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Choose A Major Based on Career Interests? Pros and Cons

About a week ago, I was driving to pick up my kids from school when I heard a piece on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” about choosing a college major in tough economic times.  The piece was headlined by a professor of labor statistics, whose basic argument is that students need to consider the return on investment when choosing a college major.  They need to understand, he argued, that certain fields will have a bigger payoff.  Health care was one of his primary examples:  the industry is booming, so head for jobs in that sector.

As I listened, the piece grated on me, because only one viewpoint was represented here, and that is the idea that an education is primarily about getting a job.  What was missing was the perspective of those who see education as an edifying experience, or who believe that “training the brain” to be nimble, and to be able to “learn how to learn” are the chief values of an education.

Furthermore, many observers (Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pink) have pointed out that many of today’s top-earning jobs didn’t exist ten years ago.  And while the professor identified health care as a good field to head for, we can also bet that the health care industry may undergo tectonic shifts in the next decade.

Just consider “communications” or “marketing.”  If you had studied these in college a decade ago, who would have foreseen the social networking and marketing tools that we now take for granted?

Anyway, I was following my friends on Twitter the other day, when someone else complained about this NPR story.  This someone else was Alex Berger.  Thus began a conversation about this NPR story that led him to write an extended email describing his take on education in the 21st century.  Tomorrow I will reproduce his email in full (with his permission, of course).

I think more people should be having this sort of conversation about what an education means in the 21st century.  While there is no getting around the fact that we all need to earn a living, and that our educational backgrounds do–in a very real sense–prepare us for our economic success and social contributions, a purely instrumental view of education can be self-defeating.

For example, does it really make sense to spend a bunch of money to educate oneself to read and interpret x-rays, when much of that work is being done more cheaply in India?

Or does it make sense to get a degree in accounting, when highly trained and able accountants in India are filling out IRS 1040s for US citizens–more cheaply than H&R Block?

Translation work might seem lucrative, but in fact it’s cheaper to pay Chinese people to translate my documents into Chinese than to pay an American with a Master’s in Chinese language to do the same work.


The fact is that if we decide upon our major, we have to realize that the economic landscape is going to change.  The professional preparation we begin in college is only the start.  We have to continue to learn, to modulate, and roll.  The labor market is going to evolve, and some jobs that pay well today may pay poorly tomorrow.  Or vice versa.

So in counseling my clients about their majors, I really try to hone in on the student’s aptitudes and passions: what sort of domains of knowledge to they really enjoy?  What interests them? Then I spend time talking about appropriate learning environments, because college is really about learning–and not merely about acquiring knowledge.

More on this topic tomorrow with guest blogger, Alex Berger.


Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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