Billy Riley thought hard about his choice of a major, flirting with pre-law at one point in high school. But by fall of his sophomore year in college he finally settled on his pick: philosophy.
Some would argue that choosing such an esoteric major is living dangerously in a less-than-robust economy.
A safer bet for landing a job quickly, they might say, would be studying business, engineering or computer science -- three bachelor's degrees that are expected to attract the most attention from recruiters this year.
But Mr. Riley, 20, a student at Washington & Jefferson College due to graduate in 2013, said that kind of thinking misses the point.
His major, as well as a religious studies minor and a planned second major in psychology, is part of a strategy to give himself a broad foundation for any number of jobs he may pursue in his life. He has a strong desire to help people with their problems but isn't sure yet if that means as a psychologist or some other role.
"I don't think my education here is defined as much by me being a philosophy major as it is my liberal arts studies," he said. "These classes teach you how to think through problems, how to form arguments and how to organize thoughts."
Is he right? Or are there majors one should rule out when economic times get tough?
Career counselors say that while it's important to consider employment potential, the major itself may have less to do with one's ultimate success than the skills, passion and values that an applicant brings to the job search.
That's true, they say, even when jobs are scarce.
"The recent economic downturn shouldn't play that big a role in the decision students make about an academic major," said Farouk Dey, director of the career and professional development center at Carnegie Mellon University.
For one thing, he said, the time has long since passed when a worker would enter a profession and stay there for 30 or 40 years. Today people enter one career and evolve into others as they develop new skills. Mr. Dey said he often tells students about the importance of transferable skills.
"When we talk with employers who come and recruit at the university, every year the No. 1 skill they look for is communication, verbal and written," he said. "That continues to be the No. 1 [attribute] in addition to problem-solving, team work, the ability to think creatively, applying technology and interpersonal skills."
Mr. Dey said he recently heard from a major financial services firm that was already talking with finance students but wanted to speak as well with humanities and social sciences students.
"Why? They want people who can write. They want people who can communicate. They want people who can think critically," he said.
While many newly minted graduates have faced a tough road in the job market, there are signs of a rebound from a year or two ago.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers says the job outlook for the Class of 2011 is generally improved, with 47 percent of firms surveyed projecting an increase in college hiring, and only 10 percent predicting they will hire fewer.
The association said it's probably no surprise that employers in its survey this year were most interested in bachelor's degrees within the fields of engineering, business and computer science. They are consistently cited by those in college recruiting and hiring as the most in demand, according to Marilyn Mackes, the association's executive director.
Among graduates in 2010, the average starting salary offer was $48,288, roughly a percentage point lower than the previous year, though figures varied considerably by field. Engineering majors, for example, had an average offer of $58,669 last year, while liberal arts majors received offers averaging $35,508.
Brian Eberman, CEO of StudentAdvisor.com, said education is a long-term investment that must pay out over decades and that students should choose majors that have flexibility and credibility.
It's important for students to assess their skills and interests and to be passionate, he said. Trying to feign enthusiasm for a hot field usually backfires.
"Even in a down economy, the medical field remains robust, but if the student isn't passionate about learning about biology, nursing and health care, then that will be a poor career choice," he said.
"We keep hearing from counselors who say, 'Parents need to stay out of the equation of choosing a major,' " Mr. Eberman said. "Many students choose the major or career based on their parents' expectations and it inevitably causes more years in school -- and more expense."
Catherine Sherman, assistant dean for academic advising at Washington & Jefferson, said students from all disciplines should think of building a varied portfolio of in-class and out-of-class experiences, from campus internships and research to study abroad and campus activities. Mr. Dey and others said companies are increasingly looking at their interns as potential permanent hires.
Students should consider jobs projected to be in demand by the time they finish college, said Marianne Cibulas, career education coordinator with the Quaker Valley School District.
Her school taps into resources such as the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, which offers projections on regional job growth. It says jobs within health care support are forecast to increase the most through 2019, followed by those within education, sales and related positions, business and financial, health care practitioners and technical positions.
She brings career professionals in to talk with students about their fields, and she encourages students to do a job shadow before their senior year. That way they can get a more realistic view of the rhythm of a particular career and "see what they like and don't like," she said.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977. First Published February 10, 2011 5:00 AM