How Important is Your Choice of College Major?

by | Sep 13, 2022

Washington University

A particular passage in Catcher in the Rye has stuck with me over the years. It’s the part where the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is discussing with his favorite teacher, Mr. Antolini, whether he should go to college. What Mr. Antolini tells him isn’t the usual stuff about needing a degree for career success and the like or how fun attending college can be. While those are good reasons, Mr. Antolini instead tells Holden, “it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it won’t.”

I love Mr. Antolini’s sentiment. A great education means finding the limits of your intellect. This includes learning enough to know how little you know (and can possibly know). College can teach you how to learn on your own and critically reason better. These, for me, are the top reasons that a college education is worthwhile, regardless of what major one chooses.

That’s not to say that a person’s choice of major is not important. It is. But probably not as important as you might think. This notion is borne out by a study by the Federal Reserve that examined what proportion of college grads work in a field related to their major. The Fed found that a mere 27% worked in a field related to their major. This suggests that many jobs don’t require a particular field of study. Another factor is that the study only looked at undergraduate majors and didn’t factor in grad school which would likely boost the relationship between education focus and working in a job related to their education and suggests that you can always go to grad school once you’ve decided on what you want to do for a living (case-in-point: I teach classes in Washington University’s Wealth and Asset Management masters program and a decent proportion of students weren’t business or finance undergrads).

Another interesting finding was that about two-thirds of college graduates work in jobs that require a college degree (which means that one-third don’t).

While there are numerous takeaways from this study, a primary one is that attaining a college degree is more important than your choice of major. After college, a career can meander. My father was a math major and then became a computer programmer and then a banker. I have a friend who majored in English and now runs a wealth management firm. I know a philosophy major who ran a successful manufacturing company. I know a medical doctor who majored in anthropology and a physical therapist who majored in engineering. I know a CEO of an energy company who majored in acting.

Of course, for some professions, the choice of major is important. If you want to be an accountant, you probably need to major in accounting (even though one of my co-workers majored in history and then completed post-graduate coursework to be a CPA). If you want to work in a lab, a major in biology or chemistry is probably a must.


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