Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, and Arabic are all languages that can be professionally useful. Many students find that studying Latin is a good way to learn grammar and a gateway to other Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish), which have Latin as a root. It is fun to know Italian when traveling in Italy or ordering in an Italian restaurant. People in other countries learn several languages as a matter of course. I have acquaintances who think nothing of knowing as many as five. A good college requires you to show proficiency in two languages (English and another). Take advantage of this opportunity—perhaps even apply the skill in a semester abroad.
These are courses that include the arts (visual—painting, sculpture—music, dance, theater) as well as literature, philosophy, and cultural studies, which reveal how human beings interpret our world. You learn to understand how to view a painting or make one, how to hear music or create it, how value systems have emerged and influence our behavior—in short what makes us human. The humanities fields contain hard facts but are also rich in interpretation. You may think these are impractical courses and wonder why they are mandated in a well-rounded curriculum.
The ability to engage in analytical thinking supported by solid reasoning and evidence comprises the skill set one gains from the humanities. This is the skill set of leaders. And you may also just enjoy the music along the way.
This group of courses teaches how human beings behave from a more scientific standpoint—gathering evidence, observing patterns, reading behaviors. The subjects include sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology, archeology, economics, and history (sometimes considered a humanities field). One learns how to collect and read data, an eminently useful skill.
Though valued for their own sake, these subjects are highly practical foundations for marketing, management, law, and finance. They all connect your courses, skills and careers. Firms use anthropologists to understand the cultures of foreign markets; psychology can be useful in advertising or human resources management; and a sociological perspective on behavior can aid in building effective workplaces. On the other hand, some students favor these fields to make sense of their own worlds, using psychology as a gateway to the self or political science to understand power relations.
The physical sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and their subsets) are also driven by gathering observable evidence. Experimentation to gather proof of how the universe functions in all its physical aspects can be exciting. It is difficult today to engage in the discourses of civil society without having some scientific literacy. You cannot understand the debates about stem cells, the impact of green technologies, or even strategies affecting your own health unless you have been exposed to the sciences in a meaningful way.
The processes used by scientists are relevant in any context. Repeated trials, gathering evidence to support a theory, and openness to experimentation are all valuable skills learned working in the sciences.
You will find that all of these subjects are intertwined. A large urban university once offered an experimental course taught by faculty from English, biology, and urban studies, to look at rivers. The poets and novelists saw rivers as metaphors for life, the biologists were interested in the physical life in the rivers, and the urbanists looked at the ways the rivers shaped our urban lives.
All are valid viewpoints, and any subject can be approached from many disciplinary lenses. No subject is a waste of time. One of the ways you can see how course work is relevant is to take one or two that include a service learning component, where your work applies to a project serving a local community. For example, many campuses have Engineers Without Borders programs—students do actual projects that, for instance, provide swings for disabled children or water in a community on the African continent.
A core curriculum lets you explore many disciplines while you decide which one appeals most to your learning style and which subjects intrigue you. At the same time your view of the world and your skills are broadening. There is a valid purpose to this diverse approach, so it is not worth grumbling about.
But what about preparing for a career? What you need are skills. You also need evidence that you are intelligent and learn quickly and easily. Your grades provide both. We are in a fast-changing environment. You need to show good grades in a variety of subjects and excellence in the majority of your courses. You need to show that you can find, absorb, and integrate lots of information.
(Most employers want to train or teach you to do things their way, anyway.) Sometimes you may need to engage in “thinking outside of the box.” If you’re studying a subject you love, then you are able to do these things more easily than if you’re struggling to understand the basic concepts of a subject area.
Employers also tell us that they seek, in addition to basic quantitative skills, really solid communications skills. You must be able to write—presentations, memos, reports, speeches that must be clear, logical, cogent, literate (good grammar and spelling), and persuasive. Courses that require heavy reading and writing many pages of papers are good practice for an executive career path.
President Obama won the 2008 election in part, on his verbal skills. Students who score well on the MCAT, GMAT, LSAT, and GRE do so as much on the basis of the tests’ verbal sections as they do on other content. A major in history or English comes in here.
I have known English literature majors with 3.9 GPAs who got job offers at prestigious financial services firms. These companies recognized strong communications skills and grade point averages as evidence of intelligence, diligence, and teachableness.
Firms want individuals who can be good team players and quickly learn how things are done, i.e., those with good people skills who are, again, teachable. If you major in people-centered subjects like sociology, psychology, or anthropology, to name a few, then you will learn more about human behavior. But history and literature, economics and political science are also studies in human behavior.
All these subject areas can help build skills useful in understanding situations and colleagues in the workplace.
Of course, what builds people skills is interaction with others (obvious, yes?). But if you select a major that does not suit your style of learning, interests, or capacities, you will spend hours in study and have little time to engage in social or extracurricular activities that allow you to build the leadership and human interaction skills that are an essential part of a successful work life.
Employers also seek individuals possessing critical thinking skills who can anticipate solutions to potential problems. Any major will enable you to develop those skills. All learning involves discovering new knowledge and solutions to hard questions. How things work and why and how they have worked in the past make up the essence of academic inquiry.
Engaging in research, whether in a library or a lab, is how critical thinking skills are developed. The questions faculty ask to get you to think are designed to build this capacity. Again, if you are studying what you love, you will be asking and answering tough questions because they interest you.
You must also have some degree of quantitative aptitude. Students come with varying degrees of skill in this area, and possessing some skill is natural. Perhaps you would rather deal with numbers, spatial relations, or abstract quantitative concepts than read a novel or historical text. Others develop quantitative skills in school with varying degrees of success. Whether you’re managing a budget, developing a media plan based on metrics, or designing a house, you need math in some form. If it is your passion, then it can be a major or minor or a significant ingredient in your chosen subject, such as physics.
I know an English professor who has traced the role of math in literature. Musical aptitude and mathematical ability are often coupled. However you approach it, you can be sure it is useful knowledge. Along life’s path you will see how you have, in even unexpected ways, connected college courses, skills and your career.