September 18, 2021

Helping You Choose The Right Career!

Does Your College Major Really Matter? | Career Thoughts

5 min read

One of the most powerful books I have ever read is The 80/20 Principle by David Koch.

The basic idea is that 80% of our results (income, happiness, etc.) come from from just 20% of our actions. Or, stated more depressingly: most of what we do is irrelevant. Mere filler that does nothing to move our lives forward (and, sometimes, actively stops us from progressing.)

Koch then tells you to divide your day into two categories:

  • 80% activities (the mundane, pointless, and expendable)
  • 20% activities (the critical, decisive, and difference-making)

Here are some examples of each.

80% Activities

  • Printing business cards
  • Reading about new workout routines
  • Bickering about minor details

20% Activities

  • Getting 3 paying clients for the business
  • Going for a 1-mile run 3x/week
  • Discussing the core problem

Successful people spend most of their time on 20% activities.

What does this have to do with college?

The 80/20 rule applies to your choice of college major, too. People have so many passionate beliefs about college:

“Don’t major in soft subjects like English or psychology. Study the hard sciences.”

“Go to the best school you can afford. It’s all about the brand name.”

“Join the debate team – extracurricular activities make you stand out.”

Are they true? Sometimes yes, sometimes no – but it doesn’t really matter. For most people, those things are icing on the cake – 80% activities. So what’s the cake itself – the 20% activity of college?

For most students, the “20% activity” of college is graduating at all, not your major.

That’s right. While it certainly helps to study hard subjects or go to prestigious schools or join every club, MOST of the value comes from simply earning a degree at all.

Your choice of major isn’t as important as you think

I just read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal called “The Declining Value of Your College Degree.” Here’s a telling excerpt from one struggling job searcher:

A degree, she says, “isn’t any big guarantee of employment, it’s a basic requirement, a step you have to take to even be considered for many professional jobs.”

She’s right. Furthermore, degrees are most valuable in the 2-3 years immediately after graduation. After that, employers care more about what you’ve done since.

This echoes something I was told several years ago. Back in 2007, my best friend’s father (a Senior Project Manager at Pitney Bowes) overheard his son and I complaining about how “irrelevant” our class work was.

“When are we going to be factoring polynomials or conjugating Spanish verbs? Get the hell out of here!” It was just beyond our comprehension at the time.

After shaking his head at our youthful naivete, my friend’s dad told us:

“You don’t understand what degrees are. College isn’t job training. No one cares that you took Algebra or Spanish 101 – none of that matters. A degree just shows you’re a smart person who can start something and finish it. It makes you a safer hire than a non-grad.”

What he meant is that degrees are essentially filters for corporate America. Anyone can talk a good game, but starting and finishing a four-year commitment suggests you’ll actually follow through.

Remember: a hiring manager’s #1 goal is covering his own ass. If you fail, he wants to shrug and tell his boss “He had this degree, he had this 3.6 GPA…I just don’t get it!” He cares more about making the safe hire than the perfect one.

I’m sorry if all of this offends you, but it’s true. College (from a strictly CAREER standpoint) is not about self-discovery or intellectual development or any of that. It’s simply an obstacle that makes it easier to throw your application away.

The proof: Look at actual job listings

The proof lies in thousands of job listings on websites like containing statements like “degree in _____ OR EQUIVALENT required.”

That isn’t some random phrase companies throw in for fun. What they’re telling you (if you read between the lines) is “if you don’t have the degree I think you should have, convince me why yours fits.”

EXAMPLE: Let’s say you majored in psychology but now want to work in marketing. You’ve been studying independently and really believe this is the career for you. Here’s what you would say during the interview if your degree is brought up:

“Well sir, I know the job calls for a business degree, but I actually believe my psychology degree is equally or even more useful in this position. After all, what IS marketing? It’s psychology (understanding the motivations of customers) and math (tracking the performance of ad campaigns). I’m oversimplifying somewhat, but with a little training, I know I can use my psychology education to reach your company’s customer acquisition targets.”

Notice that you are marketing YOURSELF, not relying on the degree to market you. And, assuming you’re an otherwise attractive candidate, you’ll probably get hired. See English Majors Don’t Have to Finish Last for more reframing scripts like this.

(Before I get a hundred comments telling me this won’t work for getting into medical school or becoming an astronaut–YES, not every degree will be accepted in every career path, particularly rigid, non-negotiable careers like medicine. But not everyone goes into a career like that, and there is a surprising degree of flexibility in most careers IF you are good!)

Again, 80% of the value comes from what graduating SAYS about you: maturity, organizational skills, time management, the ability to finish what you start, etc.

Only 20% (if even) comes from what you studied or where.

The upshot of all this? Study what you’re interested in and called to, not what you believe will “ladder up” to the biggest paycheck. For most jobs, a degree is a degree, and you might as well spend your college years on something you like.

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