College Majors: The Difference Between a Career and a Field

I’ve gotten in my fair share of trouble in conversations by voicing my opinion that not all majors are created equal.  But.. not all majors are created equal.  Usually, I’m debating the differences between something like an engineering major and a business or education major.  But we can prove it by looking at some more unusual examples.

My favorites are Bowling Industry Management and Technology and Floral Management.

So here’s the thing.  These are completely valid and potentially highly interesting businesses or careers.  They can help provide a good life and be a great career.  I have absolutely nothing against them.  But comparing them with Physics from an educational perspective at an institute of higher learning seems a little absurd.  These aren’t majors that force your mind to learn different types of abstractions or problem domains; instead they teach you highly relevant skills for a particular career.

Litmus Test

Here’s an easy way to generally quantify this difference.   I think the reality is that college majors actually align on a gradient of pure learning and skills, so consider this a generalization:

College majors are focused on either a specific career or a specific field of learning.

Now the interesting bit, how do you tell the difference?  Here’s the litmus test:

If there are PhDs in a college major, and those PhDs perform the same work as an undergrad at a more advanced level, then it’s a field. Everything else is a career.

Let’s look at some examples:

who we learn from

Education and engineering are on there twice because that’s a good example of the gradient.  PhDs and EDs in education do critical work and it’s a vital field today. But the work they do is somewhat different than what undergrads do and are preparing to do in their career as a teacher.  Similarly, the best training many engineers have is on the job when they learn from other strong engineers how to tackle certain problems.

Education is also an interesting case to illustrate one of the problems with these careers as majors in colleges.  The PhDs doing research in work in these fields aren’t all good teachers, even those in education.  There are some great ones, no doubt about it, but not enough.  Yet colleges almost universally enforce the PhD as the standard to attain a professorship.

To say it differently, if I want to become an amazing marketer in the real world, I want to learn from amazing marketers actively working in the field, changing the way the game is done, and increasing their companies profits tenfold by engaging their customer base.  I want to learn the hospitality industry by actively working in hotels or restaurants with exceptional hoteliers, restauranteurs, sommeliers, or maitre d, learning how they handle customers, manage schedules, inventory and resources.  I want to learn how to teach from the amazing teachers that are out there actively changing kids lives, making them feel proud when they get a B and did their best and drive them to do better when they got an A- but didn’t really try.

On the other hand, tackling Abelian group theory and abstract algebra, which will expand the set of abstractions my mind can use to solve problems, I want an expert in the field of mathematics, which is likely going to be a PhD working on those problems.

Which do you pick?

In any career, you learn the most on the job.  An 18 year old is just as ready as a 21 year old to try their hand at marketing; there’s no reason to delay.  If they can act in an apprentice role to a master of that craft for 4 years, they’ll be far more able at 21 than someone with a college degree in marketing.

Unfortunately, the college degree has become a box you need to check before you head out on your own to start a career.  I think we’re going to see that change somewhat over the next couple of decades, and I think that’s a good thing.  An apprenticeship is absolutely the best thing that can happen for someone excited and ready to start.

Then again, most 18 year olds aren’t ready to define their career.  There’s too many exciting options and it’s hard to pick just one.  For that reason, I recommend picking a field in college.  College can greatly increase the number of tools in your mental toolbelt for tackling problems.  Fields like physics, philosophy, math, or economics have innumerable processes, theories and solutions for all sorts of problems.  They will make you think long and hard about how reality works.  And once you pick your first career (and these days you’ll probably have two or three), you’ll be ready to tackle problems and master your career.