Thursday, June 19, 2008

Choosing A College Major

Choosing a college major with good earning potential:
If your son or daughter is not sure what to study in college, here's some research that just might help them in the long term, at least financially. An analysis of a large data set on college graduates confirms prior research (and common sense) that engineering degrees garner the highest income and arts/social science degrees the least, with business and science/math degrees somewhere in the middle. The analysis, however, also indicated when a second major can pay off. Two engineering majors or science/math majors are not worth more than one. Yet it always pays to add an engineering major to another kind of major. A business and science/math double major is worth more than either one by itself. It doesn't pay to add an arts/social science or education major to a business, science/math, or engineering major. And, finally, women get more out of engineering or science/math degrees, whether as single or double majors.
See my previous breakdown of earnings by college major. Also some of my thoughts on why I think engineering is good way to go if you are technically inclined (or computer science from an ABET accredited school). If not, I highly recommend economics or finance for high earning potential and broad marketability.

A few other thoughts on choosing a major:
  • Contrary to what this article says, a double major in mechanical and electrical engineering would give you broad marketability. It may not boost your starting pay, but will make you more flexible in employment. (Although, if you're considering going this route, I'd recommend a bachelor's degree in one of them and a master's degree in the other.) Even better would be to double major in engineering and economics.
  • Technical skills pay a premium. Particularly engineering and computer science. Business skills are also highly valued.
  • Choose something you enjoy doing, but don't ignore expected career prospects coming out. One tactic might be to narrow your choices to what majors have the best employment opportunities and then choose which one you enjoy the most.
  • Read Daniel Pink's The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. (See the book's blog and read more about the book here.)
  • Don't feel constrained to staying in the discipline you study in your future employment. Just because you study engineering doesn't mean you can't eventually get a job in finance (although the opposite will not be true). I used my engineering background to work in engineering, sales, marketing, project management, and teaching math part-time at a community college. I also used my technical skills as a springboard get my MBA, law degree, and PhD in Economics.
  • It's easier to pick-up non-technical skills than technical skills after you get out of college.
  • Get advice from parents and friends, but ultimately make your own decision for what to study. You're the one who has to live with your choice and go through your classes -- not them.
  • My alma mater (Virginia Tech) has some good resources for helping choose a college major.
(HT Joe Carter)

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