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Choosing your major in college is one of the biggest steps you will take towards a successful career path. But what about picking an academic minor?
Though a minor will take a backseat to your major, the extra credit hours on a particular subject can have benefits that extend well beyond your college years.
“You should pick a minor if it’s going to help you be a more well-rounded individual and give you some practical hands-on experience in a subject outside of what you’re primarily studying,” said Sue Harbour, senior associate director at the Career Center at University of California, Berkeley. “And that you just have a genuine interest in it.”
Your minor coursework could help you land a job with a specific skill set, or at least give you a chance to shine in an interview. It could lead to an extra boost in salary if you minor in a particularly hot field, such as data or computer science. And it could give you a window into a field that has always piqued your interest.
Weigh Your Options Before You Declare a Minor
A college student’s first priority, Harbour said, should be excelling in your major or, if you are a first-year student, figuring out what your college major will be.
“If it’s going to hurt your GPA in any way, make you less successful in your attempt … it’s just not worth it,” she said.
And don’t pick a minor on a whim, Harbour cautioned. Half-heartedly completing a minor could take valuable time, money, and resources away from your main field of study without much payoff for your career goals.
She has seen an increasing number of students interested in minors and double majors as a way to stand out in a highly competitive job market and learn more about a particular subject, even a niche market, like — Egyptology or sustainable environmental design — both offered at UC Berkeley.
At her previous position at the University of North Carolina, where she worked for 12 years, Harbour estimates as many as 40% of the undergrad chose minors to accompany their major.
“The key is, be successful in it,” she said. “Don’t just pick it because it sounds good [or] it’ll look good on paper.”
The Benefits of a Minor Outside of Your Degree Program
Harbour oversees a team of 19 assistant directors that work with students from just after their acceptance at UC Berkeley right up through grad school and alumni.
She has found that the minors that get the most notice from prospective employers are those that don’t always fall in lockstep with your major.
“If you’re going to choose a minor it should be something, yes, that they’re interested in, and is also very different from their major,” she said. “That’s what employers are going to look at.”
So if you are a business major, think twice about a minor in economics.
“It should be very dichotomous,” she said. “If it’s business, choose art history, something that’s just so different and interesting because that’s what employers, that’s what admissions for graduate schools are going to want to hear about — your reasons for choosing such an interesting diversion from your major.”
Academic advisors, mentors, professors, career centers, and department heads can help you figure out which college minor is the best fit for your major and personal interests. You again want to make sure this a subject area you are passionate about minoring in, not just ticking a box for your future career.
The University of Montana College of Business lists several suggestions for minors that could complement a business degree — a non-profit administration minor to go with an accounting major, a communication minor to go with a finance major, a psychology minor to go with a management major.
The University of Texas at El Paso makes several suggestions for a minor to pair with those majoring in criminal justice, including African American studies, Chicano studies, or sociology.
And Iowa State University lists music, food science, or a foreign language among their list of suggestions for minors to complement a biology major.
Use Your Minor to Score a Higher Salary or a Higher Ranking Position
Graduating with a minor doesn’t guarantee you more money, but it could increase your chances with a potential employer.
The best strategic move is to follow the money if you want to use a minor to influence your career.
The biggest money right now is in data science, Harbour said. Data science is used for everything from tracking environmental trends, to the spread of COVID-19 to consumer behavior, to urban planning and development.
“Business students used to come out making the most money, and then computer science overtook and now data science has overtaken both,” Harbour said, adding that a data science minor or double majoring pairs with almost any other major. “Big data plays a part in every industry.”
Indulge Your Passion for Learning
Harbour said she has seen an uptick in declared minors over her years in higher education as students become more and more plugged into the world around them.
“If you think about our Gen Z students, they’ve had information coming at them so fast for their entire lives,” Harbour said. “The reason they pick minors and double majors is because they just have all these varied interests and they want to explore all of them.”
So if your minor is more of a passion project rather than a strategic career move, that’s okay, as long as you are successful and you can apply what you’ve learned to your life and career after graduation.
“That’s what college is about. It’s about exploring who you are, discovering new things about yourself,” she said. “What you study is what you like to learn about. Your career is what you are going to like to do 40 hours a week … it doesn’t have to be the same.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.