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By Kotoe Oshima
The Duke Chronicle, Duke U.

(UWIRE)—As seniors continue to polish their resumes and networking skills before graduation, some may wish they had chosen a different major.

A study released by Georgetown U.'s Center on Education and the Workforce shows a strong correlation between risk of unemployment and certain undergraduate majors. The study indicates that students who choose non-technical majors, such as the arts or social sciences, have unemployment rates of 11.1% and 8.9%, respectively. In contrast, recent graduates in engineering, the sciences, education, or health care experience a 5.4% unemployment rate. These fields also tend to yield the highest earnings.

Even so, students with a specific major are not guaranteed to get a job, said Kedamai Fisseha, a recruiter for a large international bank based in New York. When recruiting at top-tier institutions like Duke, Fisseha said he is confident that applicants have the educational background to be successful in the workplace regardless of their chosen major.

"You come to a place like Duke to study what you want to study, and you will get the skills for a job that you want," Fisseha said. "Some technical jobs like engineering may require that major, but aside from that, you'll learn the necessary skills, whatever your major is. That's the beauty of Duke."

standing out in a crowd

At the 2012 Duke Career and Summer Opportunities Fair, many students scribbled "econ" on their name tags to boast a more technical major. However, Fisseha said that his company looks for smart, motivated, and hard-working people with good communication skills above anything else.

Specialized majors are not necessarily the highest-paying positions. Throughout the job recruitment process, President of Duke Venture Forward Chong Ni, a senior and former member of The Chronicle's editorial board, noted that future employers looked beyond his economics major during interview rounds. Ni recently accepted a position at a global securities and investment group in New York.

"Interdisciplinary [studies] is undervalued," Ni said. "In a lot of the interviews I had, the interviewers told me that they would look at a stack of resumes. Out of 150 resumes, 115 would be economics majors."

According to the study, specialized majors are not necessarily the highest-paying positions. For example, students who majored in architecture experience an unemployment rate as high as 13.9%, as their work is correlated with the struggling housing and construction sector.

Given the complexity of Duke's interdisciplinary undergraduate program—where it is not uncommon to find students with double majors, multiple certificates, and minors—William Wright-Swadel, Fannie Mitchell executive director of the Career Center, noted the challenge of identifying patterns between majors and job prospects.

"Because [Duke students] are all diversely able and diversely interested, and with the flexibility of the curriculum, it means that if you simply take the major and try to use that as the sole correlation between what somebody is doing at graduation, it is very difficult," he said.

Wright-Swadel said that he is much more interested in looking at a student's holistic experience at Duke when advising them about their future. Rather than focus solely on academics, Wright-Swadel said he hopes to find connections between students' academic work and their extracurricular interests to find the right career path for them after graduation.

Majors are not the sole indicators of a strong applicant. Ni noted that extracurricular activities are necessary to stand out against the competition during on-campus recruitment events.

Choose a major that will allow you to accrue a variety of skills in different areas. "People who get involved and take leadership positions have management and communication skills that employers actually ask about," he said. "This is the distinguishing [factor] since everyone has a major, and everyone goes to Duke."

weighing the options

Students consider different variables when choosing a major. Some pick a major related to a specific career path to gain a sense of security, while others see their studies as more of a vehicle to further their education and not necessarily as a means to a career, Wright-Swadel said.

Senior Emily Burke, an evolutionary anthropology major with a concentration in behavior, ecology, and cognition, said she plans to go to Madagascar next year to study a critically endangered species of lemurs in the rainforest. Although her major may help in her next academic endeavor, Burke noted that her studies may not directly correlate to her end career.

"I realized that my major was going to be what I liked studying—I knew it wasn't going to be something practical," she said.

Other students opt to go back to school after completing their undergraduate education. According to the study, people with graduate degrees have an unemployment rate of approximately 3% and boast yearly earnings between $60,000 and $100,000, compared to $48,000 to $62,000 a year for people with a bachelor's degree.

After majoring in chemical engineering at Columbia U., Albert Chen decided to enter Duke's Master in Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship Program because he had trouble finding a job. Chen, who is graduating this year, said he hopes to combine skills from both engineering and management to make the transition to the financial and consulting industry easier.

"I came to Duke to do the MEM because in my school you couldn't get a job at graduation unless you're majoring in economics or finance," Chen said.

Ultimately, Wright-Swadel said he encourages students to choose a major that will allow them to accrue a variety of skills in different areas, as that is a good way to make themselves more attractive to future employers.

"If you're choosing a major, don't choose a certificate program that's the restatement of the major," Wright-Swadel said. "Look to build breadth, as well as depth, because it will help you not only at launch, but throughout the life of your career."

Published March 26, 2012

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