Does Your College Major Matter in the Real World?

By    March 4, 2013

The wealth of polarizing literature on the relative importance of the undergraduate degree has increased in recent years, with everyone from Forbes to The New York Times chiming in. The issue is so pressing that last December, Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed a “$10,000 Degree Challenge” to 28 state colleges by asking them to charge students a frozen $10,000 tuition for three years–but only in majors deemed “job-friendly.” What exactly does that mean? Ultimately, an undergraduate would have to pay more for a degree in the liberal arts than for a degree in math and the sciences.

The philosophy behind this challenge is an obvious reflection of the prejudice that exists against the liberal arts: that they are impractical, indulgent and a waste of time. I’m sure this is nothing revolutionary for those of you reading–after all, who hasn’t heard their father bemoan the uselessness of a degree in Greek? Oh wait–Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, has already been through that one.

Liberal arts degrees aren’t the only ones that have been criticized–everything from communications to the fine arts to even archeology has been lambasted as dead-end majors designed to indulge those who plan to rely on their parents well into their adult years. It seems that if you’re not majoring in math, science, or a business-related field, you’re doomed to failure. This widely shared way of thinking, along with the recent developments in Florida made me wonder: just how much does your undergraduate major matter in the real world?

Unless you desire a career in a specialized field like medicine or programming, most signs point to not that much. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Job Outlook 2013 survey, respondents plan to hire 13% more new college graduates in 2012-13 than they did in 2011-12. This year’s anticipated increase seems to indicate that hiring could be on the upswing for the Class of 2012. Additionally, The Atlantic reported that “there’s no correlation the past decade between the share of grads in the most maligned majors and the unemployment rate for college grads….”

This is all well and good, but how does the “real world” reflect these numbers? I took to the most intelligent people I know, the SpareFoot team, to find out how many of them actually use their undergraduate majors:

Marketing Manager- Rachel Greenfield: (University of Florida, Journalism)
My J-school curriculum did not exactly suggest we wouldn’t find jobs in the industry, but many of my peers and myself recognized the likelihood. By the time I graduated in 2009, I knew I wanted to explore a marketing career, but my journalism skill set has proven immensely useful in the business world. It would be ideal for modern journalism programs to expose students to the variety of career options they have, as we can successfully apply this trade education to industries outside the traditional newsroom.

I think my journalism background has also made me a stronger content/story idea brainstormer, which definitely comes up in this career. My experience in social media and other digital formats has been mostly self-taught in the field, but the journalism skill set has been easy to apply to various mediums. Professors did stress the importance of having diverse skills and interests and staying flexible, so that philosophy has worked well after graduation.

Marketing Manager- Tony Emerson(University of Texas at Austin, Advertising)
I studied mainly traditional media, but have worked exclusively in online media, so there wasn’t much crossover. The most useful learnings from my undergrad career were general skills like problem solving, communicating and making awesome PowerPoints.

Marketing Analyst- Jeanette Dehay(University of Texas at Austin, Sociology)
I majored in sociology, which is basically the study of humans and the societies they are a part of. This doesn’t immediately translate to the marketing world, but it definitely shows up in different aspects of my job. I often find myself applying things I learned in sociology courses to the things I do at work, whether it’s analyzing data correctly or trying to get inside the consumer’s mind when making marketing-based decisions.

Data Analyst- Zach Chetchavat: (Texas A&M, Political Science, MA in Public Service and Administration)
I use my master’s degree a bunch for debating people in bars and drawing graphs. When I think about it, I learned a little stats and some research methods from my bachelor’s degree that I use here.

PPC Manager- Itzett Romero: (University of Texas at Austin, Advertising)
I do use my degree, mainly because it allowed me to intern at marketing companies where I then learned about SEM, which was what the advertising/marketing industry was beginning to adopt.

VP Business Development- John Durrett: (University of Texas at Austin, Electrical Engineering and Japanese)
I had two degrees, neither of which I’ve ever used. I did a bunch of internships and engineering internships–circuit design at the Pickle Research Center and National Instruments. Then I moved into marketing from doing software, gradually getting further and further away from engineering. I did strategy consulting, which has nothing to do with engineering. And as for Japanese–I can order sushi really well, but otherwise I sound like a drunk toddler.

Engineering made me really comfortable with numbers, but in a web business like SpareFoot, the most complicated thing you do is division–unless you’re on the analytics team. I’d say that it’s good to be comfortable with numbers, but I don’t ever use any of it. Ultimately, you learn from experience.

I started out with a consulting firm that specifically tries to recruit smart people who work really hard. I’ve used what I learned at that first job more than anything else, because it laid the baseline for thinking about business problems.

Sales Operation Manager- Sara Richardson: (University of Arizona, Interdisciplinary Studies)
My mom, who has a BA in engineering and MA in business, told me that your major doesn’t really matter (unless you want to be a doctor or lawyer), so take classes you enjoy. So with that on my mind, I did some research and found out that the University of Arizona has a program called Interdisciplinary Studies. It is an option to take classes in multiple different departments and combine them into one major. I chose to do business administration, psychology, and renewable natural resources.

I like to think I use psychology all the time in life and at work, especially since my job is maintaining the sales and support operations and processes, and making them more efficient. I also work with lots of different people in the office, which requires different approaches to working with and understanding the needs of others. I don’t really manage anyone anymore, so I’m not using too much of the business administration part of my major. I definitely use the Excel class I took and business math, which was a class about applying math to different aspects of business, something I need when calculating formulas and applying logic in Salesforce. And for natural renewable resources–well, I recycle.

Sales Representative- Michael Wright: (University of Virginia, History and Pre-Med)
If you are asking if I am directly applying knowledge from what I learned in my areas of undergraduate study to sales, I’d say not so much. If I could turn back time and change my majors to something more applicable to what I am currently doing for work, would I? I’d say the convenient and self-preserving answer would be no, because all of that makes me who I am today. Is that B.S.? Maybe, because if I knew I wanted to work in a startup environment early on, then maybe I would be further along in my career today.

I have no regrets, because I have continued to follow my interests. Although it has not led me on a completely linear path, I have a better idea of what I like and don’t like than if I never explored my curiosities. I liked history, but I did not want to be a lawyer or a professor. I liked the idea of being a doctor, but I was miserable studying the prerequisites. Working in a startup is fun for me, because it is a rapidly changing environment. You can learn and grow faster than most other work environments, all the while creating something original and of value. There is also the exciting upside of big rewards, should you succeed.

Partner Manager- Michael Balagia: (Southwestern University, Theatre and Spanish)
I went to a liberal arts university. The way that system is structured, your major doesn’t prepare you for anything except how to speak well, think analytically, and how to study that same thing in graduate school. I deliberately double-majored in theatre and Spanish, so I would at least have some measurable real-world applications for the piece of paper I got on graduation day. I ran a theatre company in town with my roommate for about a year and a half before I got hired at SpareFoot and startup culture became my life. I use my Spanish pretty regularly.

The bottom line is that unless you get some specialized degree in math or computer science or hotel management, what’s written on your diploma is not essential or even necessarily relevant to getting a job. You can probably get a higher-paying job more quickly with a fancy degree, but in the long run you should study what you like, because if you’re awesome and diligent you can get a job that’s awesome, too. Apply to work at SpareFoot–we’re as awesome as it gets.

Jenny is part of the marketing team at SpareFoot. She currently lives in Austin, TX and likes sushi, Faulkner and Asian horror movies.

  • Craig Barrett

    As the proud owner of a useless degree (communications) I have to somewhat differ with your assessment. The purpose of the $10,000 degree is to encourage colleges to promote degrees which will have a near-term impact on employment for the state. Soft degrees have a much lower rate of employment [See: http://bit.ly/zy5xQU and http://cbsn.ws/swRPu3 in the short term, as you mentioned in your last paragraph. STEM degrees will have a faster rate of higher and state-run colleges have an obligation to serve both the near-term and short-term needs of the state.

  • Jenny Zhang

    Absolutely, but I still believe that it may be detrimental in the long run to deter students from arbitrarily “useless” degrees, like communications. When you hike up the price on these degrees and lower the cost of the “practical” ones, it limits/eliminates the student’s choice and forces them to defer what he or she may want to do for what they should–or can afford–to do, which I don’t think is fair.

    I still think that someone who actually enjoys and is passionate about what they do will excel (see SpareFoot). And stifling the cultivation of the arts is a crime, in my opinion :) The point I was trying to make is that college degrees aren’t the end-all for how successful you are in life – it depends entirely on what you do with it, or rather what you do with yourself.

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