College Majors

Student holding a model of DNA

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, children’s author

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • List key strategies for selecting a college major
  • Identify the relationship between college majors and career paths (both why they matter and why they don’t)
  • Identify sources for learning more about specific majors and related careers

 

Your Major

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, archaeology, 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 catalog. 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, present lighthearted looks undertaking this task. In the first one, the following five tips are discussed:

  1. Seek inspiration
  2. Consider everything
  3. Identify talents and interests
  4. Explore available resources
  5. In-depth career exploration
a picture of a blank video screen
Video: How to Pick a Major

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. 60 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.
a picture of a blank video screen
Video: How to Select Your College Major

 

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”:

  • 50–70 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.
  • STEM jobs, though—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—can lead to the thirty highest paying jobs. So if you major in any of these areas, you may be more likely to earn a higher salary.
  • 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.”

a picture of a blank video screen
Video: Careers Out There

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?

Every student who pursues a college degree and a subsequent career may tell a different story about the impact of their major on their professional directions. In the following excerpt from Foundations of College Success: Words of Wisdom, writer and former SUNY student Kristen Mruk reflects on the choices she made and how they turned out.

THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE

What I Would Like To Do

I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I started college, but that changed three times by the time I graduated. Initially I started as an International Business major but ended up receiving a degree in Communication and continued on to graduate school. My greatest advice to you is to embrace feelings of uncertainty (if you have them) with regard to your academic, career, or life goals. Stop into the Career Services office on your campus to identify what it is that you really want to do when you graduate or to confirm your affinity to a career path. Make an appointment to see a counselor if you need to vent or get a new perspective. Do an internship in your field; this can give you a first-hand impression of what your life might look like in that role.

When I chose International Business, I did not do so as an informed student. I enjoyed and excelled in my business courses in high school and I had hopes of traveling the world, so International Business seemed to fit the bill. Little did I know, the major required a lot of accounting and economics which, as it turned out, were not my forte. Thinking this is what I wanted, I wasted time pursuing a major I didn’t enjoy and academic courses I struggled through.

So I took a different approach. I began speaking to the professionals around me that had jobs that appealed to me: Student Unions/Activities, Leadership, Orientation, Alumni, etc. I found out I could have a similar career, and I would enjoy the required studies along the way. Making that discovery provided direction and purpose in my major and extracurricular activities. I felt like everything was falling into place.

What I Actually Do

I would like to . . . ask you to consider why you are in college. Why did you choose your institution? Have you declared a major yet? Why or why not? What are your plans post-graduation? By frequently reflecting in this way, you can assess whether or not your behaviors, affiliations, and activities align with your goals.

What you actually do with your student experience is completely up to you. You are the only person who can dictate your collegiate fate. Remind yourself of the reasons why you are in college and make sure your time is spent on achieving your goals. There are resources and people on your campus available to help you. You have the control—use it wisely.

—Kristen Mruk, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom

 

Resources

Success doesn’t come to you . . . you go to it. —Dr. Marva Collins, civil rights activist and educator

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:

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
LICENSES AND ATTRIBUTIONS
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  • College Majors. Authored by: Linda Bruce. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
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