Does your major make a major difference?

May 01, 2015
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Many famous entrepreneurs, media moguls and politicians studied one major at uni before graduating in another, before ending up in careers almost entirely different from either.

There’s Ted Turner, the mustached founder of CNN who first studied classics at uni before quickly moving to economics at the behest of his parents (it paid off). The CEO of Disney studied communications in his undergraduate years, but ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Science. And the guy who started PayPal did philosophy before moving into law.

It’s true that many of us often don’t place too much importance on our major at uni – especially if we’re studying an arts degree. We often see more general degrees achieving the same end, whether we’re majoring in English or political science.

We’re instead told to value extracurricular activities, as well as other social and cultural experiences at uni. Whether that’s overseas exchange, involvement in a sports club, or even writing for the uni newspaper, these extra endeavours often take priority on our resume because we want to show off our “well-roundedness”. Uni courses provide us with the academic and intellectual knowledge to apply to our prospective careers, but social and community involvements build character, confidence and productive life skills.

"Being able to work across different areas with general “employable skills” is now a necessity."

We’re also acutely aware that in today’s changing working world, being able to work across different areas with general “employable skills” is now a necessity. By starting with specialised academic knowledge (in other words, your major), and complementing that with strong and transferrable life and social skills, we’re better equipped to transfer our talents across multiple potential careers.

For instance, the general skills learnt in one major (say, journalism) now need to be transferable to other career choices (such as marketing, advertising or copywriting) as job titles change and responsibilities in one vocation get changed or diluted. The ability to conduct an interview? While you might think it’s just the journos that need to be able to do that, someone working in advertising will often need to utilise the same skill.

But to completely turn those ideas on their head, a recent study released by New York University has found that your major may be more important than you think. Whether you chose to focus on politics or film could mean more than that semester you spent in Berlin, or your time chairing the badminton team.

"Students who worked in areas that were closely related to their major reported more than 15 per cent higher earnings."

The NYU study found that meaningful university experiences, especially when it comes to pursuing a major you’re passionate about, offer students the most job satisfaction later on when they move into the workforce. It also concluded that students who worked in areas that were closely related to their major (e.g. education students moving into teaching, or law students exclusively pursuing legal jobs) reported more than 15 per cent higher earnings.

The researchers claim that while studying a broad degree (such as a Bachelor of Arts) has its benefits, it’s important to choose an area of specialty that will give you specialised skills in that area (e.g. majoring in International Politics will offer you specific knowledge in the world of international relations and diplomacy).

It seems there’s such conflicting advice about whether our majors really matter. But perhaps what we can safely glean from all the evidence is that we need to simultaneously specialise and diversify. In other words, we need to consolidate our skills in an area of expertise (such as finance and economics), but also make sure these particular talents can be easily transferred to other careers in our future working lives.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne. His writing has been published in Salon, The Advocate and Overland. 

Image: John Walker, Flickr Creative Commons license