Chapter 25: College Majors
Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Linnea Spitzer
“Whatever you decide to do, make sure it makes you happy”.
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. Sixty percent of students change their majors, so remember that your major isn’t going to define your life. But choosing one that interests you will make your college experience much more rewarding.
Here are five tips about choosing a major:
- Narrow your choices by deciding what you do and don’t like to do.
- Explore careers that might interest you. Ask questions from industry professionals through informational interviews.
- Use your school’s resources, like the career center and academic advising.
- Ask your teacher, counselor, and family about your strengths.
- Take new classes and discover your interests.
Here is a video that offers a few more tips on choosing a major.
Video: How to choose a 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 facts:
- 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. After watching the following video, do you think college is worth it? Which majors pay for themselves the fastest?
Video: What College Majors are Worth the Money?
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?
“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. They can also help students make sure that the classes they are taking at their community colleges will transfer to their four-year degrees.
- 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||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”|
|4||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:
CC licensed content, Original:
- Beiderwell, Bruce, Linda F. Tse, Tom Lochhaas, and Nicholas B. deKanter. “College Success”. Lumen Learning. 2016. Located at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/collegesuccess-lumen/chapter/college-majors-2/ License: CC BY: Attribution
CC licensed content, Shared previously:
- Major (academic). Provided by: Wikipedia. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_%28academic%29. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike.
All rights reserved content:
- “How to choose a Major”. Authored by: Columbia College. Located at: https://youtu.be/5WtgKF5DNYI. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
- What College Majors Are Worth the Money?”. Authored by PBS Digital Studios. Uploaded by Two Cents. Located at: https://youtu.be/MA0vDPrRhJc License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
Adaptions: Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom essay removed (exists elsewhere in this work). Relocated learning objectives. Removed image of DNA origami. October 2021 Replaced videos, adapted language for cultural relevancy, and updated links, statistics.