One of the best things about the internet is people picking on one another, often about a hyper-specific topic. In this situation, I have seen several really clever comics/jokes/memes like “accounting majors be like…”, “marketing majors when…”, “if you are a finance major people think this about you”, etc. But that is not what this blog is about. Right now is around registration time, and this is a time when we get a lot of questions about how to pick majors, why course X over course Y, and other similar questions. With all of that going on, here are some thoughts as to what these decisions can mean.
I am a big believer in education
I want to start by first making it 100% clear that I am a big believer in education. There is no greater way to make changes in one’s life than education, even by just reading a book to learn about a new skill. There are a couple reasons I will focus on higher education. One is that it is my chosen career path, so I know a little about it. Two is that, as things continue to change, the institution that is higher education has started having more questions asked as to its importance and efficacy. Three, given my role, this is something I am asked fairly regularly, so I know there is interest in this particular topic. Fourth, there is already a bunch of research on the explicit benefits of education for things like salary, lifetime career earnings, lower unemployment, and much more.
Learning is a given
What I will reference below is taking one of the most important parts of education as a given, the learning. The actual knowledge attainment is the component that has the highest importance, but not the focus of this article. I am assuming that, after you make the decision to pursue a degree, you are doing so for knowledge attainment. This discussion is more about what others see through your actions.
I am fully aware that YMMV (your mileage may vary) with a college education. The thing about stats is that they are macro level, but individuals are concerned with the micro. What I mean by that is, it is great that the median person gets benefits, but if I personally don’t benefit, that isn’t ideal. So I add in that first caveat that this is not a perfect answer for everyone.
Focused on business
This discussion will be from a business school lens which generally is on the higher end on many metrics. This is not to denigrate other degrees, but it is again what I am most familiar with. I am one that appreciates all disciplines. Information gathering is important when choosing a major and not something I would be able to guess at in a blog post. I highly recommend getting help from family, friends, academic counselors, etc before making a decision. While I am personally a big fan of business disciplines, I understand that may not be right for everyone.
As a marketer, I think that everything is perception. No matter how objectively good or bad something is, if I have a negative perception, that doesn’t matter. If you want an example of this, think about a popular restaurant. There is a potential that this place is perfectly fine, but the negative perception in your mind causes you to not think positively about it. For a different example, you can replace “popular restaurant” with “person” and it should hold as well.
So how does this tie to degrees? Something to always be aware of is that degrees do provide information even without knowing the individual. Back to the macro/micro comment above, people will have thoughts in their mind about your degree, major, etc. before knowing more about you. The good thing is that most people will alter their perception after attaining more information.
Now, to the point. Signaling
Signaling is formally an economics term that is about conveying information to another party. Since I am in marketing, I will alter this a bit. One thing academics do is borrow ideas from other areas and make it our own. I will follow suit. For our purposes, signaling will be what your degree will be telling others. When someone says they have a BBA in Marketing, you know that they have a certain level of knowledge about the topic of marketing. If they tell you they have a minor in marketing, then you know that comparative to the BBA, they have slightly less, but at least some knowledge of the subject matter.
Signaling and tropes
To change up the context, you think of this like a trope. (I told you we steal from other disciplines. This one is from English). A trope is in place to give you more information without explicitly having to give information. If you are watching a TV show about college and there is a person with a tweed jacket, glasses, and bumbling about, that tells you this is a scatter-brained professor who is going to have a positive impact on a reluctant student’s life even though they don’t seem like they will be a good mentor to the defiant student. This has been used enough in writing and television that you have all this information up front without a word being said.
Picking a degree path
So, when picking a major, that is something to consider based on an individual’s career goals. If you are wanting to say, “I’m good at marketing and I also know how to do some programming”, then getting a BBA in Marketing with a minor in CIS would be a way to signal that without actually having to say it (such as in a resume/transcript). If you know you are wanting to get a graduate degree and you are wanting to focus on being a marketer, but also desire to be a team leader, such as a sales team manager, then something like a BBA in Marketing with an MBA with a specialization in Management would be a good potential degree path.
Importance of a transcript
Something I don’t think gets enough love is the transcript. There are times where you are not able to go fully in to a degree or minor, but you do have an interest in the topic. A lot of places, these are called “free electives”. If you have an interest that is not officially listed, such as taking 4-5 courses in a topic, then that can also be a signal of proficiency. I have seen this happen with a few students in a discipline outside of the college. Often times, being outside of a core discipline makes some courses difficult to take because of prerequisites. If the prereqs are too much to overcome for a minor, then taking a few courses can still signal skills.
For my people, the generalists
As you probably have been able to tell by now, I am someone who has a hard time staying on topic. My educational and professional journey has mirrored this. So, fellow generalist, what does one do in this scenario, you might ask? In my opinion, one of the best things to do is focus on something that you have the most interest in, but also dabble in the things that you find fascinating. My degrees will say specific things, but my transcripts will certainly show an inability to focus. As mentioned above with perception, sometimes people might see this as a negative, but that is the decision you need to make for yourself.
For a final set of thoughts, here is some advice that is probably worth what you paid for. Make sure to be thoughtful when thinking about your future careers. Talk to people who you trust that know you, but also discuss these things with people in the academic side of the equation. Academic advisors and counselors are there to help and know more of the specifics than people not working in academics.
Be open to making adjustments and not being too hard on yourself. Things will change as more information is gathered. That is how we grow, so if you need to make an adjustment, that is ok. I would caution against a lot of changes, but minor adjustments are perfectly fine.
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Some people thrive on being able to make a weakness a strength. Some are more comfortable making a strength unbeatable. Know what you are good at and work around what works best for you.
Ask questions. Answers are useful in life, but questions are what make the pursuit of knowledge so invigorating. The more questions you can ask and the more information you can gather will make decisions much more understandable and ideally will lead to better outcomes.
Take your knowledge of yourself and others information to make yourself unique (if possible). Back to the sales manager example. If you want to be a sales manager and you are particularly fond of the financials of a business, a double-major in finance might be a way to show how you are somewhat unique in that particular field since many don’t have that particular degree makeup and can be something noticeable to employers.
I will end on a cliche since we have been discussing tropes. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and have fun. College will have it’s own stressors, both good and bad, so being able to take a moment and enjoy what is happening can make a big difference in mental health throughout the process.
Dr. Robert King
Director of Graduate Business Programs, Assistant Professor of Marketing, and Wilder Professor of Business