Choosing Your Major: For the Joy or the Job?

A Fresh Perspective

A common misperception persists that choosing a major is an either/or thing: you love the subject but the job outlook is poor, or you hate the subject but the job market is promising.

The reality is in fact very different. Why? Because in today’s diverse world there’s no single, predefined pathway to any job. In fact, many of today’s employers prize students who enter with well-rounded backgrounds. Even in pre-professional careers, such as law and medicine, pre-professional degrees are not necessarily a requirement. So what is a requirement? Let’s take a closer look.

What Do Today’s Employers Want?

It’s not an easy job market for today’s college graduates. In fact, recent news from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicates that in the wake of the Great Recession, many recent grads are struggling finding jobs, and the few that do end up in low-paying positions. So you’re not alone if your ultimate goal is to gain an inside edge by basing your major on what employers want. However, this begs the question: what do employers want? Here’s a hint: it may not be what you think.

The Federal Reserve Bank survey revealed that a whopping 95% of employers report giving hiring preference to grads prepared to contribute to innovation, and slightly fewer — 92% — claim that innovation is essential to their organization’s ongoing success. Even more to the point, 93% of respondents agreed that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”


This is not to say that graduating magna cum laude with a major in underwater basket weaving will land you the job of your dreams. Why not? Because the skills learned in this course of study don’t transfer to the workplace. Those that do include the ability to collaborative, write and speak well; critical thinking and problem solving; an understanding of science, technology, numbers and statistics; the ability to apply knowledge across a range of settings; a sense of ethics and integrity; and a global perspective. Students who hone these skills in any major will be coveted by organizations looking for the next generation of leaders.

So How Do You Choose?

While many people do choose a major because they have their eye on the prize — the prize, in this case, being a job — this is putting the end before the means. Not only that, but there’s no guarantee that this approach will lead to a job. Why not? Because there’s no certainty that you will make the kind of standout impression today’s employers seek.

Keep these two key questions in mind as you weigh your options: “What do I enjoy?” and “What am I good at?” The answers should lead you to a short list of potential majors which will position you for success — both in the classroom and on the job. If you have a dream career in mind, your choice of major may be a simple one. But if your career options are open-ended this process — in conjunction with research in prospective fields and advice from academic advisers — can actually help you identify a promising academic path.