Specialized Majors: High Risk, High Reward

Honing your skills in one area can lead to a job quickly, but may severely limit career flexibility.

By + More

Business majors that pursue accounting degrees, journalism students who focus on broadcasting, and nursing students who spend more time in clinics than classrooms often eschew diverse classloads in order to hone very specific skills applicable to a narrow set of jobs. Though specializing within your major may seem like the fast track to a job and competitive salary immediately after graduation, many career counselors, hiring consultants, and academic officials think it's wise for students to diversify their undergraduate experience. 

[Explore college majors with the best return on investment.]

 Spurred by the once-suffering and now slowly recovering economy, and new technologies that have caused a spike in demand for talent in narrow fields, some schools are placing an increased emphasis on specialization. For instance, The National Science Foundation estimates that around 2 million workers with nanotechnology-centric backgrounds in fields from medicine to engineering will be needed by 2014. To help meet this need, the University at Albany opened a College of Nanoscale Science. The school awarded its first Ph.D. in the field in 2004, and an undergraduate program was put in place last year. 

 The curricula for the nanoscience and nanoengineering students is steeped in broad, basic sciences like chemistry, biology, and physics in a student's first year. The later years are devoted to nanoscience or nanoengineering coursework. 

The college's chief executive, Alain Kaloyeros, claims that first year students are already receiving internship offers from top technology firms, and that specializing on the undergraduate level will give students graduate-level expertise and desirable employment opportunities during and immediately after college. "We train them not to memorize, but, even at the undergraduate level, how to use their brain, how to be analytical," he says. "They're all being offered internships for the summer with IBM, Intel, you name it." 

[Check out scholarships for in-demand majors.]

For students with a sharp focus and well-defined passion, programs like Albany's can propel them to the career they've long desired, experts say. However, unless you're completely certain that your heart is in your specialty, career counselors warn that students should give themselves time to carve a path as they mature. "You should specialize only when you know what you want to specialize in," says management consultant Nick Vaidya. "It is a [backward] way of thinking to specialize prematurely just to get into a job." 

Certain professions will require a great deal of specialization during the latter years of undergraduate study. For biomedical engineers, computer scientists, and quantitative analysts, among others, the bulk of their high-level classes as upperclassmen will need to be geared specifically toward their profession, says Cheri Butler, president of the National Career Development Association, and the associate director of the University of Texas—Arlington's career center. And while these specialized programs are effective at training students for jobs in those fields, they require that students be passionate about what they're learning, as they offer little room for diversity in the job search. 

A 2009 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities indicates that employers most value skills like effective communication, critical thinking, and problem solving—so-called "soft skills" that can be molded to fit nearly any task or work environment—more than they do skills that require precise training, such as statistical analysis. "Technical skills are typically not in the top 10 characteristics that an employer looks for in a hire," Butler notes. "An employer will say, 'If you don't have some of the technical knowledge that we need, we can teach you that."

[In photos: nine hot college majors.]

But for the majority of students who don't have an idea of what they want to do, they should expand their undergraduate experience so they're not trapped in a track that doesn't fit, some school officials say.