DO MAJORS Matter

By St. John, Eric | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

DO MAJORS Matter


St. John, Eric, Black Issues in Higher Education


As institutions enhance their curricula to stay apace with the ever-changing job market, many graduates are finding that when it came to selecting a course of study, the agony is not a necessity.

There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented -- or disoriented -- than the choice of a major.

"Sometimes, even those who have already decided, when you ask them about their major [and how it will affect their job expectations], the answers don't correspond with what they want to do," says Mitchell Purdy, the director of the counseling center at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.

Many higher education officials say that's no big deal. Although certain specialized majors will prepare a student for a specific career -- like engineering, computer science or accounting -- the majority of graduates take jobs that do not have a direct correlation with their chosen career areas. Nonetheless, experts advise that the demands of the job market should be the main determinant of academic choices.

Many educators and job recruiters -- even from industries where one would think a certain level of expertise is needed -- say the course of study isn't as important as the technical and other cross-disciplinary skills a student acquires.

Then again, just as many others say that the course of study is very important and that business and industry should play a prominent role in the development of college curricula.

So not only are college students getting mixed signals about gauging and enhancing their marketability, college faculty are finding their job stability determined by the demands -- and lack thereof -- in the job market.

Major Decisions

"We do an employer survey form that looks at majors and job placement and ... there doesn't really seem to be a necessity [for specific majors] in most of these companies," says Dr. Philip D. Gardner, director of research at the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "If the student has some technical expertise, then the major doesn't matter. As long as they can demonstrate a set of skills, then they become attractive" to industry.

For students of liberal arts, "a lot of [traditional, nontechnical] majors don't have specific jobs related to their majors. They're in fields like human resources, sales, communications, that sort of thing." Gardner says.

"Some organizations interviewing for certain positions will look at the degrees, like if you're an electrical engineer or a supply chain major or something that requires a certain set of skills and knowledge," says Lenroy Jones, assistant director of Career Services and Placement at Michigan State University. "But in some of the areas, it's pretty wide open and a variety of disciplines will go into a variety of jobs areas.

"I worked with a political science major who was getting ready to graduate and wanted to prepare to go into the business sector, in sales," Jones continues. "That was no problem. He took six to nine credits of business courses and he became extremely marketable. When we sat down just before graduation, he had more offers than he knew what to do with."

As another example, he adds that currently, "an automotive company is looking for production managers and the position is open for all majors."

And Laura Levine, a college recruiter for America Online, says: "A specific major is not as important unless you're looking for a finance position. Or [there are] some technical positions where you are looking for experts in that specific area. [Having a specific course on a college transcript] shows that you have an interest in it, that you have some expertise in it. Generally, we would prefer to see electrical and computer engineering degrees, but that's not the only thing we look for."

`The Way of the Future'

Take the job of a developer of Java computer software, for example. …

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