Major Dilemma?

Many of you will be spending Thanksgiving at home or with relatives elsewhere.  I suspect that many may be dreading being asked, “So, what are you going to major in?”  To be followed in many cases by, “And what are you going to do with that?”  What follows is a bit of thinking and writing I have been doing on the subject of the major that hopefully can provide you with some ammunition with which to answer with confidence!

What follows is much longer than the typical blogpost.  Blogs came into existence long after I became a dean.  Think of this as an ancient form of blogging, and feel free to spend as much or as little time with it as you wish.

Good luck with those inevitable questions, and have a great Thanksgiving!

**The following are the insights of a dean who has advised college students for the past 35 years about the question of advising for the major.

Declaring a major is an important undergraduate rite of passage.  It is at this point that a student makes a public declaration of scholarly interest and commits to a focused program of study for the final two years of college.

Important, to be sure, as it will have a significant impact over how one directs one’s intellectual energies for the balance of the college career. But not life or death.  And not irreversible.

Lest we impute too much importance to the concept of the major, let us not lose sight of the larger picture.  College is a time to train the mind for life. Studying a field of knowledge in an in-depth, focused manner is one of the ways devised by the academy to accomplish this.

“What are you going to major in?” is a question dreaded by those who are unsure or who are considering a major that does not appear to connect or relate directly to a particular job or career In reality, though, it may be a question that tells us more about the questioner than the individual to whom the question has been posed.  For strangers, the question is variously a conversation starter, a way to break that ice with a college student, rather than the usual chatter about the weather with others.  It helps the questioner categorize or place the individual.

For relatives, the question is a way of figuring out what the young woman or man before them about whom they care very deeply plans to do with her or his life.  For parents or grandparents, their hopes and dreams for us may be bound up in that question.  They want their offspring or grandchild to be successful, be able to make a good living and support a family in comfortable fashion.  An economics major leads to the business world.  The sciences make possible a career in medicine.  Some undefined (and nonexistent) pre-law curriculum will lead to a career in the law.  A “profession” is the ticket to a prosperous and happy life, so one should major in a field that permits entry into one of the professions. The major is seen as having an instrumental purpose and a direct connection to what one will do upon graduation.

The second, even scarier question often posed to those who declare their intent to major in a field where the unenlightened might not see a direct correlation between that and a career, is the follow-up:  “And what are you going to do with that?”

In reality, the relationship between the major and a career path may be tenuous at best.  The question can also be problematic if one is unsure of what one is going to major in, as it may convey an indecisiveness or lack of direction that does not reflect well or is something to be embarrassed about.

When advising students about the major, I try to debunk myths about its purpose and importance, and get the student to relax and think expansively about the issue.  The decision about the major need not be the cause of great anxiety or stress, as the major field of study may very well have little to do or little relation to what one ultimately does with one’s life.

Of course, if one is planning to do advanced work in a particular academic discipline, then one would be well-advised to major in that field—although there are exceptions to this, as well.  Or if one is thinking of pursuing a career in a health-related profession such as medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine, one needs to be sure to take the core science courses required for admission.  It is often wise to point out that there is, in fact, no prescribed pre-law curriculum.  Law schools are looking for individuals with well-trained, incisive minds, who are possessed of the capacity to think critically and logically.

My belief is that the major is, in fact, a means to an end—a vehicle, if you will, for developing those habits of mind and intellectual and cognitive skills that will allow one to pursue one’s chosen path, once and whenever that may become evident—and to succeed.

The undergraduate curriculum is ideally devoted to developing the following intellectual and cognitive skills. Among others, the primary are the ability to:

  •   learn, to understand and to make sound judgments;
  •   craft a powerful argument;
  •   write and speak clearly and persuasively;
  •   create and synthesize knowledge;
  •   think critically and analytically; and,
  •   conduct  independent research

Any major will allow a student to develop these skills and more.  The emphases and approaches may differ from department to department, but the end result will be the same.  The major, which is the in-depth exploration of one of the discrete fields of human knowledge represented in the curriculum is designed to allow a student to master a body of knowledge, develop a command of the field and the modes of inquiry particular to that discipline.  It also typically offers students an opportunity to apply the intellectual and cognitive skills developed throughout the course of the undergraduate years to the salient questions currently being explored in that field.

As such, I counsel/advise students to choose a major whose subject matter fascinates, intrigues and inspires them.  Studying the subject matter of the field should be fun and exciting and be something that one looks forward to reading, thinking, discussing and arguing about.  For, the more the student enjoys and is motivated by the subject matter, the more time they will spend with it, the deeper they will dig into it, and, in turn, the more they will be able to develop those life skills noted above.

As I mentioned above, there is rarely a direct connection between a major and a career.  Math majors become poets, history majors become film directors and philosophy majors become business tycoons or entrepreneurs.  I often tell my students the true story of the Haverford religion major who became the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world.  It is simply not the case that only business or economics majors go into business.  In fact, there are many reports over the past forty years that show that Human Resources professionals in the business world prefer broadly-educated liberal arts graduates over those who are narrowly-trained in a particular area.  Such individuals may be perfect for that technical, entry-level job, but they do not possess the creativity or intellectual agility necessary for innovation.   Those who possess the habits of mind noted above are sought after and tend to move up the corporate ladder because of their ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances.

Those majors that do not appear to have a clear connection to or provide a clear path to a career have, as a self-protection mechanism, taken to listing what their graduates are now doing (careers).  Every department would be well-advised to do this.  Not only does it reinforce the message and provide concrete evidence to support the notion that any major can lead to most any career or pursuit, it also provides ammunition to the student, who, rather than asking the parents or grandparents to take her/his word for it, can simply send them to the departmental web page to illustrate that all is not lost, or all those tuition dollars are not wasted.

Still, it is important to remind the student that the decision about the major does not need to be set in stone.  If proper planning has been employed, the student should in most cases be able to change majors and still complete it and graduate on time.

If a student is fascinated by more than one academic discipline and cannot decide between or among them at the point in the sophomore year when majors typically must be declared, I suggest that the student to choose one and continue taking courses in the second as a “shadow” major in subsequent semesters.  That way, if at a point down the road the student decides that she or he is, in fact, more interested in the other field, a switch can be effected and the student will still be on track to complete the major within the normal time frame for that institution.

Sometimes the decision about which of two (or even three) fields to major in can be made easier if one of the fields has a course required of all juniors, and only declared majors are eligible to enroll.  In such cases, students should be instructed to declare in the department with the required course.  If both departments have a required course for Juniors, then one needs to discuss with the department chair/major departmental advisor or consider the possibility of a double major.

Well, now I have done it.  I have raised the subject of the double major. So now a word about them.   Academic transcripts burdened down by ever-lengthening lists of majors, concentrations, minors and certificates of all stripes abound.  The major/concentration/ minor/certificate/concentration “arms race” has been joined, and even encouraged by many institutions.  This is an unfortunate trend, in my view.  One does not need a long list of majors, etc. on the transcript to impress the reader or seize that plum position.  Rather, I would advise letting the transcript do the talking for the student.  A well-written cover letter that directs the reader to the highlights of the transcript and those areas in which the student focused attention beyond the major will almost always do the trick.    A conscientiously, fully pursued major into which the student has given her or his all, and that requires a capstone experience that allows the student to use and give evidence of the full development of the mind and its cognitive abilities that the major allows and encourages and to which one can look back on with pride and accomplishment, more than compensates and even far surpasses the value suggested by a lengthy list of majors, and the rest.

Steve Watter

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