Since everyone and his brother believe this dumb-ass question is both important and intelligent, one of my missions in life is to put the lie to it. As a former university professor and long-time management consultant, I can’t emphasize enough how limiting and actually harmful this question is. The notion of a linear career relation between college and work is false from the get-go.
But first, a caveat. If you or your kid majored in sports rather than academics, I recommend you skip this blog. I seriously doubt that more than 5% of those who majored in sports, instead of viewing it as merely a recreational outlet, do well in academics. And if you or your kid fits in the sports major group and failed to develop academic tools, then go ahead and major in a subject focused on gaining immediate entry to the current job market. Of course, you’ll quickly learn that won’t provide much more than an entry-level salary for most of your life. But them’s the choices.
Fortunately, just this year a thoughtful piece of research by Daniel Lair and Stacey Wieland addressed that dumb ass colloquialism, finding that though it is a near all-powerful ideology, it understands neither work nor education. The research confirmed the pervasiveness of the question--more than ever in today’s economy—and that it is widely recognized by all students. On top of that, it is inevitably an emotionally charged question—and nearly half the time negative, functioning as a judgment about the choices a person is making about the relationship between work and his or her education. As a consequence, students readily recognize that their ability to answer the question is high-stakes and anxiety-producing. They also know that it is about whether a major will provide merely a sufficient or a substantial income. The obvious implication of the question that the major a person chooses is tightly coupled with the selection of a job.
Wrong about work
What’s clear from the research is that students and the public ground their belief in a linear career model: this major, for example, will make possible this career. The fact of the matter is that those implications simply do not align with the realities of the global economy.
First, the shelf life of a linear, vocational degree is no more than five years. Furthermore, there is no longer a social contract between employer and employee, and neither expects that relationship long term. That means that there’s a very high likelihood that what got you a job right out of college will be completely obsolete within five years. On top of that, people will be changing employers and careers many, many times over their lives. To a surprising degree, those changes are becoming more and more true of even the so-called permanent vocations in engineering, law and medicine. To quote the researchers: The permanent view of career that is perpetuated through the colloquial question, “What are you going to do with that major?” conflicts with what students are likely to experience post college.
The consequence of this wrongheaded ideology is that it keeps students from approaching higher education in a way that will equip them better for the long term. The ideology forces students and their parents to focus on college education, narrowly, and solely from the job perspective. No question that business loves this and emphasizes this approach. But the business approach to college is like a stock market approach: it’s liable to be valid no more than three or four quarters. And sadly, in my work with leading executives around the country, I’ve experienced few who think about education on a long-term basis, and outside the stock market box.
So, given that jobs, employers, careers and professions are going to be changing many times in our lives, how should we look at education? What should students really gain from a college education? The answer is straightforward. While education plays a role in equipping the student for career, students need to also wrestle with questions of how to live a meaningful life. Specifically that includes questions about the roles they will play in society, such as citizen, parent, partner, volunteer or community member.
So what’s an
intelligent student to do?
Given the realities of our world, we need a holistic perspective on the role of education and the recognition that the decision about what to study and what to do with one’s life has no unique permanent answer. The competencies that the best organizations are asking for are the same competencies that students will need for all of life: creative thinking, managing complex problems, making informed decisions, learning, adapting and maintaining an open entrepreneurial, adventuresome relationship to life.
What a career edge implies for students is that they ought to at least make space for a couple courses in technology, economics and communication--and learn how to work social and organizational systems that are hierarchical and authoritarian. In today’s world they’re liable to be creating their own jobs, even inside the company, and viewing learning as a life-long process. That also means that they will need the oral and written smarts to get around the recruiter’s template when they set out for the next job. With that background most any liberal arts major will work just fine. The current mayor of Chicago, for example, holds an undergraduate liberal arts degree in dance from Sarah Lawrence College.
In sum, the “What are you going to do with that major?” question is typically insulting, demeaning and stupid.
Lair, Daniel J. and Stacey M.B. Wieland, "What are you going to do with that major?" Colloquial Speech and the Meanings of Work and Education, Management Communication Quarterly, 26(3), 2012, 423-452.
Flickr photo: Waad Alsulaim