The big question rated number 1 for many
For high school students and even first year students, “How do I pick a major?” is the question. A major is the area of focus, within academia, that you spend the majority of your 4 years of study exploring and learning about. In many cases, we associate a major with what you are becoming in terms of your future career.
So, in some ways “how do I pick a major?” is the same question as “what do you want to be when you grow up?” that adults ask children throughout time.
My book takes a look at some of these ideas in more detail, but let’s define a few things here:
- A job is trading your time (and skills) for compensation
- A career is a path in a set of related jobs of with some goal of getting to a job where you do (mostly) what you want to do on a daily basis
- A degree is awarded for completing the set requirements usually including a concentration in a major
- A professional degree is a degree that is a credential step towards a career in a focused concentration
- Vocational training is a process to teach you a set of skills customized for a specific job(s)
So how does that help you pick a major?
Universities don’t train you for a job
The first thing to truly grasp is you major is not necessarily your future job. For example, a computer engineer major will start their career in a vast number of jobs that can include engineering work, sales, training, etc. In other words, I couldn’t list all the jobs that someone who did a major in computer engineering does. Even in one of my narrow research fields: Field Programmable Gate Arrays, the list of jobs which you need this major for easily goes over 100!
Therefore, we can not train you in a major for a job. You will have to prepare for your career while pursuing your degree in your major, and yes, the university will provide great opportunities to do that (career center, career fairs, company visits, etc.), but that is not the universities primary goal. It is up to you to shape your career.
A major is your opportunity to explore an area of interest (caveat economics)
Most of us have to worry about our future career, income, and financial stability. The tricky part is how can you pursue what you are truly interested in while balancing the realities of your future career and your family situation. There seems to be evidence that your major choice correlates to your family’s current financial status.
If I was allowed to choose what I was interested in when I was 18, then it would have been video games and basketball. My parents, however, were not going to pay for my education if it did not include science, engineering, or math. I was fortunate to find a compromise in computer engineering. Was that a compromise?
As I’ve matured, I have come to believe that engineering can be applied to almost any other interest. For example, if you like sports, then the mathematics, analytics, and modeling applies to understanding sports better in – see Moneyball or The Wages of Wins. I’m biased towards my experiences in engineering and so is our economically driven world, but do we only need technologists? I think any major can be applied to any interest, and you should leverage these connections in your pick, and take time to consider how you will mold your major into your career. There are a common set of what we would call high-level skills needed in all industry – thinking, communicating, and doing.
I, also, think the key to picking a major is to find something that has a spark of inspiration and motivation for you, and you should have some aptitude in that field or be willing to work really hard to develop needed skills. You need that drive to help get you excited to explore that something more deeply.
Finally, it’s not that big a deal
How do I pick a major? The question scares all of us. This decision will define your future. Your parents hope you pick something that means you won’t live with them forever. The country needs you to contribute to our bottom line. Yikes.
In many cases, however, it doesn’t matter that much. If you have some motivation, curiosity, and interest in learning, then you will find a topic, professor, class, or hobby that starts you on your future path. You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career is a great book that will help you understand what seems to happen for at least half of us. If anything keep your mind open to opportunities and learn what you can.