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October 21, 2010


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I teach at the community college level and counsel my students to learn how to speak in front of a group, write a short memo, and to analyze. This is what they are paying for. I tell them if they can do 2 out of 3 well they'll do fine in whatever field they go in.
They resist of course. They don't like writing assignments. They constantly try to write without knowing or understanding what they are writing about. Only a select few volunteer to come to the front of the class and work a problem or explain a concept.
I try to emphasize that to be able to sit at a table, look people in the eye and explain the difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA (or the equivalent for their field) is a very valuable skill. This is a skill they should learn in college.

I totally agree that certain people will succeed no matter what they do. On the flipside, some people are just negative and lazy, and they may never find success. (And they will blame everyone else for their lack of success.)

I think a double major is a great idea. That gives you an opportunity to possibly pursue something you love, and also something more practical. You never know what jobs might open up!

"Please do not pick a major only or even mainly because you think it will lead to a lucrative job. If you have a real passion for something, major in it."

So wrong. You're not going to college to find and learn about your passion. You're going to college to learn a skill, to develop your mind, so you are of value- so you can get access to a means of providing for yourself. College has evolved into a "find your passion", middle class 4 year camp, where kids try to grow up with the support of training wheels.

If you are passionate about French Neoclassical Literature- use your electives. Passions, unless they pay, are hobbies.

There are so many people who made the mistake of majoring in what they thought was there passion and now they wait tables or work in a call center. Enjoy your passions on your free time.

Personally, I got a major in my profession and a minor in my passion (intelligently used my elective credits). My profession happens to be a passion to me, but I doubt it’s a healthy one.

Double majors are generally unnecessary. But, they are very common at my university as students want lots of credentials to show how good they are. After the first job, people aren't going to look at your major(s). If you have multiple interests, major in one of them (probably the one more related to your career) and take whatever classes you want in the others. Getting a major/minor/certificate in whatever else is generally not useful, unless it is pertinent to that first job. Note that I am NOT saying ignore your other interests, merely that the set of classes that you take do not need to satisfy a particular set of requirements.

There are multiple notions of success. As others have pointed out, merely doing well in your classes is great, but you should also learn how to communicate, how to contextualize your work, how to work with others, etc.

English, baby! It's a great major because it teaches you to think, most people who major in it are passionate about it, and it also gives you both flexibility and practical skills -- you can proofread, write, teach, go into journalism or communications/advertising. And English majors tend to be more literate and well-spoken, so present better in interviews and such.

I think people should look at their strengths and interests and then follow a career path that matches that which has decent jobs that pay decent money. If you have a 'passion' you want to follow then I think the double major combining your passion + a more practical degree is a good way to go.

The 3rd bullet I don't really agree with:
"Pick a major with a high average GPA. All other things being equal, choosing an easy major is better than choosing a hard one."

If you really don't know what you want to major in then I wouldn't just go for the 'easy A' major. That kind of major doesn't have a lot of value to employers and if its so easy I don't think its going to prepare you much.

The bit from the U Texas prof. kinda makes it sound like they're saying that it doesn't really matter what you major in. I'm not sure if thats the point. It certainly matters what you major in.

Of course an ambitious go getter will generally succeed in life more than a lazy stupid person. But that doesn't mean its a good idea for the go getter to randomly select an Easy A major in leisure studies and think that is a good choice.

Major DEFINITELY matters.

Agree with Tyler. Sure, select few can get successful pursuing their passions, but they should 1) have an idea of what they want to do with their major and be passionate about the job and not just learning/reading 2) be realistic about their chances and their abilities and be ready for difficulties with finding job 3) think about expenses vs future earning when paying or taking loans.

@brooklin money: English is fine if you want to be a teacher, a journalist or a writer, if you are passionate about becoming a teacher/journalist/etc. (not just about studying in general), have abilities, think about your future salary vs student loans. If you want to just learn to "think" or write - major in something else and take English classes as part of "electives" or as a minor/second major.

As to " If you have a real passion for something, major in it.", I think the professor who wrote this book should look up Florence Foster Jenkins on YouTube and wiki. This lady also had a passion. Had she lived today and hadn't been rich, do you think she should have pursued her passion in college and took student loans to do so?

Very disappointed by what seems like a turn in this book to some really poor advice.

1. Pick the major because of passion not because it will lead to a good job?

2. Pick a major with a high average GPA that is easy?

3. Pick something broad and flexible?

4. Double major?

If a career counselor gave this advice to my son I would never allow him/her to talk to my son again.

I don't even have the will to mount an argument to this advice. It basically boils down to: Don't worry about trying to choose wisely, just pick anything that you like, but make sure it's easy and non specific.

Jeez, I can't even believe how stupid that sounds.

Mostly I don't agree with this advice. However, I think your choice of major has less of a bearing than you might think. There are a number of professions where your undergraduate major really doesn't matter all that much.

Medicine: as long as your take a couple of required med school courses (organic chem, biology, etc) you can major in whatever you want. One of my friend is a doctor and he majored in Italian!

Lawyer: as long as you do well on your LSAT, have a good GPA, and have good writing, presentation skills, you can major in whatever you want.

Sales: good presentation and interpersonal skills are what count here too.

Actuary: as long as you can pass the actuarial exams you can get hired with any degree. I knew one actuary who majored in music. Took a couple math courses as electives, passed some exams, and the rest was history!

Business: again, doesn't matter what you majored in - in fact you might not need any degree if you start your own business.

Yes there are some fields that require a specific undergraduate degree (engineering, accounting, nursing, teaching), but there are many that are non-specific.

"Actuary: as long as you can pass the actuarial exams you can get hired with any degree. I knew one actuary who majored in music. Took a couple math courses as electives, passed some exams, and the rest was history!"

I think a single case is an exception rather than the rule. I know a couple of actuaries and they had PhDs in math. Now, not everyone needs a PhD in math, obviously, but the the job requires a lot of statistics, statistics requires probability, probability requires a lot of other math. The "couple of math courses" are actually fairly advanced math. One music major in music may have taken a lot of AP math in high school, have aptitude for math. Another music major may be completely different.

I also knew a music major - actually a graduate from Julliard who took a few chemistry and biology courses for fun, liked it and went to medical school. But what one person can do isn't necessarily what another person can do. A single person is an exception rather than the rule.

Similarly, some graduate schools have a "special" Masters in Computer Science degree for people with Bachelor's in other fields. This degree is a little different from their normal MS/CS i.e. it requires more courses, doesn't allow to pursue PhD, but it also puts less emphasis on research and more on practical courses and doesn't require the thesis. But outside of a particular school nobody knows the difference.

But I wouldn't generalize. Some humanities majors can switch to a field but I think they are in the minority.


Yes you are right in the sense that having an aptitude in math is required to pass the actuarial exams, and not every music major is going to have that aptitude. My point is that majoring in music is not going to _PREVENT_ you from becoming an actuary.

As somebody who used to work in the actuarial field, I can tell you first hand that the #1 thing that employers care about is whether or not you can pass actuarial exams. Period. Usually they require that you pass at least one or two exams while you are in college. However, there is no requirement that you major in math, statistics, or any other specific major.

As far as courses in college go, really you don't need to take ANY college courses to pass the actuarial exams. It is possible to learn the math that you need on your own. Again, as long as you can pass the exam, employers don't care. Generally, the only math you need is calculus and probability & statistics... that's it. The rest of the exams are insurance specific. For most of those exams, you can self-study from a variety of study materials that are available, or there are review courses (similiar to an SAT review course) that you can take to learn the material.


A couple things about your post. First I have heard of people who have gotten hired to be actuaries without passing any exams but to quickly start working on those exams while at the company and the company has paid for those exams for them as long as they keep passing. Is that something that still happens? I have heard those exams are pretty expensive and there are a lot of them like 10 to pass right?

So in those cases a major in music probably isn't going to get you hired at these companies.

Second if you did take the major in music then decide you want to be an actuary and then start studying and taking the tests on your own and then go get a job as an actuary, there seem to be two important things about that to me.

First your major in music was worthless and a complete waste of time as a college degree with respect to you getting the job you got. So the advice to get a broad degree because that helps is not true because the degree played zero role in the ability to get the actuary job. Is that true?

Second, it still requires you to eventually be intentional and get specific about the skills you want to learn to do the job you want to get. This is also a direct contradiction to the advice given here about getting something broad and flexible and then just going out a getting a job with that.

If a entering freshman has no idea at all what they want to do with their life maybe they should spend some time away from college raising money and thinking about it. If they have some idea then maybe they should start in a major in that field and if they have determined the specific course upon entering college they better be intentional about narrowing it down and getting the specific degree while they are there.

For instance, lets take business as an example. If someone knows they want to work in business they could start taking general business classes. But if they never pick a specialty and just graduate with a general business degree they are at a disadvantage for every job they apply for. If they apply for a marketing job they are at a disadvantage to the person who has a marketing degree. If they apply for a Finance job they are at a disadvantage to the person who got a Finance degree.

Why on earth an author would advise people to not get specific and intentional about their career path is beyond me. Everything in this world is heading towards specialization. This meme that is running around out there that I have seen lately about the world is heading in a more general direction and flexibility and creativity will be the new capital in the information economy? Well I sure don't see any evidence of that. Everyone is a specialist these days because if you are a generalist, every job you try to do, you are competing with a well trained specialist. I am not going to hire a generalist to do any job that is important. Not to manage my money, not to run my business, not to operate on my body.

If you have no idea what you want to do, don't go to college yet. Get some life experience and figure it out. Once you do, go get a specialized degree in something that you don't hate, that you are good at, that there is demand for, and that pays a wage you are willing to live with.


I totally agree with you. That is great advice. If you have no clue what you want to do, it is cheaper to figure it out BEFORE you go to college.

As far as getting hired to be an actuary without passing any exams, it really depends on the job market. Like I said, the number one thing companies look for is whether or not you can pass exams. If you prove that you can pass one or two in college, then you have a BIG leg up. If the job market is tight, like it is now, then company's will hire somebody with exams under there belt rather than just "potential", all things being equal. Obviously there are always exceptions.

The exams themselves are expensive, especially you combine the exam fee, study materials, review classes. However, most good insurance companies will pay the cost of the exams, as well as give candidates paid time off. The company I worked for would pay the exam fee for your first attempt, pay for study materials or loan you them out of their company library, pay for one review course per exam, and give you a certain number of days off based upon the exams that you were taking. The catch was that you had to pass a certain number of exams over a period of time. If you fell short of the goal, first you were on probation, and next you were kicked out of the program. If you were otherwise a good employee, they would find a position for you though, so you still had a job.

I agree that majoring in music is not the ideal degree for an actuary, but my point isn't that there is no specific degree requirement for the job. The person in question that I knew who majored in music worked as a musician for a few years while giving music lessons on the side. However, he always had an aptitude for math (I've heard a number of people say that high aptitude in math is correlated to aptitude for music, since they both require abstract thinking). When he got married, he realized that he needed a better paying job, so he started taking a couple exams on his own, got a job, and the rest was history. Again, it is not the ideal way to do it, but it is possible.

Your statements about generalist versus specialist are very interesting. I think it all depends upon the situation which is better. Obviously if you need to have bypass surgery you want somebody who eat, drinks, and breathes bypass surgery. However, generalists still have a role. Because of their diverse knowledge, they can draw upon a variety of different disciplines and see things that others would miss. For instance, in computer science, there are a lot of algorithms that modelled after how the brain works (i.e. neural networks). These algorithms are instrumental in pattern recognition, which is easy for humans but hard for tradtional computers. Obviously it took somebody with knowledge not just of computers but of biology to connect the dots between these two diverse areas.

The best way to explain it is that to use the old saying "if all you have is a hammer, then everything becomes a nail". Likewise if all the knowledge you have is in one specific area, then you will approach every problem from a specific mindset.

Not to discount the value of specialists, but there is a place for generalists too!

@MBTN - you make good points, and of course much can be learned by self-study. In my experience, though, most people lack sufficient motivation and smarts for self-study. Not to mention that many people don't learn enough math in school to be able to take a calculus class much less learn it by themselves, not to mention probability and statistics. Now, these people probably shouldn't pursue any career that requires math, but I suspect even among people with some aptitude, the vast majority do need an instructor, assignments and exams.

More importantly, as Apex says, if you major in music and then become an actuary (or anybody but the musician or a music teacher) then your music degree was a waste of time and money. You might've as well majored in math and had a minor in music or just took some music classes as "electives" or "humanities" or just took private lessons and practiced in your spare time. It's actually fairly easy if you are an undergrad to take classes outside of one's major, I had minor in Italian while majoring in CS, and I could've easily gotten a second major in Italian if I felt the need, all I needed was 3 more quarter-length literature courses. The only reason I see why one would pursue a music degree is if one thinks he/she has an outstanding talent and really feels she needs to do it to avoid asking "what if" later on, or/and wants to teach it and doesn't care about the money. BTW - I do know personally a woman, who is a professional pianist, who's always wanted to accompany opera singers and who now works at the Met. But she knew what she wanted to do when she was majoring in music, and she single-mindedly pursued it not just music, but also making connections with people who could help her, learning all she could about getting the job in the field, marketing herself, etc. She wasn't just majoring in music because she liked music, she did it because as she herself said "this is the only thing I can to do well and the only thing I want to do in life".

Even to be "generalist", you don't need a major in something that doesn't lead to a career. You can always take different classes in addition to your major's requirements; you can read books, you can practice music or painting or whatever you like. If you are a CS major who wants to work in a specific application, you can always take classes in both CS and that other field.

BTW - I have an MS/CS and I work in a corporate research lab, probably one of the top corporate research centers in the world. I personally know someone who is a researcher in the area of neural networks, actually known in the field. He has a PhD in physics, but he switched to CS a long time ago (not sure if it was when he got interested in neural networks or before). He doesn't have any specialized knowledge of biology, there is really not much in neural networks that requires knowledge of biology. (Disclaimer: I don't know the details, this is what I inferred based on his explanation of how neural networks work). In general, in my experience with working in research is that you don't need generalists when you do projects that involve more than one field. Most of the time, the knowledge required outside of CS is pretty generic, the type you can easily get by reading (and not particularly advanced books either, just introductory stuff). If you require deeper knowledge, you get experts. What is normally done in these cases is you get CS people who are intelligent enough to go, get the books, and learn a little about the other field AND experts in that other field (many of whom are also intelligent enough to learn something about the CS). If a project were to really require knowledge of how brain works, the project wouldn't rely on "generalists"; the project would get PhDs in neuroscience (most of whom are smart enough to learn a little CS), and one or two smart software engineers who are willing to learn from them to help.

Not sure if aptitude to math correlates to aptitude to music, I bet there are many tone deaf mathematicians out there...


Passing the actuarial exams require a lot of self-study, at least when I was taking them. Yes, there are review classes and such but you have to do most of it on your own. The company I worked for gave us paid time off to study. They even had a study room - a quiet room with study cubicles where you could learn the material. When I was taking them, only the first two exams were what I would call "straight math". The rest involved a lot of insurance specific stuff which most colleges didn't teach at the time. I believe that there are a number of schools now that teach actuarial science, but I am not sure how prevalant they are.

Again I agree that being an actuary majoring in music is a waste of time. I am just pointing out that it can be done, not that it was an optimal method.

I agree with you that USING neural networks doesn't require any deep knowledge of biology. However, the person or people who INVENTED them obviously had to have some knowledge of neuroscience and computer science in order to make the connection between the two fields. Maybe the computer expert had a little knowledge of it and then got a neuroscience expert to fill in the blanks, like you said. That certainly seems plausible.

In my opinion, Computer Science itself is a field that favors the generalist in a sense. Technology changes from decade to decade. The dominant programming language from one decade falls out of favor and another language takes its place. If you want to keep up with the new technologies, you have to have the fundamentals of CS down (algorithms, data structures, debugging, logic design) since that doesn't change from language to language.

Regarding math and music correlation, it was just something I heard once. Don't know how true it is. However, there is an interesting article on Wikipedia talking about the interplay between math and music. Google "math and music" if you are interested!

BTW, thanks Kitty and Apex for a most interesting discussion!


"In my opinion, Computer Science itself is a field that favors the generalist in a sense."

Interesting since I have a BS in computer science and have worked in the field for 17 years and am the one advocating against the generalist education.

Attn Math Majors: Uncertainties govern our life and this makes the future unpredictable. So, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealing that there are 19,700 actuarial jobs in the U.S., the odds of landing this job are next to nil. You may find better odds with these numbers: 3-7-13-21-23 Powerball: 3 in furthering your career. But, ah, yes, "the higher the risk more are the chances of financial and emotional losses", especially when you find yourself in debt with student loans and a mountain of rejection letters on your desk. My advice, if you have a math degree, consider going into quality engineering, for there are many more jobs available, and you can enjoy using statistical process control daily in seeking out root causes to issues.

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