Archive for Monday, July 22, 2013


Double Take: Passion for subject just one factor in choosing college major

July 22, 2013


Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I read your column regularly and usually like it. As an economist and retired professor I think your response on college majors was more miss than hit.

The Forbes and Kiplinger data only looked at the first year out of college on a bachelor’s degree and during a recession and not kids who are going on to graduate school. As to the arts, some people take them regardless of their economic benefit as a life choice.

The better advice would be “don’t run up high college debts if you plan a career in the arts, philosophy, literature or anthropology.” Almost no one will do well in a field they cannot learn to love.

Katie: I was over the Atlantic, using an airplane tray table as a pillow while that column was in the works. Emily VanSchmus was kind enough to fill in at the last minute and did a great job. I’m sure readers were excited to see her back last week to write about technology, while I was learning to turn my iPhone on and off. Mission completed, though I’ve yet to meet Siri.

I agree with you and with Emily, who wrote, “You’re more likely to succeed if you enjoy what you do.” A twentysomething who is already counting down the years to retirement can’t offer the energy and creativity required to remain relevant in the global economy.

While it’s tempting to pick a major based on economic demand, an applicant walking into a job interview should strive to be the most accomplished and enthusiastic candidate to enter that office. Majoring in engineering when one’s true love is history won’t score any points with the boss.

Future financial concerns are very real, but instead of going for salary-calculator-approved degrees, students should seek affordable educations with enough breadth to be applied across career paths. I’m head-over-heels for the liberal arts approach, as it encourages students to become knowledgeable in a wide scope of academic disciplines, from the humanities to the social sciences to the natural sciences.

The significance of this multifaceted method transcends money, but it also promotes skills sought by high-level employers: creative problem solving, expert communication and ethical leadership.

Students should major in a field that will keep their attention past retirement — if retirement still exists by then — remembering to decorate their degrees with a la carte resume points: a double major or minor, a useful language, scholarships and internships, study abroad and so on. Your merit in the job market depends on more than your choice of a major.

Wes: Among the many gifts of youth, none is more precious than optimism. When young people feel hopeless about their futures — and I’ve seen that a lot since 2008 — they give up. So, Emily, Katie and you have my blessing to extol the virtues of following one’s passion in selecting a course of study. Unfortunately, such love is but one factor in making a college major into a career, and often a less important one than young people want to believe.

In the business of health care we have a thing called “informed consent.” That means you know what you’re getting yourself into before you go to therapy or under the knife.

My point in that column — and I stand firmly behind it — was not to encourage classes in computer science and accounting to the exclusion of history, humanities, sociology and the arts. It was to push kids, parents and society to consider not just what a student likes to study, but how that squares with the world of work.

It’s no wiser to force fit your degree into an unwilling job market than to force fit a major you hate into your brain. I only pushed the practical because passion is rarely lacking at this juncture — as Katie and Emily aptly point out. As an example, just last week I encouraged a good student who loves musical theater to go into entertainment accounting. She’s good at it and it’s the closest she’s likely to get to dancing on Broadway.

I won’t dispute your interpretation of the Kiplinger/Forbes data because that misses the point that a lot of college graduates remain out of work, underemployed or stuck in jobs they hate, despite excellent educations they’ll still be purchasing in 2030 simply because they didn’t have informed consent at age 20.

Finally, if a student is purchasing his own education, he has the right to select a major without input from anyone. Caveat emptor. But if taxpayers and parents foot the bill, we have a right to consider what offers the student a good return on an investment that runs close to the cost of a new house, lest we end up supporting him well past graduation.

Where career is concerned, we cannot know the future, except to be sure that it holds many unpredictable turns and chance occurrences. Of this, Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” In preparing yourself, dear students, afford your head at least the same influence as your heart and things will turn out fine.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at Katie Guyot is a Free State High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.


jonnyboy 4 years, 10 months ago

"A twentysomething who is already counting down the years to retirement can’t offer the energy and creativity required to remain relevant in the global economy. "

Katie...I can only hope you are referring to someone who is working a job they hate and has not yet gained the maturity to empower themselves to change their life.

You obviously are completely lacking in maturity and world experience. I would also suggest that you are pretentious in understanding anything about the work world. There are a lot of Art History majors working in the service industry. That liberal arts degree you are so enamored with better come with a lot of luck and drive...although I do agree the education you get is very valuable.

And, having said that, you also don't want to be on your death bed wishing you have pursued your dream. Young people need to measure their passion. A professional musician once said...only major in music if you CAN'T do anything else. In other words, your whole life is about that and money isn't a factor.

But if you DON't have that passion, you'll figure that out in college hopefully, then you CAN be an engineer and have the money to indulge in your passion of Civil War history through reenactments, etc. There are all sorts of ways you can structure your life and education to be content...and you will find it will change as you mature and grow.

As an older woman who has been around the block, my recommendation would be to learn a second language and expose yourself to all kinds of things in college. The high school perspective of life is VERY small.

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