So you’ve decided what kind of degree is right for you. Maybe you’ve even chosen a major. Maybe you haven’t chosen a major–that’s okay, too. You don’t need to know what you want to major in from the very instant you get to college. Some people do, and that’s great. Some people change their minds, which is also great. I know this sounds crazy, but your major is not the most important career decision you will make in college.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some majors that correspond directly to careers: engineering, computer science and many of the other applied sciences. But lots of other majors will prepare you for multiple careers, and there are multiple majors that can prepare you for the same career. If you want to go into law (don’t do this), you can major in history, English, political science, philosophy, or pretty much anything else. Believe it or not, you can major in one of those subjects if you want to go to medical school, as long as you take enough science classes along with your humanities courses.
A major is an academic field of study. You will be trained to write for specialized audiences within the discipline, to read specialized writing in the discipline, and to tackle the specialized problems in the discipline. The content and methods you will learn and practice will be geared toward making you more knowledgeable about the subjects and study of a particular academic field.
If this sounds like a colossal waste of time to you, then you should really consider whether the college and degree you’ve chosen is right for you. But before you write off majoring in history or political science or art history entirely, stop a moment and think about who you are and who you want to be. Do you have interests that aren’t immediately useful? Do you like knowing things that can’t be immediately and directly monetized? Do you want to be defined by something other than your job and the value your employer places on your labor?
If the answer is yes, then congratulations! You aspire to be a person in the world whose identity is not entirely defined by the market values of capitalism. There are lots of ways to carve out space for yourself outside of the logic of capitalism, and one of them is to educate yourself for you–to develop your interests, passions, knowledge and abilities in ways that fulfill your own priorities, rather than those of the labor market. If majoring in art history will help you become a more interesting, engaged, curious human being, then you should major in art history.
That doesn’t mean that you should spend your college years so frivolously that you can’t find a job when you graduate. You can major in art history, or anything else, and still find a job. This is because your major is not the same as your skills.
You will learn the skills that employers value in almost any major. What skills are employers looking for?
- Critical thinking skills
- The ability to analyze a problem or situation
- Clear communication skills
- The ability to learn new things quickly
- The ability to follow directions
- Creative problem solving
- The ability to work with a team
- The ability to write clear, simple and precise prose
You will develop these skills as an art history major, as a political science major, as an English major and as a philosophy major. Your job is to recognize the tasks in your courses that are helping you develop these skills. That boring paper that you just want an A on? It’s an opportunity to improve the clarity of your writing and your analytic skills. That big group project? A chance to work on your team and presentation skills.
Once you think about the work in your courses in terms of skills, you can focus on building skills and then identifying and communicating them to employers. A really complicated research paper becomes an opportunity to demonstrate to an interviewer that you can organize information, analyze a complex problem, and offer a solution. Sure, the problem and solution may have to do with seventeenth-century oil paintings, but those skills will be valuable in a variety of employment contexts.
Identify the skills you develop in your coursework and practice communicating those skills to future employers. To do this effectively, you will need to hone your communication and persuasion skills–something your professors can help you with as you write papers and work on projects.
Okay, so you may have majored in art history, but you’ve got solid, useful skills and you know how to communicate that to employers. It’s job offer city after graduation, right?
Not quite. In addition to skills, you need work experience. Your major is a place to develop broadly applicable skills; your jobs and internships are where you develop work experience.
Once again, your major doesn’t much matter when it comes to work experience. Do you want to major in art history but go into investment banking? You can totally do that! You’ll probably want to take plenty of electives in economics and math, but your focus should be on getting good grades, networking, and getting internships with major firms.
But maybe you want to major in art history and then work in a museum. That’s also cool (and possibly more fulfilling than investment banking, though I won’t judge). In that case, you should be looking for jobs and internships in museums while you’re in college. Does your school have a museum? They probably have an internship or work study job available. You might also do some teaching over the summer, since museum work is an education field.
Your work experience is where you specialize, not your major. Your career will be long, and you may change jobs–or even fields–multiple times. Prepare yourself for a specific job while you’re in college through part-time jobs and internships. Prepare yourself for work more generally through the transferable skills you develop. And prepare yourself to be the kind of person you want to be through your major.