Which college major should I choose?
October 2008 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
This article highlights the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a technical (e.g., science, engineering) versus non-technical (e.g., business, humanities) college major. One's looks and personality are pivotal in determining whether one will be happier and/or more successful upon choosing a technical or non-technical major.
Technical vs. non-technical majors
In my over-simplified view of the world, there are two kinds of college majors: technical and non-technical. Typical examples of technical majors include engineering, applied math, and science; typical examples of non-technical majors include the arts, humanities, business/administration, and communications. When deciding on a college major (or assessing the decision made by, say, one of your kids whose hefty tuition bill you've just paid), one must first choose between these two kinds of majors. In this article, I will present my assessments of each kind of major and how well they mesh with students' expectations of college, looks, personality, and high school social status.
Expectations of the college experience vs. choice of major
I am not making a value judgment as to which kind of major is better in any absolute sense; the more appropriate question is: which kind is better for you? To begin your assessment, try thinking about your expectations for your college experience. There are two common (opposing) expectations for the undergraduate experience:
In reality, most people's college experiences incorporate a combination of these two philosophies. However, if you desire more of the former (college as enrichment), then you should consider a non-technical major. Not surprisingly, if you desire more of the latter (college as job training), then you should consider a technical major.
If you view your college experience primarily as a time of social and intellectual enrichment, then it really doesn't matter what you major in, as long as you major in something that will keep your interest and motivation for long enough to get you to pass all of your classes and to eventually earn a Bachelor's degree. You have the freedom to major in just about anything you enjoy without worrying about what kind of job you can obtain after graduation.
On the other hand, if you view your college experience primarily as preparatory training and a stepping stone to a specific future technical career (e.g., engineering, scientific research, medicine), then you have much less freedom in choosing your major and even your classes (e.g., majoring in Human Biology is going to make it tough for you to get an engineering job working on the latest jet at Boeing).
High school popularity vs. choice of major
How popular are (or were) you in high school? If you are one of the popular kids, then that means that you are more likely to have an extroverted personality and to be assertive, bold, and/or charismatic. The more popular you are in high school, the more likely that you can be successful in your career with a non-technical college degree. Non-technical jobs heavily emphasize soft skills involving interpersonal interactions or qualitative abilities, and being popular in high school is a great pre-requisite for such jobs. If you are a popular kid, then you are likely to excel in soft skills like getting people to like you, getting people to do favors for you, and making people feel good about themselves when they are around you, which will serve you well as a non-technical college major and in pursuing a future non-technical career. (Note that I do not intend to use soft to mean un-important—on the contrary, I feel that soft skills are, in fact, very important in many aspects of life and career.)
However, if you are an unpopular nerd in high school, then the safest bet is to choose a technical college major, since you will be able to rely on your hard skills (those not involving interpersonal interactions) to propel you throughout your career. Of course, having better soft skills definitely still helps those wishing to pursue technical careers, but it is not nearly as important as for those in non-technical careers.
Obviously it's a gross oversimplification to assert that your high school social class restricts you to one kind of path in college—one great consequence of college being a 'fresh start' is that teens who are 'late bloomers' in high school have a chance to re-define their personality and reputation with a brand new peer group in college (e.g., the awkward 10th grade nerd could blossom into the college fraternity alpha male). Similarly, being popular doesn't preclude you from majoring in a technical field if your interests are so inclined; if anything, you might have a leg up on your competition since you possess above-average amounts of both hard and soft skills.
Physical appearance vs. choice of major
The taller and better-looking you are, the more likely you are to succeed with a non-technical college major (height and stature are more important for men, youth and facial beauty are more important for women, but of course the best of both is ideal). Non-technical jobs are all about soft skills, and everyone knows that taller and better-looking people are more likely to be able to command authority, respect, and garner positive attention than ugly midget-gnome hybrids (lots of books and articles are written about this topic).
Therefore, to maximize your chances of professional success and happiness (since the two are often correlated), you need to find out where your comparative advantage lies—appearances provide a far greater comparative advantage for those in non-technical careers than for those in technical careers. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising at all that hot chicks and studly hunks are found more frequently in non-technical professions; if you are smart and hot, then you have the option to pursue a career path that leverages your appearances to the maximum extent. Choosing a non-technical major can bolster your social, qualitative, and managerial skills and possibly serve you better in the long run as opposed to choosing a technical major.
On the flip side, if your appearances are far closer to midget-gnome than A-List Hollywood celebrity, then a technical major and career is probably more beneficial to your life and ego than a non-technical one. The appearance-blind meritocratic beauty of most technical jobs provides solace for those who won't ever make it on-camera at the latest MTV: Spring Break Cancun TV special. Your boss could care less whether you're a super-babe or a bag-lady—if you write high-quality computer code or design amazing structural blueprints, then your superiors and peers will respect you and deem you as successful at your job. Although it's true that taller and more beautiful people get paid and promoted better than their less-hot counterparts (even in technical jobs), the effect is not nearly as noticeable as in non-technical jobs.
(Unsurprisingly, your physical appearance is highly correlated with your level of high school popularity, so this section presents pretty much the same material as the previous one.)
Advantages of a technical major
The primary advantage of a technical major is that, upon graduation, you will have acquired some preliminary skills and, more importantly, an official credential (your diploma) that qualifies you to begin a career in a selective technical field. The barrier to entry for technical jobs is usually a Bachelor's (and sometimes even a Master's or Doctoral) degree in a relevant technical field, so some random schmuck can't just 'walk onto the court' and take your job. Of course, you must still compete with all of your technical peers, but at least you don't need to compete with the population at-large for the kinds of jobs that you desire.
On a related note, technical jobs are usually more meritocratic than non-technical jobs, meaning that there is a more direct link between technical ability/effort and career success/satisfaction. Of course, it always helps to be good-looking, personable, and well-liked, but even if those in charge think that you are boring or plain, as long as you are producing the technical goods or services that your organization requires, then you are deemed as successful in your job. Simply being a fawning schmoozer won't cut it in a technical profession.
An emotional advantage of being a technical person is that you are likely to be respected as someone with hard skills. You will likely not have to 'prove your smartness' to relatives, friends, acquaintances, or other laypeople, because your technical degree is such a statement in and of itself. Of course, soft skills are also respectable and crucial to success in a complimentary way, but it's usually easier to convince somebody that you are smart because you know how to do quantum physics than because you know how to schmooze with clients.
Disadvantages of a technical major
The primary disadvantage of a technical major is the lack of flexibility in job options available to you post-graduation. Your career path is more-or-less set by your choice of major. It's possible to go to graduate school in a different (albeit somewhat related) major, or to go to law or business school to transition more into the non-technical world, but doing so takes extra effort and motivation to overcome the inertia built-up from being exposed to a particular undergraduate major for 4+ years.
A particularly strong force that inhibits technical majors to switch career paths is the sense that they are somehow 'squandering the investment in their degree'. For example, after you've invested years grinding away on grungy problem sets and stressful class projects (while your non-technical friends were having vigorous in-class discussions and lively philosophical debates in the quad), you might be less willing to totally switch gears and not to begin the career that you have been preparing for throughout college. Later in life, even if you don't particularly enjoy your Dilbert-like programming job, it's emotionally difficult to quit and start a new life as a clerk at a hippie pottery store (even if you really enjoy pottery!), since people will feel that you will have somehow shamefully 'wasted' your Computer Science degree. The inertia is even stronger in, say, the medical profession, where you have probably accumulated around a hundred thousand dollars of medical school debts by the time you graduate; it's almost unthinkable to just quit your job as a doctor and take a lower-paying non-technical job.
A superficial disadvantage of being a technical major is that you will not be able to relate as well to the public-at-large; that is, you probably won't see people on TV like yourself (unless you're a doctor, in which case you'll get to see plenty of hot steamy doctors sleeping with one another on medical dramas), and 'laymen' will not understand what you do for a living. You will not be regarded as 'cool' by mainstream popular culture (at least in contemporary American culture). On a more serious note, it will be more difficult for you to run for political office, since politics in America is dominated by people with tremendous soft skills who have chosen non-technical majors in college (and who can related to the 'average Joe', who is most definitely non-technical).
Advantages of a non-technical major
The primary advantage of a non-technical major is job flexibility. There are many, many more non-technical jobs than technical jobs in the world (it's tough for me to even list them, since everything that's not a science/engineering/math/medical job is non-technical). Since most non-technical jobs merely require you to have a Bachelor's degree as a baseline filter for competence and personal responsibility, your choice of major has almost no bearing on the kinds of jobs open to you. Whereas technical jobs require a degree from particularly relevant majors, non-technical jobs simply require a legitimate college degree in order to differentiate you from a pimply-faced 18-year-old punk who just graduated from high school.
Critics of students majoring in the humanities (who are mostly, unsurprisingly, technical people scoffing at the 'soft' or 'fuzzy' students who don't have to spend dozens of hours pulling all-nighters on masochistic problem sets) often give the straw-man argument of "what the heck can you ever do with a major in X?" where X is like 18th Century Russian Fashion or Communications for 21st Century Global Society. These critics are missing the point that what non-technical people major in often has no correlation with what kinds of jobs they pursue. For example, a successful advertising executive might have majored in Renaissance Fashion and then gone onto business school after working for a few years as a grunt in the advertising industry.
A superficial advantage of being a non-technical major is that you will be able to better relate to so-called 'laymen'; the vast majority of people are non-technical, so you can potentially resonate better with the general population as a business major than, say, as a quantum physics major. You will more likely see people like yourself on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and in political office, so if you aspire to such kinds of jobs, then the non-technical experiences you gain and the people you meet in college (so-called 'connections') could help to launch your career. (However, there is the danger of being labeled as an 'elitist' if you major in something that the public regards as 'too scholarly', such as philosophy, political science, or political philosophy.)
Disadvantages of a non-technical major
The primary disadvantage of a non-technical major is that people who know you will often give you flak about majoring in something 'useless' or 'impractical'. You will more likely have to defend your choice of major to your parents, relatives, friends, and even people you meet at cocktail parties. This is especially true when you are young and without a steady career under your belt; there is a heavier burden on you to show that you can make something of your life and career relying primarily on soft skills. On the upside, if you are older and already established in your respective career path, then nobody could care less that you majored in 14th Century Pottery.
Another disadvantage is that non-technical jobs are less meritocratic than technical jobs, so if you are somehow less 'well-liked' by those in charge (for reasons of appearance, race, gender, personality, etc.), then you could have a harder time achieving your career goals. You are more likely to be at the whim of forces outside of your control like office politics and discrimination (which will undoubtedly always exist in some visible form).