Minor Issues with Your Major
I remember—so long ago!—how enthusiastic my parents were when I told them I wanted to study architecture… Then their diminished excitement when I switched to educational psychology… And how confused they were when I tried to tell them what sociology was. For them, the evolution of my college major choices made it increasingly hard for them to see a path to a career. For me, I followed the path that most challenged and excited me the most.
What kinds of decisions are you making when picking your major?
There have been several good posts on Everyday Sociology about picking sociology as a major, but let’s face it: Not everyone reading this is going into sociology. (One of the best parts of teaching Introduction to Sociology is, in fact, that it’s a chance to share sociological concepts that, we hope, will be useful to students in other fields.)
When my colleagues and I ask students about picking majors, we get a mix of responses. Of course we do. Sometimes, students choose a major hoping to “change the world.” Sometimes it is for “happiness.” Someone might fess up and say that they chose their major based on “easy coursework.” Inevitably, when all the other responses are offered, someone will bring up money. Of course. “I’d like to major in Sociology,” they say, “but my parents want me to be a business major.” Why? “Money.”
A recent NPR "All Things Considered" clip took data from a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce to find the “most and least lucrative college majors.” Looking at income after college, Petroleum Engineers, Pharmacy Science, and Computer Science majors are at the top while Studio Arts, Counseling Psychology, and Childhood Education are the lowest.
Regarding choosing a major, co-host Robert Siegel states, “according to some economists, it’s the most important decision a college student can make because there’s a lot of money at stake.” An economist might say this? Of course!
The NPR segment highlights two people just two years out of college. One, Erin Ford, is a Petroleum Engineer who, at 24, is making six figures. The other, Michael Gardner, majored in psychology and is working at Home Depot. Seems pretty clear. There are fewer jobs out there for arts majors than there are graduates, and there’s not much money in the social service industry, meanwhile headhunters are making job offers to top engineering majors while they are still in their senior year.
Parental hysteria over careers makes some sense: With college getting ever more expensive, your parents, naturally, might want a good “return on their investment.” (And with more college grads moving back home after graduation, your parents might even want to do something with your childhood bedroom, right?) Parents aren’t the only agents here, however.
Should we trust economists to set your goals? There are lots of reasons behind any social action, especially one as significant as selecting one’s career path. We don’t have to make a push for sociology as a major to still question whether income is the best measure of post-collegiate ”success.” (For more on job-directed college career, see this week’s New York Times Magazine cover article: “How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree.”)
On the one hand, you could make an individualistic, self-directed explanation for a major that is less specialized, and geared toward critical thinking and problem solving. How, one could ask, can this major provide you the skills you need throughout my life? Since the average twenty-something—like Erin and Michael—is expected to switch careers two or three times in his or her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, you could ask: what happens to Erin and Michael in three years? In ten? Will she be sick of her job? Will he have gone back to school for an advanced degree and get a stable gig as a school guidance counselor?
These questions get us thinking about the differences between what Max Weber called instrumental or goal-oriented social action (zweckrational) and more value-rationalsocial action (wertrational). What if we measure success by happiness or public good? Or fulfillment?
What if you are interested in career satisfaction? It’s the age-old question: Can money buy happiness? Well, according to the College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs, despite one of the lowest median income levels of all majors, those with English and History degrees have high levels of job satisfaction, akin to those with jobs that pay far more money. A 2010 study on happiness and income finds that making more than $75,000 a year improves one’s self-evaluation, but doesn’t greatly impact job satisfaction, happiness or stress. What does that say? (Here’s an interesting chart with job satisfaction based upon career.)
A New York Times article highlights an author who points to the fulcrum of the argument: do you pick a major you’ll enjoy and (possibly, therefore) be successful at, or do you pick a major that you might not enjoy but make money doing? “Generally,” Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, told the Times, “people flourish when they’re doing something they like and what they’re good at.”
Or what if we collectively think about majors in terms of careers as collective, public goods? There are certainly arguments to be made that we need more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors in the U.S.
You don’t need to major in sociology to question whether or not the almighty dollar is the only measure of your future career path. But how can sociology help?