Careers after Dartmouth: Does one’s major determine one’s financial future?

Like many freshmen, Frank Uzzi ’15 entered college planning on a major that would both match his skill set and please his parents. Dead set on the engineering track, he immediately started taking the appropriate math and physics prerequisites his freshman fall, giving little deep thought to his plan.

And yet, an arbitrary decision to take “Drawing 1” during his freshman fall to balance out his problem set-heavy classes led Uzzi down a very different path. This spring he will graduate with a degree in studio art.

Uzzi said, however, that he did not always feel complete certainty about his major due to concerns regarding future career opportunities.

Uzzi represents just one of the many students at the College whose major does not necessarily follow as strict or predetermined a plan as, for example, the pre-engineering or pre-health paths do. What’s more, such majors do not generally connote the same ideas of professional success as those with more fixed tracks.

In a survey conducted by The Dartmouth of 696 students, the median expected salary of respondents after graduation was $50,000 to $80,000. Thirty-six percent of students expected to make under $49,000, 40 percent expected to make $50,000 to $80,000 and 25 percent expected to make over $80,000.

The majority of students, including those in the social, quantitative and physical sciences as well as the humanities, said they expected their post-graduation income to be between $50,000 to $80,000. The majority of students with majors in the arts placed their predicted starting salary to be between $30,000 to $49,000.

These predictions align with the reality of post-Dartmouth earnings. The average starting salary post-graduation for Dartmouth students is $55,000, nearly doubling to $102,000 by mid-career, according to the 2013-2014 PayScale College Salary Report.

Uzzi said that when he began looking for internships, he found himself worrying about the future financial viability of his field of interest.

Uzzi explained that he began exploring the field of architecture by contacting alumni. Many were working in offices somewhat, but not fully, related to architecture, which worried Uzzi.

In one instance, an alumnus of the College, a CEO of a solar energy startup company and former architecture major for whom Uzzi worked on an off-term, shared some disheartening news.

“He was very disenchanted by [architecture],” Uzzi said. “He told me that to support his family, he had to move out of that industry and go into this solar startup. I’ve had a similar experience talking to other alums.”

Several alumni suggested to Uzzi that to find “real success,” he might be better off looking in related fields. He said that this advice saddened, more than disappointed, him.

This past fall Uzzi decided to go through the corporate recruiting process to see if the business world would pique his interest. It did not, but Uzzi said he is grateful for the experience.

“The more I interviewed, the more realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Uzzi said. “Going through recruiting was eye-opening because it made me realize I didn’t need to question my major and that my interests are my interests.”

Corporate recruiting through the Center for Professional Development, a popular option for students searching for internships, involves a highly competitive and lengthy selection process through which students can find jobs in fields like finance and consulting.

This winter 665 students submitted 8,256 applications for the 189 positions advertised through the Center for Professional Development. Those who participate in corporate recruiting give up a sizable portion of their time and energy as they go through multiple levels of interviews.

The process, reputed to be onerous and stressful, is likely disillusioning for many students, as it was for Uzzi.

After his experience with corporate recruiting confirmed that he had made the right decision, Uzzi began to look into a variety of careers and began to worry less about his future.

“Just because I’m not an economics major looking for an investment banking job doesn’t mean I’m any less off,” Uzzi explained.

And to this day, Uzzi said, he has never questioned his decision to forgo engineering.

“I haven’t looked back since,” Uzzi said. “I never regretted not being an engineer…I would have hated to go through four years of college doing something I didn’t enjoy.”

Orfeas Zormpalas ’16 expressed a similar sentiment about the importance of choosing a major based on your passions, regardless of its implications for one’s career. He decided to major in philosophy irrespective of professional outcomes.

Many students, however, do chose majors with a career-oriented mindset. Shayn Jiang ’15, an economics major modified with engineering, corroborated this based on observations from her classmates in both departments.

“I think [lucrativeness] is for sure a big factor,” Jiang said. “I’m just not sure to what extent.”

Will Corbett, who graduated in the Class of 2010 and is an assistant director of admissions at the College, agreed with Jiang based on his observations of his classmates.

“I’m sure [lucrativiteness] is part of the calculation, but it might not be openly expressed,” Corbett said. “It depends how open and honest people are with themselves.”

Of 696 students surveyed, more than 75 percent classified making a high salary as either very or somewhat important.

A national survey of college freshmen by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles reported that  students are more concerned about financial success and aspire to attend graduate schools to better career prospects. A record 82 percent wrote that it was very important or essential that they become well-off financially. This number is almost double what it was when researchers first collected data 40 years ago.

Whether that concern manifests itself into deliberate major decisions remains up for discussion.

Jiang emphasized that it’s important to choose a major based on your interests, as she did, to maintain one’s happiness and maximize success.

Zormpalas said that, generally, he sees two groups of philosophy majors — those like himself, who choose the subject solely for intrigue, and others who aim to put it towards a career in something like law or government.

Although Zormpalas said that people come into philosophy for all sorts of reasons, it usually does largely stem from academic interest, more than its potential to engender a lucrative career.

“It isn’t exactly the hottest thing professionally,” Zormpalas said.

A Forbes article showed that for 2014 college graduates across the country, those with bachelor’s degrees in the humanities and liberal arts earn an equivalent starting salary to the average for all majors, at just under $40,000.

The starting salary of engineers is significantly higher at approximately $55,000 annually. The starting salary for those in finance, however, is only about $5,000 more than those working in the humanities and liberal arts.

Zormpalas noted that he is considering going into academia, a more popular career choice for students majoring in subjects with less stringent or predetermined career paths. He said that he has wavered in whether or not that is something he would like to pursue.

This seemingly limited pool of career options was one of the reasons that kept Fiona Bowen ’18 from pursuing a math major — although she said that math has thus far been her favorite subject at the College — and instead lead her down the pre-engineering track.

“If I were to major in math, I think I would have to go into academia, and I don’t really want to do that,” Bowen said. “Engineering provides more versatility for career options.”

Bowen noted that she also chose engineering because it both incorporates her strongest subjects and provides personal fulfillment.

“I’ve always liked science and math, and engineering also appealed to me for its humanitarian aspect,” Bowen said. “You have the potential to help people in a big way.”

Jiang echoed this sentiment, saying that she decided to pursue engineering due to its potential to solve social issues.

Although engineers are known for being well paid, Bowen and Jiang said they both chose the subject out of interest and for personal fulfillment. Bowen said that the field’s high pay is an added bonus.

Joseph Helble, Dean of the Thayer School of Engineering, said that pursuing engineering is becoming an increasingly popular option on a national level due to a conception that it will lead to a successful high-paying career. He noted, though, that he feels students do not chose the major solely for these reasons.

“Students come with an interest in technology, some care about problems in energy, access to clean water, healthcare — that’s what I see driving the motivation of students majoring in engineering here, as opposed to jobs,” Helble said.

Majors do not necessarily dictate career paths, especially when it’s possible to have multiple majors and minors at Dartmouth, Corbett said.

He noted that a friend of his, Dan Susman ’10 who majored in environmental studies, has spent the last five years traveling the country to create a documentary about urban farming. Although the documentary’s topic related somewhat to his major, Corbett said Susman never could have predicted a path involving film.   

Similarly, Zormpalas said that he knows philosophy majors who have gone on to have careers at investment management firms like Bridgewater Associated.

Jiang, who worked for Goldman Sachs last summer, noted that although they all had an interest in financial markets, her fellow interns were people from all sorts of majors and backgrounds including classics, math and computer science.

Instead, employers care about students’ abilities to communicate, write and problem-solve — skills that can be cultivated studying any subject, Jiang said.

Helble said that students, regardless of their major, gain these skill sets at the College.

“Dartmouth students are programmed to speak, write and think clearly,” Helble said. “And a liberal arts education gives you context for understanding the great challenges of the world.”

Jiang said that because so many Dartmouth economics majors pursue careers in finance, this well-traveled path is popular.

She noted, however, that not all economics majors desire such positions — others plan to work in fields like policy or at think tanks.

Uzzi said that the flexibility and versatility of less-tracked majors could actually be beneficial in professional environments.

“We aren’t as locked in,” Uzzi explained.

Corbett, speaking for both his and his friends’ perspectives five years out of Dartmouth, said that he does not think many people regret the major they chose.

“People definitely have come to realize the realities of being an adult and making money for yourself and making things work,” Corbett said. “The vast majority of people hit a few rough patches, but I don’t think they would change anything.”

Ultimately, Uzzi said that he believes all graduates of the College have an equal number of opportunities when facing the professional world.

“The fear is there, but just as much as any other major, which is exciting in a way,” Uzzi said. “We all have several doors open to us.”

Helbe noted that coming from an Ivy League school puts students of all majors in a favorable position.

“Dartmouth graduates, regardless of major, do very well in the job market,” Helble said.

And ultimately, Jiang said, a Dartmouth degree, irrespective of the words written on it, will be one of graduated students’ biggest professional assets.

“Coming from a place like Dartmouth,” Jiang said, “employers don’t discriminate based on your major.”

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