For some of us, choosing a major is extremely difficult. You just went through high school — where the point is to get as broad of an education as possible — and then you're supposed to choose the super-specific word that is going to guide your education, limit your career options and basically follow you around like a shadow. Where do you begin?
What is a major?
A major is not a degree, but the terms are closely related. A major is your field of study in undergrad, while your degree is the proof that you completed the program. You are “majoring in X” while you are studying, but once you've graduated, you have a “degree in X.” To me, a major is an ambiguously presented promise that never quite comes true but may give you great joy anyway (in addition to the stress and hours spent choosing it).
How important is your major?
Very. Or not at all. It completely depends on what you want your major to do for you. This is what I mean by “an ambiguously presented promise.” Your major determines your course of study, but what work it is able to do or what doors it opens completely depends on the academic field it is in, the industries related to the knowledge associated with it and honestly, the people in that department at your college.
If you want to be a physics professor, you need a graduate degree in physics, so it's important that you study physics in undergrad. The easiest and most reliable way to do that is to major in physics. If you want to be involved with politics, then there's a wide array of majors that will all open slightly different doors, so you must dive in a little deeper into the major-choosing process. If you are privileged enough to further your education, this presents a great opportunity. It may seem obvious, but it's important to consider this path if you have any long-term goals. If you have no idea, or you have a lot of potential long-term goals, your major can still do a lot of work for you; you just have to choose one that has the potential to open the most diverse array of doors.
Factors to consider
The career you want.
Jobs in academia or finance, ones that require professional school and those in various types of scientific research labs are relatively strict about your undergraduate major. If you think you might want a career in one of these fields, it could be best to hedge your bets and get the degree that will open that door.
Your personality and the type of work you enjoy.
If you don’t know what type of career you are interested in, think about what you enjoy. Consider areas like writing, solving problems with numbers, talking with people or drafting an argument, and then consider which majors involve that type of work. You can also take personality quizzes online and look at which personality types fit which types of careers.
A lot of the work a major does for you doesn't actually depend on the discipline itself. It's more fueled by the department and faculty at your school. If you’re between English and History, but your school has a well-funded history department — full of staff who have a track record of linking their students with incredible opportunities — think about doing history. Referrals, job-search platforms and email lists often use certain majors as parameters (even if others would fit just as well), and your school may have more robust arsenal of opportunities in some departments over others.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. What is the most versatile major?
If you really want to be versatile, think about doing a combined program or a double major. If you want a single versatile major, consider a type of work that you enjoy before choosing a major that involves that type of work. If you like writing and editing, choose English. Want to work with people? Psychology is a good choice. Logic and solving problems? Computer science is quite versatile. Building things using numbers? Engineering. A good rule of thumb? If the name of the major is a common course in high school, it is probably quite broad and versatile.
2. How do I choose between two majors?
You don’t! (I double-majored in English and Neuroscience.) Double majoring, dual majoring or whatever your college may offer in terms of combining or adding on majors or minors is a great option and increasing in popularity. If you must choose, get your yellow legal pad: not for a pros and cons list but for a projection plan. Think about the strengths and weaknesses in the departments for each of the majors and how they'll affect the typical careers available to you in each of the fields. Talk to the department heads and staff. What internships might you get with each? What would you do directly post-graduation? How much would you make if you follow different career paths? Hammer out these details, and then talk to all the people who know you best.
3. What is the percentage of college students who change their majors?
Official numbers are hard to know, with some sources claiming upwards of 80%. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 1 in 3 students changed their major at least once, according to data on students who started college in the 2011–2012 academic year. Long story short: if you want to change do it, it’s super common. But don’t feel obligated to keep flip-flopping if you think you have the right fit, but your friends are still deciding.
4. Which degree is best for the future?
I could go into a manifesto (or lament) about how computers are the future and philosophy has long been obsolete. But I think that’s simplistic and unhelpful. Your field of study and the careers associated with it are going to adapt as the world does, and you will get to be a part of that, no matter what major you choose. Also, higher education in the U.S. is incredibly inaccessible and overpriced, so the best degree for your future might be the one that's from a school (or country) that won’t put you in debt for 10-20 years (speaking from experience).
The scariest part of choosing a major when I was in college was the idea that I was closing doors on my future. If I didn’t major in X, then Y was completely off the table forever. But majors don't close doors — they open them. Someone with an English degree isn’t less likely to be hired as an electrical engineer than someone with no degree; both would just have to show how they are qualified despite their lack of a relevant degree. In fact, many employers like to see that you have any degree, even if it isn’t directly related to the job. Also, you have options: take a gap year (or three), get another degree when you're 40 because you found your calling. You’re choosing a two- or four-year course of study, not mapping out your entire life.