Does Your College Major Matter?

I remember having to choose a specific major in college – it was a paper and pencil form that I had to fill out, penciling in the bubble of the major that I wanted to commit to for the rest of my life. Having never thought of that question before, let’s just say that it was nothing less than terrifying for this commitment phobe.

Choosing your major is declaring what you are going to do for the rest of your life. Well, it felt like it at the time. After trying on a business major and clashing with a little class called Accounting, I quickly realized that I needed to stick with something that I enjoyed learning about and landed in Communications.

It was the last time I really thought about the choice I had made.

My communications major was hardly mentioned when I landed my first job – it was in sales/marketing, in case you were wondering, or my second job in advertising. Apparently they wanted to hire anyone who would accept the measly pay.

But when I leaped for my third job, my “major” decision in college was questioned and picked apart.

“Why did you major in that? What did you hope you’d do with your life with a major in Communications? How did you think you’d apply those skills in the real world?”

Those were the decent questions, I won’t scare you with the ridiculous ones. I paused, and really thought about it.

What did my major in college, that I chose when I was a young adult, have to do with the current state of my life? Almost nothing, really. And here’s why.

1. Your major doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

Whether you’re about to graduate or are 10 years into your career, your major is a snapshot in time of focus. What it helps recruiters and hiring managers know before they meet you, is which subjects you excel at and where your knowledge base starts.

That’s it. It’s the quick way of figuring out if you have the core knowledge and skills for any job. But it’s not even close to the whole story.

Your major is a part of your overall career toolkit – not the most important piece or the only piece, it’s just a piece.

Some of the most interesting hires I’ve had, were doing drastically different jobs than their degree “qualified” them to do. I’m talking about Engineering degrees working in Sales; English Literature degrees working in Finance; and so on.

If you aren’t going into a job that has specific training, your degree major isn’t as big of a deal as your Career Services team has been telling you.

2. You can always supplement your degree.

Not receiving specific training through a degreed program can be a barrier for certain jobs. But it’s not a deal breaker in most cases.

Let’s say you’ve decided to become a paralegal five years into your career with a degree in Marketing. Sounds like a big jump – particularly for a trade specific profession. But here’s where you can supplement your degree with relevant and pertinent experience. Take law classes through a community college. Seek out paralegal certifications. Train or intern to be a paralegal through on-the-job training.

Your degree is not the only piece of paper you can earn in your area of interest – it’s a starting point. But there are so many different ways to expand your knowledge base and skillset, that it’s not a road block, just a detour.

3. Work experience trumps your major.

If you have a college degree in anything, about five years out of school, the conversation is going to shift from your major to your experience. It’s going to be subtle, you probably won’t recognize it. But it will happen.

Instead of being asked about Communications, I started getting questions like, “So tell me what you did in this role?” Or, “How did your degree help you manage this situation?”

Your value and worth comes from more recent life work experiences than classroom learning. This is especially true if your career path has veered off your degree path.

It sounds a little like the chicken versus the egg conversation – how can you work in, say Marketing, with a Finance degree, if you don’t have marketing experience to fall back on? Here are a few ways:

  1. Repositioning things that you did learn from your degree courses into a way that makes them applicable to the position you are seeking.
  2. Volunteer doing activities in your desired new space, to gain real-world experience doing it.
  3. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Entry-level jobs tend to have less degree-specific requirements.
  4. Take an internship position to grow in your new area.
  5. Request a rotational assignment at your current company. It’s usually a short-term assignment where you become a member (full-time or part-time) of the other department, to learn the necessary skills and expand your knowledge base.
  6. Go back to school – but only if you absolutely have to.

The bottom line is this: your major is important, but it’s probably more important to you than it will be for your overall career.  Which is comforting, especially as who can live with a decision they made at 18 for the rest of their life? 

This post originally ran on LifeAfterCollege.org