[Check out the full 2009 Focus on Education section here.]
Don’t pick it because your grandparents bribed you. Don’t pick it because it’s the easy way out. Don’t pick it because it sounds fun or because your dad, your aunt and your cousin thrice-removed picked it.
There’s probably no “right” reason to choose a particular college major. Although it’s possible to breeze your way through the first year or so of college without declaring a field of study, the decision looms above every student’s head: What are those gold-leafed, fancy cursive words on your diploma going to spell out?
Just as there’s no right reason to declare a specific major, there’s no right or wrong major either. According to James Novak, associate academic director at the Career Development Center at the University of Cincinnati, choosing a good major requires a thorough self-evaluation.
“It’s where your talents lie — your interests, your abilities, your values. There’s got to be a certain mesh of all those in order for someone to be successful,” Novak says.
Nonetheless, with a national unemployment rate at 9.5 percent, choosing a practical, meaningful major is more important than ever. Here are five suggestions for majors or studies to consider that could lead to substantial starting salaries or abundant job prospects locally and nationally:
There really might be a lot of green in “going green.” President Obama has promised to allocate $500 million as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to create green jobs, and that’s just part of it. According to a June 2009 report by Pew Charitable Trusts, the clean energy economy grew at a rate of 9.1 percent nationally between 1998 and 2007, whereas traditional jobs grew by only 3.7 percent.
“The green opportunities are hitting most any major. Even the DAAP (College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning) students are into green construction, green design, environmental engineering, civil engineering,” Novak says. “These folks are all going to have green opportunities.”
You can orient your studies to be as green as you’d like, from architectural design to environmental science to pre-law.
Make yourself more marketable for the “green” industry by focusing your studies on sustainability, whether through joining your school’s recycling or conservation club or possibly engaging in a “green” research project alongside a professor.
Any kind of engineering
It won’t be a cakewalk, but statistics show that for the engineering major, hard work pays off, literally. According to a study by payscale.com, a striking seven of the “Top Ten College Majors That Lead to High Salaries” hail as different classifications of engineering, with chemical engineering majors’ starting median salary of $65,700 topping out at No. 1. Novak emphasizes that the knowledge and skills sets held by engineering graduates will continue to be valued, even in the downtrodden economy. Green opportunities, he adds, are expected to largely enhance the engineering field as well.
Nursing/health care-related studies
Mom and Dad getting older doesn’t just mean they’re wearing uglier Christmas sweaters. Aging baby boomers will continue to affect the needs for private practitioners, nurses, therapists and other health care experts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ November 2007 report, “Occupational Employment Projections to 2016,” jobs in health care and social assistance are supposed to grow the fastest through 2016, contributing a whopping 27 percent of all new nonagricultural and salary wage jobs.
Geek is chic. As companies attempt to maximize productivity and efficiency using the newest computer programs and technologies, there’s got to be brains behind every move they make. That’s why computer and information technology (IT) related occupations are expected to grow at a rate of 24.8 percent through 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not to mention, according to payscale.com, computer science majors are some of the highest paid post-graduation, with a median starting salary of a cool $56,400.
If you’re already a computer whiz, this major could be ideal for you. Not to mention, possessing computer skills is a bonus, if not a necessity, for almost any career, which makes the skills gained by a computer science or computer engineering major highly transferable in other industries. In fact, according to a December 2007 study conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, Tristate employers identified computer, software and network administration skills as one of the top three basic skills necessary in all potential employees.
What’s unique about the education major is that it allows you to incorporate your own academic interests into your ultimate goal of teaching. The education student can learn communications skills, patience and creativity while still engaging in what interests him or her most.
Aside from accommodating diverse interest palates, the education major might be exposed to a whole new slew of job opportunities — Roger Moncarz, Branch Chief of the Occupational Outlook Employment Projection Program for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, identified education as one of the three major industries to experience rapid employment growth during the 2006-2016 decade.
“Primary school, secondary school and special education teach-ers are projected to grow as the school-age population increases, as a greater proportion of students receives special education and as more funding is provided for all-day kindergarten and preschool classes,” Moncarz says.
Even if your passions and goals don’t seem to align with any of these categories, don’t fret. Your major selection probably won’t make or break you. Kristine Hoke, assistant director at the Office of Career Services at Ohio University, suggests that relevant work experience and student involvement play a fundamental role in career success.
“Employers are looking for skills like leadership, communication and interpersonal skills no matter what major or field. Students can work on these transferable skills by participating in student organizations, academic societies or service-related initiatives,” Hoke says.
Although Novak notes that networking and making connections is also indispensable in snagging meaningful employment, he also suggests that if the major suits the individual, it’s probably the “right” choice.
“Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is showing up,” Novak says. “If you’re showing up and you’re interested in what is going on around you, you can’t fail.”
[Photo: Engineering degrees produce some of the highest post-graduation salaries. The University of Cincinnati has several excellent programs.]