Senior Dana Kathrins came to GW without a declared major. The introductory courses in speech and hearing science, sparked her interest and after a dean’s seminar in the subject and a sign language course, Kathrins was hooked.
Choosing a major can be one of the most stressful experiences of a college student’s academic career. Incoming freshmen typically fall into two categories: one student knows exactly what they want to major in and the other has absolutely no clue. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, said Landon Wade, director of advising for the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
“Coming in knowing exactly what to major in gives you a little more direction in looking for courses, but those students still need to come in with an open mind because.the hallmark of an educated mind is the ability to change it,” Wade said. “Coming in with a declared major and holding to it hard and fast without entertaining any other options would do the student an injustice.”
About half of incoming students declare a major by the end of their freshman year and the rest usually declare by fall or spring of their sophomore year, Wade said.
Further complicating the quest for a major is the fact that programs vary in size and quality at each school. The desire to specialize in an intricate field of study may leave students worried about the type of academic experience they will undertake.
Kathrins said one aspect of the speech and hearing sciences department that drew her to her major was the close-knit community. The department is relatively small, but growing each year, she said.
“Since the size of the department is relatively small, there is ample opportunity for students to seek help from the professors and to get involved in the career,” Kathrins said.
Jim Fry, director of academic advising at the Elliott School of International Affairs, said most college students change their majors at least once, and whether one chooses a major before arriving at school or after is often inconsequential. The benefit of attending a university is the wide variety of choices and the ability to accommodate change, he said.
Most programs require students to declare their majors by their junior year. By that time, most students will have sampled a variety of disciplines by virtue of the general requirements, and they should have some indication of their academic strengths and interests, Fry said.
Students may choose to delay the declaration of a major until after they have had enough time to sample courses from across different curriculums. However, the more time spent sampling from different fields also decreases the amount of time available to complete an undergraduate degree within four years. Also such delays complicate the possibilities of second majors, minors, or studying abroad, Fry said. The difficulty experienced in changing majors altogether typically mirrors the academic distance between the first and second major.
A change from a history major to political science may not delay one’s graduation because there are some similar course requirements, but a switch from history to biology could be complicated, Fry said.
Typically the greatest stresses about choosing a major are familial or cultural. Many students and their family and friends believe that future professional or financial success is dictated by the choice of major, Fry said.
“Simply put, this is not true. Rather it is one’s happiness with and particular enthusiasm for a major that drives that success,” Fry said. “The best advice is to study what you enjoy and let your professional ambitions develop from there.”
Kathrins found her family to be a source of support rather than stress. Her parents work in health care and have been her support system throughout college.
“In choosing such a small and directed major I had reservations about whether or not I would regret studying something so specific, but after three years with the major, it has never ceased to surprise me and capture my interest,” she said.
Because the job market is changing so much, the undergraduate degree is no longer such a rigid indication of which job a student will land after graduation, Wade said.
“Our culture has created the stress behind picking a major, but it is no longer as clear which majors yield which jobs,” Wade said. “Recent research suggests that people of this generation will probably have five or six careers – you can’t go wrong with a liberal arts curriculum if you follow that trend.”