Major stress?!

How to choose a major-by Olo

There are two reasons to choose a major: to prepare for a specific field or job, or to immerse yourself in a subject that fascinates you.

Some students choose a major because it will prepare them for a specific career path. Career–focused majors include engineering, business, education or nursing. If you are committed to a vocation, majoring in it will give you specific, practical skills that will be directly applicable to your post–graduation career.

Other students choose a major simply because they love the subject matter. If you choose this path, you may pursue a career that has little to do with what you studied in college. That doesn’t mean you’ll graduate without skills, however. For example, most history majors don’t become historians, but they do graduate with critical thinking and writing abilities that are highly valued by employers.

Here are some ideas on how to start your search for the right major:

Myth #87:   The best way to find out about a major is to take courses in it.

Scheduling an introductory course is one way to learn about a particular major, but it may not be the best way, especially if you’re just starting the exploration process. Here’s why:

1. Some introductory courses will not give you a good idea of what the major is like. For example, taking a non-technical introductory course in astronomy won’t tell you just how much math and physics are involved in the Astronomy and Astrophysics major.

2. Sometimes it’s impossible for students to schedule courses in a major until after they’re actually enrolled in that major. (That could be as late as the junior year.)

3. If you schedule a course just to learn more about a major and then decide not to choose that major, you’ll have eliminated one major but you won’t have chosen one. Deciding on majors by eliminating them one course at a time is inefficient and time-consuming.

4. You can often learn a lot about a course and a major just by looking through the required textbooks, reading the course syllabus, and sitting in on a few class meetings before deciding whether or not to schedule a course in that major.

Myth #42:   I should get my Gen Eds out of the way first.

Penn State has a long list of General Education courses to choose from, but not every course on the list can be used in every major. Here are some examples:

1. Students can’t use courses from their own majors to meet certain General Education requirements (for example, a student majoring in history can’t use any history courses to meet the humanities or social science requirements, even if the courses are on the General Education list).

2. In some majors, certain General Education courses can “double count” with other courses required in the major; in other majors, those same General Education courses won’t double count.

3. Although students in some majors can select any General Education natural science courses, students in other majors must select two or three different types of natural sciences courses and sometimes must have a lab course. In technical majors, students must schedule very specific natural science courses and may not be allowed to use non-technical science courses at all—even as electives.

4. You could complete all of the General Education courses for one major and find that many of them won’t count in other majors. You could even end up not qualifying for a particular major because you didn’t take the right General Education courses.

So you can see that while you’re exploring majors, you need to select your General Education courses very carefully. Your adviser can help you with this selection.

Myth #3:   Picking a major and a career are the same thing.

Students often think that choosing a major is the same thing as choosing a career (and vice-versa). Although these two choices are related, choosing one doesn’t automatically mean you’ve chosen the other. Here are just a few examples:

1. Some people assume that students who major in the arts, humanities, or social sciences are either not qualified for any jobs (“What can you do with a degree in philosophy?”) or qualified only for careers in those specific areas. Actually, students who major in theatre, anthropology, history, psychology, and similar majors do find jobs in business, research, human resources, teaching, the military, and a variety of other occupations.

2. Many students who decide they want to be a lawyer automatically assume that they should major in pre-law. The reality is that a student can choose any major and still be accepted into law school. (By the way, Penn State doesn’t even have a pre-law major.)

3. Many students who decide they want to be a doctor assume they should major in pre-med. But students can major in many different areas and still qualify for medical school, as long as they take the right courses, do well on the Medical College Admission Test, etc. In fact, students who are planning to go to med school are often advised not to major in pre-med, in case they decide later not to go to med school or they don’t get accepted into med school. Choosing a major other than pre-med can often give students more options after they graduate.

4. Students graduating from any one major could be employed in many different jobs; likewise, people who are employed in any one job could have graduated from many different majors.

Choosing a major doesn’t limit you to just one career; choosing a career doesn’t limit you to just one major.

Myth #56.4:   My major will determine what I do for the rest of my life.

Did you know that studies have shown that within ten years after graduation, most people are working in careers that aren’t directly related to their undergraduate majors?

Just like students change their majors, graduates change their careers. There are doctors, for example, who decide to become lawyers, and lawyers who decide to become doctors. Although these are unusual examples, it’s not unusual for most people to change careers several times during their professional lives. A teacher, for example, might become a principal or a superintendent, or an engineer might move into a management position.

Most jobs also change over time, whether people want them to or not. Many jobs that exist today will be very different five years from now or may even be obsolete by then. New types of jobs are emerging every year, and most of us have no way of knowing what those jobs will be or what type of education will be needed in order to qualify for them.

The current emphasis in career planning at the undergraduate level is on the development of general, transferrable skills (e.g., writing, speaking, critical thinking, computer literacy, problem solving, team building) that employers want and that graduates will need in order to adjust to rapidly changing careers.

People change; careers change. The connection between the major that you choose now and the career that you’ll find yourself in ten years from now is likely to be very small.

Forget high school. College is a whole new ball game. Subjects you hated as a high school student might turn out to be completely different in a new educational setting. In other words, don’t automatically rule anything out, even if you don’t think it’s for you. Give everything at least a small chance. You never know.

Make the most of the general education courses you’re required to take. Don’t just pick whatever’s easiest; choose ones that appeal to you, even if they are upper–level courses. You don’t yet know what will really compel you. Have your radar on for clues that might be pointing you in new directions.

Talk to your advisors. They know what it takes to tackle certain academic disciplines. Tell them your strengths and your interests. They’ll be able to highlight courses that might excite you as well as classes that are popular with other students. A great class on nihilism may be the thing that gets you to declare a philosophy major.

Check the syllabus. What are the assignments? The books? The requirements? Does the material seem compelling to you? If you start nodding off while reading the course catalogue, perhaps it’s best to cross that field off your list.

Ask upperclassmen. They are the real experts at your college, and they have faced the daunting task of declaring a major themselves. Older students can tell you the questions they considered and how they went about finding the answers.

Engage professionals in fields you find interesting. Ask them exactly what their jobs entail and how their careers do (or don’t) relate to their majors. Learning about the paths others took to get where they are is often valuable and enlightening, and even more often, surprising.

The bottom line is that your major does not determine your life. You should choose a subject that interests you and that has some connection to the post–collegiate life you want to build for yourself. But keep the decision in perspective; you can always change careers or go back to school.


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