14 Chapter 14: College Majors

Chapter 14: College Majors

Dr. Patricia Munsch, Lumen Learning, and Linda (Bruce) Hill

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

  – Dr. Seuss

Dr. Patricia Munsch
There is a tremendous amount of stress placed on college students regarding their choice of major. Everyday, I meet with students regarding their concern about choosing right major; the path that will lead to a fantastic, high-paying position in a growth industry. There is a hope that one decision, your college major, will have a huge impact on the rest of your life.

Students shy away from subject areas they enjoy due to fear that such coursework will not lead to a job. I am disappointed in this approach. As a counselor I always ask—what do you enjoy studying? Based on this answer it is generally easy to choose a major or a family of majors. I recognize the incredible pressure to secure employment after graduation, but forcing yourself to choose a major that you may not have any actual interest in because a book or website mentioned the area of growth may not lead to the happiness you predict.

Working in a college setting I have the opportunity to work with students through all walks of life, and I do believe based on my experience, that choosing a major because it is listed as a growth area alone is not a good idea. Use your time in college to explore all areas of interest and utilize your campus resources to help you make connections between your joy in a subject matter and the potential career paths. Realize that for most people, in most careers, the undergraduate major does not lead to a linear career path.

As an undergraduate student I majored in Political Science, an area that I had an interest in, but I added minors
in Sociology and Women’s Studies as my educational pursuits broadened. Today, as a counselor, I look back on my coursework with happy memories of exploring new ideas, critically analyzing my own assumptions, and developing an appreciation of social and behavioral sciences. So to impart my wisdom in regards to a student’s college major, I will always ask, what do you enjoy studying?

Once you have determined what you enjoy studying, the real work begins. Students need to seek out academic
advisement. Academic advisement means many different things; it can include course selection, course completion for graduation, mapping coursework to graduation, developing opportunities within your major and mentorship.

As a student I utilized a faculty member in my department for semester course selection, and I also went to the
department chairperson to organize two different internships to explore different career paths. In addition, I sought mentorship from club advisors as I questioned my career path and future goals. In my mind I had a team of people providing me support and guidance, and as a result I had a great college experience and an easy transition from school to work.

I recommend to all students that I meet with to create their own team. As a counselor I can certainly be a part of their team, but I should not be the only resource. Connect with faculty in your department or in your favorite subject. Seek out internships as you think about the transition from college to workplace. Find mentors through faculty, club advisors, or college staff. We all want to see you succeed and are happy to be a part of your journey.

As a counselor I am always shocked when students do not understand what courses they need to take, what grade point average they need to maintain, and what requirements they must fulfill in order to reach their goal—graduation! Understand that as a college student it is your responsibility to read your college catalog and meet all of the requirements for graduation from your college. I always suggest that students, starting in their first semester, outline or map out all of the courses they need to take in order to graduate. Of course you may change your mind along the way, but by setting out your plan to graduation you are forcing yourself to learn what is required of you.

I do this exercise in my classes and it is by far the most frustrating for students. They want to live in the now and they don’t want to worry about next semester or next year. However, for many students that I see, the consequence of this decision is a second semester senior year filled with courses that the student avoided during all the previous semesters. If you purposefully outline all of your courses and coursework for each semester, you can balance your schedule, understand your curriculum, and feel confident that you will reach your goal.

Your Major

Lumen Learning and Linda (Bruce) Hill

In the United States and Canada, your academic major—simply called “your major”—is the academic discipline you commit to as an undergraduate student. It’s an area you specialize in, such as accounting, chemistry, criminology, archeology, digital arts, or dance. In United States colleges and universities, roughly 2,000 majors are offered. And within each major is a host of core courses and electives. When you successfully complete the required courses in your major, you qualify for a degree.

Where did the term major come from? In 1877, it first appeared in a Johns Hopkins University catalogue. That major required only two years of study. Later, in 1910, Abbott Lawrence Lowell introduced the academic major system to Harvard University during his time as president there. This major required students to complete courses in a specialized discipline and also in other subjects. Variations of this system are now the norm in higher education institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

Why is your major important? It’s important because it’s a defining and organizing feature of your undergraduate degree. Ultimately, your major should provide you with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviors you need to fulfill your college goals and objectives.

In this section we look at how to select your major and how your college major may correlate with a career. Does your major matter to your career? What happens if you change your major? Does changing your major mean you must change your career? Read on to find out!

How to Select Your College Major

Selecting your major is one of the most exciting tasks (and, to some students, perhaps one of the most nerve-wracking tasks) you are asked to perform in college. So many decisions are tied to it. But if you have good guidance, patience, and enthusiasm, the process is easier. Two videos, below, the first is a good reminder that if you have a lot of uncertainty, it is okay to begin with some active brainstorming and then ultimately if you can wait to decide, do so.

Video: Why Choosing Majors Can Be Hard

The next video shares nine tips:

  1. Narrow your choices by deciding what you don’t like.
  2. Explore careers that might interest you. Ask questions.
  3. Use your school’s resources.
  4. Ask your teacher, counselor, and family about your strengths.
  5. Sixty percent of students change their majors.
  6. Your major isn’t going to define your life. But choosing one that interests you will make your college experience much more rewarding.
  7. Go on informational interviews with people in careers that interest you.
  8. There’s no pressure to decide now.
  9. Take new classes and discover your interests.

Video: How to Select Your College Major – WiseChoice

Does Your College Major Matter to Your Career?

There are few topics about college that create more controversy than “Does your major really matter to your career?” Many people think it does; others think it’s not so important. Who is right? And who gets to weigh in? Also, how do you measure whether something “matters”—by salary, happiness, personal satisfaction?

It may be difficult to say for sure whether your major truly matters to your career. One’s college major and ultimate career are not necessarily correlated. Consider the following factoids:

  • Fifty to seventy percent of college students change their major at least once during their time in college.
  • Most majors lead to a wide variety of opportunities rather than to one specific career, although some majors do indeed lead to specific careers.
  • Many students say that the skills they gain in college will be useful on the job no matter what they major in.
  • Only half of graduating seniors accept a job directly related to their major.
  • Career planning for most undergraduates focuses on developing general, transferrable skills like speaking, writing, critical thinking, computer literacy, problem-solving, and team building, because these are skills that employers want.
  • College graduates often cite the following four factors as being critical to their job and career choices: personal satisfaction, enjoyment, opportunity to use skills and abilities, and personal development.
  • Within ten years of graduation, most people work in careers that aren’t directly related to their majors.
  • Many or most jobs that exist today will be very different five years from now.

It’s also important to talk about financial considerations in choosing a major.

  • Any major you choose will likely benefit you because college graduates earn roughly $1 million more than high school graduates, on average, over an entire career.
  • Even though humanities and social sciences students may earn less money right after college, they may earn more by the time they reach their peak salary than students who had STEM majors.
  • Students who major in the humanities and social science are also more likely to get advanced degrees, which increases annual salary by nearly $20,000 at peak salary.

So where will you stand with regard to these statistics? Is it possible to have a good marriage between your major, your skills, job satisfaction, job security, and earnings?

Here to share a personal story about selecting your college major and finding the right career fit is Marc Luber, host of Careers Out There. Enjoy his insights, which he sums up with, “Focus on what makes you tick, and run with it.”

Video: Choosing a College Major & Finding the Right Career Fit

The best guidance on choosing a major and connecting it with a career may be to get good academic and career advice and select a major that reflects your greatest interests. If you don’t like law or medicine but you major in it because of a certain salary expectation, you may later find yourself in an unrelated job that brings you greater satisfaction—even if the salary is lower. If this is the case, will it make more sense, looking back, to spend your time and tuition dollars studying a subject you especially enjoy?

Resources

“Success doesn’t come to you . . . you go to it.”

– Dr. Marva Collins

This quote really sets the stage for the journey you’re on. Your journey may be a straight line that connects the dots between today and your future, or it may resemble a twisted road with curves, bumps, hurdles, and alternate routes.

To help you navigate your pathway to career success, take advantage of all the resources available to you. Your college, your community, and the wider body of higher-education institutions and organizations have many tools to help you with career development. Be sure to take advantage of the following resources:

  • College course catalog: Course catalogs are typically rich with information that can spark ideas and inspiration for your major and your career.
  • Faculty and academic advisers at your college: Many college professors are also practitioners in their fields, and can share insights with you about related professions.
  • Fellow students and graduating seniors: Many of your classmates, especially those who share your major, may have had experiences that can inform and enlighten you—for instance, an internship with an employer or a job interview with someone who could be contacted for more information.
  • Students who have graduated: Most colleges and universities have active alumni programs with networking resources that can help you make important decisions.
  • Your family and social communities: Contact friends and family members who can weigh in with their thoughts and experience.
  • A career center: Professionals in career centers have a wealth of information to share with you—they’re also very good at listening and can act as a sounding board for you to try out your ideas.

Many organizations have free materials that can provide guidance, such as the ones in the table, below:

WEB SITE DESCRIPTION
1 List of College Majors (MyMajors) A list of more than 1,800 college majors—major pages include description, courses, careers, salary, related majors and colleges offering major
2 Take the College Major Profile Quiz (About.com) Quiz is designed to help students think about college majors, personality traits, and how they may fit within different areas of study
3 Choosing a College Major Worksheet (Quint Careers) A six-step process to finding a college major
4 Common Mistakes Students Make in Choosing a Major (Wayne State University) Lists common misperceptions about choosing a major and explains how these misperceptions can cloud future plans
5 Best college majors for your career 2015-2016 (Yahoo.com) Explore a detailed list of the top ten majors that give students the greatest potential for success in the workplace, good incomes, and ample job opportunities
6 Explore Careers (BigFuture/The College Board) Explore careers by selecting “Show me majors that match my interests,” “Show me new career ideas,” and “Show me how others made their choices”
7 The College Major: What It Is and How To Choose One (BigFuture/The College Board) When to choose a major, how to choose a major, “you can change your mind,” majors and graduate school, and majors and professions

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Blueprint for Success in College: Career Decision Making by Dr. Michael W. Duggan, LCPC, CRC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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