The Spring semester is ready to start and for many of you it is probably time to start thinking about choosing a major, or if you already have a major, deciding if your major is best for you. Just to be clear a major involves the concentrated study of a specialty area. These specialty areas are referred to as “disciplines”. Psychology is a discipline. Similarly, disciplines include English, Hispanic Studies, Economics, Mechanical Engineering…I think you get the picture! It is possible to have two majors–a “double-major” for those who have two primary interests.
It would be nice if I could simply tell you what to major in, but that decision has to be yours (no matter how much your parents think it should be their decision!). For some of you choosing a major will be relatively easy. Let’s say you want to be an accountant, you will major in Accounting. In this example, your major allows you to enter a profession upon graduating. This example is what we call a “vocational major” and it involves an applied career. Other vocational majors include Nursing, Education, Architecture, Engineering, and Journalism.
There may be some of you who are also clear on your professional career goals in other fields. As examples, you may be interested in Medicine (not just being a doctor, but a physician’s assistant or physical therapist), Dentistry, or Law. You should understand that there is not a major (e.g., “medical doctor” major) for any of the careers just listed. If you have one of these career goals you will typically choose a major in a discipline directly related to Medicine (e.g., Biology or Chemistry), Dentistry (e.g., Biology or Chemistry), or Law (e.g., Political Science). After graduating with your undergraduate degree, you will then apply to a specific “professional school” to get a graduate degree. For example, if you want to be a doctor you will hopefully get into a medical school and graduate with a graduate degree—an M.D. (Medical Doctor). All of these fields have changed quite a bit in recent years and you do not necessarily have to major in a directly related field. In fact, you can major in anything as long as the courses you take meet the requirements of the medical school, dental school, or law school you would like to attend. As an example, I can tell you that there are an ever-increasing number of Psychology majors who apply to medical school and law school.
Unlike the examples of specific careers above, it is important to keep in mind that most majors prepare you for a range of job opportunities and professions. For example, if you decide to major in History the job opportunities include: advertising executive, analyst, archivist, broadcaster, campaign worker, consultant, congressional aide, editor, foreign service officer, foundation staffer, information specialist, intelligence agent, journalist, legal assistant, lobbyist, personnel manager, public relations staffer, researcher, and teacher. For many students, having a major with multiple career options is a real advantage.
If you really do not know what to major in, try to keep calm about it. You will start college as “Undeclared” or “Undecided”, but you will be fine for two reasons. First, at most four-year colleges and universities, you are not required to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year. Second, it is important that you take the time and effort necessary to make an informed choice. This way, in the end you will be rewarded with a major that will help guide you to a successful career. Exploring different majors will require some research, including reading about different majors, talking to others students and faculty and even taking a course in various majors. Other ways to help you decide about majoring is searching the Internet, reading about different majors, talking to your academic advisor, talking to your parents, going to the Career Center on campus, attending meetings of student organizations and clubs, and reading campus bulletins. One thing I will add about taking classes in different disciplines is that while all students seem to know what certain majors are about (e.g., Biology and Psychology), until you take an Anthropology or a Geology course you may not really understand what career possibilities there are in these lesser known majors. As a student said to me, “When I came to college I didn’t have my major chosen and I would advise people to explore. Say you do know what your major is, still explore different classes. That’s what your first two years are for. Then if you don’t like your major you’ve already found out. You don’t want to find out your senior year.” A faculty colleague also said to me: “Shop around! Take a broad assortment of classes and see what is the best fit. Don’t be afraid to try out a class that you think you might hate. Make sure that you pick a major that will help you think about the world in a new way.”
There is one final point to make about majors: Changing your major is not the end of the world. On the one hand, it is OK to change your major because it is critical that you decide on a major that is best for you. In fact, some students will change majors several times before deciding on a good fit. On the other hand, it is important to understand that when you change majors you always risk delaying your graduation date, hopefully by just a little but possibly by a lot. This may occur because certain courses you need for one major do not fulfill requirements for another major. In addition, your new major may require additional courses to be taken. Of course, you should check out all requirements for a major you like and discuss the implications of switching majors with your academic advisor.