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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What should I major in?

A column in the Columbia University newspaper caught my eye. A woman was try to explain to her father why she had chosen the major she chose.

She, like most college students, thinks she is making an important life choice here. She is, but she is confused about which choice she is making.

Why do college have majors? If you understand that, then the decision will become clear. All universities in the United States, even those that don’t claim to be, are modeled after the concept of the research university. This means that the professors at the school are primarily interested in research. Not only that, research dominates their lives so much that teaching is very low on their priority list. More importantly, when they teach, they are teaching what are basically research subjects.

So, when a psychology major wants to learn about people’s minds he or she winds up learning how to run experiments and how to do statistics because that is what researchers in psychology do.. When a computer science major wants to learn to become a proficient programmer they wind up learning mathematical theories connected with programming because that is what their professors research.

The major exists as a way of routing students on one track of becoming researchers. There are, of course, a few problems with this model. For one, most students do not want to become researchers. For another, those that do want to pursue PhDs soon realize that they could have majored in most anything and been accepted into a PhD program of their choice if they did well enough in college.

Students major in biology or chemistry because they want to became doctors (a field that actually requires next to none of the biology or chemistry that one learns in college.) They major in economies when they want to became business people because, at schools like Colombia, there is no business major but there are plenty of economists who do research.

In fact the concept of major is meant to move students into advanced courses in a department, namely the research seminars, which are really all the faculty actually want to teach anyhow.

When my son asked me what he should major in (he was also at Columbia) I told him “subways.” I did that because he loved subways. Now of course there is no subway major at Columbia, or anywhere else. I told him to pick and choose courses that related to his main interest and that the major he wound up in would not matter at all to anyone.

And this is my advice to students in all colleges. The major requirement is not there to serve your needs, so serve your own. Pick any courses that interests you as you attempt to determine a plan for your life. It really doesn’t matter. If your college offers real training in areas that lead to jobs and you think you might want one of those jobs, by all means major in that. But most people change their plans in life many times, so the answer to “what should I major in?” is simple enough.

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. What matter are the choices that you make later. If you pick a major that narrows your choices then you made a bad selection.

1 comment:

mcheng said...

>If you pick a major that narrows
>your choices then you made a bad

So it sounds like a career change after a graduate degree would imply a bad decision was made (since graduate education is a form of specialization, narrowing future choices). It sounds rather reductionistic to generalize that all specialized fields are bad selections.... I am in that boat, having graduated from Northwestern with a Masters in Music. Recently, I looked at the list of alumni from the school and was amazed at how few stayed within the industry. I think the path we take is really individualized and what's key is the availability of a good coach (something I didn't really have)... but that your son had in you. I wonder... when he "majored in subway" would he spot opportunities in say astronomy or biology? (I found these subway maps and thought of you... trust you like them!)