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Can your college major guarantee a job?

College student on laptop
Sam Edwards | Getty Images

It's not easy being a college student these days. The cost of tuition keeps rising, and for many, student loan payments are looming. And then there's the job market.

While the overall economy may be in decent shape, college graduates are still facing an uphill battle in the job market. Some 8.5 percent of young college graduates, ages 21 to 24, are unemployed, and 16.5 percent are underemployed, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

What's a college student to do? Many opt for a specialized, preprofessional major that they think will land them a job. But that strategy may be flawed.

"The jobs that are hot don't stay hot for very long," said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at Wharton and director of the Center for Human Resources. In other words, a student choosing a major at age 17 or 18, who may or may not graduate in four years, is making a long-term bet on opportunities that may change before they get their degree.

As an example, Cappelli pointed to the ebbs and flows of majors in computer science and information technology. The early 1990s brought a recession he described as "IT-based," and fewer students started choosing computer science as a major. By 1995, at the beginning of the dot-com boom, fewer than 25,000 students graduated with computer science degrees, according to Department of Education data.

The dot-com era lured more students into computer science, and in 2002, more than 50,000 graduated in that major—just months after the dot-com boom went bust. Even worse, the number of graduates kept growing for two more years, even though the tech sector was seeing e-companies implode left and right.

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Petroleum engineering is another case in point. That major is hot right now, but Cappelli warns the good times may not last.

Others, though, argue that the right major can make a real difference—in the short run, anyway.

"There is a general relationship that exists between your college major and your chances for employment right after college," said Edwin Koc, director of research, public policy, and legislative affairs at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. For example, he said, engineering majors for the past few decades have had a relatively easy time getting hired right out of school.

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But then there is the matter of a college graduate's second job, and the ones after that. For those positions, employers' focus changes.

"At the early stage, employers are using a shortcut in terms of having a skill set that they want to be immediately available, and that shortcut is the academic major," Koc said. The critical thinking and the writing skills–those may become more relevant as you progress in your career."

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Koc also warned against choosing an overly narrow major because there is a greater risk that it will become irrelevant. A major in cybersecurity may boost your chances in the job market right after college, he said, but the market can easily change.

"You can enhance your immediate prospects by really focusing in, but that's really all you're enhancing." A general major in business or computer science may have more lasting relevance, he said.

Maybe the best way to enhance job prospects is to land an internship, Cappelli said.

"Practical experience is what employers really say they want," he said. "They'd prefer somebody who has worked in the industry, even if you were a clerk there. They want to hire somebody they don't have to train or get up to speed. It's hard to learn all that stuff in college."

In other words, you may not have to major in computer networking to land a job. Just find an internship that teaches you about the stuff, and you may well be in business—in every sense of the word.

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