You are here

From the Dean

The Value of a Major

Story by
Robert Stacey, Dean

College majors are in the news these days.  Perhaps this is because we’re in graduation season, and every graduating college student has heard two questions again and again from well-meaning friends and relations:  “What are you majoring in?” and “What are you going to do with a major in that?”

Head shot of Dean Robert Stacey

But I think more than the season lies behind the recent surge of popular commentary about college majors.  Graduations, after all, come around every year, as predictably as the tides on a beach. Graduation speeches are reflections on the passage of time past and our hopes for times yet to come.  As such, they aspire to poetry.  Almost never are they analyses of a college’s course catalogue.

This year, however, discussions about requirements for academic majors seem to be everywhere. Proposals to drop existing majors or to create new majors are in the news, not just in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but even in The New York Times, where on May 27th Frank Bruni published a characteristically thoughtful column (“Aristotle’s Wrongful Death,” in the “Sunday Review” section) surveying efforts at a variety of colleges and universities, large and small, to reshape the curricula of their majors in response to a changing job market. 

...very few college graduates...actually wind up working for any length of time in jobs for which their majors specifically trained them.

Some of this discussion of majors is simply a new way to frame an old debate about the relative importance of a college education as preparation for a career or preparation for life. As Bruni rightly points out, this is not an either/or question. But behind this concern with what students should major in, and how those majors ought to be structured, also lies a misapprehension about the relationship between a major — any major — and the lives our students will lead after graduation. With rare exceptions, the value of a major does not lie in the specific training that it provides for any particular occupation, for the simple reason that very few college graduates, whatever their major, actually wind up working for any length of time in jobs for which their majors specifically trained them. Instead, the value of a major lies in the experience it gives our students of sustained, deep, connected thought about a complex subject — the kind of thought that at the end of the day leaves them not with clear answers, but with more sophisticated and searching questions to be asked. This is the experience we hope all of our students at the University of Washington will have, regardless of the subjects in which they choose to major.

I think you will see these qualities in all of the Arts and Sciences students profiled in this graduation edition of Perspectives.  With majors ranging from dance to neurobiology to cinema and media studies, they are leaving the University full of curiosity and questions, determined to make a difference. We congratulate them and their classmates, and look forward to what comes next.