Here’s a challenge: ask a bunch of 5-year-old kids what they want to be when they grow up.

Spoiler alert: most kids probably aren’t going to say biomedical engineer, computer scientist, or electrical engineer. After looking past the future dinosaur hunters, ninja turtles, princesses, and Power Rangers, some will go for real professions like singing, dancing, acting and playing sports.

Now do an Internet search of “college majors.” A fork in the road is here, where you can click “best college majors” or “worst college majors.”

According to five of these lists, the worst majors for college students are anthropology (twice), communication, creative writing, and theatre. The best are agriculture and natural resources, biomedical engineering, computer science, and electrical engineering.

These definitive, end-all-be-all lists are meant to guide potential students. The difference between a life with Lamborghinis, yachts, and private islands, and living in a van down by the river hinges on one choice – kind of.

“It’s good fodder for conversation, and it’s sometimes humorous,” Walid Afifi , director of the University of Iowa’s Department of Communication Studies, said about the career lists. “It’s headlines. It’s not much content with details, and it’s relevant to a lot of people. That’s a good combination for (lists) to go viral.”

These lists operate on worth. defines worth as “usefulness or importance, as to the world, to a person, or for a purpose.”

In contrast, worthy and worthless major lists simplify worth into two criteria: salary and employment rate. looks at salary while the Huffington Post looks at unemployment rate. Forbes and The Daily Beast look at a combination of the two, and with no identifiable criteria, Complex appears to have used the science of opinion and subjectivity.

Alan MacVey, professor and chair, University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department
Alan MacVey, professor and chair, University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department

Alan MacVey, chair of the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department, sees more to worth than salary and employment rates.

“There’s a saying in the theater: ‘If you can be happy doing anything else besides being an actor, do that,’” he said. “The fact is, most people do this profession because they love it.”

In February, the Iowa theater department sold out two weeks for Good Kids, a play that demonstrated the warning signs and dangers of sexual assault among underage drinkers. The play might have been alarming for parents of young men and women but one hope is that it influenced some spectators in a way that could prevent a future sexual assault.

“I’m coming from a great art school, and that really says something about me,” said Christian Hahn, one of the play’s actors and entering his junior year at the University of Iowa.

“You just have to want to do it,” Hahn, 21, of Bettendorf, said.

READ MORE FROM THEATRE ARTS MAJORS IN THIS COMPANION STORY: “Behind That Heavily Criticized Theater Major: Experiences, Skills For Multiple Jobs”

MacVey said potential theater majors can find more of what they want than just a job from a theater education, like creativity, teamwork and increased curiosity. They also can demonstrate the ability to work on deadline and being confident in front of people.

“These things are really important in today’s world, in some ways more than they used to be,” he said.

These skills are useful for a job interview in any field. Kevin Krause, a University of Iowa lecturer on entrepreneurship, specializes in marketing and has hired people for banks, professional sports teams, and retail stores for a vast array of positions.


Kevin Krause, University of Iowa lecturer
Kevin Krause, University of Iowa lecturer

Krause said he looks at majors on job applicants’ résumés. Meanwhile, applicants have to sell their abilities.

But if I’m going to hire someone for a marketing or business-related job, and their degree is in physics, I might wonder if that’s a good fit,” Krause said. “In that situation, I may ask them: ‘How does your major help, or how is it beneficial to you in this role?’ and see how they apply that and see if they can see things that I couldn’t.”

He said majors have less of an impact the farther applicants get from graduation, because job experience plays a larger role.

Lynne Sebille-White, senior director of career advancement at the University of Iowa, said the major should not affect someone’s ability to get a job. She encourages students to seek out help from a career center as early as possible and to do what they are passionate about.

“If you plan ahead and use the resources that are available to you, you’ll find success when you graduate regardless of what your major is,” she said.

Walid Afifi, University of Iowa
Walid Afifi, University of Iowa

Even though communication is listed on several “worthless major” lists, Afifi doesn’t see it that way. He noted that employers, like Krause, look for qualities in employees that demonstrate the worth of a communication studies major.

“Something like 98 percent of employers talk about communication skills and an appreciation for communication being the central thing they look at when hiring people,” Afifi said. “If that reflects a bad major, I’m not sure what goes into a good major.”

Effective communication isn’t a measurable quality, but some majors on worthless major lists help students in ways that can be measured. David Cunning, chairman of the University of Iowa’s Department of Philosophy, said philosophy is a practical major for any student and teaches problem solving skills needed in the work place. He pointed to standardized test scores earned by philosophy majors as evidence.

According to the American Philosophical Association, philosophy majors tied economics majors with the highest average score on the Law School Admissions Test, ranking ahead of majors like engineering, finance, and psychology. Philosophy majors also have the highest rate of admission to law school.

Creative writing is the worst major, according to Complex. Creative writing is a track within the University of Iowa’s English major. Jeffrey Porter, head of the creative writing program, said students in creative writing get well-rounded liberal arts educations.

Jeff Porter, University of Iowa
Jeff Porter, University of Iowa

The University of Iowa is home to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and Iowa City is one of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Cities of Literature, the only U.S. city listed. Essentially, students in Iowa’s creative writing program are learning to write in the literary capital of the United States.

“Students with interpretive and analytical skills, not to mention highly developed writing expertise, are very attractive to employers across the board,” Porter said. “Headhunters may not come knocking at your door, but an imaginative and diligent liberal arts major will not go jobless for long.”

This raises the question of why these lists are littered with liberal arts majors like journalism, art, music, and religious studies.

“We were founded on the idea that we are developing good citizens and smart individuals,” Afifi said. “When there’s a sense that no longer matters, I really worry about what the implication is for our nation.”

Afifi also said the perception of liberal arts is a big problem. Worthless major lists center on the ability to get a job while earning a substantial amount of money, but that is the extent of the criteria. The lists don’t account for other potential benefits like job satisfaction and improved citizenry.

Yet, the University of Iowa career center has employment statistics from recent graduates that show students from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have found employment on par with or better than those from the colleges of business, engineering, and education over the last three years.

Efforts to reach several editors of publications that conduct best and worst majors lists were unsuccessful.

This IowaWatch story was published by The Des Moines Register, Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) and Sioux City Journal under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.


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