Parent Misconceptions About College Majors

Starving artists, useless majors and other college major myths

Two chemistry students doing experiment
Peter Muller/Cultura/Getty Images

Admit it. You have certain preconceptions about college majors. You believe musicians will starve, attorneys will be wildly successful, and that your child's college major will determine his entire future. No wonder you - and he - are more than a little anxious on the topic of college majors. As it turns out, you can relax a bit. Choosing a major is a big deal, but these are myths:

  • Starving artists: Our parental fears about starving musicians and destitute artists are way overblown. The vast majority of art, theater, and music majors are not, contrary to popular belief, living in a garret or burning artistic masterpieces to keep warm. According to a new university-sponsored survey of 13,581 graduates from 154 different U.S. arts programs, 92% of those arts majors are employed. Some 57% are employed as professional artists, not arts teachers or administrators. And as for the waiting tables stereotype: only 3% are waitresses, bartenders or burger-flippers.
  • Wealthy lawyers: The average salary for a new lawyer looks glorious only because the statistic is misleading. There is no mid-range. Top-of-their-class lawyers from top tier schools land $160,000 jobs. Everyone else earns between $45,000 and $60,000, with law school debt that ranges from $71,436 to $91,506. Those numbers come from 2008, by the way. The demand for lawyers has plummeted since then, and the big firms whose associate programs - entry-level law jobs - keep the whole enterprise afloat have made major cuts to those programs since then. Those who embark on the legal path should do it because they are passionate about the field, not because they want to be rich.
  • Useless majors: What are you going to do with that philosophy major, philosophize? Liberal arts majors are painfully familiar with variations on that refrain. But anthropology, philosophy, and other liberal art majors don't just turn out experts in their specific fields, they give students wide-ranging skill sets with real-world applications. And often, they're in arenas you wouldn't expect. Archaeologists are hired by state transportation departments, city planners, and property developers because anytime a bridge is built or a foundation is drilled, what lies beneath becomes an issue. Corporations hire anthropologists because they're experts in group dynamics and cultures.
  • Pre-med = science major: While it's true that many are, statistically, it's music students who have the edge in medical school admissions. (Assuming, of course, that they can get a good score on the science-heavy MCAT.) And students contemplating a specific pre-med (or prelaw, for that matter) major are probably better off choosing art history or economics or any specific academic discipline. At least that way when they change their minds about medicine, they won't go through life with a resume that implies they didn't get in.
  • This decision determines everything: That's not just wildly dramatic, it's completely inaccurate. "Within ten years after graduation, most people are working in careers that aren't directly related to their undergraduate majors," Penn State academic adviser Michael Leonard writes. For some, it's because their interests change or new opportunities present themselves. But it's also that the job market is changing so quickly. Some career paths have become obsolete, and new types of jobs appear every year. So advisers at Boston College tell their students to choose a major that excites and inspires them: "If you choose a major based on economic concerns or predictions about future job openings, you may find that, at some point in the future, the economy has changed and the career you had prepared for is obsolete."