College enrollment involves endless decision making: whether or not to pledge to a fraternity or sorority, whether to move out, how to balance a social life with schoolwork and manage finances, what classes to take—the list is endless. One of the most important decisions for a college student, though, is choosing a major.
The University of Utah, for example, offers dozens of majors ranging from chemistry to art history to communication. Picking a major may be a monster of a decision, but with the years of study a degree requires, it must be asked: Does an undergraduate degree really matter?
“I know students feel that pressure” of picking a major as soon as they’re enrolled in college, says Pat Reilly, career services counselor at the U of U. Reilly encourages students to spend their first semester, or even their first two semesters, exploring and experimenting with a variety of different academic pursuits to determine what they’re interested in. Finding subject that students like and don’t like, Reilly says, will help them in picking a major that they will benefit from.
It’s important for students to know that some majors, like architecture, pretty much describe what your career will be post-graduation. Whereas with a liberal-arts major, like history, Reilly says, it’s important for students to be able to explain why their major is important to them and know ahead of time what types of jobs will be available to them after they graduate.
Laura Chukanov works for the nonprofit High Road for Human Rights, where her job as the team and membership director is to motivate volunteers and team members to encourage decision makers to protect human rights. While studying at the U of U, she majored in international studies and minored in both leadership studies and art history. “I enjoyed the coursework and the opportunities that the major encouraged me to seek out,” says Chukanov.
Throughout her time at the U of U, Chukanov wasn’t thinking about jobs—she was more interested in the coursework. She did, however, know that she wanted to one day work for a nonprofit organization with a humanitarian focus. Chukanov thinks that it’s important for students to seek opportunities like internships while in school so that they graduate with actual experience to bring to an employer. Chukanov says what she majored in matters in terms of what she’s doing careerwise now, but what one does with that major outside of the classroom also matters.
Reilly agrees that internships are beneficial for students to gain experience in the real world during college. “I encourage students to choose a major that they really enjoy,” Reilly says, “and to make sure they have experience to go along with that major so they can demonstrate to an employer that they have the skills they’re looking for.”
Some life experiences to cultivate through internships might include those that hone interpersonal skills, international involvement, leadership in student organizations and mastering a foreign language. Stan Innman, the director of career services at the U of U, says future employers will be able to teach students the skills they need as employees, but not more intangible skills, such as being a good leader.
At the U of U, the undergraduate engineering program has a reputation as one of the most demanding programs on campus. Joey Wilson, who majored in electrical engineering, says as challenging as the major is, “no one’s going to put themselves through it unless there’s a reward for it in the end. It’s what makes you an engineer and makes you able to do what you do.” Now the CEO of Xandem Technology, which develops equipment capable of sensing people through walls, Wilson says, “One hundred percent of my major mattered for my career.” That being said, Wilson made sure to take on extracurricular activities throughout high school and obtained a paid internship during his undergraduate years to help ensure that being an engineer was what he wanted to do with his life.
There are those, though, whose undergraduate degree doesn’t dictate their career path. Jason Fowler, who, with his father, owns an international and domestic transportation company called Air and Sea International, graduated from the U of U with a degree in philosophy. Fowler says he still has a passion for philosophy, “but with kids and a career, it’s hard to find time for it.” Fowler’s philosophy major taught him how to think outside of the box and view the world in a unique way. “I do really use it in a day-to-day application in my work,” he says. “We deal with a lot of international agents and different cultures … the degree opened my eyes to different ways of thinking.”
Ultimately, Reilly and Innman are convinced that your undergraduate major does matter, as does gaining experience outside the classroom during your undergraduate studies. An undergraduate degree will guide students in the direction that will provide options for them after graduation, and Innman says, “As you make that choice to engage in learning in that area, [your major] matters because you want it to be relevant to your personality and your interests.”