How to choose your college major

by Steven on February 12, 2012

The Dilemma

February 2007:  I have a dilemma: do I major in Philosophy or Information Systems Management?  Every day for weeks I debate this choice internally.

Like any homo economicus, I make a list of Pros and Cons for each:

Information Systems Management Pros:

  • Obvious career path
  • I’m good at it (3.8 GPA for the major)
  • Already invested majority of hours needed
  • Probably won’t end up homeless begging for money

Philosophy Pros:

  • I enjoy it
  • Good prep for grad school
  • Finish my B.A. one year faster
  • Less likely to be pigeonholed into one career

Weeks of struggle, still no resolution.  Queue the weighted averages for every possible attribute.  Its a wash; every input is a guess, so the output is a mess.

Getting to the core of the question

At the core of the question was my fear (and yours): pick the wrong major, and my twenty three years of education would be a waste.  I would be pigeonholed into a career I hated, or locked out of the college graduated professional middle class.  Both sounded awful.  Stalemate.

Because of this core fear, I couldn’t make the choice logically.  Instead, I would have to understand my emotions and allow them to drive the decision.

The turning point

The turning point for me arrived when I spent a day at my father’s office.  There, he happened to have two colleagues doing roughly the same work but with different undergraduate studies.  One had studied information systems, while the other was big on philosophy.  But they were colleagues.

Hidden Assumption: Your Major Determines Your Career

I realized then, I had a number of hidden assumptions driving the decision.  First, I assumed your major determines your future career.  But this isn’t true, unless you move on to graduate school.  For those who move into a career directly out of college, their major impacts jobs they pursue, and people they know, but it isn’t a paved road.

I fully realized this when, after college, I worked next to  marketers with backgrounds in Aerospace Engineering, Marketing, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, and History.

Hidden Assumption: Your Major determines your Salary

Second, I assumed salaries were caused by your major, rather than just correlated.  So when I saw ISM majors making 42 percent more than Philosophy majors, I worried picking the wrong major would ruin my life.    But there are other factors here:

  • Engineering degrees have a lower variance of expected production, so the starting salary will be higher
  • Philosophy majors are more likely to take public interest jobs that pay less financially but more socially
  • Philosophy majors are more likely to pursue graduate school and alternative career paths, making salary ranges larger
  • What you major in is a sliver of your education: the books you read, etc. define your knowledge

The Decision

At the time I didn’t see these assumptions, and I was at a stalemate.  It was to the point where my university was refusing to let me enroll in more classes until I declared a major.  So I bypassed everything I knew, and posed two new questions:

  1. What would I want to tell my children I studied?
  2. For the choice in #1, whats the worst case scenario and how can I improve it?

For me, #1 was easy: though I was better at Information Systems, at the time I was far more passionate about philosophy.  I couldn’t imagine explaining ISM to my future kids, but I would jump at the opportunity to discuss philosophy.

Once I realized this, #2 was easy as well: I would study for and get into a business school.  Even a second tier business school would give me a credibility boost and enable me to find a career.

Outcome

I declared my major in Philosophy and proceeded to struggle in the classes.  Turns out much of the Philosophy curriculum is History of Philosophy, rather than how to be a Philosopher.  No matter.  I pushed through the courses, and just ten months later I was in business school.

Five years later

Looking back, did I make the right choice?  Career-wise, I’m pleased with the outcome.  I look at the trajectory of my ISM peers, and I see roughly what I expected: better salaries in large companies.  Good for them.  Since graduating, I’ve started two companies, traveled extensively across three continents, and organized 100-person events.  Their path is paved and mapped; my path is muddy and unexplored.  Its a matter of taste.

How to Choose your Major

Are you undecided about your major?  Instead of wasting hours on salaries, as I did, try a different approach:

  • Add your best professors and advisors on Linkedin
  • Search Linkedin for alumni with each major (my search)
  • Seek introductions from your advisors, and reach out to five alumni for each major, and ask to meet for coffee.  Pick ones with jobs that interest you.

Expect 4/10 will respond and meet you.  Maybe more.  As a student, you have a magical halo around your head, and alumni will love talking to you.

Conclusion

Your major matters, but not as much as you think.  When making decisions like these, there is no substitute for meeting others who made the same decisions in the past.

{ 1 comment }

edward April 24, 2012 at 5:55 am

I majored in Phil. I believe I am a better human being for it. My critical thinking skills are much higher than that of the average man on the street. These benefits come at a cost. I am no longer a theist. I can no longer comfortably justify government of any form as moral or legitimate. These two facts tend to alienate me from the majority of humanity.

Although the latter cost (becoming a philosophical anarchist) is much rarer than the former (becoming an atheist), it’s where the rabbit hole led me.

Overall, it was a positive experience. However, it was not particularly helpful when it comes to procuring employment. I imagine that information systems management would be better for a career.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: