Maybe Your Major Doesn't Want you to Do Anything With It

If you're wondering what you can do with your major, that may be half the problem. Consider these suggestions for snuggling up to your liberal arts buddy.

Wondering what to major in? Or what you can do with a major in...biology? Sociology? Physics? Music? Mathematics? Thousands of students bump into the question every year, and stumble, anywhere from gently and temporarily to, well, majorly—and indefinitely.

There are some easy answers, but obvious and unsatisfying—and frankly annoying, as well-intentioned people in your circle trot out these trite and unhelpful suggestions that sound limiting, and, more often than not, just plain wrong for you. Of course, you can teach or write or go into publishing with an English major. Same thing with anthropology or history—you can teach or become a researcher or do something else overtly related. Anybody can think of the first two or three obvious paths. No career counseling needed.

But what else? Dig a little and you’ll find the lists—columns of job titles and professions that at least somebody with those majors entered. They’re all true, but they’re all alike: At the end of the day, chemistry majors can work in publishing, and philosophy majors can become physicians—and do.

So what have the oodles of liberal arts majors who’ve preceded you done with their majors? All the things on the lists. Still, it’s helpful to pay attention to their stories, to see what they’ve done since graduating. So despite on the one hand deriding the sort of answer to a problem that is as unsatisfying and incomplete as it is obvious, it’s worth the apparent contradiction to endorse and hail, on the other hand, what is equally obvious: liberal arts graduates engaged in careers are the most interesting, reliable, and readily accessible source of information about what can be done with all the liberal arts majors. They demonstrate the options in real time, and they can articulate the options, as they’ve seen and experienced them. Challenge: Reach out, ask them. (Ask the CDC staff for help.)

But really, and the key point here, is that “What can I do with a major in…?” is the wrong question. It’s too limiting, creating an image of someone who picks up a tool and then looks for an appropriate application—sort of like, what can I do with a hammer? Well, lots of things, but also definitely not lots of other things. And that’s not true of a liberal arts major, and so the image, and the question that evokes it need to be tossed.

In many cases people do do something specific to, and with, their majors, such as chemistry majors becoming research chemists and Politics and Government majors becoming elected officials. However, a more appropriate question is “What can I do after I major in…?” or better yet, “What might (or will) I do after I major in…?” (That is, discard the idea that your major somehow permits you to pursue some career options and not others!) Choosing a career path--or just a career next step--is a separate choice from choosing a major, and merits a lot of consideration on its own. 

A better image for a major than a tool might be something like a gateway, or even a path or journey. It might suggest certain obvious directions, but it doesn’t prescribe them or preclude other paths. What did other graduates do after they majored in…? after they graduated with a liberal arts degree? What did they do through their major, perhaps even in part because of their major? (We’ll keep it simple here and sidestep questions of causality and considerations of the myriad other variables that shape career path.)

Notably the key words in these sentences are prepositions: with, after, because…and prepositions indicate relationships. It’s your relationship with your major—or prospective major—that you have to consider. Is it a tool? Treat it like one, and maybe it is. But maybe it’s a partner, and you’re in relationship together. And that relationship is complex, lifelong, and full of infinite possibility. The proof of that is at Just search, and join, the Pacific University Group, and take a look at the quantity and quality of relationships between majors and careers as you work to shape your own. Major does not equal career choice. There is a relationship, but you have to define it, and you have to cultivate it.

Luckily, there's help in Chapman Hall. 

Posted by Brian O'Driscoll ( on Jan 10, 2013 at 10:33 PM

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