Chapter 3: Majors: The Ones That Get You Hired
Your path to success starts before you step on a college campus. It starts with your choice of major. Choosing a major is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.
We all go to college with the goal of improving our lives. Yet for many people, that’s about as specific as their plan gets. Confronted with having to make a choice, they choose a major based on whether they think it will be fun, and often it is not a practical one. Hence, when they graduate, they realize that they are no more employable than they were four years before. Such individuals are then paralyzed in their pursuit to be successful, by having made a bad choice of major. They spend the rest of their lives playing catch-up, unable to proactively take charge of their professional lives, but always depending on opportunities to come to them rather than dictating what opportunities they will have.
As stated earlier, success in school does not mean financial comfort in life. Financial comfort depends more upon the direction that you take. People who are average students in high school can pursue Finance degrees and take jobs in financial management, and earn far more than fellow alumni who pursued non-lucrative careers. So direction is just as important as one’s ability, and arguably more so.
Choosing the wrong major means that instead of using the rest of your life to capitalize on a good decision, you’ll be spending it trying to make the best of a bad decision. There is a world of difference.
The College Industry
The notion of the “need” to go to college is one of the most successful business ideas of the 20th century. College wasn’t always a necessity for a career. The concept of a university originated as a means of training young men for careers in the Church. In the 1600s, with the Scientific Revolution, it also became a place for education in the sciences. Meanwhile it was also a place for wealthy young men to complete a classical education (Latin and Greek) and to socialize with other wealthy young men. College, for many, was not seen as a springboard for a career; rather, it was a form of recreation, and many students left without bothering to complete their studies.
However, in the past seven decades the college industry has succeeded in turning the concept of going to college into a necessity. A college degree is now needed for most jobs, and there is no substitute. Colleges have made themselves an oligopoly, and can raise their prices at high rates each year without any fear of losing customers.
All colleges are businesses, in the same way that automobile firms, computer companies, convenience stores, and banks are businesses: they need customers in order to make money, and they want to maximize what customers pay them. Colleges sell education, rather than cars or laptops, but colleges are businesses all the same.
As such, a college’s main interest in you is your money. Therefore, you must treat a college as you would treat any other business you deal with. You want to get as much out of them as you can. You want to make the most out of the money you are spending on them.
The reason that colleges offer majors that don’t lead to jobs is because there are still plenty of people out there who will pay for them. These people haven’t been given proper guidance, and are still choosing majors which will leave them unemployed. Like a good business, a college’s main concern is to make money. If enough people wanted to study Gum Chewing, colleges would invent a major for it, regardless of the major’s uselessness.
During my senior year of high school, I received a letter from a college in Florida, which trumpeted their Philosophy program. Composed in very motivating language, it was probably written by a professional marketing agency—I am sure that most colleges hire one. The letter celebrated how many of the college’s teachers had PhDs, the awards they had won and books they had written, the interesting courses they offered, and how enriched I would be. It made me feel that I’d be on top of the world as a Philosophy major if I went there. Aside from saying “Buy Now,” it had all the ingredients of an advertisement.
Don’t be deceived by the well-crafted promotional language used by colleges. Look at them with scrutiny, and use them in the way that you, as a customer, would use any other service-provider. As a customer, you should view their function as that of preparing you for the working world. Make sure they live up to their end of the bargain.
How to Choose Your Major—the Majors That Lead to Jobs
I find it impossible to talk about majors without talking about careers. Unfortunately, colleges are perfectly happy to talk about majors as though they were an end in themselves. Colleges are mentally stuck in the 1950s, when having a college degree in anything was sufficient to guarantee employment. But times have changed.
To begin, I’m amazed when people say that they don’t want to study business because it won’t teach them enough about the world. If money isn’t a huge dimension of the world, and of life, what is? Learning about money helps you to learn about the world. Money is an essential aspect of everyone’s lives.
Most well-paid professions are heavy on the “front end,” requiring degrees and qualifications to be earned. Yes, this takes time, hard work, and living like a pauper for a few years. There are no shortcuts. Nonetheless, always keep in mind that a little pain now is better than a lot of regret later. It’s easier to be poor at 23 than at 43, both socially and psychologically.
Numbers vs. Letters
The old saying, “There’s safety in numbers,” applies to armies as well as the type of job you choose.
Let’s look at the majors that lead straight to professions:
- Computer Science
- Information Technology
- Chemistry and other sciences
Do you notice something about these majors? They all involve numbers. When you are good with numbers, you can prove your worth to a company and an employer. And as I illustrate below, anyone can be good with numbers. A major that focuses on numbers enables a future employer to quantify your worth. Majoring in a “Letters” major does not enable this, and hence your value is constantly being called into question. The more quantifiable you are, the more employable you are. Careers that involve numbers rather than letters—that is, analyzing numerical information rather than writing—have more employability, more stability, and pay more money. In an October 2016 survey by Glassdoor of the 50 Highest-Paying College Majors, the top 15 were all engineering, computer science/IT, and finance/ accounting, with nursing as the only exception.
There is a misconception that numbers-based jobs require extensive skills in higher math. This is entirely false. You don’t need to be a whiz in math, or even to have taken the higher-level courses. As an Accounting professor said to me once (a man who also made a fortune as a private consultant), “I can add, subtract, multiply, and divide—that’s all I can do”. In other words, if you have passed pre-Algebra, you can do any job requiring numbers. Complicated mathematical procedures have been put into formulas which computers can do for you.
There is a beauty in numbers—the beauty of objectivity. Numbers provide a clarity, an unambiguity, that words do not. Someone who is “good with numbers” will always be valued by a company. A company’s viability is proven by its figures, not by its words. And as long as you can do basic math, you can be good with numbers.
Having a “minor” in one of these numbers subjects is not enough. Companies care about your major, and will ignore whatever you have minored in. Don’t sucker yourself into choosing a “fun” major and a practical minor.
Even for aspiring lawyers, it is recommended to study a numbers-based major. People will say, “You should study a major that has a lot of writing,” but all majors these days involve plenty of writing. Furthermore, studying business or engineering will prepare you for many fields of Law. You can always take a minor in a more writing-based subject to improve your writing skills.
One problem with letters-based jobs is that they are so subjective. People have widely different views on what constitutes a “good” writer, nor are there formal qualifications for what makes a writer “good.” On the other hand, when you tell an employer that you are an accountant with a CPA degree, they know what you can do, and what you are capable of. Remember: employers will look for every excuse NOT to hire you.
“Should I major in finance or economics?”
I am often asked by prospective college students whether they should choose to major in Finance or Economics. In the eyes of an employer, Finance means that you know how to make investments, understand cash flow, and balance the books. Economics means that you have learned a lot of theories—theories which, incidentally, haven’t even helped “expert” economists predict economic recessions or depressions. Economists are regarded as having the same reliability as weathermen. In short, Finance is a practical major, while Economics is not.
Majors That DON’T Lead to Jobs
Just because you are told to follow your passion does not mean that you need to follow it in a professional context. If your passion is European Folklore, you have to accept that there are very few opportunities out there where you can derive an income from specializing in this field. The same goes for Ancient History and quite a few others. If you have a passion similar to these, follow it in your free time. There are tons of websites, clubs, blogs, etc., in which you can pursue these passions, and with the advent of self-publishing, you can still write your own book on the subject and contribute to the field.
You certainly don’t need to major in these areas, nor should you, as they don’t lead to employment. Consider yourself lucky that you have an intellectual passion to pursue in your free time, rather than just waiting for the next sports season to start or for the next TV series. It’s better to be an accountant who has an extracurricular hobby in European Folklore, than a European Folklore expert who is unemployed.
One of my friends refers to such majors as folklore, philosophy, and art history as “hobby majors.” Although they are textbook-based, these majors are not much different in nature from any other hobby, like skiing or scuba-diving. Like a hobby, such majors are fun and interesting. But it’s not worth it to pursue them as a major, with the time and expense that could be used for something practical.
I am not saying that courses such as Anthropology, Philosophy, and History are not important. They are important, and valuable in many ways. Unfortunately, employers are keen to hire people who understand balance sheets and investments, not those who have studied Picasso and the Trojan War. If you have a passion for these subjects, you can of course buy the books and study them yourself, or even minor in them. Furthermore, you can “audit” them. To audit a course means to take the course but not write papers or take exams, and to hence not receive a grade. But please don’t pay 40,000 dollars a year for them. Do them on your own time, not on your money’s time. The most important thing is to have a major that leads to a job.
Hobby majors are for children of wealthy families, kids who are going to inherit wealth or daddy’s company, who are not dependent on college education to get a job or to have a comfortable income. These majors are not for middle-class students who will need a job and a career that provide financial comfort. People who major in these subjects often end up scrounging for low-paying jobs in media or marketing—often jobs with low stability, which are completely dependent on the state of the economy. When the economy gets tough, their jobs are the first to be cut.
For a list of the majors with the most unemployed graduates, a survey from April 2017 can be found at www.startclass.com.
Be cautious also about studying languages as a major. I am surprised at the number of people who go to college and study Spanish. A company that is in need of a Spanish-speaker will most likely hire someone who has grown up in the U.S. speaking both Spanish and English. If you really want to study a language, study it as a minor.
Ask yourself: Do I want to wake up every morning and wish I had studied something else, and realize that it is too late? Do I want to be a college graduate who is hoping and praying just to get any job? Do I want to feel directionless, unstable, and constantly unsure of whether I’d be able to find another job if I got laid off?
Those who are adamant about pursuing hobby majors often use the same platitudes in their defense:
“Well, I could always become a lawyer.”
Law School is a commitment of three tough years of study, $200,000, and then the grueling early years at a law firm. Furthermore, the type of person who enjoys contemplative acts such as reading romantic poetry or studying 19th century art is very different from the person who works in a confrontational profession like Law. In short, you should only go into law if you want to be a lawyer, not because it is a last resort.
“I could always just go into Sales.”
I did sales for six years. Sales is the only job I know which never gets easier, no matter how long you do it. Why? Because no matter how good a salesman you are, you are always up against the fact that the customer has the complete and absolute freedom to say “No.” You cannot force him, regardless of how persuasive you may be. With the fact that sales positions are largely paid on commissions, it means that you essentially are never sure where your next paycheck is coming from, or how much it will be. Salespeople have trouble planning family trips because they don’t know if they will be earning enough when it comes time for the vacation.
These days, Sales—or “Business Development,” as it is often euphemistically called—is actually harder than ever, as customers are more informed. The salesman is no longer the primary source of information, and customers can check and compare prices online. According to the Social Media Authority website, www.socialmedia-authority.com, 77% of buyers insist on doing their own independent research before even talking to a salesperson. And this figure is increasing every year.
In sales, you are only as good as your last sale. A bad week or month is enough to have your boss breathing down your neck and the threat of termination. But a job that requires certificates is different, because you always have the certificates to back you up. While of course you will bring your best every day, you don’t have to prove every day that you are qualified. The certificate does it for you.
“I can always be an author or a journalist.”
As someone who has worked in the publishing sphere, I can tell you an industry secret: the average book sells between 50 and 150 copies over the author’s lifetime. The qualification for being a “best-seller” is sales of 5,000 copies. You won’t be getting fat royalty checks off sales of 5,000 books, and certainly not off 150. Most of the authors who make millions of dollars are the ones you already know: Stephen King, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and a handful of others. The remaining hundreds of thousands of authors do not make a living from their writing.
As for journalism, the career of Journalist has been gradually eroded over the last 30 years by the practices of wealthy press barons and by the Internet. It is no longer a profession which yields a middle-class income. While working in the business media field, e.g. writing for the Financial Times, can yield a liveable wage, it requires interacting with arrogant CEOs and stockbrokers—who will earn at least ten times what you earn—while needing to know as much about the market as they do. If you are going to learn that much about finance, you might as well just do finance, rather than write about it.
The “Being Well-Rounded” Fallacy
Jacks-of-all-trades are out of style. It is fashionable to say that employers are looking to hire people who are “well-rounded,” and some employers may even claim to want well-rounded staff, but the fact is that they want people who are very capable at a particular skill. Employers are looking for people that they can hire with a minimum (or no) training, and who are completely focused on their industry and that particular position being offered.
The era of apprenticeships is unfortunately over. Companies want you to hit the ground running. While employers do provide “training,” it is training on how to use their particular software or sell their particular product—not on how to do the job itself. Again, people do not get hired for being well-rounded. They get hired for having specific knowledge in a specific area. You need to focus your attention on an area that will make you gainfully employed. No company advertises for a jack-of-all-trades.
“But CEOs are well-rounded!” Yes, CEOs are well-rounded because they have usually had at least 25 years of work experience.
Do not be deceived by people who say companies want well-rounded individuals. We hear, “Employers want people who know how to think!” There’s plenty of thinking that goes on in finance, accounting, engineering, and IT. This thinking has a practical bent, though you’ll be surprised at how much creativity and thinking on your feet can be required.
Finally, I’ll offer one corollary to choosing majors based on passions. This is for the person who is so intense about pursuing a certain career that he is willing to die for it. There are those who aspire to be filmmakers or artists or musicians, etc., who simply cannot imagine not pursuing their dream. How do you know if you are one of these people? Here’s how: if this passion causes you to forget to eat and shower, to break plans with friends, to wake up and fall asleep thinking about it, and is the ruling thought in your mind each and every day over the course of at least two years, then you qualify. Most people who put their “passions” through this test realize that their passion is really just a hobby.
Proactively Finding Direction
How do we define “work”? There are different ways, but one definition that I use is, “Things you need to do in order to be financially comfortable.” Some may call it cynical, but there’s no getting around the fact that work itself is something we need to do, not necessarily something we want.
Again, it boils down to direction. You must choose your career direction. It will not come to you in a flash of inspiration. Whether you choose now or wait until your 30s, in both cases you will still be the one who chooses. But if you wait, you lose valuable time, and watch your friends and peers surpass you. A lack of professional direction is a life-threatening disease—psychologically, financially, and after a short while, physically.
Do not go to college with a “blank slate” as to what you want to do. You need to start carving out a path early. Yes, in life you’ll find the occasional person who didn’t know what he wanted to do and became successful. But you’ll find a lot more who didn’t.
As self-help guru Jim Rohn says, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”
In addition to the “being well-rounded” fallacy, beware of these kinds of advice:
- The “first job” myth: I was told that a first job was just a “first job”—that is, you took it just to enter the workforce, and it was merely a starting point. But imagine if that weren’t the case: imagine that if, six months before you graduated, you knew that you had a good job waiting for you. And you had the confidence in knowing that that job had levels through which you could ascend and measure your progress. You had a tangible beginning to your work life. A first job should not just be a first job, and to think like this is to put less pressure on yourself to start off on the right track. A first job should be the beginning of a positive, successful work career.
- People telling you that a particular job is “boring”: The careers that pay you an income that meets our $88,000 threshold are indeed serious, but that does not mean that they are boring. At all. Deciding where the company should spend millions (or billions) of dollars, traveling to a new country to open an office, and other aspects of the “numbers” professions are certainly not boring. Bear in mind that once you get caught up in the momentum of nearly any job, you have way too much going on to feel bored. There will be constant activity, and decisions that affect a lot of people.
- “Don’t work for someone else—just be your own boss”: Yes, it’s great to have tons of ideas, and the thought of becoming an entrepreneur is attractive to many. However, being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. It is a seven-day-a-week job, and you do most of the administrative and managerial work yourself, including accounting and HR. One aspect that many people don’t think about when they consider being an entrepreneur is cash flow. A huge problem that entrepreneurs face is getting clients to pay their bills, and especially getting them to pay the bills on time. Without the bills being paid, you can’t pay your overheads, particularly your staff!
- “It’s who you know, not what you know”: Connections are great—if you are focused, if you have direction. If you don’t, they can actually make things worse, as they cause your attention to be scattered. You start to depend on having connections in order to give you focus—which having connections will not do. Beware of thinking that a large network is an asset in itself. A network is only useful if you already know what career you want. Many young people spend a lot of time at meetings and dinners that lead them nowhere or get them off-track and involved in fruitless endeavours—all because of a faith that “having connections” will bring them success. It leads them farther and farther away from a focused perspective. Connections come in handy when you are already qualified, not on their own.
- “Robots will do your job in a few years”: Stay away from negative people who are always saying “the sky is falling” and “such-and-such profession is going to be obsolete in a few years.” Robert Kiyosaki, in his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, calls this the “Chicken Little” scenario. When I was in college over 20 years ago, I heard this scaremongering with regard to various professions, and all of them are still going strong. Ironically, journalism, which was one of the careers cited as being a job for life, now fails to provide a liveable income. So don’t pay attention to these ominous forecasts of the future.
Lastly, don’t listen to such advice as “If you can’t be the best at something, don’t do it.” There will always be someone out there who is better, because people are always striving to improve themselves. The best accountant today is not necessarily the best accountant tomorrow. Imagine if everyone only pursued a career if they thought they would be the best? It is indeed noble to push yourself to the limit, but don’t be put off by the idea that you may not be at the top of the top. And so, to end with a little joke: What do they call the guy who graduates last in his medical class? “Doctor”!