Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Choosing a College Major

So don't go to war without wise guidance; victory depends on having many advisers.
Proverbs 24:6

Once upon a time, choosing a college major was an opportunity to explore the world as well as your own talents, likes, and limits. Even your parents, who in those days were footing the bill, thought if you managed to graduate you would find a decent job and/or an acceptable spouse. Today it is different. Choosing a college and a major is a business decision with serious long term consequences. A high school student needs to find a viable career path that is congruent with their dreams and abilities. A mistake can be very costly.

Consider, if you choose not to go to college, it is quite possible that you could find a job paying $30,000 a year. In this case the lost opportunity cost of going to college would be $120,000. In addition the cost of attending the college of your choice could easily run another $120,000. If your choice of a major is a bust, you have made a quarter of a million dollar mistake. If you floated $60,000 in student loans add $43,166.40 in interest (20 years at 6%).

So how do you make this decision or any important decision? I took the idea for this post from a recent article by Ramit Sethi. As I read it I thought, “Yea, that’s pretty much how I make decisions.” I strongly recommend “I Will Teach You to Be Rich,” by Ramit Sethi to intelligent well educated young people. This book puts a different spin on financial literacy basics for a new more computer savvy generation who will be facing a different set of challenges in this new century.

First of all, look into your own heart. What do you want to do? What are you good at? What makes you happy? What is it that brings you pleasure?

If you are like most of us, this kind of exploration of endless possibilities will generate a list of options. Almost no eighteen year old is sold out and focused on only one possible career. At that age, life is still an exploration.

At 62, I still wonder what I will do when I grow up, but let’s save that conversation for another day.

At this point in the process things should begin to converge. Look at each possibility in depth. List the known pros and the cons of each path. If I choose this major, I will want to attend something from this list of schools. What are the financial consequences (cost, available scholarship or grants)? What are the possibilities of finding a job in that field? What do these jobs pay?

Next, if you are a normal person, you will discuss the remaining possibilities with your immediate circle of family and friends. If you have a decent collection of people in your life they will give you advice they honestly believe will help you make a good and wise decision. However, there is a weakness in seeking advice from your immediate circle. They are just like you. Even if they are older and wiser, they still live in your box. When I began to learn about investments, I was learning from other Federal employees. While some of them were pretty knowledgeable and helpful, you don’t find the financial equivalent of a fifth degree black belt working in Government research laboratory.

If you really want to excel, reach out beyond your comfort zone. Seek the advice of people who do not think like you think. Seek people from different worlds. The easiest way to do this is at the library and on line, but don’t stop there. I am still learning how to network upwards and outwards. For me, it is not a natural talent, but it is a key skill both in finding future business opportunities and developing yourself as a human being.

Get out of your box!

If you want to explore a particular major, find a professor at an appropriate school. Send him or her an email or make a phone call. With a little work you can discover that particular person’s interests. What research papers have they published? If you are even a little familiar with their work, you can stroke their ego a bit as you explore their life. By the way, this is an excellent way to get special tutoring in difficult subjects. It won’t always work, but it is a good tool to help improve your grade point average.

Call up a company in your area that does business in your field of interest. Ask to talk to someone who has the job you want some day in the future. Again, it is likely that you will find someone who likes to mentor intelligent motivated young people. Some enlightened organizations really promote this kind of contact. You are also adding a node to your network who might find you a co-op job during some future semester. That in turn could lead to a real job four years from now. Also, be thinking how you could bless this person who is mentoring you. Perhaps two years from now you get wind your school wants to buy something that person is selling. Your tip might get your mentor a promotion.

How might that improve your career possibilities?

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