How to Pick a College Major

So you decided to go to college. Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe it’s not. That’s not the point of this column. The question of whether college is, for you, a good idea will be addressed later (it’s been addressed in many other places so I’ll postpone writing about it for now). But for now we’ll ask the question: now that I’m here, what do I do with myself?

Hopefully you put some thought into what you wanted to study in college before going, but if you didn’t let’s start there.

First, understand that with few exceptions your college major is not going to determine your life’s work. True if you want to be an electrical engineer you should major in electrical engineering, but even if you decide when you’re thirty-five to go to law school or business school you’ll need that EE degree to get your foot in the door. But most people’s futures are not that strongly decided. Today the average person will change careers four times by the time they are thirty-two. So It is okay to be a little unsure of your future, even if you are in a major that leads to a very specific job.

In fact, one of the major reasons to go to college is to get the credential: teaching, legal, medical etc… If you aren’t in college for a credential, then in today’s world I’d have to ask you, what did you go for? To meet your spouse, make friends, party, put off adulthood, get out of your hometown, it’s what everyone else was doing? None of those are good reasons to go to college and probably take on some serious long term debt.

So then what do you do if you didn’t have a solid career plan at seventeen? I would start off by interviewing faculty in areas in which you are interested. That’s what I did when I first went to college. Go to professors and ask them what they do, what do their students do when the graduate, how secure is the job field, will you need a master’s degree or a doctorate to work in the field? Most professors are really interested in their field of study and will be all too happy to tell you about it.

After you have interviewed several professors in fields you’re interested in, talk to some of the grad students. Find out what kind of work they do, or plan to do. Find out how difficult jobs are to get, and how difficult it is to get into a good grad school in the given field. (And the fact is, you probably will need a graduate degree at some point in your life. Undergrad degrees are a degree to prove you can do the basic work and jump through hoops, it’s not the professional degree anymore).

If you can, sign up for work-study and try to get a job in a professor’s lab. As a freshman I worked in several labs, even though I knew I wanted to work for NASA, because I had no idea what kind of work NASA scientists really did. See if your university has something akin to an office of undergraduate research and find out if you can get a scholarship to do some work in a lab. If you can get your name on a poster or as a co-author on a published paper believe me you’re going to look really good to graduate school admissions committees. It will also be hands-on experience with something you may spend the next ten to fifteen years of your life doing. Know what you are getting yourself into.

Find out about the quality of life in the profession. This can be done via internships. Unfortunately, internships typically come to students in their last semesters of school, and by then you should have had a major picked out. But if you can get a summer internship as a freshman or sophomore, do it. It will help you make that crucial decision.

Additionally, find out about funding for your major. Some majors have more scholarship money than others. Moreover, some majors have fewer people competing for those scholarships thus making it easier to get the price you pay for your undergrad degree down. Again, don’t scoff at this. Undergraduate degrees are expensive even if you’re paying in state tuition.

“But I still can’t decide, what about a double major?”

Okay, let’s talk about the double major. Maybe you want to be a physician-writer. So you’re thinking biology and creative writing double major. Well this is a gamble. If you’re going to apply to medical school your undergrad major isn’t that important. What is important is that you have the medical school pre-reqs and that you did well on your MCAT and have good letters of recommendation. Same with B-school or law school. If you plan on going into an MS in applied physics you really need a BS in physics, but whether you take a double major in creative writing is up to you.

But remember, admissions committees may look at your double major and see you as unfocused or unserious. Medical schools receive far more applications than they have spots for. And if they think you’re going to bail on a medical career after ten years to write novels they’ll possibly pass you over for an equally qualified applicant with that degree in biochem and two undergraduate research posters at national conferences.

Now, there are valid reasons to double major. If you’re a history major you’ll definitely benefit from having a double major in history and a foreign language. This is because unless you are studying American or British history you’ll need to be fluent, and I mean very fluent, in a foreign language. In this case a double major in History and Russian Language and Literature can really be beneficial. Same with History and English or Philosophy if you intend to study an intellectual history. But really, these are the exceptions to the rule.

Don’t double major at the undergrad level. If you are interested in multiple topics, save it for grad school. I have two graduate degrees and am working on a third. Two of them are in different areas: history and business administration. And yes the MBA was a backup plan, hey historians are over produced and finding a professorial job is difficult.

So now that we’ve covered what you should do to pick a major, I want to address a problem at the undergrad level that I’ve seen pop up since I first started at university in the mid ‘90s: The Bullshit Degree.

I think the problem started with the over production of PhDs in legitimate areas like History and English. You ended up with many unemployed and over educated people who couldn’t get a job. So the “studies” departments popped up to help place these students. At the graduate level studying something like “women’s studies” is fine. I have some problems with it, which is the topic of another post but for now let’s just say okay study it if you want to.

If you want to dedicate your life to philosophy written by women from Brooklyn go for it. But at the undergrad level you might be better off just dropping out of college and working a regular job. Because that’s what you’ll end up doing. (And no I’m not shitting on retail, or the service industry, just useless degrees that land you in retail or service after promising a “life of the mind”).

In general, avoid anything with the word “Studies” attached to it. These are bullshit majors in bullshit departments. Women’s studies, Black studies, Latino/a studies, even Russian studies are bullshit. If you want to study the Russian language major in Russian not Russian studies. If you want to study black history major in history and take a few black history courses, then go to grad school to write an MA in black history. Avoid “black studies” like it was cancer. No one takes the “studies” degrees seriously. And in my opinion, department’s like Religious Studies only exist to make more professors of Religious Studies departments. It’s a scam.

Along these same lines avoid anything with the word “science” in it. See, real sciences don’t have to call themselves “sciences.” Life science is bullshit. The study of life is called biology. Major in biology. Environmental science is nonsense, it’s called ecology and it is a hybrid of biology and geology. (And you shouldn’t major in it as an undergrad, more about that below). Now, maybe you’re going to a smaller school and all they have is “marine science” and no biology degree, what then?

Transfer. Get your basic general education requirements out of the way and then transfer to a school that does have biology and geology. There are some exceptions, but in general if you want to study something as specific as marine biology you’ll need to be in a marine biology program, not a marine science degree, usually after getting a solid background in biology.

Which brings me to my next point: don’t specialize as an undergrad. Leave the specialization to the graduate students. What you want is a solid background in your chosen field. Saying that as a freshman you want to major in marine biology is absurd. Unless you followed my preceding advice you most likely know nothing about marine biology aside from what you’ve seen on Shark Week. But see, this is the thing, a good biology degree as an undergrad will get you into a good marine biology master’s program. But a great marine biology undergrad isn’t going to get you into a grad program in neurobiology if that’s what you decide later on that you’re really interested in. So simply put, as an undergrad, don’t specialize. That goes for all majors not just the sciences. Don’t major in Women’s History, just major in History and take a few electives in women’s history.

So that’s what I know about picking a college major. If you have any questions feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer them. Hope you found this column useful and not tiresome. And if you know a young person going to college pass it on to them.

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