When you’re college-bound, here’s one question you can be sure to hear.
“What are you planning to study?”
Questions about your major will continue when you enter college—deviating slightly if you’re undecided (“Ok, well, which way are you leaning?”), and becoming more persistent if you remain undecided through sophomore year (“Have you at least narrowed it down?”)
The questions don’t stop after you’ve obtained your degree; in many a job interview, the topic of your major surfaces, and early. And even at social gatherings, “What did you study in college?” is a common line of inquiry for people getting to know one another.
In short, the choice of a college major is one that society, and employers, find defining. It is your commitment not only to a particular area of study, but also to a relevant career, and it says a lot about you (perhaps even more than you’d say about yourself).
If you’re a high school junior or senior, and you’re not yet confident about what area of study you’d like to pursue in college, don’t fret. You have plenty of time. (In fact, some would say declaring your major early, at the time of college enrollment, limits your opportunity to experiment and explore different fields, including ones about which you’ve never heard).
On the other hand, just because a college major is a college pursuit doesn’t mean freshman year is when you should get serious about contemplating the field of study you’ll make your own. You can start now.
How, you might ask?
Contemplating your interests in terms of a career is a great place to start. In a previous blog post, I talked about how high school is a valuable time to shadow professionals in different fields. If you’ve had some of these experiences and know, for example, that you’re interested in engineering, talk to individuals in this profession. Ask them which major they pursued. (Note that the link between college major and career path is not always direct. Engineers, for example, often pursue majors in specialty areas, like mechanical or civil engineering. But in some cases, they may have majored in seemingly unrelated topics, recognized they were good problem solvers—a huge part of the job of an engineer—and gone on to pursue engineering-focused coursework either as part of their college experience, or after. The path to arrive at a career can vary, but it will undoubtedly contain certain key elements. Get to know what those are by talking to people in the field that interests you about their education.)
Stepping back a bit, if you haven’t yet established your interests in terms of a career, take the opportunity to be proactive. Bear in mind what you’ve enjoyed, and think critically about where you’ve excelled. These experiences provide a guidepost; you will undoubtedly do good work if you enjoy what you are doing—so incorporate established interests in your freshman class schedule.
Meanwhile, because you often don’t have to choose a major until the end of your sophomore year, your coursework during this time can comprise a diverse range. Carpe diem! And as you take a variety of classes, don’t fret that you’re “wasting” time; you’ll earn credits that count toward your degree, no matter your major. (Do keep in mind that some majors—like biochemistry—require numerous courses taken in a specific order. Embarking on one these after your first year might mean you’ll take a little longer to complete your degree. However, even before you formally declare what you plan to major in, you can begin taking classes in a particular field.)
If you sign up for a schedule that is jam-packed but you’d still like to slip into that finance course to see if the material sparks your interest, be open to auditing; ask the professor if you can sit in—without doing homework, taking tests, or getting credit, but giving yourself a chance to hear course discussions.
The key throughout this process is to be hands-on; sign up for classes you know you’ll enjoy, as well as classes that may be completely foreign to you. Go the extra mile to have additional academic opportunities. It’s all about collecting the information you need to help you make your choice. One thing to consider as part of this process is that those who don’t seek immediate satisfaction tend to find lasting satisfaction; some courses (say, statistics) might not excite you at first blush, but the overall degree they will earn can open the door to some pretty exciting careers.
Lastly, recognize that if there is a course of study you’d really like to pursue but it is not available as a traditional major, you might be able to work with college faculty to create an individualized one. In this scenario, you select a theme and then develop it with courses from a number of different traditional major tracks.
When choosing a major, not only do you have to contemplate your interests and strengths (something you can begin to do in high school), and put yourself in fields of study that inspire you to learn. It could also be helpful to think a bit farther ahead—to critically evaluate job needs today, in this country, and abroad. It’s equally important to contemplate challenges you might face once you’ve got gotten your degree and are pursuing a certain job (something those in your field of interest could speak to). For example, it may be that more and more hospitals are looking for doctors who specialize in a particular area, or speak a particular language. In identifying job needs and challenges early on, you can work to equip yourself with a desirable skill set—one that will make you truly competitive.
I would also note that a college major does not align directly with a particular job. A history major could run a business, just as an historian could have studied physics, for his/her major. But in the end, the intensity you put on certain studies will dictate your appeal as you apply for jobs.
Meagan Phelan holds an M.A. in Science Writing from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and a B.A. in Biology from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. She has freelanced as a science writer and is a Fulbright Scholar. She currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe risk modeling firm based in Boston.
What was your major in college? Did you pursue a related career with that major?
Post your tips/comments below.