Should I pursue a more “practical” degree?

This post was written by Syl DeLeon

When making a decision about what degree to go after in college, sometimes you just know what it’s going to be, and sometimes… we agonize.

I say “we” because I’d like to believe I’m not alone in this.

I got my B.S. in Psychology and M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but an annotated list of more “practical” subjects I seriously considered includes: veterinary medicine, accounting or finance, computer information systems, and statistics. I’m still, at this time, considering an M.B.A. and am taking classes to test the waters.

If you’re asking, “should I follow my interests or pursue a more practical degree?” —  I’ve found that the answer may lie in how you define the word “practical” and how you choose to make your degree practical.

Define “practical”

For most people, “practical” is directly tied to employment prospects post-graduation. To be blunt, a college education is a significant financial investment and, statistically, some degrees tend to yield higher returns and offer more clearly defined opportunities in the job market.

Computer science, finance, and business top the list in a recent Forbes article about degrees in demand by employers (for both undergraduate and graduate degrees). Top doctorate degrees on employer wishlists were in the field of engineering (chemical, electrical, and computer).

Where does that leave students interested in music, literature, philosophy, or other disciplines in the liberal arts (like creative writing)? If you’re passionate about a subject or field that lies perilously on the other end of what’s commonly considered practical, you’ve probably felt some pressure to reconsider your choice of studies.

However, working (or studying) to purely meet financial baselines doesn’t always lead to a satisfying, or successful, career and life. Rather than reducing everything to an economic cost-benefit analysis, let’s agree that every scenario is highly individualized and focus on getting to the bottom of what will work best for you.

Because whether you get a degree in art or history or art history, a bit of soul-searching and fact-finding can help you feel more comfortable about your decision so you can lean into getting the most out of your degree.

What’s your jam?

First things first: if money wasn’t a consideration, what would you do? What are your interests? What motivates you? What subjects are you drawn to at school and in life? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

If you are super clear on these, move to the next section. If you’d like some tools to explore further, consider a self-assessment like:

(Note: The resources listed here are meant to be helpful and not to diagnose or make definitive pronouncements about your psyche. Use wisely!)

Scope out employment trends

The career landscape is ever shifting, but trends do emerge and, lucky for us, there are some great resources for getting a pulse on the job market.

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Employment projections for the next 10 years
Occupational handbook: check out career types based on fastest growing, highest paying, and newest jobs. Also, this resource allows you to look up what kind of skills and education level you’d need to be successful in your chosen field.
A site with a wealth of salary data. This tool on lifetime earnings by degree is particularly handy. (Hint: select the degree you’re considering and a graph shows correlated salary over time. Pretty cool stuff.)
Want to know what a typical salary is for the job you currently have or hope to have after earning your degree? Look it up here, plus peruse best-rated companies to work for. (Tip: review descriptions of jobs you’d like to have someday so you can prepare by gaining the credentials and experience.)

Entrepreneurial opportunities
Not interested in joining the traditional work force? Learn more about what it takes to run your own business before jumping in.

Visualize whirled peas

After all that groundwork of self-assessments + data gathering, it’s time to take a moment to let it all settle in. As the bumper sticker says, “Visualize World Peace.” Imagine yourself in your ideal scenario. What will you feel like while studying and working hard to earn your degree? How will you use your degree and new skills and knowledge after graduation?

Let’s take the degree out of the equation altogether, briefly, and reverse engineer your potential career path.

What kind of projects will you be working on someday? Is there a particular problem you’ll be researching or solving? Is there a particular lifestyle that’s important to you? Is an industry looking appealing to you, based on the research you did on employment trends?

Once you have an idea of what your optimal career and lifestyle trajectory might look like, work backwards to figure out what kind of knowledge base and skills you’ll need to be successful.

And then look to see which degree program will build that knowledge and skills, as well as give you the credentials to get there.

Make your degree(s) work for you

As our economy and culture evolves, so does our perspective on what’s practical. (Exhibit A: suspenders. Right?)

Whichever degree you choose to pursue, you can always find ways to diversify and combine your interests by exploring:

  • Cross-disciplinary connections like archaeology + computer imaging, or music + neurology (e.g., master’s in music therapy).
  • Innovative programs that blur the boundary between the arts and business (master’s in arts leadership and cultural management) or help turn your lifestyle hobby into a profession (tourism management).
  • Add-ons like certificates, badges, and courses to supplement your skills. A visual artist with a marketing certificate, for example, seems like a winning combo for promoting and selling your own art or working on a creative team at an agency.
  • Your undergrad + graduate combo. How can the 2 (or more) degrees work best to amplify each other? For me, psychology and writing go hand in hand. It’s not always true that your graduate degree has to be in the same subject as your bachelor’s. For example, with a few years of related experience + a bachelor’s in any field, you can apply for an online M.B.A. (and I might.)
  • Finishing your degree. Let’s face it, the obstacles are innumerable. If you’ve started your undergraduate degree and for whatever reason had to hit the pause button, consider finishing online. If you’re in a graduate program, stay determined. Hang motivational cat posters above your computer. Hang Ryan Gosling posters (“Hey Girl, you’ve got this). Or simply hang an empty diploma frame and make it your goal to fill it. In order to make your degree work for you, you’ve got to power through and finish it first.

Passion + Function

Back when I was going to college, in the olden days of the early 2000s, the sense I got was that being practical got a bad rap for seeming over-calculated and money-focused (Oh no, boring!), while following your passions smacked of being financially reckless with your head in the clouds (Oh no, a dreamer!). But those were the days before smartphones, before Facebook, before beards came back in style, and before we all worked with our heads in “the cloud.”

In the last few years, we’ve been communicating globally and cross-pollinating ideas on a massive scale and, basically, reinventing the workforce. Current trends include remote first businesses, the rise of independent consultants, and new expectations of leadership to be more inspirational and collaborative than traditional. The ADP Research Institute® recently shared findings from a 2016 “Evolution of Work” study, a global look at workplace trends across 2,000 individuals in 13 countries, and found that, “Employees’ demand for greater choice and flexibility; access to real-time learning; increased autonomy; a sense of stability; and the ability to work on personally meaningful projects are driving global workplace transformation.”

Meanwhile, maker culture is a thing and, according to Wikipedia, involves “engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and, mainly, its predecessor, the traditional arts and crafts.”

STEAM is also a thing (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) that is being implemented in grades K–20 because “Art + Design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.”

Are the same stereotypes for practical/non-practical subjects of study still holding true? For my part I’ve known too many exceptions to the rule (IT professionals who are also musicians, artists who obsess over analytics, physics grads who are also philosophers, and statisticians who apply regression modeling to social work) to be swayed into believing you can’t find a nice blend of both passion + function.

What do you think? Do you have tips for students choosing a degree program? Please share your experience and wisdom in the comments!


“The evaluation of an action as ‘practical,’ depends on what it is that one wishes to practice.” ― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

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