A generation ago, it was presumed that if you majored in X, you would logically get a job in a field closely related to X (think business majors going in to banking or finance). Certain majors ostensibly lead to careers as attorneys, or doctors or journalists, and so forth. Because this was the scenario for most parents, many understandably place a lot of emphasis on their son or daughter’s choice of major. This can be stressful to the student, and it also may not be relevant in today’s quickly-evolving job market.
As an academic adviser whose job it is to talk to my first-years and sophomores about the major they will eventually declare, I can tell you that MANY of my students dread the question “What are you going to major in?” and its annoying followup “Why do you want to major in X?” It is bad for me to ask it, but for some of my students, the idea of having this discussion with his or her parents is something they actively dread. It’s not that they don’t love you, or respect you. Some are afraid of answering honestly and disappointing you.
Let that sink in just a moment.
If the student tells his parents or family members his true intellectual passion, he runs the potential risk that his loved ones don’t believe it is a worthy pursuit or that he will not be employable – and by extension, the student assumes he is going to disappoint those he loves most.
Some students also feel pressure (real or imagined) to take the same path that their parents did, whether that career feeds their inner fire or not. I have had so many students – both my own advisees and other students who find their way to my office – tell me they know they want to major in something and are afraid to tell their parents for fear of the parents’ disapproval. Or that their parents are telling them they have to/ought to/must consider majoring in X because that is the parent’s best notion of how the student will succeed.
It gets even more complicated when the student has come to the realization that he or she is just not cut out for business, medicine, or [insert career path here]. Some of our majors have prerequisite courses that will pretty quickly show students what that major will be like, and whether they have both the aptitude AND the interest to pursue it. I have seen many an alleged pre-med or pre-business student who is struggling in chemistry or accounting or calculus or physics who has to come to the painful realization that what they thought they might want to major in is not something they want to see through. And now they have to tell parents and loved ones the plan has changed. Major anxiety ensues.
Andy Chan, Vice President for Personal and Career Development, has coached and counseled groups of parents on how to assist their students in moving them from college toward a career. Instead of asking students “What are you going to major in?” he urges parents to say instead “Tell me about the classes that have interested you, and why.” This approach will get the student to talk to the parents about his interests and begin an open dialogue, whereas ‘the major question’ might shut some students down.
Chan has also said that potential employers are rarely looking at a student’s resume solely for their major. They want to see a student who is well-rounded, who has some passion for his area of study or related college experiences, and who has skills that will translate well into the workforce. In some talks, Chan references educator and author Tony Wagner, who describes “7 Survival Skills” that businesses value and all students need to grow or enhance: critical thinking, collaboration, agility, initiative, communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity.
It is important to note that these skills are not specific to any major. They can be learned across disciplines and through co-curricular activities to make a student an exceptionally well qualified job candidate. Students can take advantage of many opportunities to grow these skills by becoming active with the Office of Personal and Career Development and their programs and services.
At this point in your first year student’s development, he should be thinking about areas of study he likes, and ones he can rule out as a major. Once he begins to find areas about which he is intellectually curious and passionate, he should take advantage of a great tool on the Career and Professional Development website: What Can I Do With A Major In ___. This is a series of links by major, and if you click on a major you can see further links describing opportunities and charting out the types of employment that are frequently available. This can help students – and parents – see that a degree in [insert major here] can lead to very worthwhile career pursuits.
Katherine Brooks, our Executive Director of Career Development, has an article on the Psychology Today website discussing how your major is less important than the perspective it brings a student – and how he can use his experiences and perspective going forward.
So parents and family members, worry less about what your student will major in, and instead encourage your student to think about his interests, grow his skill set, make connections in his own network as well as yours, and become active with the Office of Personal and Career Development to help him on the journey.
And as well meaning as you may be, try to resist the urge to direct your student to a certain major or a certain career path. One of the greatest gifts you can give your student is the freedom to be himself and to choose his own path. And to love him just the same even if that path differs from yours.