The Truth About College Majors

by
Editor, Carnegie Communications

First things first: stop thinking that picking a major is the same as picking a profession. It’s really not, with the exception of specialized fields like nursing, engineering, and accounting. (And even then, no choice is set in stone.)

The funny thing about majors is that they’re generally way more flexible than they seem, particularly in the liberal arts. For example, you can study political science and learn the analytical skills you’ll need working in business. Throw in some varied internship and cooperative education experiences, and you’ll graduate with skills any employer would want.

Still, you may feel pressure to decide now, especially as you pick your first college classes. Don’t worry. Like many freshmen, you’re probably drawn to different fields—or to nothing in particular. But whether you have a major picked out, you’re trying to decide between a few, or you haven’t got a clue, there are plenty of ways to tackle this decision.

Unraveling the major mysteries

When it comes to majors, Craig Plummer, an independent college advisor based in southern New Hampshire, breaks it down to two categories. The first are labor-intensive majors like nursing, engineering, and business (specifically at a business school), where starting off with a declared major is your best bet. If you don’t, it tends to snowball: you miss lots of prerequisite courses, it becomes hard to catch up, and you end up spending more time and money completing your degree. “If they’re even thinking about doing engineering or nursing, start off in that degree,” Plummer says. If students don’t like it, they can switch to another program. “At least you’ve got the gen ed’s (general education requirements) under your belt,” he says. “You haven’t lost any time.”

The second group of majors is much bigger, and there is more wiggle room to move around or be undecided. It encompasses nearly all the other areas of study. But how do you choose? Plummer starts with some basic questions: “What are you excited about? What makes you happy?” He admits they seem generic, but they also work. But don’t just think about the classes and activities you like; think about why you like them. “Are you good at chemistry because you’re really good at writing up the lab?” Plummer asks. “Or does it make you want to do independent research?”

With the sciences, a focused major can definitely put you on the fast track to the corresponding career: e.g., major in marine biology, become a marine biologist. But what if you just happen to have an interest in science, with no clear picture of what you want to do? There are plenty of foundational majors, such as chemistry or biology, that will allow you to explore different scientific fields, preparing you for a number of careers. As your college career progresses, you can build on a simple science major with more specialized classes, internships, student-faculty research projects, or perhaps pursue a second major or a minor. It’s often these extracurricular activities that help you explore your interests and discover what you really want to do in the real world. (Check out our collection of engineering-related majors, including the potential jobs they lead to, here!)

Many counselors recommend self-reflection to help make that major decision: set aside time to think about what makes you tick. Write down what you like and don’t like to do. Make note of the classes that really hold your interest and extracurricular activities you love. There are aptitude and personality tests that are supposed to pinpoint fields you’d do well in, but you can gather comparable information on your own (for free).

“I encourage students to approach deciding on a major by being curious and open-minded,” says Ellen Crabtree, the Associate Director of Academic Advising at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. “It’s important for students to consider their own interests, hobbies, and values--to know themselves--as they approach the major decision.” Think about your life and career goals and what majors might support them.

If you get sick of all the inward searching, try talking with friends and family. What do they think about your skills? Your personality? They may provide interesting insights. You can also chat with faculty, students, alumni, and admission personnel at the colleges you’re considering. The campus visit is a great time to do that, and if you get the chance to talk to the head of a department that interests you, take advantage!

Recent college graduate Lisa Hayes says her interest in chemistry in high school led her to choosing biochemistry as a major at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. After a few years of chemistry classes, she says the major became a viable possibility. “I had found something I was good at,” she says. “It was easy for me.”

Hayes knew she would enjoy a career in chemistry because she liked her college courses. “Follow your passion,” she advises. “If I wasn’t passionate about chemistry, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much.”

What came first: the major or the career?

“Be forward-thinking,” says Joshua Waddell, the Director of Career Services at Oklahoma City University. “Rather than choose a major and hope a career comes out of it,” really concentrate on the kind of job (or jobs) you want. Make an action plan that will help you reach an ideal career, where the last step is picking a major.

And if you really want to open up your options, consider double majors and/or minors. Meet with your academic advisor to plan a smart course schedule to avoid taking extra classes and still meet the requirements for both majors.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a useful resource: the Occupational Outlook Handbook. It describes hundreds of jobs, including the degree required, typical duties, and average salary. Once you’ve compiled a list of fields that spark your interest, it won’t take long to research them using the Handbook. It answers lots of specific questions—and if it inspires you to think of new questions, then maybe you’ve found a winner.

“Find something you love learning about. If you don’t, your college career will be painful,” says Katrina Wells, a recent graduate of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. She chose a double major in math and history, plus a minor in English communications. “I have always been interested in mathematics throughout school and have aspired to help others gain a respect and appreciation for the discipline,” she says. In general, mathematics majors are extremely versatile, because they possess reasoning and analytical skills in addition to being number savvy. Majoring in math can lead to a variety of careers, from biostatistician to lawyer to computer scientist. It’s also a highly sought-after teaching specialty, so if you have what it takes to face a room full of young minds, it’s a promising career path. “I also found history--primarily social and political history--to be of interest after taking geography and government courses in high school,” she says. “I decided to take these two things that I love learning about as my majors.”

If you have varied interests like Wells, you might be interested in an interdisciplinary major, which allows you to combine subjects without going the heavy-duty double major route. They require more work and planning than a traditional major, and they need administrative approval, but they offer tons of flexibility.

The case for “undecided” majors

“I love undecided students. I think they are much more honest and much more open minded,” says John Bader, an Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Advising at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To Bader and the many in agreement with him, the student who bravely answers, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” shows integrity. “It really means you’re open,” adds Waddell. “I like the word ‘deciding’ students.”

In the past, undecided and undeclared majors had a negative connotation: those students were considered unfocused, says Plummer. Not anymore. “Colleges don’t care,” he says. “They know it all works out in the long run.” However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some ideas as to what you want to do.

“When I meet with undecided students, we begin by discussing their interests and activities,” says Crabtree. “Often, undecided students are overwhelmed with the process, have limited information about possible majors and careers, and just aren’t sure how to get started.” To get the ball rolling, students should explore their options. “Ways to do this are by taking exploratory classes, talking with faculty, researching in the career center, and talking with friends and family whose careers are interesting.”

“I believe it helps tremendously to speak with people who are doing what you are interested in, and perhaps even visit their work site,” says Carol Spector, the Director of Career Services at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. Informational interviews can be very helpful in narrowing down your choices. Career services offices are usually good at arranging them too, allowing you to meet professionals to learn more about what they do, perhaps for lunch or to shadow them for a day.

You can use other academic opportunities to explore majors, like attending lectures in different departments. Try reading summaries of classes online to get a glimpse at the topics discussed. And there’s nothing stopping you from going to the campus bookstore to check out their textbook selection, just to get a sneak peek at what you would be studying under any given major, Bader says.

Yet, as great as all this freedom sounds, there is a “practical limit” to being undecided. Though attitudes toward undeclared majors are changing, students don’t always have the same scholarship consideration. And if you wait too long to declare a major, it may take longer than expected to finish your degree. That’s another summer session, half year, year, or more in tuition, and not all scholarships and federal loans extend beyond four years.

“At some point, you do have to make some kind of decision,” Bader says. “You can’t be purely undecided.” He suggests narrowing your options to three to five majors, and “for a while, keep all of them alive by carefully choosing courses.” It’s certainly feasible to enter undeclared and still finish in four years—but you need to be strategic.

That means taking broad-based courses like history, which can be applied to four or five majors (for example, it could be used toward majors in international studies, east Asian studies, anthropology, political science, and straight-up history). As Bader quips: “Just because you’re undecided doesn’t mean you’re stupid—and you shouldn’t act stupidly.”

Think of each class as a chance to gain exposure to a potential major. Just don’t sign up for specialized classes; get your general education requirements out of the way, says 2010 college graduate Joshua McCay.

Even as a little kid, McCay says he knew he wanted to be in a federal agency like the FBI. As a psychology major at Dominican University of California, he did just that. But he still arrived at DUC as undeclared. For McCay, the only certainty was playing lacrosse.

He enrolled in the University’s Vision Quest course, which helps undecided students find their niche. (Many colleges offer similar classes.) Then, DUC hosted a career fair during his sophomore year. McCay says he talked to the attending FBI agents for about an hour and a half. That conversation sealed the deal.

McCay took his time declaring a major, and he recommends other students do the same. Don’t rush into it, he says. “You can always change later on.” A member of the lacrosse team, the Psi Chi fraternity, and the Student Ambassador Captain, he recommends joining lots of campus clubs as part of your investigating too. “Don’t be afraid to talk to older students,” he says. “Learn from their mistakes.”

In the end

In an ideal world, college would be a time to enjoy learning for learning’s sake without worrying about whether it will land you a good job. Of course, it’s hard to forget about the job part, but here is the dirty little secret about majors and how they're viewed in the "real world": “In the long run, it doesn’t matter at all,” says Bader. The major you choose as an undergrad will not define your life, if it even affects it at all. You can be a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in art history. Then again, you can study pre-law and end up running your own bakery.

“Take the pressure off of yourself,” Bader says. “Don’t feel that it’s a contract.” Your major should give you a basic skill set that you can build upon as you gain work experience, but your career is whatever you make it.

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