Major Matters: Understanding Your Options

There are numerous ways to make a college education stand out to potential employers and graduate school admissions departments. It's no longer just about a student's major. It's about how they package their entire college experience to demonstrate their readiness for various occupations.

A great way for students to showcase themselves is with well chosen minors and certificate programs. They might even design their own major.

"Our school and others are trying to get students to think less of a job and more about a career," says Jim Turnquist, director of career services at Michigan Technological University (MTU). "We try to get them to take into consideration their personality, skills, values, interests -- everything." Students should talk to their advisors and consult their school's career center. They have aptitude tests and evaluations to uncover students' skills and interests. With their assistance, students can choose the best combination of majors, minors or other programs to boost their odds of finding a career that suits them.

"When I started at [Michigan] Tech, I was in mechanical engineering," says Ryan LaBar, a fifth year senior at MTU. "It was something I always wanted to be [in] since I was a kid, but I didn't realize what I was getting into. I found out it wasn't for me. So I talked to the people at career services and assessed my situation with them."

Together, they discussed LaBar's personal goals, past situations and outside interests. He realized that he needed a creative outlet in his education.

"Now I'm a major-minor," he says. "My major is scientific and technical communications, and my minor is visual arts." His goal is to get a job as an art director at a magazine that will allow him to write articles and design layouts.

Turnquist says that there are almost endless ways students can combine majors and minors to make themselves more appealing to future employers.

"If there was such a thing as an electromechanical engineering bachelor's degree, companies would love it. But according to the accreditation system, it's not possible," Turnquist says. "So some students get their bachelor's in mechanical engineering and take a minor in the electrical areas as their technical electives. That would be a strong consideration for corporations."

There is also the option of a double major. "Most [companies] say it's fine, but it depends on what the two majors are," says Turnquist.

If you opt for a double major, the two subjects should complement one another or be in related fields. Keep in mind, though, that well chosen minors can help turn seemingly unrelated fields of study into assets. Turnquist notes that employers prefer students with a clear focus, not students whose interests are "all over the map."

"If a student wants to be an engineer, but has aspirations to go into management, they may get their bachelor of science in a particular engineering field, then do a minor in business," Turnquist says. "[By doing that] they're demonstrating to the company that they're interested in the people [aspect] of the job and will probably be looking for management opportunities down the road."

"We also get students who major in engineering or business, and then get a minor in a foreign language with the idea of doing international work" he says. "The minor can serve to help you with your future plans."

Another option is a major-minor certificate. "These started out, from my understanding, more in the professional world," says Anne A. Skleder, dean of the Chatham College for Women in Pennsylvania.

"Companies wanted their employees to get a series of two, three or four courses in a particular area." Certificates are now becoming popular with undergraduate students.

"Major-minor certificates are ideal for when you're not sure you want to fully commit to a major in a subject, but want more than just a minor," Skleder says. "Often the certificate includes, for example, a study abroad experience or an internship -- things typical minors don't require."

A growing number of students are designing their own majors. "If a student can envision where they really want to be, it's wonderful to tailor-make your degree," Turnquist says. "But in reality, the overwhelming majority of undergraduates are unsure."

"It takes a very talented, self-motivated student to design something completely on their own," adds Skleder. She says there are two types of students best suited to self-designed majors.

"One is a student who knows exactly what they want to do, but the institution they love and want to attend doesn't have that particular major. So they're able to put together a proposal that explains exactly why they want to take this particular combination of courses at this particular point in time -- how it builds on their past and how it positions them for the future."

The other type of student is one who is likely headed to graduate school. "It might be a student who knows they're going to law school, and it doesn't matter what they major in for law school," Skleder says. In those cases, the program simply needs to be logical and include all core requirements.

Chloe Vaast, a sophomore at Providence College in Rhode Island, designed her own major. She falls into Skleder's first category of self-designed major students.

"I really wanted to get a job at a non-profit organization in Africa," she says. However, Providence College didn't offer much in the field of African studies. Instead of transferring to a larger school, she created her own major and cross-enrolled at nearby Brown University to meet all her coursework needs.

Vaast plotted out her remaining three years on a spreadsheet, listing her core requirements and everything needed for her major. "I went on and on and the dean said, 'You didn't really need to do all this. I already got you the papers.' I pretty much went in there ready to argue my case." Her fluency in French and Spanish meant she could skip the foreign language requirement, freeing up room in her schedule for a writing minor.

"Maybe because we're a smaller school they're a little more lenient about creating your own major," Vaast says. "It's a lot of work. You have to write proposals and have a lot of people sign it. Apparently a lot of students think about it, but just drop it because it's a lot of work. But it's worth it."

Turnquist says there can be risks in self-designed degrees. "Even though they're getting more popular, companies are going to think, 'What do you want?' or 'That's not what I'm looking for' simply because they may not have an understanding of the student's tailor-made program. So it's a gamble."

It's important that students' major, minor or major-minor certificates are in subjects that interest them. However, Turnquist and Skleder also underline that students must be able to communicate to future employers exactly how their particular course of study applies to their future career. This way they can maximize the benefits of their education.