Majors mean much less in the job market than students think they will, writes Rachel Koenig for U.S. News & World Report. That’s because employers are more interested in a student’s skills than their major, she argues. And while liberal arts majors often get written off as being unemployable, the field can help students build in-demand skills.
Here are popular misconceptions about majors that may deter students from choosing liberal arts degrees and lead them to underestimate their competitiveness in the job market.
Myth 1: Employers only pay attention to major
“Employers are moving away from looking at major as the first thing,” says Gihan Fernando, executive director of the career center at American University. “They’re looking more at these soft skills.” The majority of employers consider an applicant’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems more important than his or her undergraduate major, according to a study from the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
The soft skills cultivated by a liberal arts education, like writing and problem solving, are in high demand among employers. Soft skills are the most common skill deficit among applicants, according to a survey of senior-level executives by Adecco Staffing US.
Myth 2: Certain majors will guarantee students a job
While liberal arts majors may worry about their futures, STEM and business students may assume that their career success is guaranteed, writes Koenig.
There is high demand for certain STEM and business grads. For example, computer science and electrical engineer majors are among the highest-paid recent graduates, according to a report by Gallup. And 75% of employers planned to hire at least one business major in 2018, according to a study from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
But not all students in these fields see similar outcomes. Biochemistry majors are among the lowest-paid grads, according to Gallup. And biology and statistics students “frequently… need to have a graduate degree to be effective in the workplace,” says Fernando.
Business administrations degrees can seem generic if they don’t demonstrate specific competencies, says Peg Hendershot, executive director of Career Vision. “If you have a business degree and it’s pretty general, with some classes in management, some in finance, promotion, operations and logistics, even that is hard to get hired out of unless you take internships in certain areas,” says Hendershot.
Myth 3: Humanities majors must equal humanities jobs
When humanities and social science students start their job search, they may feel limited to positions or companies that explicitly relate to their major.
In reality, more than a third of humanities majors report no relationship between their job and their degree, according to a report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Instead, almost a third of humanities grads hold sales, services, or administrative support positions—and 14% are managers.
“Sometimes our students fail to realize they have much more to offer,” says Ryan Willerton, associate vice president for career and professional development at the University of Notre Dame.
Career advisors should encourage humanities majors to attend career fairs and networking events outside of their discipline, suggests Koenig. At these events, students should look for positions that match their interests and skill set—not just their major, she adds.
Students who talk to employers about their skills early and frequently will be better prepared for job interviewers, says Fernand. In an interview, students will “need to be able to parse through [their] academic experience and articulate to employers what are the skills that [they’re] bringing to the table,” he adds (Koenig, U.S. News & World Report, 9/24/2018).
We surveyed 6,000+ alumni from five member colleges and universities to better understand the factors influencing gainful employment and student outcomes. Learn what our data scientists uncovered about what students can do to improve their post-college outcomes.
Read more about how students choose majors
When it comes to on-time graduation, choosing the right major at the right time matters. Students who choose a major that's well-aligned with their interests—and do it within the window of productive exploration—are more likely to graduate in four years. But all too often, students do not conduct thorough research before selecting a major. To help students identify majors that align to their career interests, FIU embeds a quick career-matching exercise into its application requirements. Students who heed its results end up with better grades, and first-gen students say they find it particularly helpful.
You might be surprised by how much a student's decision comes down to arbitrary factors.