A student recently emailed me this question and my gut reaction was “Do what brings YOU value.” Too often, students focus on what they learned for years: make your application/resume look good. No hiring manager will choose a candidate based on a minor. But they will choose a new engineer whose passion expresses itself through the achievement of a minor. As such, any minor must tie off with your personal passion and potential career path. Let’s look at a few potential minor options:
This minor is worth looking at if think sales or management is in your future. Here’s the downside to a business minor – it is vanilla. Anyone worker is going to be exposed to business in some context. Thus, having a spotty amount of formal business training prior to entering the workforce probably isn’t going to be a big differentiator. The caveat here is if you pick a subset of business for which you feel a particular passion such as marketing, management, or entrepreneurship. Generally speaking, I advise either getting MBA or nothing at all.
English may be the most underrated minor out there. A fascinating study says that liberal arts majors earn as much as their STEM major peers. The latest technical skills in high demand become obsolete when technology progresses. Additionally, as technology processes, many STEM job functions are subject to automation.
Another reason to look at an English degree? Many engineers can’t be bothered to spell correctly and have a poor command of the English language. Know how to do both and you will appear to be a genius.
Foreign language is more likely to be a differentiator, given this provision: only get it if you plan to be conversational in the language. Merely taking a few classes does little, but learning a language could bring a really interesting differentiator. Much of the fabricator and manufacturing labor staff speak Spanish, so the ability to communicate directly with welders and machinists is tremendous. A language outside of Spanish is a good choice if you are looking to do work in China, Montreal, or a particular region. English remains the international language of business but speaking a particular language could pay off in droves if there is a path to beginning a career in that field.
Physics, Math, or Another Hard Science
Minor in another hard science? You are a super engineer. This is a good choice for people that are really passionate about going the technical route. For instance, if you study mechanical engineering with a minor in physics, you are setting yourself up to be a research and development engineer. Can you be an R&D engineer without a minor? Of course. But adding a hard science adds another dimension of understanding to engineering.
History, Arts, or Something Kind of Random
If you get this kind of minor, you are probably doing so chiefly for yourself and nobody else. Congrats. By crossing disparate fields of study such as engineering and music, you are well on your way. The downside? The value of such a minor will be completely lost on mega-corporations who are looking to check prescribed boxes to fill out their team. In fact, in several cases, it may be a disadvantage because well-meaning hiring managers will think “he/she is unfocused or distracted by other pursuits.” Congratulations, you don’t want to work for that kind of employer anyway.
Eh, probably not. These days, you can’t make it through an engineering curriculum without some exposure to computer science. But taking the minor route probably won’t turn you into an effective programmer in such a few hours. Not to mention, by the time the computer science curriculum hits academia, it’s usually outdated. A better bet is to learn how to code yourself via Udemy, online tutorials, and the like. The caveat here is if you do want to impress a big company that builds an integrated hardware/software product and feasts on impressive academic credentials.
The Opportunity Cost
There is always an opportunity cost from pursuing a minor. The time that you are spending pursuing a minor? It might be a drag on your GPA. More importantly, you could be playing chess, running an e-commerce business, lifting weights, or socializing with friends. If any of those pursuits sound frivolous, remember your time in university is short. There’s a lot of life to be lived post-college.
And none of it in a straightforward, prescribed path to which you have grown accustomed.
Which is Best?
So which is the best minor? There is not a generic answer to this question, but there is a wrong minor. The wrong minor is pursued with the idea there will be a concrete monetary gain, a leg up in that engineering interview or a prestige bump. The right minor is pursued because of a thirst for knowledge, a desire for self-improvement, and a focus on the fundamentals of knowledge building. I leave you with a quote from the great Bill Walsh:
I directed our focus less to the prize of victory than to the process of improving — obsessing, perhaps, about the quality of our execution and the content of our thinking; that is, our actions and attitude. I knew if I did that, winning would take care of itself.