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As I was driving to a dinner meeting earlier this week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I came upon what any reasonable person might have assumed was a real-time live filming of a U-Haul commercial. The streets were filled with moving boxes, trucks, trailers and of course, aspiring young scholars and their parents.
I found myself reflecting on what these students might be thinking about. Were they worried about roommate relations? Some, for sure. Were they thinking about the anxiety of meeting new people? Possibly. What about academics? I suspected it was too early in the semester for homework to be dominating anyone’s focus. Instead of speculating any further, I stopped and asked.
After explaining that I taught undergrads and was genuinely curious about their “biggest stresses as of right now,” I got three responses from three students in three minutes. One student mentioned she was only thinking about pleasing her parents until they left. Another, having signed numerous loan documents earlier that afternoon, indicated she was worried about money and the necessity to get a job ASAP. Lastly, a young man clearly skeptical of my intent, answered with a cynical “pursuing my passions and finding true happiness.”
So there you have it: parents, practicalities, and passions.
These three concerns weigh heavily on the minds of college students as they select a major that improves their odds of success. Many parents believe students should pursue education that secures professional opportunity: future doctors study biology; future managers, economics; future programmers, computer science.
It all makes sense, but might be wrong. Only 27 percent of people work in a field related to what they majored in during college. History majors who go into business make just as much as business majors who do the same. And lest you think liberal arts degrees close the doors to Silicon Valley, it’s worth noting that recent research found that close to 40 percent of recent liberal arts graduates work in an internet or software company.
So does this mean that majors don’t matter? Not exactly. While majors may be less relevant for those graduating from top liberal arts schools, they prove more important for others. It turns out that your major is a meaningful signal of your interest and possibly your passion. And certain majors definitely pay more than others. As noted by The Economist, “It depends what you study, not where.” The blunt reality remains that a degree in computer science pays more than one in social work — all else being equal.
But all else is never equal. Students that pursue topics of genuine interest do better than those that lack passion for the material, and the quality of performance is perhaps the most important consideration for prospective employers. Consider that the CEO of Palantir has a PhD in social work or that the CEO of Slack has an MPhil in the history of science.
Ultimately, what will serve students well in an interconnected and dynamic global economy (regardless of career field they pursue) is to gain a broad education that supports creative thought and encourages innovation. In such an education, specific content becomes only marginally relevant. What matters is developing a diversity of perspectives that can be applied to both known and unknown future possibilities.
One of the best ways to gain that diversity of perspective is to pursue a very broad major, such as those offered by various “area studies” programs. These interdisciplinary programs expose students to a variety of lenses — history, economics, anthropology, political science, sociology, literature, art, and even language — through which to view a part of the world. But why not combine that approach to an area of growing interest? At Bowdoin, for instance, students can concentrate in Arctic Studies. Given the potential conflict brewing in the region, such a degree might prove useful beyond the lenses provided.
It’s also possible to gain diversity of perspective by pursuing an “out-there” major such as Ecogastronomy in which students learn not only how to run a business, but also about sustainability and nutrition. Perspectives move beyond profit and loss statements to include the systems through which food is produced and consumed. Other such oddball majors include astrobiology, bagpiping, comic art, farrier (horseshoe) science, nannying, puppet arts, or viticulture. While some of these majors are likely more rigorous than others, the goal of instilling a broad-mindedness in students that enables wide vision should not be lost.
All parents want their children to be happy, successful and eventually able to be independent. But the historical approach may be broken. The time has come for parental passion for practicality to cede to parental practicality for passion.
Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is also the author of “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst” and is a regular commentator in the financial and business media.
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