Does Your College Major Matter?

I read an article in the Washington Post recently that made me want to revisit a blog post I wrote almost exactly five years ago.  The Post article, The Most-Regretted (and Lowest-Paying) College Majors goes on to say that those who major in the humanities have the biggest regrets due to the least appealing job prospects.  By the way, if you are wondering what majors constitute the humanities, they include: English, ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, archaeology, anthropology, human geography, law, religion, and art.  Below is my original post with some 2023 updates.

Many transitioning service members and graduating college students enter the civilian workforce with some trepidation, wondering if they chose a college major that will land them a great job.  No doubt, liberal arts majors worry about this the most.   Well, there is some good news: an article from the Wall Street Journal claims that, when it comes to what hiring managers are seeking, factors such as critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills are often considered more important than the college major itself. 

When Jack Welch led General Electric through meteoric growth, he maintained a similar sentiment. He focused on what he called his 4 E’s and a P: Energy, Energize Others, Edge, Execute, and Passion. At the end of the day, however, he felt the only credentials that truly mattered were results.

If you would like further illustration, the following is an ordered list of the five most common college majors among the 200 most recent military officers we have placed:

  1. Criminal Justice
  2. History
  3. Political Science
  4. Mechanical Engineering tied with Economics and Business

It certainly seems that this sampling backs up the author’s premise.  The two most common majors, criminal justice and history, are not commonly associated with the corporate world. Yet, nobody would argue that both disciplines can hone a person’s critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills — those attributes that were mentioned above as most desirable among hiring managers.

Our personal experience with employers bears this out as well.  When partnering with companies to bring junior military officers onto their teams, seldom do we hear that they need a particular degree or major.  Most often, they tell us that they want leaders. The lack of strong leadership is one of the biggest strategic challenges faced by companies today. A recent report by Deloitte [article no longer available online] found that over 85% of respondents considered leadership to be a top talent concern. Most companies hold a belief that they can teach the fundamentals of their business, but no degree or training program certifies leadership potential the way military leadership experience can.

But if you feel that your college major doesn’t make you as competitive as your counterparts, there are ways you can compensate. Here are a few of our recommendations:

  1. When interviewing, focus on your Leadership Results. Look back at your career achievements and identify how your leadership made a difference. Maybe you developed a maintenance program that reduced the downtime of your vehicles.  Perhaps you led a process improvement initiative that eliminated a backlog of performance evaluations, or you trained your team to become more effective at their core skills. All of these are examples that can translate into the corporate arena.
  2. If you are worried about your knowledge of the corporate world, start by improving your situational awareness. Sources abound for you to improve your general knowledge base:  a professional reading list (Good to Great, Winning, etc.), periodicals (Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Harvard Business Review, etc.), business podcasts, Alliance Careers social media accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter), and financial news shows can all heighten your awareness. 
  3. Improve your marketability by attaining professional certifications. There are several respected certifications that you could attain while on active duty, at little or no cost.  The following are a few desirable certifications: Project Management Professional (PMP), Lean Six Sigma (Green or Black Belt), CompTIA Security+. One good way for veterans to earn certifications is via the Veterans Career Transition Program (VCTP) through Syracuse University [now more commonly referred to as Onward to Opportunity or O2O].
  4. Consider examples where you have taken on challenging assignments outside of your primary skill set. For example, maybe you took on a logistics role even though you were not school trained in that area.  Top performance in a role without the benefit of schooling is a fantastic way to illustrate your ability to adapt and overcome shortfalls in knowledge, skills, or experience.

At the end of the day, do not lose sleep over those things you cannot change. Just remember that degrees and training can only go so far. Do what you can to make yourself more knowledgeable about Corporate America and, when interviewing, place emphasis on the skills and talents that have made you an effective leader.

Note: We have not done a detailed analysis of how starting salaries correlate to college majors. However, I suspect that analysis would not yield major differences among the various college majors, with the exception of engineering majors. It’s not uncommon that roles that require an engineering degree command salaries that can be 10% – 20% higher  than those that do not]