Unique & Obscure Degrees: Worth it?

by Judge Josh on October 29, 2010

María has a question about college life outside the U.S., but that’s cool, because, in the immortal words of Lil’ Wayne, “We worldwide, hustlas!”

I have a question regarding college majors. My situation is unique for this site because I don’t live in the US. But I read the advice you give and you’re always spot on, so I’m sure whatever you tell me will be helpful!

Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, I’ll do my best.

Here it goes: Where I live, you have to choose a career/major before you begin college.

Hey, you’re supposed to tell us where you live! It’s OK, though. Wherever it is, that’s a burden, I would think. I hope you can at least change that major if you discover something else along the way?

unique degrees

Once you’ve chosen one, you have to take an admissions course which includes several exams. Only after passing all of them do you actually start university.

Interesting. I suppose that’s not terribly different from the U.S. Except for the choosing early part. You could consider the SAT and ACT “several exams” that you’ve gotta score well on in order to get into college.

But I can’t make up my mind about my major! My first choice is one called Human Ecology Engineering. I like it because it ties social and basic sciences together and it’s focused on community development, especially rural.

It sounds interesting and rare. Interesting is good, and rare can be both good and bad. In this case, I’m thinking it might be bad, but let’s explore it a little further.

Much of what I have to say on it has to do with a couple of pieces of information I don’t have, though — namely, a) what do you want to do with your life after college?; and b) do you want to stay in your country or go somewhere else?

Most people go to college to make themselves more employable, obtaining accreditations ranging from a degree in counseling, to an MBA. A small but not-insignificant part of that is to get a broad-based education that will at least make you conversant in the language of the educated middle class.


A bigger part, though, is to get a degree that directly increases your employability and earning power. That’s the main reason people go.

So, does a degree in Human Ecology Engineering increase your employability and earning power? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is no.

Why do I  guess no? Because my first reaction to hearing that degree is the same reaction that 98% of others will have: “What the hell is Human Ecology Engineering?” :)

That’s a hump you’re going to have to get over with everyone you’d like to work for. Some, you’ll be face to face with, and you can explain. However, many others will see it on your resume, have no idea what it is, and toss it into the trash, never to be heard from again.

My problem here is that this major doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

a) Yes, that may be a giant red flag. :)

b) Or, there’s a possibility that there are other programs like it elsewhere, and those programs are just known by a different name. Remember, it’s probably just your college that decided on calling it “Human Ecology Engineering.”

They thought it sounded cool, and it does, but as usual, academics don’t think like marketers, and you’ll have a tough time marketing that degree to employers.

Having said that, if the degree is about rural development or community development, I’d be shocked if there weren’t at least a dozen or more similar programs here in the States. We have our ups and downs here in the U.S., but the variety and number of academic programs is still the envy of the world. If it can be studied, we’ve probably made a degree out it somewhere.

So, I believe that your area of study is probably more common than you think it is — it probably just goes by a different name in different places.

The second issue, of course, is whether that degree unlocks many job opportunities. I have no experience in that field, but common sense tells me that most jobs doing the sort of thing you’re referring to will be government jobs or nonprofit jobs.

True, some freewheeling and risk-loving entrepreneurs of the future may place big bets on making a profit on developing rural communities — but don’t hold your breath.

My point is, without the private sector involved, the number of job opportunities is probably far lower than in other fields. Just keep this in mind when you decide what you’re going to pursue.

I’ve googled it in English and Spanish and all I could find was my country’s national Univ. and an Institute in Beijing that apparently doesn’t have a website.

I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a website, personally, so I don’t blame you at all. If you run a business and you won’t shell out $500 to hang a digital shingle so the entire world can learn about what you do, then you are not a serious person. (end rant)

That scares me because I don’t want to invest money, time and effort in a degree that won’t hold value in the rest of the world.

I don’t blame you a bit. But don’t be so scared by not being able to find degrees with exactly the same name — look around and see what else is out there, especially here in the States.

My other option is Economics, because it’s a classic

It is indeed.

and you can go anywhere from there

Also true.

but it’s definitely not a passion of mine.

Eh, I wouldn’t advise it, then. Econ is not an easy major — other than Calculus, no beginner course kicks more ass on unsuspecting freshmen than Microeconomics. And things get a lot harder from there. If you’re going to make it through an econ degree, I think you need some degree of lust for the discipline.

So, my question is: How can I evaluate the possible risks and advantages of a “unique” major?

It’s not too hard. The main risk is that you’ll be less employable and make less money, and that means the possibility of finding nothing in your chosen field and instead making money waiting tables, tending bar, or something else you probably didn’t anticipate doing after college.

The main possible reward is that you’ll get a job doing something you really, really love, which in your case involves helping a lot of people, it seems.

Or should I just forget about it and take the safest option?

I wouldn’t go that far (plus, I’m not sure what the true “safest option” is these days, anyway). Can you double major, perhaps? Or, major in your ecology thing and then take a solid, traditional minor (just thinking out loud here, but English, econ, business, something like that)?

Thank you so much for your help!

Sure. Your real dilemma is choosing something you think you really like that comes with a lot of uncertainty, or choosing a more certain path of employment with a reduced chance that your work will delight you.

If it sounds like I’m carefully walking a line there, I am, and it’s because no one can choose that but you. One is not better than the other — it’s purely a decision about how you want to live your life. Take a bigger risk on something you think you’ll enjoy more, vs. take the safer route and risk boredom and/or unhappiness.

I do want to add a couple of things:

1) Just because you don’t LOVE your job doesn’t mean you can’t have a happy life. There are a lot of “do what you love at all costs” people out there, and at times I’ll sing that refrain myself, minus the “at all costs” part.

Many of the happiest people I know — and I suspect you know plenty as well — actually do *not* love their jobs. Nor do they hate them; they just accept it as part of their existence, do it the best they can, then go home and enjoy their nonworking hours with family and friends.

2) You do not necessarily need tons of money to enjoy life. I suspect you know this already, but it’s true. So consider that if you have a job doing something you really love, you may be surprisingly OK with making a good deal less money than other people you know.

3) One last caution: Just because you think something sounds cool now does NOT guarantee you’re going to think so forever. (This is why I hate the fact that your country makes you choose your career at 18 years old. )

Lots of things sound great when you’re 18, and then you start studying them for a year and realize you’d rather stab yourself in the eye with a letter-opener than spend your life in that discipline.

I was this way as an English lit major early in my college career. I was certain I wanted to read and teach classic literature in college. And then a few months in, I realized that to get the necessary doctorate, I’d need to spend the better part of the next 10 years of my very limited years on Earth essentially taking guesses about what authors who had been dead for 400 years were thinking about when they wrote their books.

At that moment, I wanted to run straight through the classroom wall like Kool-Aid Man and never touch Chaucer or Shakespeare again.

So anyway, I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to you and Human Ecology Engineering. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you, dear. Good luck!!

— So, what do you all think of this? Get the obscure degree and take the road less traveled? Walk the line? Let us know in the comments below.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim October 29, 2010 at 5:06 pm

This may seem obvious (or not) but see if you can find out who the professors are in that major, and email them. Ask them what kinds of jobs people who earn this major are doing, and if they could refer you to a graduate of the program that you could talk to. A grad (or postgrad) is in the best position to tell you how “employable” they are after getting their degree, and can advise you of benefits (or pitfalls) of the programs. Professors frequently keep in touch with former students, and most would (or should) be willing to help you out before you make such a weighty decision. Best of success to you. By the way, you can get professor emails from the college website.

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Cassidy October 29, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Have you thought about taking a year off and exploring your career options overseas? I think that could be a great opportunity for you to explore. There are things called a Gap Year where you can study abroad at a university or do volunteer work and see if those courses are interesting to you.

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Stephanie October 29, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Ah, the classic dream job vs. money job question.

I just think you need to sit down and do some honest soul-searching. Ask yourself these questions and really take time to think about your answers: Would you be willing to wait tables or work at Wal-Mart for a couple years until you landed a dream job? Would you be willing to move anywhere for a job if your dream job came up in a different city or country? Would you be willing to live in a small apartment and drive an old car (while your friends have big houses and fancy cars) if you could then do your dream job for a small paycheque? Do you need money to be happy? Can you tolerate the stress and worry of knowing that you may never get a job in your dream field? How would you feel if you trained for a job in your dream field and ultimately never got one? And, perhaps most importantly, would you be able to stand doing a job for decades that you didn’t love?

Everyone’s different. My personal answer to that last question is an honest and firm “no.” I’m unabashedly one of those “do what you love at all costs” people Josh mentioned. But you have to do what’s right for you. Good luck.

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Melissa Ferguson October 29, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Like he said, it all depends on how you want to live your life.
If they don’t let you change your major, is there any reason you couldn’t go clear through the Human Ecology program, maybe work for a while or not, and then re-enroll and start something else? I don’t know how your country’s school financial aid system works or even if you have one, but in the USA it’s not that difficult to go to school if you work hard, are willing to live relatively cheaply, and can maybe live with some debt. Me, I took a couple of classes at a state college during high school, with my parents paying, so I could graduate from high school a year early. I then went to a technical branch of a state university right after high school on a full tuition and fees scholarship, again with my parents paying for room and board, and graduating with two Associate’s degrees–one in pedorthics and the other in shoe, boot, and saddle making. For a few years while I made cowboy boots for a living, I took community college courses in things I was interested in like welding, wood frame construction, and sculpting, paying for them on my own as a self-supporting adult. Then, when I started to feel guilty about just playing, I began aiming toward medical school, earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology from a state university, partly paying my way, partially on scholarships, and partially borrowing through student loan programs. I will be relying on student loans and/or scholarships for medical and/or law school in the future. My time at the school I learned boot making at is to this date still some of the happiest years I have ever had, and attending that school has been one of the things I not only do not regret, I am so glad I did, even if I am heading down a more traditional path now. One thing I do remember, though, is that I had NO misgivings about choosing bootmaking as the first interest I wanted to pursue. I was so excited when I found out about the school that taught it, and I felt so alive–all giggly and smiley inside when I thought about it. Perhaps if YOU (not people around you who are concerned about your future ability to feed and house yourself, or on the negative side, are telling you how to run your life by saying what you are considering is inappropriate for you, etc.–I had a high school English teacher tell me that bit of garbage about the boot making school!) are having misgivings, there is another path for you to try next that you haven’t even thought of or found out about yet, and neither Human Ecology nor Economics is really right for you.
I’m sorry if this offends anyone, but the best advice I can give you is to pray for help in this. I think that has helped me when I have remembered to do that. Just finding out that bootmaking was still a job and there was a school that taught it seemed to me to be a kind of G-d-thing in the way it all happened and the happiness it gave me.

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Connie Halter October 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I am a non-traditional student, therefore considerably older than 18. I was planning on teaching, when I realized teaching at the college level at my age would never bring in more than a subsistence income after ten or more years of college! I had a dear friend my mom’s age who was a college instructor who died because she could not afford medical care. I would never probably have the chance to achieve tenure. So I started searching for another major I would like that would better achieve my goals. I decided on Occupational Therapy–who definitely function as teachers, yet are well-paid and have a lot of job flexibility. I get to work with people one-on-one, which actually appeals to me a lot more anyway. My previous art classes come in handy for this also, as well as my Spanish. So maybe you just need to branch out and search out other possibilities. Shadowing people who worked in various fields helped me decide what I wanted to do.

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Maria October 29, 2010 at 11:13 pm

A Google Scholar search of ‘Human Ecology Engineering’ has over 450,000 articles and scholarly references. I don’t call that ‘unique or obscure.’ My sense is that it falls unders systems engineering, and industrial engineering. If it is of interest to you, start reading those articles and books available for free through Google Scholar and GO FOR IT! If you’re doing something you love, you’ll find a job. Definitely contact professors and grad students, that is a great idea. You can also search for conferences and other academic gatherings on the topic to find out where the field is. Since it is under ‘Sustainable Development’ you will be in high-demand upon graduation, have no fear!

Also check out Ted Talks, and search Human Ecology Engineering and Sustainable design. You’ll find some fascinating presentations!

All the best!
-A 4th year Engineering Student

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Lauren October 30, 2010 at 10:23 am

I think Human Ecology Engineering sounds like an amazing field to get into, and an important one for society to recognize! Josh pointed it out and I want to reiterate: that degree almost definitely exists elsewhere in the world under a different name. One reason the major is so rare and unstandardized is that green and/or ethical fields like that one are new, but that means they’re *growing*, and you’ll be in a good spot to be a leader in an emerging area of study and business. All of my Computer Science professors have undergrads in Math, and my Women’s and Gender Studies professors were sociologists or linguists before focusing on gender issues that touch those areas- just goes to show you how academia evolves. CS and WOST weren’t majors back in the day…
Also, the world has too many Econ majors already- you don’t need to add to that mess. 😉 My biased understanding of Econ majors is that either they chose it because it *sounds* respectable, or they think money makes you happier (it’s been proven that if you’re above the poverty line, it really doesn’t).

If your university is a reputable school and you find yourself applying to jobs outside the realm of ecology, your future employers might care more about the school name than your major anyway. Or that they just want to see you have a degree in something. In which case, pick the most interesting thing you’re good at!

Good luck!
Lauren,
college junior, American
Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences with a focus in Computer Sciences (teehee I can relate- I hate how long it takes to explain my major to people…)

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Denise Cacho October 30, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I can’t blame you, I spent 3 years after graduating from high school taking random curses at a community college. At first, I started as a graphic design mayor, then changed it to Art History, and finally landed on History. At the end, I figured out my true passion and I couldn’t be happier. I have just been accepted in college, as a Linguistics major. Be patient, do a lot of research, and look out for clues in your high school, even junior high, years for things you loved to do. There could be the answer to you dilemma. Don’t let desperation and your apprehensive self choose something you don’t even like.

Lauren: I totally understand you. I am a Linguistics major with a focus in Anthropology. After I tell my major to someone, the automatic question comes up: what’s linguistics?

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Bridget November 1, 2010 at 12:37 am

Definitely keep researching A LOT and find professionals in the field already that you can interview. It is so confusing when choosing a major because sometimes you don’t realize until after you graduate that it may not be considered worth that much from an employer’s view. Just don’t base your opinion on what the instructors say..make sure you speak to people who have graduated from the program and are actually using the degree. And talk to the ones who aren’t using it and find out why.

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Maria November 1, 2010 at 7:57 am

Thank you for taking the time to answer my question, J. Josh. And thanks to everyone who commented! I’m taking everything into consideration and I’ll definitely do a little more research and soul searching before I decide on anything.
Good luck to everyone!

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Charlotte Hyatt November 30, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Hi Maria, I did not read the other comments yet but I googled the question, “other names for “Human Ecology Engineering”, and found that it is one of the new “green industries.”

To me that would seem to be a good degree to get but you would have to make sure the courses covered would give you the necessary background. As a new industry, there will be a lot of differing classes being set forth as needed that may not be what you should focus on.

That Institute of Human Ecology Engineering, Beijing, now has a website.

I got this specialist in Human Ecology Engineering name from LinkedIn and I hope it comes through as a live” link: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/lon-house/6/773/326

Charlotte

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Nicole April 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm

No matter how bad a degree in Human ecology engineering is in getting a job, it probably won’t be as bad at getting you a job as that degree in Beatles studies that they offer somewhere in England.( I’m not kidding. You can actually spend 4 years studying the Beatles.)

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Zach August 30, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Hi everyone – would love to hear some advice. Josh hasn’t gotten me an answer for a long time despite his promise to answer within a couple of days if we publicize this site via social media sites. I guess he’s busy.

I’ll keep it as short as I can. Thanks for your advice in advance…

I will be a senior this fall at Alfred University, on track to graduate with a BS in Marketing. Unfortunately, after classes and a couple of internships, I realize that I detest the concept and practice of marketing. My passions, I believe, lie in writing and thinking about “softer” fields including sociology/psychology, theology, and ethics.* I have 35k in debt so far.

But at this point, I wonder if I should just make the smartest decision financially and pursue a field that I won’t kill myself doing like marketing/selling.

Should I switch majors to Accounting, costing me another 10k in debt and year of school plus whatever else for a CPA? Or–my brother is a mechanical engineer at Cornell, I come from a long line of engineers, and I’m pretty bright–should I go for a second bachelor’s in engineering after graduating with my Marketing degree? That option might run me another 40k in debt and 4 years’ time, but pay out better than accounting in the long run.

Other options I’ve played out in my head include joining the peace corps to forgive some loans, starting my own PR business after graduating, studying for a Master’s in philosophy in the UK on a full-ride (fingers crossed for that scholarship)…feeling overwhelmed. What’s the smartest call here, you think?

*One last note on “following your passion,” which I hope you’ll include as I think applies broadly to a lot of the questions you receive on here. While it’s true that an English major can–to the relief of many English majors–be employable after all (in advertising, technical writing, etc.), I don’t believe that any fiction writer is thinking “press release” when asked about her true passion.

I just question the logic in many of the comments saying “less money is worth following your dreams”…I mean, yeah, hypothetically, I’d consider writing essays on my theological musings for a 30k salary the rest of my life instead of doing some ******** for 60k. An exciting/interesting gig is probably worth that 30k difference per year in overall happiness points…

…but I doubt I can get paid anything to be an essayist. More likely, well-meaning students write essays for 4 years in college (“following their passion”), then for the next 40 years write sparingly trying to impress consumers, publications, etc. or write soulless freelance how-to articles, kissing ass, teaching, and/or some other b.s. for that lower salary that they had assumed would be worth the tradeoff in extra fulfillment of “following their bliss.” Point is, when you realistically appraise what you can get paid to do, I’m wondering if anybody besides rock stars actually get paid to do what they love…I don’t know if writing for the sake of writing is worth the 30k difference I could be making as an engineer/accountant.

That is a bare-bones assumption that all your theater/art/English Lit/philosophy/anthropology student advisees should think about quantitatively: What’s the value on the fulfillment I’ll get from a career loosely related to my passion (like writing advertisements), as opposed to a better-paying gig that is unrelated to my passion (like accounting)? Will your job’s loose connection to your true passion for 40 hours per week REALLY offer you more happiness overall than an extra 30k in salary in an unrelated field?

After all, happiness is the end-game here.

Is a job just a job, and might we all be better off doing something tolerable and challenging for the most money per hour possible?

Thanks for your thoughts on my situation! Your site is a godsend for indecisive students like me and many others.

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