March 8, 2013

Major Confusion over Major Choices?!

Declaring a major is more than simply filling out a form. But it’s also less than locking in a career for the rest of your life.
Photo by Kevin H. from Flickr
through Creative Commons license
Instead, think about choosing a major like planning a trip. You set out to have a meaningful experience, one that takes shape from a purposeful plan. For example:
Step 1: Consider your interests (running with bulls in Pamplona, sitting on a beach, basking in ancient architecture).
Step 2: Identify which options will allow you to explore those interests (Spain? Italy? South Africa?).
Step 3: Evaluate the fit in reality and identify any real expectations that you are either unwilling or incapable of meeting (I don’t want to fly more than 5 hours).
Step 4: Acknowledge the reality of your choices and the mini-goals that they create (I need to get my passport and convince Mom this is a good idea), and ask opinions of the people who influence your life and have more “travel experience” than you do.
Your major selection should mirror this process of considering your interests (love to write, adore science); reviewing options (browsing the list of majors and minors and department websites); evaluating fit (taking classes, exploring internships); acknowledging reality (grades, length of education needed); and asking the opinions of people who influence your life (what will Mom say when she regains consciousness?). This process of decision making does not happen quickly and it can’t be forced.
With over 90 majors at the School of Arts & Sciences, how do you decide which major to choose? You may want to start by asking yourself…
1.       What classes have I enjoyed? This is the best place to start when thinking about possible majors. Which courses have you taken where you genuinely enjoyed the subject material? Think about which classes that sparked an interest and consider taking another course in that area to see if it’s a good fit for you.  Think back to high school if you need to.
2.       What interests me? What is the highlight of your week – the thing that you most look forward to? Think about all of your hobbies. Do you enjoy reading? video gaming? fashion design? lacrosse? For example, an avid gamer might explore majors in computer science, visual arts, or English. By thinking about your genuine interests, you can consider careers and majors that will complement what you already love! If this feels overwhelming, advisers can help you identify potential majors and careers that are related to your interests.
3.       What do I want to do after college? Is there something you are hoping to do after graduation, such as teach, help people, invent things, or produce creative products? Depending on your career plans, you may work backwards to choose a major. *Be careful, though: many students fall into a trap where they think a career in business requires a business major or a career in medicine requires a biology major. There are many roads to the same destination, so speak to a career counselor or academic adviser to consider ALL majors that may be relevant, not just the ones that sound like a job!
4.       What do I want my life to look like? Some students don’t have a particular interest in one area, but they know they want to work outdoors, have summers off, have a flexible work schedule, or travel a lot. By thinking about the lifestyle you want, you can begin to identify and eliminate certain careers and get a better sense of what will ”fit” for you.
When I was growing up, my parents told me, “Find what you love and then figure out a way to get paid for it.” In other words: figure out what you’re excited about enough to do it every day, figure out what you’re good at, and where those things intersect. Then, and only then, do you move on to the specifics of how you pursue it. Don’t start with the “getting paid” part of the formula first – there are many paths to a healthy bank account, and NONE of them involve struggling in material that you can’t connect with.
Choosing a major can be frustrating, whether you’re the type to meticulously plan out every detail of your trip or someone who is happy to let serendipity guide you. In truth, the best prepared students are the ones who do some planning, thinking, and talking about their options but also remain open to unplanned, exciting possibilities. 

Special thanks to Sara Spear (GSE'12) and Molly Rucki (GSE'14) for their good ideas and help with this post!