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Double Take: Students should be realistic when picking a college major

June 17, 2013

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Dear Dr. Wes & Katie: I’ve read your columns on young adults living at home. Could you offer some specifics on how to reset my child’s career path while she’s taking some time off from college? How should today’s young adults think about a major before going back?

Wes: We’ve talked about this a lot since the recession. The issue grows more serious as more young adults finish college without marketable degrees, or give up on school before finishing.

This is going to hurt some feelings but according to both Forbes and Kiplinger, some majors are better than others in terms of employment and earnings.

They suggest students avoid anthropology, archeology, sociology, film and photography, theater, fine arts, philosophy and religious studies, liberal arts, music, physical education and recreation, studio arts, graphic design, history and English.

So for the kids I see, I’m recommending against all these degrees, even though I hold a couple of them myself. In fact, at the bachelor’s degree level, psychology isn’t a very marketable major either, unless you’re headed to grad school.

On the air

Join Dr. Wes on Up to Date with Steve Kraske this morning at 11 a.m. to discuss parenting young adults living at home. They’ll be taking listener calls and helping parents and young adults troubleshoot the transition to independent living.

Here’s what I suggest, particularly for young adults trying to reboot a problematic launch from high school: Google “U.S. Department of Labor” plus whatever career you’re interested in. You’ll get extensive, up-to-date career information including job prospects through 2020, salary and educational requirements. Nobody should enter college, much less declare a major, without studying that material.

Your daughter should also consider geography. A few years ago we needed nurses badly in the Midwest. Now? Not so much.

Many are leaving this area for larger markets where the need remains great and states that have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Similarly, being ready to relocate will expand her options down the road in whatever field she pursues.

Finally, encourage your daughter to really think all this through and perhaps take some gap time before taking another trip down College Lane. She’s young and as long as she’s engaged in a useful pursuit, she has lots of time to modify her career plans.

Note: This week, Double Take runner-up Emily VanSchmus is filling in for Katie, who is on a European adventure. She, like Katie and other recent grads, has given this issue a lot of thought.

Emily: Because college is so expensive, kids feel pressured to know immediately what their major will be in order to finish in four years. There certainly are “less ideal” majors in terms of finding a successful job after graduation, but that shouldn’t put you in a position to hate what you do.

I’ve had my major, graduate school and a career picked out and ready to go since I was 13, as if I could just push play and it would be that simple. Applying to colleges over the past year taught me that my original plan might not be realistic. In fact, between 40 percent and 80 percent of students at the colleges I visited changed their major within their first year on campus.

The best advice administrators gave me in regards to choosing a major came from a recent orientation session: do something because you love it, not because you’re good at it.

You’re more likely to succeed if you enjoy what you do.

Too many students pick their major based on potential earnings. While money should be a factor in choosing a career path, it shouldn’t rank above your happiness.

Keeping that in mind, any major you choose should be broad enough so that you have a good chance of finding a decent job after graduation.

Think outside of your comfort zone: Being curious and exploring a little isn’t going to hurt your college career, and you may end up finding something you love. I plan to find an internship freshman or sophomore year to make sure I really love what I’m studying, not only in the classroom but also in the real world.

Remember, your daughter’s major isn’t everything. Ten years from now, there will be jobs we can’t even imagine today, much less train college students for. Important skills for any major are critical thinking and writing, well-roundedness, and the willingness to learn. Chances are, 15 years from graduation, she won’t be doing exactly what she planned at this point in life.

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