Career Planning

Today’s top college majors

…And how they connect with career opportunities

By Lucy Ewing

I have 28 nieces and nephews, ranging in age from 13 to 33. This can be a strain when it comes to remembering birthdays!

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High School Parent | College Parent

But my big extended family also presents an interesting measure of the times and a valuable group for straw polls.

All 25 of the children who are old enough have attended college, coast to coast, including small liberal arts colleges, major public universities, and Ivy League schools. One dropped out, one was kicked out, and the rest finished or are pursuing their degrees.

While they may have fallen from the same family tree, these cousins show a broad-branching diversity that mirrors the trends in top college majors.

What is a top major?

The “top major” designation can be based on different criteria, such as the popularity of majors on college campuses, what undergraduate majors are sought out by employers, and what majors pay well at the start of a career and/or at mid-career.

Not surprisingly, these factors feed into each other. Students may be inclined to select a major based on career prospects. Colleges may promote majors that are in great demand in industry, such as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields.

Despite the demand for certain majors, every single niece and nephew I surveyed reported a key consideration in selecting a major was that they had talents and skills in that area. This suggests they wanted to be enriched, fulfilled and successful during college. Would it also point them to a job? It can achieve both. “Pick something that interests you, you love to do, and has good career opportunities,” one advised.

Side by side with the Kiplinger List of the 2014-15 10 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career, there is key overlap:

My Family’s Favorite Majors

2014–15 Rankings of 10 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career*

1. Engineering** 1. Computer Science
2. Computer Science 2. Management Information Systems
3. Economics, Finance 3. Software Engineering 
4. Chemistry, Pre-Med 4. Information Technology
5. Business 5. Economics
6. Accounting 6. Civil Engineering
7. Government, Political Science, International Relations 7. Statistics
8. Art, Performing Arts 8. Finance
9. Psychology 9. Actuarial Mathematics
10. Education 10. Nursing

* August 2014. Read more here.
** Majors in teal are perceived to be popular on college campus. Biology also makes that list.

What’s a recommended double major or minor?

Having experienced the working world, several nieces and nephews recommended what other academic pursuits would be helpful, and why:

Computer Programming: “Anything to do with programming would be a wise choice.”

Business: “Business as a minor, no matter the major. Entrepreneurship is also a good choice.”

Public Speaking: “As a chemical engineer, I’ve been challenged by the need to be a good speaker.”

English: “Writing skills are needed in every field.”

Math: “If you are studying business, economics, finance or accounting, math is an obvious partner.”

Graphic Design: “There are many more jobs in this field than people think, and nearly every company needs some kind of designer, even if it is in a very basic sense.”

Majors on the decline…and rise

According to reporting by NPR’s “Planet Money,” based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, majors that have decreased in the last 40 years include Education, English, History, Math and Statistics, and Philosophy. Yet, many of these fields train scholars in demand by industry. (See Now (still) hiring: Job prospects for liberal arts majors) This information is subject to scrutiny as well, since the field of Interdisciplinary Studies is on the rise and encompasses many of these majors. Other fields on the rise in the last 40 years include Health Professions, Criminal Justice, and Communications.

What major is right for your student?

More so than ever, high school and college counseling offices can provide in-depth information that fully describes every major and how it may suit your student’s interests and abilities, as well as an abundance of potential careers cross-referenced with personalities. It can be very inspiring to see the many exciting applications for a single major. Encourage your undeclared/undecided student to take advantage of these resources as a starting point.

Most colleges and universities can well serve most majors. So, unless your child requires a specialty school, picking the college should supersede selection of major. Once that decision is made, a niece recommends: “Contact advisers at the university and get a feel for the demands that you will be meeting in the future with each major.”

Selecting a major is a major decision. But it does not have to be limiting or life-defining. One nephew puts it in perspective this way: “This isn’t the sorting hat in Harry Potter. Picking a major doesn’t mean you’ve written your whole life story in stone at age 18. Things will change, you will develop unknown strengths, interests and challenges in life that shape new paths.”

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