Some majors are valuable, most are just interesting

College seems to be set up oddly. On the one hand, it is advertised to society and to parents, both of whom pick up the tab, as the stepping stone to becoming a contributing member of society and to a rewarding (and well-paying) career.

But contrary to the advertising, the actual message and experience during college seems to place greatest importance on the process of learning how to think critically and eventually, after college, discovering your passion (by some undefined other process) to then finally arrive at a rewarding career and a valuable contribution to society.

So while the advertising of college is “goal-oriented,” the reality is “process-oriented.”

In fact, many majors at top colleges have little connection to the most common value-creating roles in society. Many graduates may actually be more familiar with the nuances of 19th century philosophy (or esoteric mathematics in my case) than the 21st century economy, the nuanced problems in every direction that remain to be addressed, and the roles to contribute. For reference, the majors at Harvard which are representative of other top colleges are:

Harvard Majors

This lack of connection to real-world problems likely applies even to majors that are connected to a profession, just to a much lesser degree.

Writing on this topic, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog said in Harvard’s Liberal-Arts Failure Is Wall Street’s Gain:

“The issue isn’t that so many of [Harvard's] well-educated students want to go to Wall Street rather than make another sort of contribution. It’s that so many of their students end up feeling so poorly prepared that they go to Wall Street because they’re not sure what other contribution they can make.”

Now some students do choose primary majors like pre-med, engineering, and accounting, either because of a deliberate goal of their own or their parents’ or by sheer accident. In so doing, they start building a “T-shaped skill set” which I discussed elsewhere, directly relevant to solving real world problems and directly connected to professions in which these skills are valued. Of course, other classes or even a minor in complementary areas could be useful in developing general skills, i.e. the horizontal part of the T, without losing sight of the one area of depth.

However, many others choose majors, based on a passing interest and often with the encouragement of their academic advisors or instructors, that are not directly connected in this way. Rather than a real-world-relevant T-shaped skill set, they graduate college with just the horizontal line of the T, but having learned many interesting things along the way. It’s in this sense that

some college majors are valuable, most are just interesting.

I’m going to throw out an analogy that I think makes this point a different way. It may not be helpful and reactions are welcome. Imagine two groups of young athletes who are eager to one day represent their country in the Olympics. In one group, each athlete is encouraged to choose one sport early. Having chosen a sport, she practices daily and puts in at least 10,000 hours over 4 years building elite-level mastery in one sport.[1] In the other group, each athlete is encouraged to start with building their general athletic ability until they discover a passion for a sport. She too works out daily and puts in 10,000 hours over 4 years becoming really fit. After 4 years, who do you think is closer to representing their country in the Olympics?

So what if your degree is a couple of years behind you? What then? Fortunately, in today’s world, it’s possible to start developing a T-shaped skill set quickly.[2] A good place to start is by making the 2 defining choices I discussed earlier. In a future series, I’ll describe the process of going from making these choices to rapidly building a T-shaped skill set in more detail.

[1] This is a reference to the “10,000-Hour Rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Note that this applies to elite-level mastery not to basic proficiency as might be required in an entry-level job, consistent with [2]. There’s a large body of literature on learning curves and learning through experience or practice which suggests there’s a “power law” that applies to increasing proficiency through doing.

[2] In fact, if you wanted to, you could become a beginning web developer employed in tech in 9 weeks. Here’s Michael Stanton in How Dev Bootcamp Is Transforming Education To Focus On “Extreme Employability”: “Dev Bootcamp [is] a nine-week intensive program that takes students with no programming background and turns them into… beginner, job-ready software engineers. More than 90 percent of all Dev Bootcamp graduates… have found jobs in the tech community within three months after graduation.”

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  1. Dean Sultani

    Your insights are spot on. It’s not that our education system is broken, it is simply that a very small portion,of it ever worked. The modern world requires a brave soul willing to carve a new path. I think this message needs to get out to both the youth AND the parents. Let’s move forward, with precision.

    • Vivek

      Thanks for your encouragement. I agree that parents need to understand this as well. Today, it’s easier to find precise guidance on financial investment than it is on the most important investment of all.

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