When it comes to choosing a college major, there’s no shortage of people offering advice. Kiplinger suggests that majoring in computer science is a best bet for students seeking a lucrative career. Bankrate makes the case for engineering. These and other STEM subjects routinely tops lists of highest-paying college majors. But many students who are hoping for solid job prospects after graduation and a successful career choose to major in business. In fact, it’s the most popular undergraduate major in the U.S., with 365,000 people earning business degrees in 2010-2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Studying business can be a way for students to gain both critical thinking and business-specific skills (like accounting or project management), which may make it easier for them to get a job after graduation. “Students who major in business are going to hit the ground running and feel a lot more comfortable a lot more quickly with what they’re doing,” Georgette Chapman Phillips, the vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, told the Wall Street Journal.
Still, a business major is hardly the only path to professional success. Many leaders of top companies didn’t study business or related subjects like accounting or finance at all as undergrads. We looked at the educational background of some 2014 Fortune 500 CEOs and found that it was more diverse than you might expect.
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While most of these top CEOs do have MBAs, they earned their undergraduate degrees in fields as wide-ranging as aeronautical engineering, music, and American studies. Proof, perhaps, that the college major you choose doesn’t necessarily dictate the ultimate course of your career.
1. Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor
Undergraduate major: Aeronautical and astronautical engineering
Not surprisingly, engineers are well-represented among Fortune 500 CEOs, especially near the top of the list, which is dominated by automakers and oil companies, fields where an engineering background is a prerequisite for many jobs.
Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor, (No. 8 on the Fortune 500 list) is among them. He earned bachelor and master of science degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Kansas. That background was a step to a long career at aviation giant Boeing, where he eventually became president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplane, before switching gears and joining Ford in 2006.
2. James McNerney, Boeing
Undergraduate major: American studies
Boeing CEO James McNerney earned a degree in American studies at Yale, which hardly seems like ideal training for the future leader of the country’s biggest aviation company (No. 30 on the Fortune 500). Yet management was likely in his blood. His father was a businessman who was in charge of the integration of health insurers Blue Cross and Blue Shield and was influential in debates around the rollout of Medicare and Medicaid. Perhaps it’s no wonder that McNerney went on to earn an MBA from Harvard and work with Proctor & Gamble, McKinsey & Co., and GE before taking on the CEO job at Boeing in 2006.
3. George Barrett, Cardinal Health
Undergraduate major: Music and history
Majoring in the arts isn’t necessarily an obstacle to business success, as Cardinal Health CEO George Barrett demonstrates. As an undergraduate at Brown University, Barrett studied music and history and even worked as a professional singer for a time, but eventually decided to pursue a different career.
“I loved music, but I didn’t like the life of a musician,” he told the Columbus Dispatch in 2013. “I wanted to sleep at night and be awake during the day; I didn’t like the self-promotion required. I just felt in the pit of my stomach this wasn’t the life I wanted.” His future father-in-law suggested a career in business, eventually offering Barrett a position at a pharmaceutical company he founded. Barrett worked his way up the ladder at different companies and eventually ended up in the top seat at Cardinal (No. 22 on the Fortune 500).
4. Howard Schultz, Starbucks
Communications often gets a bad rap as a major. Salary.com even named it one of the eight college degrees with the worst return on investment. But not all communications majors work for peanuts. Just ask Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks (No. 196 on the Fortune 500).
Brooklyn native Schultz attended Northern Michigan University on a football scholarship and earned a degree in communications. After graduation, he started working in the coffee business as a salesman for Hammarplast, which sold European coffee makers in the U.S. Eventually, he became the company’s director of sales, which was when he discovered a small Seattle chain called Starbucks. In 1982, he joined Starbucks and the rest is history.
5. Michael White, DirecTV
Undergraduate majors: English and Russian
At first glance, DirecTV CEO Michael White’s educational background seems suited to that of a diplomat or politician. He has a B.A. in English and Russian from Boston College and an M.A. in International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University, according to his LinkedIn profile. But that background fits with his long career in international business. Before joining DirecTV (No. 98 on the Fortune 500) in 2010, he was in charge of all international business operations for PepsiCo; previously, he was the president and CEO of Frito-Lay’s Europe, Africa, and Middle East Division, according to Bloomberg.
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