Choosing A College Major

For those of you newly minted high school graduates who are headed to college, here are some questions for you: Have you decided in what area you will major? What will be your program of emphasis? Will you go with your heart or your head when deciding? Who might be influencing your choice? Your friends? Your parents? Lots of questions, with much riding on your answers.

The pendulum for higher-education-bound students today seems to be swinging in the so-called “pre-professional” direction. That means that many incoming college first-year students are thinking about the employment light at the end of the college-degree tunnel. They’re focusing on getting the most direct, practical, hands-on skill set possible to present to prospective employers. As I’ve mentioned before here, this is not a bad philosophy. However, you may recall that, above, I give a nod to making a choice between one’s head and heart. What does that mean?

Well, speaking from personal experience, when I entered my freshman year of college, my goal was to become a writer, but back in those days (shortly after The Big Bang), there were no writing-specific majors at the school I attended. Thus, I wrestled with the head-heart issue. My head won out and I signed up for Business Administration, which included those dreaded accounting courses. Yuck! I discovered after only a few balance sheets that my heart was right and that my head was dwelling in a dark, highly confined space, if you get my drift.

So, eventually, I sucked it up and made the switch to a heartfelt liberal arts major: music history and literature, which included a lot of writing and humanities distribution requirements. The rest is history, so to speak, because here I am today, being the writer that I always wanted to be. Writing has sustained me over the decades and opened many doors for me, doors that I likely wouldn’t have known to exist had I been launched into the numbers-heavy (rather than words-heavy) universe of business. Numbers vs. words. Head vs. heart. There’s a strong parallel there. So what does all my rambling here mean to you, as you’re making your “major” decision?

I’d like to pass along some sage advice that may help you see your choice of a college major in a different and hopefully more subjective perspective. Vivek Wadhwa, writing in The New York Times, advocates the “heart” approach to choosing college majors. and he uses no less a technical paradise than Silicon Valley to make his point:

It’s commonly believed that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that there is a correlation between the capacity for innovation and an education in mathematics and the sciences. Both assumptions are false.

My research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just 2 percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, health care, arts and the humanities. …

… In the two companies I founded, I was involved in hiring more than 1,000 workers over the years. I never observed a correlation between the school of graduation or field of study, on one hand, and success in the workplace, on the other. What makes people successful are their motivation, drive and ability to learn from mistakes, and how hard they work. …

… Our society needs liberal arts majors as much as engineers and scientists.

This should be music to the ears of those of you who are struggling to justify a liberal arts education with the requirements of the real-world workplace. Once again, speaking for myself, I can attest to the fact that my liberal arts major gave me some key elements that I have used throughout my life to be both happy and “successful” (granted, a highly subjective term, especially these days). First of all, I learned how to learn. Research skills, baby! Whenever I had a question about anything, I always could find the answer, thanks to all those papers I had to research and write.

Oh, yeah. Writing. When I entered college, I thought that I was a good writer. Ha! That first D+ I got on an English paper sobered me up in a hurry. Four years later, that D+ had turned into mostly A’s. Now you may grade my writing as D+ or even F, but my track record has been better than average over the decades. Why? Because my heart is in my writing. Again, heart vs. head.

Wadhwa goes on:

I have learned even more about the importance of design and the role of the humanities in fostering creativity. I now believe that the innovation economy needs musicians, artists, and psychologists, as much as biomedical engineers, computer programmers, and scientists.

I advise students to study subjects in which they have the most passion. They must have the discipline to complete their bachelors degree from any good school—not overpriced elite institutions that will burden them with debt and limit their life options. With a bachelors degree, they gain valuable social skills, learn how to interact and work with others, how to compromise, and how to deal with rejection and failure. Most importantly, they learn what it is that they don’t know and where to find this knowledge when they need it. …

There’s the key: I advise students to study subjects in which they have the most passion. That’s clearly a “heart” statement. I made the decision to go with my passion and it led me to happiness and satisfaction. Granted, I was blessed with some positive circumstances along the way that opened the right doors at the right time, but I also passionately persisted and have realized most of my life’s-work goals.

You can, too! So, when you’re making that major decision, remember what Wadhwa and I have said here. Going with your heart is not a magical solution and won’t immediately grant all your wishes, like some kind of higher educational genie. However, we all have a heart that wrestles with our head. You are the referee of that match and will declare the winner. Before you raise one or the other’s hand in victory, give it some serious thought. There’s a long and winding road ahead in life. Which part to you want leading you?