make friends with people in lots of different majors, and then major in something you 1) find interesting and 2) are willing to "walk the walk" in as far as doing what is necessary to get a decent job later on. Colleges that force you to complete a year or two of general studies before declaring a major and taking focused classes are good in that circumstance.

As for myself, I was a finance major. I did it because I love economics and numbers. I expected it to be quantitative and difficult, but very conducive to getting a decent job after college - that's exactly what I got. By senior year, the twenty of so of us who were at that point in the finance department were very, very sure of what we were going to do. It was one of four things:

1) high finance (think Wall St)
2) corporate finance with some company or a startup
3) MS in finance, eventually leading to #1 or #2
4) law school

I chose #4. Most chose #1. None of us had any problems moving on to the next step after college and we all found good jobs (late 90's). Today I am an analyst/strategic planner for a defense contractor and I love my job. Beat Army!
posted by pandanom at 10:28 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

In retrospect, I wish I had chilled out more in both high school and college. You might consider doing the same. This from a gainfully employed humanities grad in one of the top ten jobs (as diagnosed by the WSJ, so take with a grain of salt).
posted by hardcore taters at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2009

I started out at a school that required you to declare your major when coming in, and I chose Landscape Architecture, with the idea that I'd learn to design for the future, building with living elements. When it came time for my senior project, I was burnt out and felt like I hadn't learned much more than to "shrub stuff up." In retrospect, I realize that less guidance means more room for personal expansion, but I missed that then. So I switched majors to a field in the same over-arching college, where I could re-use most of my GEs and some major courses, too. I chose City and Regional Planning because it seemed like a really positive field, with the option to change the world for the better. I now work in the planning field, and I enjoy it. I hadn't known of the major before coming to college, so I think my route worked well enough.

One reason I really liked my choice of majors was how much time I had available. I lived with some engineers, and they were studying a lot towards the end. Because of my less rigorous classes, I had more time for extra-curricular activities. College also provides you an amazing opportunity to try out all sorts of things, from sports to clubs, and gives you a flexible schedule unlike most professional careers will provide.

I'll agree that declaring an unpopular major just to get in somewhere is very risky, and usually a bad idea. If you couldn't get accepted declaring the major, then there is some steep competition in the major itself. Also, you probably aren't the only one trying it, which will make all the classes impacted.

Good luck, and have fun! College shapes your future in more than just future careers, but also in your viewpoint, friends, and skills. And as long as you can balance the classes with the fun, you'll be fine.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:50 AM on February 19, 2009

I was undecided when I started college, but focused on Computer Science relatively quickly. I actually enjoyed my second major, Mathematics, more. I originally had a minor in Math since it was easy to pick one up, but found that I loved it and dove in.

If you aren't sure, explore as many of your interests as you can. Shadow professionals, get an internship, volunteer. If you find something you truly love, stick with it!

Data point: I believe only one of my close friends knew which major she wanted when she started and finished with said major. Most of my friends switched schools within the university: many switched from Engineering to Arts & Sciences, three switched from Arts & Sciences to Engineering, a couple switched from Arts & Sciences to Business, and one switched from Arts & Sciences to Art & Architecture.

Good luck!
posted by wiskunde at 11:09 AM on February 19, 2009

You're a sophomore in high school. Much will change in the next few years. When I was a sophomore in high school I wanted to be a rock star or a mechanical engineer. My HS career counselor told me that I should be a farmer or a small appliance repair person. Junior year I took a computer aided drafting night class at the community college and found out I was more interested in the computer graphics than the drafting. Then senior year I had a lot of success and fun with creative writing classes

So I went in to college with an English major determined to eventually be a world famous novelist.

A few years later I dropped out of college to take a job programming computer graphics. And while I do still make some money from writing, I make a lot more from application development.

I honestly wish I hasn't wasted the money and time on college. It's a very very expensive place to find out what you're interested in, and it's not very good at it. I know quite a few people in their 40's still paying off their college loans and most of those people don't use their degrees in their work any more. The only time college was worth it for me (in retrospect) was a single semester where I was really in tune with what I wanted, but then I realized that I could get what I wanted without the college and here I am.
posted by Ookseer at 12:26 PM on February 19, 2009

I happen to be in grad school now, but until this year, I was possessed of only a BA in English, and had very little trouble finding a job (this, for emphasis, in the job drought that was Portland, Oregon in 2004). This was the case because my degree was from a good school, and because I was confident and capable of describing the ways in which my education prepared me for the jobs I sought. Writing skills are both important and rare, and critical thinking will get you far, but the ability to present yourself confidently as an intelligent capable person is perhaps the most important skill there is, at least when it comes to acquiring jobs.

As for my actual educational experience, I went in planning to be a physics major, but discovered that though I loved it, I loved literature more. This was not a problem for my school or for me; in fact, most schools force you to explore other disciplines by imposing class requirements. Obviously, I loved my school experience, or I wouldn't have come back for more.

As an aside, the only people I know who have any regrets about their choice of undergrad major are those who chose what their parents wanted or what they thought would be practical. That may not be universally true, but it's definitely true of the people I know.
posted by dizziest at 1:45 PM on February 19, 2009

I have to take issue with Grimble on his awfully harsh dismissal of humanities. Seriously, you think bio majors are hopping into jobs right out of undergrad? Physics majors? In science, most undergrad degrees are just the beginning of a long educational career, from what I've seen.

As for myself, I actually thought I was going to end up in Physics when I went to college as a Freshman. I ended up studying Medieval history, which absolutely rocked. I went to study abroad in St. Andrews, Scotland, solely for the opportunity to take odd and completely useless Medieval Scottish History classes. I spent a whole semester learning about James the VI and I.

Did I land a high-paying job right out of college? No, but not a bad one. Then I moved to a podunk town in NW PA with my now-wife, spent a few years in a less-than-thrilling job and now am the circulation director at the local paper. Is that where I thought I'd end up? Not in a million years. Is it a rewarding, challenging job that I enjoy, and that pays pretty well for this neck of the woods? Yep.

I got that job with the talents I learned at college, specifically having the mental flexibility to apply myself to any job and any task, learn it inside and out, and excel at it.

That said, if you want to be a doctor, or otherwise work in a very technical and advanced field, your choices are going to be a lot more limited as far as majors go, and you'll have to decide a lot quicker. Most pre-med programs take nearly all 4 years of a normal degree program.
posted by dellsolace at 2:03 PM on February 19, 2009

I'm a May 2008 English/Poli Sci grad from a well-known Canadian university, and I've had very little luck breaking into the job market in Toronto. I'm going to side with Grimble on this one, inasmuch as a humanities degree is just not good enough to break into the workforce these days; perhaps it's the same for other Bachelors' degrees, I can't comment, but I can say that a BA has done nothing for me. I have for some months tried to secure a government job, with a strong background in that line of work - internships, policy work as part of my degree - and all I garnered was a temporary administrative job with the local government. I have been able to secure something better, but it's meant resorting to a move to a very, very rural and northern part of the country.

I enjoyed the hell out of my undergraduate career, I really did, and I knew going into it that it was not likely to be a ticket to a job. It still sucks to see friends with BBAs find work with relative ease, while other friends with degrees in the humanities have had to take certificates from community colleges to make themselves employable. This is not a recommendation against studying something like this, just a warning that it will mean additional studies and/or a long slog of temporary and menial jobs before you find a real career. Either way, I wish you the best of luck in your decision.
posted by ZaphodB at 3:58 PM on February 19, 2009

I think I should throw some context into my comments as I was not expecting this backlash, and I think that what I have to say can in fact be helpful.

I should say that I have a degree in political science, and am currently in law school. I have so many friends who have graduated with a degree in both arts and sciences and have the most dreadful time finding a job. Looking back to my high school days, I sincerely resent every counselor who told all students to "not worry about it" because you should do what you like and it was just that simple. OF COURSE you have to find something you enjoy, but there is so much to be said for a good dose of practicality. It's easy for someone to tell you to do whatever you enjoy and experiment, but they don't have to deal with your debts and your responsibilities. School is expensive and jobs are hard to find. Unless you're lucky to have family connections, getting your foot in the door is not easy. You really need to find a way to balance your volunteer/work activities and education so that you can fit in some sort of niche. I feel passionately about this because I see so many of my friends who are so utterly over-qualified for the positions they hold, with little or no chance of advancement. I gained valuable experience in my undergrad and I really enjoyed it, but these days, with practically everyone having an undergraduate degree, it won't get you far.

Dellsolace: thank you for assuming I'm a man, as I am in fact a woman. Harsh practicality = man, right?
posted by Grimble at 4:12 PM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am a sociologist who worked in environmental design. I lost my job in this recession because people are not handing out construction contracts the way they used to. But that doesn't mean sociology is a bad career move, as sociologists work in social services, urban planning, design, media, teaching, research, etc.

I agree that you shouldn't major in just any old thing- you do want to make some money when you graduate! You could take some time before you head to college to discover what you really like to do. You can try doing volunteer work in fields you find interesting (check out volunteermatch.org for opportunties). You can also look for internship positions (check out www.secretsofthejobhunt.com's 1 page PDF on internships).

All that being said, you don't have to pick a major until your junior year. If you don't want to wait before starting school, use your freshman and sophomore elective courses to explore fields you are interested in, and your summers volunteering or interning.
posted by Piscean at 7:13 PM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been innundated with college info envelopes. A bushel of well-intentioned advice could get overwhelming, too. People make decisions based on their skills, opportunities and life outside the workplace. If you want an office job, it would help if you can find a summer office job during your university years. The reputation of your university is likely to register with prospective employers, too. An ability to think critically and write clearly should serve you well on many career tracks. Perhaps the wisest course is to seek a balance between pragmatism with flexibility: even the best-prepared job candidates can get unlucky, and every so often serendipity works in your favor. Enjoy being at university, whatever you decide to study. There's more to life than work -- from an English major employed in the telecom industry before pursuing a career in academia.
posted by woodway at 6:53 PM on February 23, 2009

What I learned is that you just don't know until you try. Your major may or may not be what you expected, and it may or may not be what tickles your fancy. I graduated from high school with great marks in both arts and sciences. Due to years of parental pressure and indoctrination, I just assumed that an arts degree was a complete waste of time. Science was clearly the only option if I wanted to go somewhere in life. And this was okay with me, because I had always enjoyed science classes.

I went into a Biology major with a full scholarship and the best intentions. I can't emphasize enough how much I utterly, absolutely, hated it. I skipped half my classes and the ones I did attend I mostly slept or doodled through. I just couldn't bring myself to care anymore. I did just well enough to avoid academic probation, and I lost my scholarship. I also learned during a visit to the advisor that a B.Sc. is not a working degree - there's just no career potential unless you go on to grad school. I put myself through two and a half years of this before I hit rock bottom. I failed Organic Chemistry twice. The first time, I got 44%. My friends said, "Look, you just need to learn 10% more material and you'll pass. Just get through it." The second time, I walked out of my exam after fifteen minutes, and failed again with 16%. This landed me on academic probation.

That was it. I was DONE.

I switched out of the faculty and into Arts. My parents just about died, but they saw that I was miserable and anything would be better than me dropping out altogether. I decided to return to my true love, which is English Language, and thank God for that. From then on, I took classes fall, winter, spring, and summer terms to make up for all the lost time. In the end, I finished my degree just one term later than I had planned (4.5 years total) even with a double major (I added Psychology as a major because it's fun). Most importantly, because I was taking classes that I loved I managed to scrape my GPA from the bottom of the sewer and get it up to the point where grad school was available as an option.

I opted not to go into grad school. Neither research nor teaching particularly appealed to me. I wanted to use my writing skills in a way that impacts real lives. I wrote the LSAT and went to law school instead. I'm in my third year now with an articling position lined up and I'm feeling pretty good about avoiding homelessness.

What I got out of this experience is that post-secondary education is not just about book learning. It's about finding out what you love and what you're good at. When you find something you're passionate about, you WILL find a way to use it. Money isn't everything. You spend a significant amount of your life living at work, so make sure it's something you enjoy - all the money in the world won't make up for all that lost time. And once again, the catch is you don't really know until you give it a try.
posted by keep it under cover at 7:56 PM on February 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

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