Wondering how your choice of major may relate to your future career? There are few straight lines between major and career. Employers consider your experience both inside and beyond the classroom.
This page oﬀers tips on exploring majors and answers common questions we hear from students. On our major tipsheets, learn about the major-related competencies you’ll bring to your future work.
What can I do with a degree in…
We get a lot of questions from students about the connection between major and career. Here, you’ll find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions. Learn more by speaking with career counselors, advisers, faculty, alumni, and mentors.
If I Want a Career in…, What Should I Major in?
There are no straight lines from one major to one particular career, and vice versa.
Your liberal arts education provides skills that all employers seek, including
- critical thinking skills
- problem-solving skills
- communications skills
According to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “4 out of 5 employers agree that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.”
In fact, employers seeking Columbia candidates do not often limit applications by major. In LionSHARE, many positions are open to all majors or a diverse range of majors. Job descriptions are more focused on the skills needed to be successful in the job.
Take a look at the requirements for an entry-level role at Ogilvy, a global public relations, advertising, and marketing firm. Notice that they don’t mention a specific major!
- You have the instincts of a business person plus a creative edge
- You are digitally savvy
- You have excellent written and verbal communication skills
- You are passionate about marketing and advertising
- You take a rigorous and creative approach to problem solving
- You take initiative and are persistent
The exception is technical jobs, where majors can matter more. For example, Google posted a software developer position in LionSHARE for computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering majors only. That said, you can learn these skills in other ways. You can also find ways to apply to jobs through alternative methods like networking.
Are you an international student? Review this question for more specific information about major and career connection.
- Read the descriptions of interesting jobs in LionSHARE or other job boards like Indeed. What do the employers list as their major requirements? What are the top skills/qualifications they expect?
- See what Columbia alumni have done. Look for alumni who studied something they loved and pursued successful careers that might not clearly connect to their major. Type a major into the search field of the LinkedIn Alumni Portal.
How Important is my Major to Finding Employment?
Your studies and major aren’t the only aspect of your experience that employers evaluate.
“93% of employers agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
the Association of American Colleges and Universities
Employers look at your full package of experience, coursework, skills, and accomplishments. You can gain this knowledge and skills both inside and outside your major! They select people who they believe can do, and are interested in, the job. That is, they want people who have the right skills and have demonstrated an interest in the field. Finally, they look for people who are a personality fit for the team and organization.
Most of the skills and qualities sought by employers on resumes are transferable and/or soft skills:
- Ability to work in a team
- Problem-solving skills
- Communication skills (written)
- Strong work ethic
- Communication skills (verbal)
- Analytical/quantitative skills
Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2017 Job Outlook
You can develop these skills and qualities in a variety of ways:
- classes (especially the Core)
- extracurricular activities
- volunteer experiences
- part-time jobs
For employers that get high numbers of applicants, they are more likely to screen by GPA. A 3.0 is common and very competitive positions look at 3.5 and above only. We often see that students who major in a subject they truly like are more likely to earn higher GPAs. Plus, you never know when your major may be a common interest with an employer! Your unique area of study could even help you stand out in a pile of resumes.
No matter your major, we encourage you to always tailor your resume and cover letter to specific jobs. This will help you show how you are uniquely qualified for the position.
Approximately 70% of people find their jobs through networking. Building relationships early and regularly with people in your target fields is vital.
- Assess your skills through informal exercises or more formal assessments. Check out the exercises in the Career Planning Guide. You might also do the SkillScan card sort with a career counselor.
- Type your preferred skills or major into a career database like O*NET or Inside Jobs. Which careers use these skills/knowledge areas?
Which Majors Make the Most Money?
The industry and type of position you pursue affect your income more than your major does.
- Maybe you studied anthropology but learned computer programming through a concentration or self-study. If you work as a programmer after graduation, you would make the same salary as a computer science major.
- What if you’re a financial engineering major who goes into a communications job? You would make the same salary as an art history major pursuing a position in the same field.
So, remember, your major is just one piece of the salary puzzle.
Some industries pay more than others, regardless of your major. For undergraduates, these include engineering services ($67,400) and management consulting ($66,444). (Nationwide figures from National Association of Colleges and Employers Salary Survey, Winter 2017).
There are other factors that can also affect your salary beyond major. These include job location (i.e. a major city versus rural location) and your level of education.
There are some connections between major and starting salary after graduation. Students who major and secure jobs in STEM fields typically have the highest starting salaries. These include majors like
- Computer Science
- Electrical Engineering
- Computer Engineering
The NACE salary survey has compiled average salaries for graduates nationwide.
- Engineering: $66,121
- Math: $62,985
- Health sciences: $52,074
- Physical sciences: $45,872
- Liberal arts and humanities: $53,732
But this isn’t the full picture! According to a PayScale, Inc. study, graduates in every major are able to increase their salaries ten years after graduation. These increases can even be quite dramatic. In fact, both philosophy and math majors were able to increase their salaries by 103.5%! And, according to a study by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, “liberal arts and science majors close earnings gaps with professional majors” between graduation and peak earning ages.
- Explore a career’s salary growth potential through the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
- Research salary estimates online or through informational interviews with professionals in the field. Check out Salary.com and the Indeed.com Salary Survey.
What If I’m an International Student?
If you’re at Columbia on a student visa, selecting your major can be important if you plan to work in the United States after college.
As part of your student visa, you may be considering Optional Practical Training. OPT is a work authorization that allows you to work in a job directly related to your major area of study either before or after completing your degree.
Employer sponsored H1B Visas also have similar strict requirements.
Students with more questions about this should visit the International Student & Scholars Office (ISSO).