Your college major is a big deal. After all, you’ll be spending the majority of your credits (read: money) on this subject matter, especially as an upper-level student. So it’s fair to say that choosing a major is a consequential part of your educational experience. But it may also be one of the most misunderstood aspects of your college education.
Evidence suggests that few high school students actively seek advice on this subject. According to the New York Times, “Only 11 percent had sought guidance from a high school counselor, and 28 percent from a college adviser.”
But it’s important to understand exactly what a college major is, and what it isn’t, so you can choose your degree program wisely. Your major isn’t everything, but it is important. If you’d like some basic tips before selecting your degree program, check out our Focus on Choosing a College Major. If you already know what subject you’d like to major in, find out which schools are most influential in your chosen discipline. Otherwise, read on as we debunk some common myths when it comes to choosing your major.
We’re not going to lie and tell you that your major won’t impact your career path. Naturally, if you know what you want to do for a living, and there is a degree that offers a clear path to this occupation, choosing your major could be a straightforward proposition. If you want to teach, you’ll probably major in education. If you want to be an accountant, it probably makes sense to major in accounting. But this isn’t true for everybody, or even for most students. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only 27 percent of college graduates actually work in a field connected to their major! Your life and career will take many twists and turns. Apparently, the odds are better than not that these bends will lead to a field that isn’t listed on your degree.
Changing majors is exceedingly common. According to the New York Times, the Department of Education has said that roughly 30% of students will switch majors at least once during their time in college. But a report from the Education Advisory Board says that this number may in fact be as high as 80% of all students.
In other words, if you’re thinking about switching your major, you aren’t alone. And if you’re feeling trapped inside of a major, you aren’t. While you should do your best to choose a major that feels right, sometimes you just don’t know what to expect until you really immerse yourself in a course of study. You may love the idea of becoming an accountant and leveraging the kind of earning power that accountant’s generally enjoy. But you may quickly realize that you’d rather watch paint dry than spend the next 40 years crunching numbers. If that happens, get out while you can. The alternative is likely an education wasted on the wrong discipline. If you don’t like taking classes in a discipline, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll enjoy doing it for a living.
One of the most prevailing myths around majors is that changing your major is likely to be a setback on your path to a degree. The argument is that changing gears will force you to return to the starting line of a new major and, consequently, will cost you more time and money on the way to your degree. Logically speaking, this makes sense. It’s true that changing majors could require you to backtrack for prerequisites and introductory courses. Interestingly, however, there is some evidence that students who change majors are slightly more likely to graduate than their major-committed peers. A study from the Education Advisory Board actually found that “While graduation rates hovered around 83 percent for students who finalized their major during their second semester or later, students who declared a major during their first semester in college and stuck with it were four percentage points less likely to graduate.” The findings didn’t produce an explanation, but one might speculate that those who do change majors are at once more engaged in their studies and more committed to matching up with the right degree. This may contrast students who have declared early and who, consequently, have remained committed to their degree even if it feels like a poor fit.
The reality surrounding this myth varies significantly from one school to the next. Some schools may actually require you to declare an intended major as part of the admissions process. Others may not require you to identify your major until the latter part of your sophomore year. If your school falls into the latter category, take your time making this choice. Don’t take too much time. After all, you pay for every extra minute you spend in college. But do your due diligence, not just by taking introductory classes, but by auditing upper-level classes in prospective majors, talking to upper-level students, and attending events connected to majors that interest you. The more you can learn in advance, the better your odds are of choosing a major that suits you. On the other hand, if you must choose advance, at least take comfort in knowing that most schools have no limits on how often you can switch majors.
As you search for the right college, it’s only natural to seek a school that is influential in your chosen field. After all, you want access to the best professors, the brightest students, and the most generous resources in your field. And obviously, it’s important that the school you choose has an accredited program, department, or degree program that corresponds with your intended career goals. But remember, those career goals may change, and so may your perception of how best to achieve these career goals. So when you shop for a college, your expected major should only be one factor—and a factor that may take on less weight than cost, geography, campus culture, or reputation. In fact, most evidence suggests that the reputation and quality of your college will be a greater determinant of your earning potential than your major.
This means your best best is to start your search with a look at the most influential schools in the world. Found out how each of these prestigious schools ranks in an array of disciplines before making your decision.
Building on the point above, your major is not always the most direct determinant of your earning potential. The credibility of your degree matters a lot. But so do your personal decisions about what to do with your degree. Your psychology major could lead you to a career in marketing; your education degree to a career in corporate training; your communication degree to a career in public health. Your business degree could be literally whatever you make of it. Today’s employer values transferable skills like critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration. It may matter less how you come by these skills in college, so long as you master them. This means that your major could be extremely valuable, but in a field that you never expected. This is a great reason to think about your major as something more than a stepping stone to a job. Your major is a way to gain knowledge, skill, and enrichment that you’ll use in life and your career, wherever these lead.
As long as we’re on the subject of transferable skills, liberal arts majors are full of them. Liberal arts majors choose a path that, by design, runs a gamut of disciplines within the humanities. This includes history, literature, social sciences, and much more. Sometimes this array of courses is referred to as the “soft sciences,” a term used somewhat condescendingly to differentiate the humanities from rigorous scientific disciplines like physics, mathematics and engineering. This condescension may also extend from the fact that liberal arts degrees don’t typically point the bearer in the direction of a single career. But herein lay the value of a liberal arts degree. Your education will be focused on enrichment, illumination, and personal interest, rather than career building. The result for many liberal arts students is the pursuit of a career in something personal and interesting rather than something rigid and obligatory.
For help choosing your degree path, take a look at our Focus on Choosing a Major.
While the soft sciences may be underrated, there’s evidence that some hard science majors may be a little overrated. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that not all science majors are created equal. There is actually a large variation in earning potential within the extremely diverse domain of STEM degrees. Before you pursue that science major with big expectations about your earning potential, be sure you understand the salary variations within each subdiscipline. For instance, you should note that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Agricultural Engineers earned a median salary of $80,720 in 2019, whereas Aerospace Engineers earned a median salary of $116,500 during the same period. Computer programmers earned a median pay of $86,550 while Computer and Information Research Scientists earned $122,840. Variations like this are commonplace throughout the hard sciences. Often, the more specialized your concentration, the greater your earning potential. Be aware of the salary landscape for the subdisciplines within your major.
You should be aware of variations in salary potential, but you shouldn’t let that drive your decision. Your major is not necessarily a driver of your salary. Your future pay will depend on a great many factors including the reputation of your school, the sector where you choose to apply your degree, geographical conditions, economic realities at the time of your graduation, and so much more. This is to say nothing of your internal drive, academic abilities, and your personal connections. Your major is merely one strand in a dense fabric of factors that will impact your entry-level pay and your long-term earning potential. So be sure that you aren’t merely basing your decision on what you think you can earn. Your personal interest should weigh far more heavily into your choice.
In spite of the fact that many colleges want you to declare your major as early as possible, sometimes even during the application process, the risk of arriving at college undeclared is often overstated. It’s actually quite common for first-year students to begin college without a clear sense of their intended major. After all, undeclared first-year students will likely take the same general education and prerequisite courses as do students who have already set their sights on a specific major. While you may not move as quickly through your introductory courses as a student who is, for instance, dead-set on majoring in legal studies and attending Law School, you are also significantly less likely to enter into a major that isn’t right for you. We won’t claim that a few semesters spent exploring the course catalogue will lead you directly to your future career, but you can use this time to rule out the things that you don’t like. For instance, you may think you want to major in logic, until you take an elective and realize how much math you’d have to do. You may think you’re interested in a political science major until you take a few foundational courses and realize that your school’s PoliSci program is really designed for future law students. Dipping your toe in a few different pools can be a great way to avoid an uninformed dive into the deep end of the wrong discipline.***
Of course, this is not to suggest that undeclared first-year students don’t face a few unique challenges. You will need to choose a major eventually. And the sooner that you can make an informed decision, the sooner you can begin earning the right degree. With that in mind, we invite you to browse our database for a look at the most influential schools in every discipline.
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