Not working in your major field

Submitted on Apr 3, 2014 by Frank Forman (Col ’66, Grad ’68)

Many of us, if not most, wind up in a career in a field one didn’t major in. Even so, choosing that major was not a waste of time. We would all like to know your own career path and how you nevertheless benefited.

In my own case, I was a math major, though I hardly ever make direct use of the math courses I took. Nevertheless, studying math has been extremely useful. What I learned in math was, that to solve a given problem, I often wound up generalizing the problem, solving *that* problem, and applying it to the given problem.

This generalize-solve-apply method is hardly confined to mathematics. I maintain that math emphasizes this more than any other field does. (Physicians and nurses, by contrast, perform the art and science of diagnosing the breakdown of a complex system. Engineers, on the other hand, learn to use approximate rules of thumb, in nearly complete contrast to math, where exactness is the order of the day. Economists concentrate on specifying the exact cost and choice situation, which is sadly uncommon.

In my work, I habitually ask what is the purpose of my assignment. Most of the time, it seems, I can’t get any very good data to discharge my assignment. But if I know the purpose, I can try to furnish something else that will be useful, which is often the case.

So give us all some stories about how your major proved to be useful to the work you do in a field far removed from your major.


Comments (7):

  1. Tony Ross on said:

    My degree is in accounting, but I’m a Longshoreman

    I got the degree because I really thought I would enjoy working in accounting. I love numbers and math but realized that I don’t like all the laws and regulations that you have to know to work in accounting. By the time I realized I didn’t like accounting I was so far along in my degree that I decided to go ahead and finish it instead of trying to start all over and find something else I wanted to do. I worked in several different jobs trying to figure out what I wanted to do and sort of fell into my job as longshoreman and I really like it. This is my 5th year doing it.

    • Frank Forman on said:

      Congratulations on following your bliss, Tony! What I really wanted to know is how your studying helped you. Did you learn to “think like an accountant”? I can’t imagine that you do much accountant work on your job. Even so, might you nevertheless find that you are pretty unique in thinking about the financial consequences of doing something one way instead of another. In other words, you can see things your co-workers cannot. I worked as an economist for the U.S. Department of Education for 27 years, and I can tell you that few of my co-workers would try to try to lay out the exact cost and choice situation, which I do at once. Accounting is not quite the same thing. From what I understand, accounting is the art of putting expenses into different boxes, in accordance with elaborate rules. I am certain that someone who is not a longshoreman thinks that the work is nothing more than moving things around and with no mental decision making at all. I am sure you actually make many difficult decisions all the time, and under huge time constraints. Accounting work, I doubt, involves anything that is nearly so urgent. Nevertheless, did you get anything of lasting value from sweating it out to complete your degree. This must be a terribly difficult question, but the idea of transfer of learning is itself terribly important.

      • Rob Carmines on said:

        I graduated with 26 guys in my Fraternity (Pi Kappa Alpha) in 1980 and I am the only one working in my major! All of the others are doing great and many of us get together multiple times a year. I really enjoy the diversity of my being a CPA (obviously I was an accounting major). I work on computer reporting systems for my clients, tax planning and preparation, small business accounting, payroll issues, divorce consulting, business continuity planning and a whole bunch of other stuff. It is rare that I do the same thing two hours in a row! But there are very long hours and the stress of deadlines will definitely make you get more than a few gray hairs.

        However it also teaches you (or at least it did me) to measure the worth of something before I buy it, make sure I need it, and take care of it.

        • Frank Forman on said:

          Thanks for this, Rob. I’m an economist, and I can tell you I had a thing against the accountants when I worked at the Civil Aeronautics Board, 1969-84. As an economist, I understand that the values that matter in exchange are subjective. If you sell me a newspaper for a dollar, this means I value the newspaper more than a dollar and you value the newspaper less than a dollar. Accountants, the ones I dealt with at any rate, think the numbers they deal with represent exact truths, while I realize that accounting is actually an art, certainly when it comes to allocating monies to different accounts.

          I learned a couple of years ago that German accountant evaluate a firm, on the average, 29% less than American accountants do. But did I learn that science supposedly converges on the truth? Didn’t Mr. Jefferson think so? Has the Enlightenment gone dead?

          It turns out that the difference stems from the fact that American businesses are financed largely through issuing stocks, while Germans, it is banks.(See Shahrokh Saudagaran, _International Accounting: A User Perspective_.)

          What I’m really trying to get an answer to, however, is how courses in your major help you in *different* lines of work, Can you ask the others in your fraternity. But you can tell me more. Are there habits of thought that accountants have, sometimes almost obsessively, that are rare in those who haven’t learned how to “think like an accountant”?

          My big retirement project is to learn how to think like others do in many fields. I hope that what you say, “However it also teaches you (or at least it did me) to measure the worth of something before I buy it, make sure I need it, and take care of it.” doesn’t characterize all the others in your fraternity!

  2. Heyward Grimball (CLAS '09 Comm '10) on said:

    I suppose I’m a bit different for this group as I am at the beginning of my career rather than the end. I was History major at UVA then I got a 1 year business degree from McIntire. Subsequently, I’ve earned a law degree and a Masters in International Business from South Carolina. I’m a bit over educated. The History degree seems a bit out of place, but I am damn glad to have had the experience for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was my intellectual interest at the time – something that actually got me into the classroom as an undergrad. My interests have since broadened, but I still love history. Second, Historians are forever trying to determine how or why events occurred as they did. This exercise taught me to think through things from 2 perspectives, that of the individual and that of the group, which has been incredibly helpful in all non-quantitative business classes I have taken (Marketing, Management etc.), has helped me to understand foreign cultures,has helped me draft legislation & bylaws, and has helped me make legal arguments. Currently studying to take the BAR. I hope it will continue to serve me well.
    Frank, I think that perhaps the easiest answer to your question is “outside of the box thinking”. People with ‘untraditional’ backgrounds, or whatever they call it these days, tend to think about problems a differently.
    For instance, let’s say that a stay at home mom has been paralyzed from the waste down and can no longer look after her kids. Before having children, she was an online marketing consultant earning ~50k a year. She chose not to work at all after having children. After the accident, she has been forced to hire help (~30k/yr), but she has been able to resume her old job at her old salary.
    What are her damages associated with no longer being able to work as a stay at home mother? (I use stay at home mother because there is no fixed salary value)
    Accountant: The amount that hiring help costs over her salary after taxes.
    Lawyer: Pain & Suffering, and the cost of the help (b/c she shouldn’t have to work), and attorney’s fees.
    Economist: The value she derived from working as a stay at home mother, which can determined by the alternative opportunity forgone (so 50k/yr with natural career progression until the youngest leaves the house).
    Obviously, different economists or accountants would say different things, but that’s the point – different backgrounds lead to different perspectives, which is the root of innovative thinking.
    Hope this helps.
    – FHG

  3. Avery on said:

    I’m also a history major. I never thought I would directly use my BA and work in the history field (which is what other than teaching?). I see the degree as one of the first steps in a natural progression toward my current profession as a psychotherapist in community mental health. I chose classes that were most interesting to me in undergrad and the major fell into place. After undergrad, I chose what was most interesting to me about history (social justice and human interaction/behavior) and let that inform my graduate work.

  4. James W Pence on said:

    Investigations should include actions or inactions of persons with major responsibilities. Who was told? Really. Who evaded responsibility? Who “did not really want to know”? I am sick of cover-ups. What a struggle Penn State went through discovering who did nothing or acted minimally. At UNC-CH where was oversight by the Dean of Arts and Sciences? Did coaches, who brag about being concerned with character, really have no clue about the AF-AM curriculum? No one heard rumors there? At UVA no one should be spared; no empty policy inflated. No “look at us now” should be an excuse for weak action or no action in the past.

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