Parents FAQ: Introduction »

Parents FAQ: Academics

What is the connection between choice of major / concentration and ultimate career?

This is a very complicated issue, because some fields of study connect very directly to specific career fields, while others may not have intrinsic connections, though lead to impressive and stable career options. For example, a major in Electrical Engineering or Nursing will prepare a student for  jobs as an electrical engineer or nurse or graduate study in the field. However, students with these majors, and the skills acquired from their studies, may also seek positions in fields allied to, but not directly connected, to those degrees. The electrical engineer might opt to teach physics in a private school; the nursing major may get a sales job in a pharmaceutical company. Majors without clear “links” to specific career fields, however, offer students content knowledge and transferable skills that prove highly competitive both in employment and graduate study. The Career Plans Survey Reports Career Services produces detail the post-graduate activities of our students and can give you a picture of what students from different disciplines, majors and schools have pursued.

My child is interested in “everything” and can’t figure out what to major in.  What should s/he do?

It’s extremely common for students to have a broad range of interests (that’s part of what made them appealing to Penn!), and to feel a bit overwhelmed about having to choose “one thing” to study. We encourage students to explore a number of different fields in their first few semesters, and to talk to faculty and upper-classmen in different majors. Our website has information detailing specific majors/concentrations and the jobs and graduate schools students pursued after graduation. In addition, academic advisors in all four undergraduate schools will work with students to help them choose a course of study.

My child wants to major in something that seems impractical.  What are the risk or benefits of majoring in an obscure field?

The most important element in determining a choice of major should be the student’s interest in and ability to do well in the field. Why? Because in general, if students are interested and engaged in a subject, they will do much better work and have a much more rewarding experience at Penn. When students are really excited about their studies, they communicate that enthusiasm: to their faculty — resulting in lifelong relationships (and substantive recommendations); to graduate schools — resulting in broader choice of where to continue their education; and to employers — resulting in a much wider choice of job options both during the summers and after graduation. Often disciplines that seem “impractical” are highly attractive to a very wide range of employers and graduate schools. As examples, History and Sociology of Science students have found themselves in positions assisting on clinical trials, continuing studies in public health, and/or working for national or international health advocacy organizations, like the Red Cross. Philosophy majors can hold great interest for consulting firms, political candidates, and/or government organizations, in addition to law schools. Suffering through a “practical” discipline in which a student has no interest or ability to succeed makes the Penn experience much less rewarding and successful, both while at Penn and after graduation. A vibrant, strong record of achievement in an “impractical” discipline serves students far better than a lackluster record in a “practical” subject. Through elective courses students can fill in the “practical” gaps while concentrating on subject matter that wholly engages them. For example, a Religious Studies major who might be interested in a business-related career can take courses in finance and accounting to acquire skills that transfer easily. Career Services advisors can help students develop effective strategies for presenting their “less well known” majors to employers and graduate/professional schools.

My child is enrolled in or is considering a double major or a dual degree. What are the pros and cons of dual majors or degrees?

While it can serve some undergraduates very well to do dual degrees or dual majors, whether this is the best choice depends on the individual student. Employers are impressed by multi-talented students, because jobs often require skills that cross over disciplines: the Engineering major with a second major in English can be very appealing to software companies or consulting firms; the Accounting major who also has a major in Sociology will have options in a wider range of career fields than will the student who only majored in one or the other. Likewise, some graduate programs will appreciate the intellectual flexibility developed through disciplined pursuit of different fields. However, the “breadth” needs to be balanced by “depth,” which is often measured by looking at academic performance. Students are much better served by studying only one field — and performing extremely well in that field — than by studying more than one, but performing less well. In addition, majoring in only one subject may allow students to choose an extremely wide range of electives and thus take greater advantage of what Penn has to offer academically.

My child is hoping to study abroad for a semester or a year.  When is the best time for him or her to go? What are the implications? 

Studying abroad can greatly broaden students’ intellectual and personal understanding of the world, and help students hone language skills, become more self-reliant, and experience the truly global nature of modern life. Penn offers an exceptionally wide range of study abroad opportunities, and approximately 35% of Penn students take advantage of these at some point in their college years. As with everything else, the individual student’s specific situation needs to be considered in answering this question. In some cases it may make no difference when they study abroad. For others, timing can be important, especially for premed students. Students planning to participate in a structured summer internship (often after junior year) will want to make sure if studying abroad in the spring that the program ends before the start of the summer internship  if the employer has an inflexible starting date.

My child is able to graduate from Penn in three years.  Is this a good idea?

One obvious argument in favor of early degree completion is financial. A Penn education is extremely costly, and for many families, anything that can reduce that cost is positive. In addition, some students are ready to be “done with school,” so graduating a year early and getting started on their careers can be their best choice. In general, employers do not seem negatively disposed to students who graduate in three years. However, there may be meaningful opportunities lost by graduating early. The chance to do an honors thesis, to continue with research projects, to gain substantive summer internship/job experience, or to hold offices in clubs/activities with which the student has been involved all may be foreclosed if a student does not complete the full four years. This may be particularly an issue for individuals considering graduate school, because admissions committees like to see exceptional academic accomplishments, such as honors theses or independent studies. Extra time also allows students who are graduate school bound to work with faculty on their research projects, to gain further methodological skills and exposure to the type of work that is done in a field. Beyond academic experience, students may, through four years at Penn, gain additional social and intellectual maturity that make them even more attractive to graduate programs and employers. There are, however, highly motivated students who manage to achieve extraordinary amounts in three years. These individuals tend to be the exception.