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Deciding Between a Liberal Arts and Professional Major

With the percentage of people attending college steadily climbing and competition for jobs increasing, you may be wondering how the major you choose to pursue will affect your future. As we discuss in Liberal Arts vs. Professional Education: Which Is Better?, two routes you can take are pursuing a professional degree (meaning a degree that leads you to a specific profession like business, nursing, or engineering) or a liberal arts degree (which gives you a broader and less specific, but more well-rounded, education, such as physics, economics, or English).


In this post, we will look at these two paths and some of the pros and cons of each to help you figure out which is best for you. For more advice on choosing majors, check out Majors, Minors, and More: Which Degree Should You Pursue?


Overview of Professional Majors as a Category of College Majors

Professional majors are intended to prepare you for a specific profession or job. If you choose to pursue such a major, you will receive training particular to that field. It is important to keep in mind that many colleges, including the Ivies and similar schools, don’t offer many of these majors as an undergraduate option, with the exception of engineering, so you should research the degree in which you are interested to make sure it is available at the schools to which you apply.


Some pre-professional majors, such as pre-med and pre-law, lead to a particular professions like doctor or lawyer, but you will usually have to take on additional schooling first, so these paths are less direct. Many of these paths aren’t even available as majors; often you would need to major in a liberal arts field, such as history or biology, and take certain courses that are required for you to attend graduate school in that field.


A positive aspect of earning a professional degree is that you can head straight into the working world right out of college. You may also be able to participate in an established internship or placement program as part of your schooling. While you will still ultimately be competing in the job market, your future may feel less uncertain because you will have direct training for a specific career, and you will know exactly what you’ll be doing.


However, keep in mind that there is generally less flexibility afforded in these majors if you change your mind about what you want to do. You may have to start over if you’ve made headway in your major and decide to go a different route. Additionally, there are often very strict requirements in these fields, and they may not transfer over to another field if you change your mind.


Overview of Liberal Arts Majors as a Category of College Majors

Liberal arts majors, in contrast, focus on the intellectual mastery of a certain topic or field, rather than on preparing students for particular professions. Some examples include English literature, history, and biology. While studying a liberal arts field doesn’t mean you can’t get a job after graduation, your education won’t be as focused on the requirements and expectations of a specific profession.


Majoring in a liberal arts field can lead to a deep, scholarly understanding of a topic. It also has the potential to afford you more flexibility after you graduate, because you can apply your skills and knowledge to different jobs and fields. For instance, if you major in English, you can apply writing and research skills to areas like marketing, journalism, and many others.


On the other hand, there isn’t as clear a path to a paying job as there is when you pursue a professional major. Additionally, you may not learn as many practical, workplace skills, and you may have a harder time accessing internships and other opportunities, because they generally aren’t built into your program.



Making the Choice Between Similar Majors in Each Category

If you are deciding between similar majors in different categories — such as physics and engineering, economics and business, and so on — ask yourself some questions to help you decide:


  • Do you know definitively what career you want to pursue?
  • What career path do you want to follow?
  • What education, training, and background are necessary for that career?
  • How sure are you that you want to follow this career path? Would you like to have the wiggle room to change your mind? (Keep in mind that many students change their majors at some point.)
  • Are you prepared to start your chosen profession soon after leaving college?
  • Would you rather work in the field or potentially teach or do research in the field? (Many teaching positions, particularly professorships, require further education.)


For More Information

For more information about choosing between a liberal arts and professional major and advice about choosing a major in general check out the posts below:



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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.