Majors, II

I talked about what people major in earlier, but this is useful, I think. I’m revving up for some posts about education.

A question: I’d like to hear some thoughts about which degrees are worthless. Define you terms. For example< I can imagine degrees that teach you to do things that are useful but somehow out of fashion, useless but highly in demand, useful to you but worse than useless to society as a whole, etc.

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105 Responses to Majors, II

  1. Boyd Silken says:

    Maybe we could get your take on Caplan’s new book: ‘The Case Against Education’?

  2. dave chamberlin says:

    With some of those majors there should be a minor in bad jobs, because that’s where they will end up. Maybe a zippier name like retail studies or fast food technologies.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      Classes in mastering monotony, staying awake, pretending you care, punctuality, sneaking breaks, forced cheerfulness, and of course pretending to do your job while playing on your smart phone.

  3. dearieme says:

    I’ve reorganised a bit of your 2013 post:

    Least popular majors at Harvard, 2009: Earth and Planetary Sciences 28, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 14, Slavic Languages and Literature 13, Astronomy and Astrophysics 5, German Languages and Literature 5, Sanskrit and Indian studies 3, African and African American studies, 27, Folklore and Mythology, 21, Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality 16.

    In the slang of British undergraduates of a few decades ago, six of those are “hard” and three are “doss”.

  4. AppSocRes says:

    Physics doesn’t even show up and math has frighteningly low numbers. This bothers me because these disciplines are truly gateways. Because they are so basic and essential the general knowledge they provide opens paths to careers across a wide spectrum of fields. Today it’s hard to do cutting edge work in any scientific discipline without a decent knowledge of basic physics and mathematics.

    • GAY_WEED_DAD_69 says:

      Physics is on there, but it’s so skinny that its label doesn’t show up. It’s the little brown sliver in between Philosophy and Political Science, you can see it if you carefully mouse over.

      • Roger says:

        All of the pure science at the bachelor are not as useful as you might think. (I think HR doesn’t have the right slots…)

    • AndrewS says:

      What does a degree in math or physics lead to? How many mathematicians does the world need? I can see physics engineers working in applied physics fields; high-tech construction & design, as well as in power-plant maintenance etc. But all the academics gazing into their navels to discover the true meaning of dark matter are a waste of oxygen.

      Generally I think a lot of people with STEM degrees don’t work in their major, and would be better served by choosing a more in-demand major.

  5. Jerome says:

    Yeah, I’m wondering what happened to Math & Physics. What are pre-meds majoring in these days? Gender Studies?

    • mtkennedy21 says:

      I have taught medical students for 15 years before retiring two years ago. I had a group of engineering grads who were in medical school. Since I had been an engineer before medical school, they joined my group after one of my previous students had told them. They were very sharp, as you would expect. In the days I was doing premed, having worked as an engineer for a couple of years, most pre-meds were Zoology majors. Now it is pretty much Molecular Biology.

      • In the UK the only science subject the medical students have to do is chemistry. Often they do others, but dont have to. I teach a bunch of them biology and genetics over here in Ireland (we have a great genetics department) but most medics are not great at maths or biology

        • Li says:

          I don’t know about Ireland but in the UK medical students are definitely #1 on an average cognitive ability by undergrad major ranking list (well, likely only second to the engineering/physics/maths folk at Cambridge/Oxford and maybe Imperial) because of the huge selection effect the competitiveness of actually getting into med school has.

          Aside from some courses at Cambridge/Oxford, medicine and dentistry are the only undergrad courses in the UK that require you to sit an actual IQ test – the UKCAT which is basically a quantitative/verbal/non-verbal reasoning test. A Levels just aren’t as g-loaded as a test like the UKCAT and most engineering/physics/maths courses in the UK don’t have any other requirement aside from A Level grades.

          I have a Chemical Engineering BEng from UCL (top 10 institution here) and am currently a med student at an average med school and the med students have significantly better academic records (GCSE, A Level) than the UCL engineers had (this isn’t just my anecdote either, you can get the stats from in addition to being selected for partly based on an IQ test (the UKCAT). And the average med student in my experience is definitely smarter than the average UCL engineer, too.

      • lfox328 says:

        Actually, the major with the highest acceptance rate in medical school is physics.

  6. GAY_WEED_DAD_69 says:

    I note “fitness studies” has increased its share by a factor of ten, yet Americans are flabbier than ever.

    • Ursiform says:

      You don’t get fit by studying fitness …

    • Garr says:

      “Fitness studies” is supposed to get you a job as a “trainer” at a gym? Three of the “trainers” at my gym are fat, and not strong-fat either. Two are fat young women, one a fat old man. (The fat old man has a lot of middle-aged female “clients”; they like chatting with him in between their sets.)

    • another fred says:

      There are three main types of student for “Fitness Studies”: 1.) Those on athletic scholarships who are looking to satisfy the “academic” requirements to stay in school. 2.) Those hoping to get on the gravy train of government money taking care of us old geezers. 3.) Those interested in their own fitness.

      None of these types give a damn about how fit the rest of us are except while looking down their noses.

    • MawBTS says:

      Evelyn Waugh was famously Catholic and famously ill-tempered. When a friend questioned whether he was a good advertisement for his religion, Waugh retorted with something like “just think how bad I’d be if I wasn’t Catholic!”

      You never know. Maybe they’d be even fatter.

  7. Pingback: A Glimmer of Hope on the Education Front | POLITICS & PROSPERITY

  8. pyrrhus says:

    This graphic would be a lot more interesting if it were broken out by types of college/university. I don’t think kids in many famous schools study the same things that are studied in more workmanlike environments. Compare Purdue to Harvard, for example. Totally different breakdown of majors…

    • gcochran9 says:

      My limited knowledge suggests that kids majoring in a given technical subject take close to the same courses in different schools. Yes? No?

      • cthulhu says:

        Generally speaking, I think yes. E.g., undergraduate engineers everywhere are going to get multivariable calculus, ODEs (but not necessarily PDEs, depending on specialty), numerical analysis, motion and EM physics, some basic programming skills, and thermodynamics. A mechanical engineer at Purdue or Texas A&M or Cal Poly SLO may get more “design” classes and less “theory/research” classes than one at MIT or Stanford or Berkeley, but the difference won’t be huge. There will be more variation at the MS level though.

        • Jim says:

          I’ve heard that beginning salaries for freshly minted engineers don’t vary a great deal by degree granting institution. Apparently a degree in say mechanical engineering means about the same to employers whether it came from MIT or Wyoming State.

          • cthulhu says:

            Mmmm…yes and no. There is some variation, but the main difference is that large high tech manufacturing companies are increasingly dismissing new grads from the mid tier state universities and focusing on a relatively small number of schools to recruit from. Those not from the favored institutions will need to have something really special on their resume to get even a phone interview.

          • George says:

            Salary isn’t too different but if you want to work at the cutting edge or at any of the so called “Best Firms 20XX” then having a degree from a higher ranked institution helps a lot. It’s literally a filter/door opener. I’ve given my HR company several high quality resumes and they trashed em’ ’cause the person didn’t come from the “right place”. My understanding is if the person comes from a less well ranked institution then they basically have to be perfect candidate and have perfect references otherwise they become spam.

      • Cloudswrest says:

        I got an undergraduate BSEE degree at Rutgers, and a graduate MSEE degree at Stanford. My impression at the time (~35+ years ago) was that they taught the same stuff, some with the same textbooks. The only real difference I noticed was it was harder to get good grades at Stanford. I actually had to study a little bit. Or maybe by then it was just that my brain was getting full.

  9. Jacob Robino says:

    Getting my double degree has been weird. I’ve got most of my Bio credits filled out, and am trying to build up my Psych curriculum with biological psychology. This introduces me to a new crowd, mostly women, mostly determined to fix the mental health issues of our nation’s downtrodden. And probably other nations’ downtrodden.

    I hear Psych majors say the strangest things, including that sexuality is learned. I wasn’t sure how she could be convinced of something like that, but informed her that her idea had poor explanatory power with respect to preference for dilated pupils, preference for a low waist to hip ratio, preference for symmetrical faces, and so on. (Let alone how unlikely it is that evolution would yield a species that had to teach one another to be sexual.)

    I’ve watched some of the Psych faculty trying to improve this, and I have plans in place to chip in myself. An evolutionary psychologist offers a course in behavioral genetics next summer. Another one, a behavioral neuroscientist, gave a lecture about the differences seen in the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the hypothalamus in gay men. I brought up your pathogen hypothesis: turns out, he’s studied disease in the past, and was on board with it. As for me, I’m doing an independent study in human evolution under the neuroscientist next semester. He’ll have the option to use my work in a full-scale human evolution lecture course he’s planning to create; depending on what else I do for the course, I may condense my reports down to a course reader for the upcoming lecture course.

    • Yudi says:

      Great to see you have some good professors at your school. Also cool to see an ev psych professor branching out into BG. Since you’re majoring in psych, have you taken any psychometrics courses?

      BTW, I’m sorry I didn’t answer your reply to my post about alcohol. I didn’t see it at first, and then I got busy with Christmas. Yes, some sociologists think retraining northern Europeans to drink more like southern Europeans is a good idea. The worst ones (unsurprisingly) seem to be American sociologists, like Stanton Peele. This program was attempted in Finland in the 1970s, by trying to get people to drink beer instead of vodka. Instead, what mostly happened is that Finns put beer into their typical drinking pattern, without letting go of vodka. Not surprising to anyone on this website.

      Now, alcohol usage goes up and down in trends in all societies, so obviously there’s more going on than genes. I wouldn’t be surprised if these patterns are connected to the cycles Peter Turchin discusses.

      Also, alcohol sociologists are actually pretty good, as sociologists go. These people are the ones who discovered the disasters caused by DWI and recommended governments to ban it–that was in the 1970s and 1980s, not so long ago. Their ideas have definitely saved lives. And instead of railing against capitalism in general for all our ills, they have a clear and present rival in the alcoholic beverages industry, which really does depend on heavy drinkers for its profits.

      • Jacob Robino says:

        Hey Yudi, good to hear from you.

        Haven’t taken any psychometrics courses, they’re typically not offered here. Too bad, really. I read about it in my free time, but could use a more thorough rundown of it, particularly Big Five since I’ve read more about IQ.

        Were those guys trying to lower the prevalence of binge drinking by promoting casual drinking?

        I’m not familiar with Turchin’s work.

        Making DUI illegal sounds pretty reasonable. I was wondering where good sociology is done.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Where is good sociology done?

          “Over the Mountains
          Of the Moon,
          Down the Valley of the Shadow”

          • Jacob Robino says:

            I’m too ignorant of sociology to conclude there is no useful subfield in it. I’ve seen people try to discount all of anthropology because of social/cultural anthropology, not thinking twice about paleoanthro, bioanthro, or linguistic anthro. Same with psychology- there are people who don’t know about psychometrics, behavioral genetics, or behavioral neuroscience. For all I know, sociology has a golden city tucked away somewhere, collecting cobwebs.

            • ziel says:

              There’s really no reason there couldn’t be useful sociology – imagine a field studying societal trends and collective behaviours and scientifically measuring the various incentives and deterrents influencing them – certainly could be useful. But actual sociology, as we see it in practice, is determined to ignore any such phenomena that actually exist and instead concentrates on those that everyone wishes existed.

              Criminology is a sub-field of sociology that one might naturally assume would be useful, but one would be wrong. Instead, criminologists are dedicated to the principal that law enforcement and punishment are completely orthogonal to criminality (never mind race!) and so instead concentrate on school funding, school suspensions, welfare spending, etc. Useless.

              • Yudi says:

                Check out biosocial criminology.

              • another fred says:

                “Criminology is a sub-field of sociology that one might naturally assume would be useful, but one would be wrong.”

                Kevin Beaver, Brian Boutwell, and others like them are criminologists swimming against the current by looking at genetics.

              • Jim says:

                Biosocial criminology theory is like Lombroso’s positivism or a return to it.

              • Patrick L. Boyle says:

                I profited from Sociology.

                My college buddy Donald couldn’t face writing his final sociology paper. So he asked me to write it for him. I explained to him that I had never taken a class in sociology. I had never read a book on sociology. I knew very little about the subject and what little I knew I didn’t like.

                But money talks. He paid me $25 to produce his term paper. I have no remembrance now of what loony stream of consciousness BS I wrote, but I got a B+.

                This experience left me with an enduring contempt for the whole discipline of sociology.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Ride, boldly ride!

              • Jacob Robino says:

                You’ll see! I’ll turn up something awesome, decades from now, when I finally decide that I care about sociology.

                Or, since I’m younger than you, I can wait till you die; write an incredibly shameless, trashy book about sociology; and dedicate it to your memory. My thesis will be that The Patriarchy was taught to us by elephants. Take that!

          • You might like Charles Murray’s answer to the question at 1″18′ into this presentation. A shout-out to behavioral genetics in sociology.

  10. Duandiren says:

    I spent four years at a prestigious university studying Asian History. To be fair, they had excellent libraries, but anyone can walk into the library and read for free. Which is what I should have done, because I would have learned just as much, and not gotten all the student debt.

    • mtkennedy21 says:

      Teddy White got interested as a scholarship student at Harvard in the 1930s. The Asian studies library was usually empty and he studied there. Then he got interested and eventually went to China.

  11. Wency says:

    Your undergrad major is often meaningless. Kids learn very little of practical use even in many practical-sounding majors.

    If you go to Harvard and major in Underwater Basket Weaving, it used to be (probably still is) you have a decent shot at landing a job in investment banking if you’re smart and apply yourself. Though probably a tougher road than if you major in Econ. But this is true more because of the signal of the Econ major than any useful knowledge gained in the classes. One of the most successful Wall Streeters I know majored in Philosophy.

    At a lesser school, majoring in Econ starts to become more important if you want to go into finance.

    If you intend to go to Law School, Med School, and certain other professional schools, I don’t think major is super important. Might affect your application on the margin, but perhaps an unusual major could also help if you have a good spin. I could see med schools being pickiest here. I know a successful dentist who majored in Art History.

    If you want to become a professor of Bulgarian Literature, then go ahead and major in it. Probably not wise unless you’re independently wealthy. But some people are.

    • j says:

      Learning some exotic subject like Bulgarian literature opens the doors to fantastic careers. TE Lawrence (the one from Arabia) studied Middle East archeology and found himself organizing and financing the Arab revolt. Hazara language specialists were most extravagantly paid during the Afghan wars. Combinatorics was a masturbatory brain game in my student times, till it was found critical in credit cards and you could ask for any salary. And “knot science”….

      I had been called an ambulant encyclopedia of useless knowledge, but no knowledge is useless.

    • j says:

      You never know when Bulgarian literature may save your life. TE Lawrence studied Sumerian Antiquities or something like that and found himself organizing and financing the Arab revolt. Hazara philologists could name their price during the Afghan wars. In my times, combinatorics and “knot science” were masturbatory brain games till use was found for them in credit cards, etc. No knowledge is useless.

      • Wency says:

        Sure, you can luck out with such studies. But you probably shouldn’t bet on it. Lawrence was born to a noble father at a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, which was starved for intelligent young men with an interest in foreign places.

        One thing that an obscure major signals is a certain level of intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and perhaps passion. Also a willingness to break from the herd. The problem is that it doesn’t signal an immediate interest in any job that you might be applying for (outside academia), unless you get lucky, as noted above, and it’s no longer obscure.

        The more “applied” majors are decent if you’re looking to go into the “applied” area at a non-elite level. A major in Business is unimaginative and probably signals a lot of negative things about one’s intellect, but if you are looking for an entry-level non-elite corporate job, it’s OK (though Accounting is better). It at least signals that you’re interested in “business” and this isn’t your Plan B.

        But if you’re looking to apply to law school, I’d expect a major in Hazara Philology to be better than one Business. Neither one indicates an interest in the law per se (for which the major is Poli Sci), but at least the Hazara one indicates some other characteristics that are correlated with success in the law.

        • j says:

          Wency, Certainly, a passion for Hazara philology indicates psychological need for logical order in a little known, much disputed area.

      • Jim says:

        what is “knot science”?

    • biz says:

      Law school acceptance rates vary dramatically by undergraduate major.

    • Paul Mendez says:

      It’s my opinion that the valuable part of Econ is really a subset of philosophy: How people and societies reconcile infinite wants with finite resources. The “scientific” part of economics that tries to mathematically predict future economic activities based on past data is bunk.

      If I had told my professors in 1979 that the US could run a trade deficit for over 30 years and the dollar would still be the world’s most valued currency, or that the federal government could run up trillions of dollars in debt and Treasuries would pay next to nothing in interest, and I’d have gotten an F for the semester.

  12. Realist says:

    Any major that ends with the word ‘studies’

  13. Gabriel Morris says:

    Sociology has plenty of great practitioners-Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Pareto and William Graham Sumner in the classical era, Norbert Elias, Gellner and James Burnham later, Perry Anderson and Stephen Sanderson (among others) today. Where it might be worth majoring in is another question.
    Maybe UCLA or LSE.

  14. The Z Blog says:

    I recall in the bleak years of the Bush Depression, sitting at the barber reading a magazine. It may have been Time, but it was so long ago I no longer recall. The article detailed the travails of a young girl unable to find work. She was a Harvard graduate and was waiting tables, unable to find work in her field. It sounded rough, but at the end they revealed her major. Folklore & Mythology.

    From the department website, “Although most graduates of the program go on to successful careers in medicine, law, business, journalism, and other pursuits, an unusually large number of our alumni and alumnae teach and conduct research in a variety of academic departments.”

    Basically, you major in this if you want to teach it or perhaps get into Gender Studies. Otherwise, you will be waiting tables.

    • Steven C. says:

      Reminds me of the Letter to the Editor of the “Vancouver Province” in the mid 1990’s in which a women complained that no employer would give her a suitable job despite her degree in “19th Century French Romantic Literature”. My first thought was: Wow, that’s pretty specialized! My second thought was wondering what occupation requires such an education; could she time-travel back to 19th century Paris and apply for an editing position with a publishing house? She also larded her letter with rants about how evil private businesses are; so a side order of Marxism with her Romantic literature!

  15. DK says:

    LOL, in 2011 almost twice more graduates majoring in theology than in physics.

  16. Red says:

    The granularity of the graph in the link leaves a lot to be desired. Living here in Michigan, I run into a lot of industrial and process engineers in the Tier 1 and 2 automotive businesses that have a degree that has no strong mathematical requirements or any type of hard science requirements besides some applied metallurgy/physical chemistry. Would anyone really call these people engineers?
    On the other hand, I also have seen significant curricula changes in specific engineering/math/hard science degrees. At my undergraduate school when I was attending, a undergraduate applied mathematics degree required a minimum of 155 credit hours. A undergrad in physics required 140 hours, with similar requirements for EE, AE, and metallurgical engineering. Currently, the required credit hours for those degrees range from 124 to 128. I don’t know if technology has made each credit hour more productive,

  17. There’s an ambiguity between “useless” and “practical”. The purest of the pure mathematicans (e.g. those at Trinity Cambridge) have a yearly toast “To pure mathematics, may it never be useful”. They arent kidding. Despite their best efforts however, people keep finding uses (like crytography). Universities aren’t always the best places for learning practical skills. E.g. why would anyone good at business be teaching business, why wouldn’t they run a business and fall asleep on a big pile of money every night? But that’s not the same as useful.

  18. dearieme says:

    Proposition: any old degree will do as long as it gives you a practical grasp of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics.

  19. Dubious says:

    Depending on what you do with an accounting degree, it may or may not be useful to society as a whole. But it is useful to many clients, and therefore to someone who just wants to have a Middle Class job. That said, supposedly the wave of automation coming Real Soon Now will kill the accounting profession in the long run. Most people also find the subject matter soul-crushingly boring. But if you’re in college right now and not sure about your major, there’s probably a decade or so before we get mass-replaced by computers.

    • E. Rekshun says:

      Accounting is the language of business. An Accounting degree can lead one into any area of corporate America or the public sector, above and beyond the Accounting Department. (This think this is less so with a Computer Science degree.)

      I got my CS degree in 1986 and, while the salary was good, after a dozen years, wished to branch out and beyond being a code monkey for a large defense contractor; so I got an MBA at a full-time Top 40 program. The MBA allowed me to escape coding, greatly broadened my job opportunities, got me decent level of respect, more interesting work, and a better office. But due to a couple of layoffs and blown opportunities, the “Great Recession,” and crushing competition, my salary today is exactly the same as it was in 1998 when I started the MBA – less than $100K!

  20. Jorque says:

    I was fool enough to spend $160,000 getting a History degree about a decade ago. Despite graduating with honors from an Ivy League school, I ended up working in a goddamned warehouse for a year before deciding that law school was the right move. That move cost another $150,000.

    Maybe I’m the idiot for being unable to leverage an Ivy League degree into a white-collar job, but I didn’t see too many job fairs for History majors while I was in college. But then, being a white kid from a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, the East Coast corporate world wasn’t exactly beckoning. On the other hand, from what I recall, of the 12 kids I graduated with, about half went to law school, 2 or 3 went on to Ph.D. programs, and the rest used their trust funds to live some kind of bohemian artist’s life. So I expect my inability to turn an in-depth understanding of history into money was not out of the ordinary.

    I won’t say History is a worthless degree, since I enjoyed it tremendously, but I don’t see how I can make money with it unless I become a writer. An old professor of mine said that when he taught at Oxford he had a student who, after graduating from Oxford with a history degree, went on to be a shepherd in Wales, reading at night and spending his days tending sheep. My professor told me that he thought it was the best use anybody had ever put to a history degree. I didn’t understand at the time, but I sure do now.

    • mtkennedy21 says:

      My daughter finally dropped out a Phd History program. She had learned Arabic for it.

      • Jorque says:

        Depending on how well she speaks it, she could do pretty well working for Uncle Sam as a translator/analyst.

        If she wants to hear all about why she shouldn’t go to law school, I could write a passingly persuasive 4 Volume treatise on the subject by the end of the night and have it bound and delivered by the end of the week.

        If you’re still in Los Angeles and looking for a son-in-law, Doctor, I’m always looking for a way to avoid the generational regression to the mean.

    • E. Rekshun says:

      Ouch! That’s $310K in student loans! Have you made a dent in this or has it grown due to interest? Have you looked into the federal student loan forgiveness programs? (The rules and requirements are pretty strict and rigid.) Have you been able to work and make decent money as a lawyer?

      Back in 1987, I dropped out after one year in the evening program at New England School of Law; one of the few good career decisions I’ve made.

      • Jorque says:

        I’ve made a good dent in it. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify for the loan forgiveness dealies.

        I’ve got plenty of work, and enough money to pay all my bills including my mortgage, which for a 30 year old in Los Angeles is a decent accomplishment, but I’m afraid that for the time being, I can’t save up much unless I start drawing in a good deal more business or cut back significantly on expenses. But I like guns, booze, eating out, and martial arts too much to cut out my big discretionary expenditures without an immediately pressing concern. And since I don’t have kids or a steady girlfriend, I have exactly 0 reason to try.

        I did the math — if I’d never gone back to school after I dropped out of college to manage a restaurant, I’d be over a million dollars ahead in opportunity cost plus actual income less actual expenses. Plus by now I’d be managing a Houston’s or something, pulling in a quarter million a year to do exactly what I was doing at 19 for 55 hours a week at a brazilian steakhouse.

        If only I’d listened to my grandfather and gone into business instead of feeling driven to be educated.

        You were wise to have dropped out. I expect you earned a good deal of peace of mind by that.

  21. Dimitri Kissov says:

    I know this is a question but this looks like a good audience to ask. My son wants to be a ‘rocket scientist’ like Von Braun etc. He is also interested in putting his butt on top of said rocket. I joined the Army at 18, got an easy AA while on active duty and went to Army flight school so i’m no help. Any ideas would be appreciated.

    • Georgia Resident says:

      Tell him he’ll have to master backwards time travel first. Space travel is too White an endeavor for the new, multiracial America. Whitey ain’t goin’ to the moon no more, and no one else is interested.

    • biz says:

      Sounds like he needs to do aerospace engineering. He could either do an undergraduate major in an engineering field like mechanical, or in physics, or in a 3-2 engineering program, and then do a masters or PhD in specifcally aerospace engineerng. To be a US astronaut one needs at least a Masters degree anyway. He should do undergraduate research or a summer internship in science or engineering.

    • Janet says:

      Couple of things. Astronaut selection is one of the most competitive things we have in the US: last year there were 18,300 applicants for 12 slots (and that was the largest number of selectees in a long time). Aiming for a nearly impossible goal is great, as long as you’re still 100% OK with both what you had to do along the way and where you’re likely to end up if the dream doesn’t work out. That is, go ahead and aspire to the astronaut program, but if you end up as one of the 99.993% of the applicants who don’t make it (possibly for something totally out of your control) you need to still be in a good place in your life– happy with the adventure you had, employed in a good job, with a family and financial security, self-esteem and physical body intact, etc.

      To specifics: of the 12 astronaut selectees, 6 are serving military officers (and one more reservist)– mostly test pilots and medical doctors, with a record of bravery in combat. The others were either closely associated with the field (e.g. launch specialist for SpaceX, scientist on the Mars Curiosity program) or were scientists who were recruited to do a specific scientific mission (e.g. geology on the Moon/Mars/wherever). What the mission will be, depends on who they already have in the program, the current research fads, funding, etc. There’s no independent way to predict this.

      If he wants to work on “rocket science”, it’s classically aerospace and mechanical engineers, but in practice it also works out that they need almost all specialties of engineering to actually bring off a successful design. For example, I’m an electrical engineer, and I’ve worked on “rocket science” projects multiple times. I can emphatically give two thumbs up to the engineer lifestyle! The path would be, start in high school with the most rigorous math sequence you can get (go to the local community college for it if possible). It would also be good to try out as many science classes as possible, but be aware that the high school version of science is very different from what is done at college (and college science is very different than what working scientists do).

      Get in to the best college you can, then be prepared to work MUCH harder than the others around you. (Make engineer friends, so you won’t feel so left out.) Do the math sequence as soon as possible, and do well at it. Make a “gut check” at the end of freshman year, about whether you really do have the mind and heart to do this, but then don’t waste a minute of your time second-guessing yourself later. It is essential that you get a good GPA, especially in your major field, and do NOT take extra time getting your degree. This will be a huge discriminator when you apply for jobs.

      To work as an engineer, you’ll need a master’s degree. There are two ways to do this: tack it on right after your bachelor’s (the 3/2 plan), or get a basic job at a good employer and have them pay for it as you go part-time. There are plusses and minuses to each path; you’ll end up in the same place in the end. (FWIW, I did “track 2″… I got my employer to pay for it, but as a consequence I gave up all my free time for a number of years. Now I teach in an “engineering for professionals” evening/weekends program for my university, for other people doing so.) You do NOT need a PhD, unless you want to teach, or you want to be primary investigator on a science project. (Honesty in advertising: I did get a PhD, because I wanted to do both of those and needed the “union card”.) For some engineering fields, you need the “professional engineer” certification to work, in order to “sign and seal” design documents. For this, there is one major exam (fundamentals of engineering, FE) which is taken during college, and then a second one (principles and practice of engineering, PE) after a specified period of work under supervision of a licensed PE. But some fields don’t need it (like aero).

  22. d0jistar says:

    Many of my Philosophy and Classics major friends were pre-law. I thought it was excellent preparation: arguing over and writing about very dense, dry texts written in dead languages.

    It used to be that Philosophy majors scored the highest on verbal GRE and physics majors highest on quant, but I see Physics have since slipped a bit below Math and Materials Engineering majors.

    I did Physics and Computer Engineering with a minor in Philosophy although I work in finance. Advanced quantitative skills are hard to pick up after undergraduate. If one really needs math later (e.g. differential equations or beyond), it is usually necessary to do a quant-heavy major.

  23. Erik Sieven says:

    In Germany there is a degree called “Applied leisure time studies”
    which of course leads to the question whether the brighter ones among those heavily interested in leisure time study
    “theoretical leisure time studies”.

  24. RCB says:

    I feel like there is vague impression around these days that “college ain’t what it used to be”. IMO This could mean
    (1) people major in dumb shit these days
    (2) college is not as good a deal as it used to be
    (3) college students seem dumber

    Are these true? Here’s my ill-informed take:

    (1) Do people major in dumber shit? Meh. By my calculations from that link, the number of people majoring in something smart or STEM-y has actually increased since 1970 – from 18% to 23.46%. (Not if you drop “health professions”, by the way, but I don’t consider that “dumb shit.”). I didn’t include econ or psychology, but including those shows more growth still (mostly psych – a lot of which is admittedly dumb shit). Same story if you include history, which is sort of important.
    So if (1) is true, then the good old days predated 1970.
    (It’s possible that the average quality of some majors has decreased – e.g. history? criminal justice? That could change the answer.)

    (2) Not as good a deal? Quite possibly true. College is many times more expensive now than in 1970, adjusting for inflation. For public university, 4x higher, relative to median men’s salary. Not sure about prior to that, but I’m guessing the trend goes back pretty far. So unless college is sufficiently better at getting you higher pay (causally), the relative value is decreased. I couldn’t say… but the point below suggests that a college degree is not as distinctive as it once was….

    (3) College students dumber now? Probably true, on the whole. The proportion of people going to college this generation is higher than ever before, I believe. It stands to reason that, unless colleges have gotten sufficiently better at selecting the smartest (which could be the case if, e.g., in the past pedigree mattered a lot more than performance), then colleges must be dipping down to lower performers. So your average grad would be dumber.

    • biz says:

      Like everything else these days, college is getting sharply bifurcated. Some good students at good schools are doing research in sceince and engineering at a depth that graduate students were doing a generation ago. Meanwhile the typical student at the typical school may take no course more difficult than remedial algebra and still get a C in it, but they sure did spend a lot of time cheering for the football team and working at their part time job.

    • Paul Mendez says:

      I feel like there is vague impression around these days that “college ain’t what it used to be”.

      A generation ago, college was a signal to potential employers that you were prime hiring material. The way a peacock’s tail signals he’s prime breeding material. A college degree used to mean:

      A) You possessed above-average intelligence.

      B) You had the ambition and drive to make it through four years of study.

      C) You came from an upper middle class family of good character that valued higher education, and were probably equipped with the manners and social graces that would make you management material.

      Today, a college degree guarantees none of these assumptions are true.

  25. ghazisiz says:

    I detect in my students a longing to have a period in their life where they can break free from their high school identity, become independent of their parents, and make friends with multitudes of cool people. They care nothing about finding truth, and not that much about getting a good job and raising a family. Probably even less about doing something good for their “community”. So the best major, for these students (and I think these students are the majority at most universities) is one where they will meet the coolest fellow students, and have the most time left over to learn all that college can teach them about drugs and sex. From the student’s perspective, majors in education, or business (especially management and marketing), or one of the departments suffixed with “studies,” provide the best value. Parents, of course, will think otherwise, and it is up to them to push their children into majors with a lower rate of time preference.

    • ghazisiz says:

      From a long term perspective (the student would like to get married, have a family, and be as happy as is possible in this vale of tears) there are certain majors that are deadly dangerous. The worst are in engineering. Petroleum engineering and aerospace engineering are probably the worst: oil prices fall and petroleum engineers are suddenly unemployed. Where do they take their particular expertise? Nowhere. Nothing they have learned is applicable elsewhere. Most will end up as assistant manager at a Wendy’s.

      The popularity of the business majors partly resides in the fact that they are the least dangerous. Lose your accounting job at an oil company, due to general industry down-sizing, and you can easily use your expertise in another industry, not affected by down-sizing.

      A friend from high school graduated with a PhD in geology in 1985, when commodity prices collapsed and field geologists were no longer hired. He ended up going off to the mountains in California (he knew them well) and living as a hermit for years. In the end, he became as crazy as Ted Kaczynski. Considering his abilities, that was a damn shame. Any good advice about choosing a major needs to consider the riskiness: whether due to cyclicality in output prices (petroleum engineering), variability in government spending (aerospace engineering), or the looming threat of capital substituting for labor (AI wiping out the legal or accounting occupations).

      A question I would like to see addressed here: which are the occupations least likely to be affected by the AI revolution.

      • Patrick L. Boyle says:

        which are the occupations least likely to be affected by the AI revolution?

        That’s easy. Robotics. Put your friends out of work while you stay in demand.

  26. says:

    I have a partial list of 3183 National Merit Scholar semifinalists from CA,NY,NM from 2 years ago with their intended majors

    Rank N Pct Code Discipline
    1 374 11.75 999 Undecided
    2 129 4.05 450 Engineering
    3 128 4.02 303 Computer Science
    4 110 3.46 628 Premedicine/Premedical Studies
    5 108 3.39 160 Biological and Biomedical Sciences
    6 63 1.98 200 Business Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
    7 42 1.32 162 Biochemistry
    8 41 1.29 300 Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services
    9 40 1.26 161 Biology/Biological Sciences, General
    10 36 1.13 843 Physics
    29 14 0.44 870 Psychology
    32 13 0.41 301 Artificial Intelligence
    35 11 0.35 900 Social Sciences
    36 11 0.35 833 Astrophysics
    38 10 0.31 710 Legal Professions and Studies
    39 9 0.28 940 Visual and Performing Arts
    45 7 0.22 720 Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities
    46 7 0.22 522 Creative Writing
    47 7 0.22 250 Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs
    49 6 0.19 946 Film/Video and Photographic Arts
    50 6 0.19 712 Prelaw Studies
    51 6 0.19 700 History
    52 6 0.19 270 Public Relations, Advertising, and Applied Communication
    53 6 0.19 218 Marketing/Marketing Management
    58 4 0.13 970 Game and Interactive Media Design
    73 2 0.06 960 Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management
    74 2 0.06 947 Fine and Studio Art
    75 2 0.06 945 Fashion/Apparel Design
    76 2 0.06 943 Drama and Theater Arts
    77 2 0.06 772 International/Global Studies
    78 2 0.06 723 Liberal Arts and Sciences/ Liberal Studies
    79 2 0.06 630 Preveterinary Studies
    82 2 0.06 603 Athletic Training/Trainer
    90 2 0.06 142 Ethnic, Cultural Minority, Gender, and Group Studies
    92 1 0.03 941 Art History, Criticism, and Conservation
    93 1 0.03 920 Theology and Religious Vocations
    94 1 0.03 908 Sociology
    95 1 0.03 903 Criminology
    96 1 0.03 901 Anthropology
    97 1 0.03 890 Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services
    101 1 0.03 822 Religion/Religious Studies
    102 1 0.03 820 Philosophy and Religious Studies
    106 1 0.03 722 Humanities/Humanistic Studies
    110 1 0.03 554 Comparative Literature
    118 1 0.03 417 Elementary Education and Teaching
    120 1 0.03 306 Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications
    123 1 0.03 252 Communication and Media Studies

  27. Early Childhood Education. I worked preschool for three years without a degree, and the girls who were going for it and the women who had it made the same amount of money as me. It’s a popular field but has very little practical value.

    Psychology as a whole (especially a general Psychology major). Most of the people I knew who went for it did so because they were either messed up on some level and wanted to figure out themselves and thought it was interesting, and then people who ended up being some type of social worker (or the intent of being a social worker, because it isn’t easy getting a job as one). But yeah, it has the distinction of being both stupid AND useless.

    • Gringo says:

      At one time I was considering a Psych degree. After working a year as an aide, a.k.a. Mental Health Worker, in a psych hospital, I took an Abnormal Psych course. The course focused on classifying. When I was on the job, while I was exposed to the various classification schemes, they weren’t all that useful for the job.

      What was most useful for the job was a schema a staff psychiatrist gave us for writing patient notes: 1) describe the behavior, 2) what were the dynamics behind the behavior, 3) what was your intervention. It was helpful not only for writing notes, but also as a template for dealing with patients.

      I found the Abnormal Psych course a disappointment, as I realized that very little of it would have been useful in my work as an aide.

      In addition, I noticed that the hospital focused on cognitive behavioral therapy- as in how do we get a fast turnaround in a business that is too expensive for long term Freudian/psychoanalytic approaches. Nice poetry or literature, but not very practical.

      Several years later, a peer interviewed for an aide job at the hospital where I used to work. He was interested in using the experience as an intro into social work. The director of nursing told him that after a year on the job, most aides begin to think they are going crazy, and quit.

  28. Pingback: Major Waste | The Z Blog

  29. Paul Mendez says:

    I have a BA in economics. By my senior year, I realized what a bunch of hooey economics really is. Too late to change my major, but at least I didn’t waste my life pursuing a Ph.D.

    Nevertheless, I do think I benefitted from my major. Econ does teach you a lot about decision making. I’ve nearly 40 years management experience, including being the executive director of 2 professional associations, so I didn’t do badly.

    I especially benefitted from the statistics courses that went with my economics studies. IMHO, everybody should be required to take basic statistics, no matter what their area of study. Heck, it should be a prerequisite for registering to vote.

    Since economics is basically about the philosophy of how people and societies reconcile infinite wants with finite resources, if I had to do it over again I’d probably study straight philosophy instead, with some Econ and statistics classes thrown in.

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  31. Greying Wanderer says:

    “I’d like to hear some thoughts about which degrees are worthless.”

    supply and demand – deliberate over supply of places to make money from the loans will eventually make 90% of even the most potentially useful degrees worthless.

  32. Pingback: Getting the education you pay for … or not. | Head Space

  33. Anon-and-on-and-on says:

    Among certain elite groups, I notice that (at least women) creative writing majors have higher fertility than anyone else except the religious. Now, overall fertility in these groups tends to be quite low, so it’s not as if the poets are all having 3 or 4 children, but where many of their peers have none, they have one or two. I suspect it has something to do with feeling that one’s status lies elsewhere than in an 80-hour-a-week job or in being especially financially secure, and thus feeling one has the time and flexibility to have children. This may go for visual arts as well. It does NOT go for performing arts. Similarly, many religion-oriented majors are quite useless from a making-a-living perspective, and opinions on their overall utility to society may differ, but they are perfect if your primary goal is to date and marry a fellow bookish idealist member the same sect who is comfortable with the idea of raising several children in genteel poverty.

  34. George says:

    Math Education.

    I majored in engineering but my math skills were good enough that I would tutor people at my university’s math tutoring center for money on the side. At the time the center was mostly geared for tutoring freshmen and sophomore level math classes-finite math, Pre-Calculus, Calc I&II and some other classes I can’t remember. Anyway to become a tutor you had to interview with the people running the place and have strong grades in the math classes. So we had a range of math & statistics, physics and engineering students who passed.

    Want to guess who were the worst tutors? People who routinely made rookie mistakes, gave out bad solution techniques, or simply didn’t understand how to communicate effectively etc? Math Education majors by a long shot and it was embarrassing. It became pretty clear which tutors were in demand and which were being avoided since the number of people who request you or who line up to talk to you increased…someone had to pick up the slack.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I once took a complex variables class where, at the star of class, the prof asked if there were any math ed people in the class. Turned out there were none, so he said” Good, then we can do some real mathematics.”

      He was the head of the Math Ed program.

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