Choosing a Major

Thoughts on how to select and make the most of a major.

Posted Jan 21, 2021

 Peggy_Marco/Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Peggy_Marco/Pixabay, Public Domain

Many people choose their major on an inadequate basis: They’re “into” psychology, they had an “amazing” professor for an intro course, or their BFF chose that major.

Of course, choosing the right major can enrich your college experience and career prospects. The following questions should help you or someone you care about make the choice.

I'll then offer tips on making the most of the major, which, actually, are applicable to most courses.

Should you choose a career-prep or liberal arts major?

This macro decision is key. Here’s a case for each:

A career-prep major such as engineering, nursing, or business could give you an edge in obtaining your first professional job compared with, for example, art, race/gender studies, or alas, psychology. The course material tends to be more concrete and so more comprehensible than the material in other majors. Career enhancement aside, it may be more motivating to see the practical applicability of the course content. You usually take roughly one-third of your courses in your major, so career-prep majors can derive much of liberal arts courses' benefit in the required general education courses and in electives.

A liberal arts major such as English, history, or philosophy, while not as likely to help you get your first job after college, may help more long-term, personally and professionally. That’s because, in theory at least, the liberal arts’ focus is on critical thinking, communication, ethics, and universal values, which are central across personal and most professional life, and in your career, become ever more important as you climb the ladder.

It must be said, however, that liberal arts majors tend to be more subject to liberal bias. For example, a 2020 Psychology Today blogger's review of the literature reported, "One study found that in social sciences and humanities, self-described 'radicals,' 'activists' and 'Marxists' outnumber conventional conservatives by about 10:1.” So, you may be fair-mindedly presented with only part of the full marketplace of responsibly held ideas—not all wisdom resides on the left. The assertive student can broaden his or her education if s/he carefully select professors and is alert to bias in lectures and readings.

Should you choose a math- or word-heavy major?

A common reason for changing majors is to avoid math-centric courses. I’m referring here not just to math-titled courses such as calculus and linear algebra but physics, chemistry, and even biology. Especially after the intro course, math is now core to all sciences.

Conversely, some people are better with numbers than with words. Most majors outside of the sciences and math are word-centric: much more reading and writing than quantitative analysis.

Should you choose a popular or under-the-radar major?

Popular majors such as psychology, business, and political science have the advantages of being recognized by more employers. Plus, popular majors tend to be in large departments, which affords students more choice of professors and electives.

Under-the-radar majors also have advantages. Usually, classes are smaller and you’ll get more attention from professors: for example, one-on-one tutelage. Also, you’ll stand out in the job market if your little-known major has career implications, for example, entomology, meteorology, or rhetoric.

You might ask, “Why rhetoric?” Because the crucial skills of critical thinking and effective communication are at that major’s core. Few schools offer a rhetoric major but a communications major could serve a similar purpose.

Making the most of the major

Two people could complete the same major at the same institution yet one could derive far more benefit. The following should help. Much applies to courses outside your major.

Better a transformative professor than an interesting course title. A top teacher of psycholinguistics might well yield more value and pleasure than would a mediocre professor of sexuality. Where there’s a choice, lean toward those with effusive student reviews on professor-review sites such as RateMyProfessors.com.

Choose elective courses carefully, based both on the professor and, of course, on your career and personal interests. Because electives are usually taught less often, you might want to tentatively calendar all the courses you plan to take before graduating, in and outside the major. That makes it more likely you'll get to take what you want.

Take only a modest amount of notes. Focus on what you (OK, and perhaps the professor) deem important that you don’t already know.

Adapt assignments to suit. Give a good reason and most professors will let you adapt the assignment or even choose a completely different one. Let's say you’re taking a course in the history of psychology and the professor asks the class to write a paper on the history of personality testing. If you’re more interested in intelligence, eating disorders, whatever, ask if you could write the paper on the history of that.

Carefully choose your advisor. If the chemistry is right, that person could be your most important mentor and career-door opener. If you’re not happy with your current advisor, ask a more-desired professor if s/he would serve.

Carefully choose your capstone (senior) paper or project. If the topic is well-selected and executed, it could make excellent material to send to prospective employers. referrers, and graduate schools you'd apply to. For example, if you envision becoming a specialist in male depression, you might make that your capstone project.

The takeaway

With higher education's ever more astronomical cost and the oversupply of degree holders, it’s more important than ever that you try to squeeze as much benefit as you can from your education. Taking more-than-average care in choosing and making the most of your major is central to that.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

The other posts in this series on making life's major decisions can be found here.