How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

A student asked me:

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

I am of the firm belief that you should major in a discipline that you enjoy and are very passionate about. For most people, university is their last stage of their education. So it’s all the more important to end it with something you enjoy. After all, the assignments are tough and very time consuming, so if you enjoy what you’re learning, it makes it a lot better. Otherwise, you’ll be spending 3-4 years suffering in misery learning something you have no interest in.

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your major does not make you more or less employable. YOU make yourself employable. The soft skills of expression, of writing, of presenting, of persuading, of working together in a team, of leading others in a team, of being able to learn new things fast and on your own – these are more important than your major. These will determine whether you will get called up and succeed in an interview, and these soft skills will determine whether you will progress fast in your career or not.

The only reason why some majors look more employable is because certain disciplines tend to attract lots of people who are already very employable. They are very career-minded and self-driven. And with these same personal qualities, they would go just as far if they had taken another major. The issue really isn’t the major. It’s whether you bother to take the initiative to learn beyond your major, and to develop yourself professionally and intellectually.

Many of the assignments and modules you’ll take in University will try to prepare you in one way or another in many of the soft skills I listed above. Things like group project, etc., are already ample training grounds to hone these skills.

Lastly, I don’t recommend taking a major just because it is “practical.” What’s my issue with “practicality”? Well, this is speaking from observation. I’ve noticed that students (and my peers) who say they chose a “practical” major use this reason to give themselves a false sense of assurance that their future is secure. But what they don’t realise is that they often blackbox the entire thing, thinking that the having the name of their major printed on a piece of paper will do miracles for them, and so many of these students don’t actually develop themselves professionally and thus they go out into the working world unprepared and quite incompetent in what they do. Or in the case of my peers who lied to themselves that they had chosen a “practical” major, they ended up worrying about jobs and job security the same way as everyone else towards the end of their uni life. So the choice of their major really made no difference. It just made them feel comfortable for the first 3 years.

I also have issues with deciding a major based on whether or not it is “employable.” Employability will depend on the economic tides. In my time as an undergraduate, life sciences was the fad while computing was the dumping ground. Many of my peers took up life sciences in the hopes of making it rich, and very few took computing. Fast forward a few years later to today, now computing is the fad and all the life science graduates are having difficulties finding a job.

The same will go the way of computing/data analytics now that they are the “in” things. What many students don’t realise is that industries are very happy to drive more people into studying computing/data analytics because they want to increase the supply of talent so as to reduce the cost of manpower. Right now, such good talent are low in numbers and they are expensive to hire. By driving up the supply of talent, they can reduce salaries for such talent in the near future. This, by the way, is true of every discipline that gets caught up in the employability hype. Once the fad dies out, these majors will question the employability of their degrees once again.

Similarly, many chemical engineers are out of a job now because the oil and gas industry isn’t doing so well (it used to be booming so fantastically well years ago). Many Grab drivers I spoke to in the past year hail from the oil and gas industry. Some even hold PhDs in chemical engineering! What you study and the level of your qualification isn’t always everything. We’re all subject to the changing tides of the global economic situation.

So choosing a major based on “employability” is rubbish advice. What is employable now may not be employable in the future. And with the rise of AI and technology, experts cannot predict the next rising or failing industry

What is it that keeps those people employed in these shifting tides?

The same soft skills and qualities that I mentioned earlier. Why are they so important? Because these are the very qualities that enable an individual to add a lot of value to the organisation. It’s an intangible value that’s hard to measure, but it plays such a crucial role in the lifeblood of the organisation, whether it is the people and culture, or the business operations itself.

So once we’ve discounted “practicality” and “employability,” what are we left with? Well, like I said, it doesn’t matter what you major in. It’s the soft skills and people skills that matter waaaaaaay more than what you study in uni. So you might as well just choose a discipline that you enjoy learning. At least that way, when passion kicks in, you’ll gain so much more and those years of learning will be the best years of your life.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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