HOW TO CHOOSE A COLLEGE MAJOR
Introduction to Choosing A College Major:
It all begins when you're growing up and people ask you “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”
As you enter college the inquiries shift to:
“What is your college major?”
“What do you plan to do with your college major when you graduate?”
“Just what are your career plans?”
You feel the pressure. You envy the friends that seem so career focussed. If you are an older individual who has been out of high school for some time, you may feel the added pressure of time constraints, as well as work and family responsibilities. You wonder why choice of a college major and comtemplations about career direction have been such a struggle for you. Are you alone in your struggles? The answer is a resounding ‘NO’. It is quite normal to be uncertain about the choice of an academic major and /or career direction at this time. College is a time of exploration and self-discovery. It is a time for opening new doors rather than prematurely closing them.
Remember also that declaration of a college major does not indicate that a step by step career plan of action is in place. Many students select a college major without first gathering information about their interests and options. Furthermore, a majority of college students change their major at least once during college and many change their majors several times. What about that friend of yours with the clear post graduation career vision? Well, according to the US Department of Labor the average college graduate changes jobs once every three years and changes career fields two or three times in their life time.
Feeling even more confused about the choice of a major and/or career direction? No need to be. There is a process that you can learn which will serve as a guide to you as you explore your options. Where do you begin with this process? Well, you can start by reviewing this entire majors section of the CDC homepage and then by scheduling an appointment with one of our career counselors as a follow up.
Try to keep the big picture in mind as you read on by remembering the following quote:
“ The fact that most individuals hold from five to fifteen different jobs or positions throughout the course of their career life further emphasizes that a career is not a point–in-time event but rather a lifelong process.” Schlossberg, 1984
Should I Choose a Liberal Arts Degree or a More "Occupation Specific" Degree?
Some people believe that for every occupation there is a specific corresponding academic degree that goes with it. While there are occupations that require specific academic majors for certification (i.e.- nursing and engineering), most do not. In addition, studies have shown that most graduates are working in career fields that are not directly related to their undergraduate program of study.
What might help here is to consider college majors as if they were falling along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum there are degree programs that are highly specialized in nature and which are providing specific knowledge skills pertinent to a given occupation (i.e.- nursing). At the opposite end of the spectrum there are the "purer" liberal arts degrees (i.e. Liberal Studies, English) which provide broad based and highly transferable skills. In the middle of the continuum lie degree options which are somewhat focussed in terms of specific knowledge acquired and yet are still quite transferable (i.e. business administration).
Taking the time during Freshman and Sophomore years to explore career options will help you in determining what educational plan is best suited to your needs. If you have some possible career fields of interest in mind, take the time to research corresponding entrance qualifications, including educational requirements, necessary skills, and hands on experiences. Consider the “majors continuum” and determine whether a more specialized body of knowledge and/or major is required for your interest area(s). If in doubt, schedule an appointment for career counseling here at the Career Development Center.
The Value of a Liberal Arts Foundation
At the heart of a Rivier University education lies the liberal arts. Rivier offers a strong liberal arts core curriculum for all majors as well as a number of specific liberal arts degree program choices. A liberal arts foundation offers students a broad background in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills, as well as the ability to learn. These are highly transferable skills that employers value.
Some consider a liberal arts education as lacking value in today’s job market. This is not accurate. In the book, The Liberal Arts Advantage, author Gregory Giangrande reflects that stereotypical attitudes which devalue a liberal studies education may partially stem from the industrial and technological revolutions in our country's brief history. These events have prompted corporations to seek employees who possess more specialized skills. However, in response to increasing trends in global market competition, Giangrande states that, "corporations have become less hierarchical, and require employees who are generalists rather than specialists, who can cultivate the complex international relationships that will help them to compete internationally…who is better equipped than liberal arts majors - whose scope is the big picture, and whose sweep of study has trained them to understand and think critically about people, culture, and society, to step in and fill the void?"
Along with the marketplace changes noted above, an additional reality is that jobs do change over time. How work is performed in a given occupation today can differ greatly as compared to how it will be performed five years from now. A given occupation can even become obsolete due to all the technological changes that are taking place. As such, a liberal arts education offers broad-based skills that will not become obsolete with time. These skills provide the flexibility needed for dealing proactively with changing job functions.
Yes, a liberal arts education offers many benefits that extend beyond the added benefits of personal and cultural growth and awareness. At Rivier, “all” majors offer these benefits through our strong liberal arts core curriculum.
Skills are Key/The Employers Perspective
Employers focus on abilities and skills as they seek out prospective employees because they want workers who can perform certain job functions and produce desired results. In our work with students and alumni here at Rivier, we have found there to be a great deal of confusion around the topic of skills. While your interests may point you in a direction towards choosing preferable industries and occupations, your skills dictate what you will actually be doing day in and day out on the job. Whatever the academic major, it is important to consider this topic of skills in preparation for the eventual post graduation transition. This is especially true of liberal arts majors. Consider the following two quotes:
“I’ve encountered too many liberal arts majors who wait until their senior year to begin thinking about career preparation, only to find they still need to develop a few skills essential for being competitive in the job market.” Gregory Giangrande, The Liberal Arts Advantage
"If you’re a student majoring in political science but thinking about going into advertising, you can join some of these (advertising) organizations and acquire leadership roles over a period of years. You are really building your portfolio to make your case to an employer. You can say, “ I wanted to get this broad-based education, but I have some skills that you might be interested in that relate to this particular position."
Marcia Harris, Director of University, Career Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
So what “exactly” is meant by all this talk of building ones skills? Read on to get the scoop. Understanding skills is key to an effective future job search campaign!
Types of Skills that Increase Your Employability
Human performance is made up of three different broadly categorized skills we call Functional, Specific Knowledge and Personal Trait.
Functional Skills are labeled as verbs and so they are reflective of actions. In addition, functional skills are competencies that relate to things, information (data and ideas) and people. Repairing things, analyzing data, and motivating people are all examples of functional skills. When you use functional skills alone, like those noted above, there is a vagueness about your skills and others might ask, “Repairing what?” or “Analyzing what data?” or “Whom do you motivate?” The remaining two types of skills answer these questions.
Specific Knowledge Skills are labeled as nouns, which help make functional skill information more specific by answering the questions “on what” or “with who” is the activity being performed. Examples of these skills might include: “Repairing an automobile engine” or “Analyzing computer hardware sales data” or “Motivating a group of professional athletes”. These competencies are not easily transferable, yet they enable an individual to perform a specific job function, therefore these skills are of tremendous interest to employers. Specific knowledge based skills are normally acquired through an advanced training program or on the job experience.
Personal Trait Skills are labeled as adverbs, which help make functional skills more specific by answering the question “How?” These skills reflect competencies that enable an individual to accept and adjust to one’s surroundings. The examples previously given can now be fine tuned, "Repairing an automobile engine precisely", or"Motivating a group of professional athletes enthusiastically", or “Analyzing computer hardware sales data intuitively”. Effective performance occurs when all three types of skills work smoothly together.
So, liberal arts skills (such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills) are transferable. Purer liberal arts majors gain a solid grounding in these wonderful skills, but may have a much more difficult time with the post graduation transition to the world of work. Why is that? It is because they do not tend to take the time to consider industries and occupations of interest and to gain related Specific Knowledge Skills prior to graduation from college. In other words, they don’t always engage in the process of career planning. For “occupation specific" majors, Specific Knowledge Skills are built in to the major. Yet, even with these majors, specialty interest areas and market place trends need to be considered. Careful career planning and specialized skill development (including hands on related skills training) are key to confidently navigating that post-graduation transition.
So, the question to ask is not “What can I do with a major in ________?”
Instead, the questions from a career planning perspective would be .....
*What are the work settings and job functions that interest me?
*What can I do to explore and prepare for these options?
*What related course work and hands on experiences would be beneficial?
We sum up this section with one final quote, "Landing an entry–level job is not about gimmicks, games, and guerilla tactics. It’s about preparation, a positive attitude, initiative, and maturity. It‘s about understanding who you are, what you want and need, and what employers want and need." Gregory Giangrande, The Liberal Arts Advantage
Strategies for the College Major Selection Process
There is a step by step process that you can follow in selecting a college major. This process helps to ensure that you get the most out of your college education and it also greatly facilitates the post graduation transition. This process places you in the driver’s seat providing you with a clearer vision of where you want to head and your plan for getting there.
Decision Making Steps:
I. Identify the Decisions to Be Made:
This is done by stating the challenge or problem you’re faced with. You may consider your challenge to be choice of a college major, but looking at a broader perspective will help you clarify your options. Consider and try to answer the following questions and then identify the decision(s) to be made at this time.
- What are my dreams for my life (including my career) upon graduation?
- What would a future ideal work scenario consist of for me?
- Why am I attending college? (There can be more than one answer to this question).
- To prepare for a specific occupation or for general career advancement ?
- To find myself ?
- For the social opportunities?
- To gain a solid foundation for future graduate study ?
- Due to expectations / pressures from family and /or significant others in my life ?
- Because my friends are ?
Other ____________________________ ?
- Where do I want to head in my life / career and what classes and experiences can I pursue to help me explore and move in that proposed direction?
- What do I want my life’s work to be known for? What contributions can I offer through my work? What elements would need to exist for my work to be satisfying and meaningful?
- What conditions affect my decision situation?
Internal Conditions (attitudes, feelings, beliefs, biases, etc.).
External Conditions (finances, time, obligations, disabilities, opportunities, etc.).
- Which of these conditions are reality based and which are based on assumptions?
II. Gather Information About Yourself:
Self-assessment consists of examining your strengths, interests, values, enjoyable skills, and key personality traits. Engaging in the self-assessment process offers you direction in terms of determining future career plans and ultimately in selecting a college major to support your plans. Your interests, values and key personality traits help you determine work settings and industries of greatest interest to you. The skills you enjoy using most can help you determine preferred day to day work activities within a given work setting. Some questions you may want to consider when beginning the self-assessment process are:
What activities absorb my attention?
What situations energize me?
What words would I use to describe myself?
How would others describe me?
What do I dream of doing, but never seem to get to?
What subject areas am I most passionate about?
What activities am I best at?
What are my strengths and weaknesses?
What skills do I want to use in a job?
What skills do I need to develop?
Values What personal rewards do I seek in a career?
In what ways must I be challenged on the job?
What activities bring me greatest satisfaction?
In what type of work environment would I be happy?
What personal qualities will help me be successful at work?
Am I able to get along with supervisors? Co-workers? The public?
Does my personal style enhance my work with people, data or things?
At the CDC, we offer you a variety of self assessment activity options including interest inventories and card sort exercises to name a few. For information on self-assessment, or to get started with some online self-assessment activities, click on Self-Assessment. If you have an interest in going through the self-assessment process, contact us at 603-897-8246 and schedule an appointment with one of our career counselors.
III. Brainstorming Options of Interest:
Upon completion of the self-assessment process, you will have the tools to help you brainstorm potential industries and occupations of interest based on your personality profile. At this point, your focus shifts from internal to external information gathering so that you can learn more about options in line with your self-assessment results. Your goal is not to prematurely select only one occupation to pursue, but rather to look for patterns in your work interests. Given your unique personality characteristics, you will notice a pattern in terms of the “cluster” of work and educational options that interest you most. For example, you might find that you’re drawn towards social service, physical science or administrative work options.
With a CDC career counselor to guide you, you will learn about what kind of information to gather and how to obtain it. For more information on a variety of occupations and the world of work, click on Career Exploration. To explore career planning options for each of the undergraduate majors offered at Rivier, refer to the pull down menu after you click on Major Options. Once again, schedule an appointment with a career counselor for more thorough assistance.
To help you in making a choice regarding an academic major, you will want to learn about educational and experiential entrance requirements for occupation(s) of interest. Through this exploration process, you will determine whether a specific major is required for each of your top interest options or whether there is greater flexibility in the choice of a major.
IV. Evaluate an option:
At this point in the process you would make a list of the different major options that are of interest to you. Next, consider the following questions in relation to your options:
- Do I enjoy or do I think I will enjoy the subject matter in this discipline?
- Do I think I can perform well in this discipline?
- If I have interest in more than one major, can I take classes in more than one discipline and leave my options open?
- How do I relate to other students and faculty in this discipline?
- How does this major relate to my self-assessment results?
- How does this major relate to occupations and industries of interest?
- Is an internship required or offered in this program? If not, what hands on experiences can I pursue to give me the Specific Knowledge Skills needed for post graduation employment? (These could include service learning, volunteer experiences and/or part-time employment or a self-obtained internship).
- Will this major serve as a stepping stone to graduate study that interests me?
- What do I “think” about each major option? How do I “feel” about each major option?
- Are there any other pros or cons related to each option?
V. Decide on an option:
In some instances, the choice of major will become clear especially when you have a career interest requiring a specific college degree. In other instances, you might decide to go the non-declared route while you continue to explore available alternatives. You might realize that a double major or a specific major/minor combination would be the answer. If you find yourself continuing to struggle even after considering the questions in step IV, ask yourself "What is keeping me from pursuing my top option right now?" Seek support from faculty, academic advisors and from our CDC staff. Finally, it’s time to choose and take responsibility for a choice.
VI. Design a Course of Action to Implement the Decision:
- What goals and objectives do I want to create for the direction I have chosen?
- What courses will I take?
- What topics will I research?
- What Functional, Specific Knowledge, and Personal Trait Skills do I need to develop?
- What experiential activities will I pursue?
VII. Implement the Decision:
- How will I carry out my career plans?
- What specific steps will I take and when will I take them?
- Who or what resources can I call upon to support me in my efforts?
- How will I hold myself accountable and how will I reward myself for following through on my plans?
VIII. Evaluate the Decision on the Basis of the Outcome:
- How well is my decision working?
- What can I do to make it better?
- What new decisions am I now in a position to make?
- What fits and what doesn’t fit at this point?
- Review prior self-assessment activities for clues if something doesn’t seem to be working for you.
The main point to remember here is that you don’t have to jump from one choice of academic major to another without rhyme or reason. There is a process available to guide you and there are Rivier University staff and faculty available to support you in selecting a college major along the way. Above all, it’s important for you to be informed about your options, to reality test those options and to take the time to prepare for your top options. The following quote sums it all up. It reflects the message that employers love to hear from Liberal Arts majors, as well as all other disciplines; that is, that you have done your homework, you are informed, and you are prepared to enter their industry and organization.
“I’m a recent liberal arts graduate, and I am prepared for a career in this field. I‘m intelligent, mature, eager and have a positive attitude. I’ve researched this industry and your company, and I know what to expect in an entry level position".
Gregory Giangrande, The Liberal Arts Advantage
Good luck and feel free to stop by or give us a call. We welcome the opportunity to support you through the career planning process!!!