What should be your college major?

A small college out east. Photo by wallyg.

I very strongly agree with the basic conclusion offered by a post at teenskepchick by Ali Marie, advice for those now looking at college: “…what’s the undecided student to do? My advice: community college.”. Ali discussed the problem of getting all the required courses in within a four year time span. The key problem she points out is that unless you know pretty much what you want your final major will look like you may end up having to take more than the expected number of courses and thus, have a hard time graduating in four years. I’ll add to that the following: Some of the courses you will want/need won’t be offered when you need them, and it is possible that something else will go wrong while you are busy prostrating to the higher mind and all that, causing you to be unable to complete the usual (e.g. 4) classes per term. Between switching interests, unavailable classes, and things going wrong, you won’t easily finish your four year degree in four years. I recommend that if you are looking into college, read Ali’s post.

I do want to add a few more thought, however.

The importance of Liberal Education Requirements

First, Ali discusses what are generally called the liberal ed requirements and does so with the usual dislike of the process. I want to put in a plug for the liberal education requirements that all colleges have. The purpose of these requirements is not to give you an exposure to a wide range of disciplines in order to help you decide on your major. Yes, it can do that, but that is not only not the main reason they exist, but also, they don’t do that good of a job of that in some cases. Take Cultural Anthropology for example. One reason that many advanced (junior, senior college and early graduate school) Social or Cultural Anthropology students always look so unhappy and eventually get permanent Academic Frowns painted on their face is this: They took the intro Cultural Anthro course, loved it, then went to major in the topic and found out the awful truth: What is taught in Anthro 1001 is not what Anthropologists do or think. It is what they hate about themselves. Once you’ve taken that intro class, and switch majors into Cultural Anthro, the rest of your classes will be about how everything you learned in Anthro 1001 is wrong, and moreover, that for thinking that it was cool, you are an asshole.

I’m sure this does not apply to all disciplines, but in some way…small, medium, or large…I think it applies to many. Even computer science, which one would think would be more logical and laid out, teaches at the intro level stuff you only need to know for the purposes of the exam, not to be in the field of computer science. When was the last time a proposal to implement a commercial web site, or a project to rewrite an operating system, used scheme? Never, that’s when.

The real reason for the Liberal Education requirements is to make society better by seeing to it that a larger proportion of the population leaves college not clueless about so many important things. Someone like Ali Marie probably does not need liberal arts much, but not because she is innately liberal or artsy, but because she’s probably absorbed all that on her own, being a writer and a nerd and all that. But this is not the case for many people.

For a few years, I worked in a program to help adults get their degree. I was on the board of advisors for the program while I was on the Anthropology faculty, and later, I worked directly for the program. This issue came home to me very clearly in many cases. We had many students who, in their own life’s work, including but by no means limited to taking courses and engaging in training programs, had learned way more than you need to learn to get a college education. But some of these students, maybe about half, had skirted the liberal arts. Go look at the internet. Check out the letters and comments on various news sites, or other places where people have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and perspective. A lot of the annoying commentary we see is from either kids who have not yet taken a range of courses in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and so on, or are people who are older but never did. As great as my students were (and they were all great) those who had skirted the liberal arts had bad attitudes about things like education, learning, international perspectives, and diversity. These are the people who can hear a presidential candidate say “we have to preserve our American Exceptionalism” and not throw up a little in their mouths. Until they take a full range of Liberal Ed courses. That helps them to throw up a little in their mouths.

How to pick a college major

The other point I wanted to make is about college majors. The answer to the question, “How to choose a college major” is a bit complicated, but there is another question that is closely related: “How to change your major from one subject to another.” The answer to that second question is: “Don’t”

Here is a reality that many college students, and sadly, many advisors, don’t know, or if they know about it, they don’t believe it: Your major is not as important as you think it is. It will be important for about two months after you graduate, then every month after that for the next two years or so it will reduce in importance until it matters not at all. When you are applying to certain programs you will have a better time if you have a certain major, but what is more important, are certain sets of courses that you’ve taken and other things you’ve done in college. Seriously. I know many of you in college today won’t believe this, but it is true.

OK, your major is not entirely irrelevant, but it is much less important than you might think.

If you want to go into a graduate program involving science, and your major is related to that science, but you have C’s on all of your tough, hard, grueling science courses and you have only the minimum required, then your application to a good graduate program is shit. If, on the other hand, you have a major in a field not that closely related to the science related field you want to study, but you’ve recently developed a sincere interest in that field, and you happen to have more hard science courses than required for your degree and they are all A’s, then your application is golden. All else being equal. Ultimately it is the argument that you make to the graduate application committee that counts, using a persuasive essay, showing excellent performance in certain (as mentioned) classes, and a few other things, not the argument that some committee at your college made to their dean to structure a major a certain way. At the same time, if your transcript has a lot of bullshit on it, then that’s what you have: A bullshit transcript. I once reviewed a transcript of a student who had nine semesters of golf and not much else. I did not take that student’s college career seriously, as clearly he did not either.

Yes, yes, of course, try to match your major with your interests and abilities and then aim for a graduate program or career that fall in line with that. The system is indeed set up that way. But the specific courses you take, how well you do in them, the balance of courses overall, matter about as much as what major you picked. Having the “wrong” major is not catastrophic, but taking two more years of college to get the perfect major may be. In other words, for the average college junior who is contemplating changing majors, the medium and longer term wise move is to put less value on the major than on the degree. It is the degree that counts, and within that framework, the specific classes you’ve taken and your ability to make a good argument (which is helped with good performance on on certain classes coupled with a lack of bullshit on your transcript) matters much more than you might think. I’m not talking about abandoning the system as it exists, I’m talking about calibrating. I’ve sat on admissions committees for both grad programs and undergrad programs and advised a lot of students, and it really is true that most of the time the major is a fetish not as valuable as people think it is when they are busy tearing themselves up over the details.

Is it good to take Community College courses?

Getting back to the point of Ali’s essay for a moment: I do think that taking a year off from college and taking one course at a time from a community college is an excellent strategy for a lot of students. Sometimes community colleges give deep discounts for your first class, so check into that. Also, if you are concerned that the teaching at community colleges is not as good as at the big research university down the street, then you need to recalibrate. Why would it be? Community colleges hire teachers, of which there is a great oversupply, based on their teaching abilities. MRU’s fire faculty if they focus on teaching. Until that changes, teaching at the Big U will be spotty, often wonderful but also often horrid, but the community college will rarely fall below a fairly high bar most of the time. This, of course, applies only to my own experience in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I don’t know what they are doing down in Mississippi and Texas.

Photo by wallyg


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Here in Maryland, the community colleges are relatively good. English profs tend to suck, but I had a physics prof that used to work at Fermilabs before getting into teaching. I had a prof that worked at Goddard, and I had one that worked at the Smithsonian as a geologist, focusing primarily on the geology of the other planets in the solar system.

In my private college...I had....people who got degrees in order to teach. And one person who was concurrently working as a professional cancer researcher.

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 26 Sep 2012 #permalink

Yes, the CC route can work OK, but in biology transfer students arrive in our curriculum as academic juniors (2 year associate degree) and scientific sophomores. That leaves them with three years of science courses to take in 2 years for which schedualing the labs and even reasonable prereqs make it almost impossible to finish in 2 years. About 50% of CC transfers also arrive with high school study habits, work ethics, and attitudes. Our native university students have moved well beyond them and the CC transfers can really struggle. The others do well, no problem. Many of my graduate students have taught at our local CC for extra money and they uniformly report that the level of classes, even when teaching the identical subject, is much lower at the CC. Why when it's the very same instructor? Instructors are maintained, rewarded, on the basis of student feed-back satisfaction, and pushing, demanding effort from students does not result in high satisfaction scores. And many 4 year universities are not MRUs. Conclusion: it isn't an easy decision, but some of us still like the time-honored take what you like and do well approach rather than the what major will make me the most money.

By The Phytophactor (not verified) on 26 Sep 2012 #permalink

I might add that given how most disciplines are becoming more and more mathematically oriented math and statistics (depending on the field of interest) courses should be included. For the social sciences the statistics makes a lot of sense since so much of those disciplines are based on surveys and the like. Being able to hack math (beyond the intro calculus sequence) shows an ability to handle and interpret complex material as well.

I saw that she is getting a minor in music at the same time as her geology degree, which might make the scheduling tight for her. I don't know much about minors, as the college I went to did not encourage it. Is it very common these days?

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 26 Sep 2012 #permalink

I think it depends a lot on the schools and the advising. I've generally advised against minors for the same reason I say that the major itself is less important than often regarded. If, however, a minor is already attainable without additional work because you accidentally took the classes, then why not. Having said that I've helped design a number of minors in UG and Grad programs, but still, I've generally regarded them as advertisements rather than good idea. If you like the minor, come and take a couple of classes in our discipline, just the classes you really like, and never mind the minor itself. (A department generally does not get much out of students from other depts taking their minor; they get more just from students taking classes. In fact, many faculty don't like minors because it draws in a certain number of unwashed students which for some reason many academics find loathsome. )

On second thought, remembering back, someone with a guitar or an old violin who knows how to use it is very useful on field trips.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 26 Sep 2012 #permalink

First off, thanks for your response, Greg. In particular, your point on the difficulties surrounding class offerings was good; it's something I'd considered writing my post, but it got so long that I left it out. Also, on the liberal arts education: while I enjoyed those courses, I hadn't really thought about the impact they have on creating a generally informed society, or the potential disadvantages they can present to those looking at a major. In my case, they were a chance to meet people at the college I would have never crossed paths with locked in my department. It was a good way to make some different friends and discuss topics with those with a different point of view.

I'd never heard your position of the value of an undergrad major before, but I'm only a little surprised. As I've been starting the graduate school and job application processes, I've been noticing that practical experience seems a lot more important than grades or my major (or minor). It certainly can't hurt, but it is a little sad that it'll only show up as a brief, ignored line on my CV in a short period of time.

I don't have time to respond to all the comments right now, but CherryBombSim: In general, I agree with Greg's point that the minor isn't all that important. In my school, I don't even think it shows up on my degree, it just becomes a footnote in my transcript. In my personal case, I chose to take on a major because music has always been my "other" passion; I've played instruments since I was three years old, and didn't want to quit in college. I also had very little history and context to the things I was performing, and felt I could grow as a musician if I took some time to learn it. Plus, the minor required at least one year in a music ensemble, which kept me practicing during the challenges of first year. Yes, it makes scheduling a major pain, as I have to work around major courses, class labs, my job as a lab manager, and any extracurriculars I want to do to schedule my music classes and practice time. But it's worth it to me, and I knew coming into the college that I'd have to deal with that issue. It's my stress release now, and my fallback should something happen in the future and I can't do geology anymore.

By Ali Marie (not verified) on 26 Sep 2012 #permalink

Ali, thanks for your comment.

I'm sure you are right about experience. I didn't really mention that though I thought of it while writing "and other things" or "etc" or something. That is a whole other ballgame. If during that year of taking one or two community college courses you also work for the State Museum on a geological survey, and then later during college work as an intern on a field school, then a crew chief, and while you are at it, instead of being a server in a restaurant you are part time back at the museum, then your application to a geology program is going to the top of the pile!

Personally, I did not go to college at all. Just the experience. I got an individualized degree before entering graduate school. This is one reason I liked working at the individualized degree program at UMN for a while, although the program I went to was far more sensible.

My major interests are model airplanes and fish. So I set out to e an aeronautical engineer. Was not good at it. I talked with a grad student friend about biology. He told me I would have to have a PhD to do what I wanted. Could not conceive of same. Well, dinosaurs are cool, so I became a geology major along with 2000 freshmen. Did not turn out all that well. (I did take introductory physical and cultural anthropology for no degree credit.) I had a C+average and graduated on scholastic probation. I took the GRE, because I do well on standardized tests, but no thought of going to graduate school. Couple of years later after school teaching and National Guard Active Duty for Training, I got provisional admission into a geology MS program on the basis of my GRE scores. It did not go particularly well, but I made connections to get into the zoology PhD program at Tulane, and wound up a professor, an ichthyologist with lots of study of fishes.

Two thoughts: Get in the short line. Do not go into a major with 2000 entering freshmen. There will be no jobs. Secondly, never give up, keep maneuvering, do not be overwhelmed by bad choices.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 29 Sep 2012 #permalink

Just skimming here so maybe this was mentioned in Ali's post, but if you're not sure what you want to do, why waste time and money on school. See if you can take a job for a year. It'll give you time to make a decision and likely will give you an idea of the type of job you never want to do again. :-)

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 02 Oct 2012 #permalink

"If you want to go into a graduate program involving science, and your major is related to that science, but you have C’s on all of your tough, hard, grueling science courses and you have only the minimum required, then your application to a good graduate program is shit. If, on the other hand, you have a major in a field not that closely related to the science related field you want to study, but you’ve recently developed a sincere interest in that field, and you happen to have more hard science courses than required for your degree and they are all A’s, then your application is golden. All else being equal."

I feel like this was written just for me.

Try this app called " Major:Education".. Has the jobs you can get with a major, the money, how fast you can pay back college, and a bunch of free classes you can take to try out a major.

Helped me pick my major! Business admin:)

By Laura Ellisie (not verified) on 13 Dec 2012 #permalink

I disagree with the idea that a college major does not matter; especially with regard to STEM and health degrees Many manufacturing companies will go to college campuses to recruit students in specific majors. If the company needs mechanical engineers, then they are not going to hire English majors. A hospital looking hire nurses is not going to hire Anthropology majors. Changing majors is smarter than winding up in a dead-end career with no future.

Eric, if one's major matches one's aspiration for advances study, that is good. But if it doesn't, getting the right courses in before graduating is much more important than redoing the program to get a full major (the two are not the same). You are making a bit of a straw argument by suggesting that I've equated having an English degree with being prepared for advanced study in engineering.