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Picking the Right Major: How Do You Beat the Robots?

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

Attempting to mold your future is a daunting task, made no easier by a rapidly changing technological environment. Motivation in choosing a major boils down to two main concerns: passion and personal fulfillment versus the likelihood of obtaining a reasonably (or wildly) lucrative job down the line. Some pick a major to fulfill one over the other, some try for a major that balances the two in some way. For those concerned with finding a path to financial stability and prosperity though, how to choose wisely?

We know something about how college majors translate into yearly returns. Engineering, computer science, and math graduates, for instance, earn about a 12% yearly premium in pay in the 20 years after graduating. Not all of this premium is due to the choice of major: men earn more than women, and these graduates earn more partially because they are overwhelmingly male. The earnings premium remains after controlling for gender, however, and is still significant. According to a study by PayScale.com, the next most financially prudent choices are business and economics majors, followed by the physical sciences. The world is quickly changing, though, and what used to be a practical major might not be in the years to come: radiology has already been deeply affected by Artificial Intelligence that can detect tumors more effectively than humans can. Actuary work, computer programming, and many other typically dependable careers may be on the chopping block. Translation used to be the realm of the expert only, and is increasingly being done by computers, and you’ve probably read an article written by a bot without even realizing it.

Historically, most technological disruptions have overturned low wage work. Today, we’re facing a technological disruption that affects professions and jobs that require years of expensive training and education. In “The Future of the Professions,” Daniel and Richard Susskind predict not a disappearance of lawyers, doctors, and teachers, but certainly a massive shift in the types of tasks that they perform throughout their careers. And even if technology doesn’t replace the professions, there might still be fewer professional jobs to go around, lower wages, or both. Recently, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and many other leaders wrote an open letter expressing the dangers of artificial intelligence to humanity as a whole and Musk believes that a universal basic income may become necessary to cope with the unemployment that follows.

Google exec Mark Cuban says that if he were starting college today, he would have chosen philosophy over accounting. Both Cuban and Jonathan Rosenberg, advisor to Alphabet’s CEO Larry Page, agree that liberal arts majors are not under threat. Liberal arts majors require critical thinking, the most valuable skill, and they recommend following passion, even when there’s not an obvious career attached to it.