Choose the Right Major for You

How do you go about choosing a major? You’re young, and it takes a great deal of courage to commit to something that could very well be for life. For that reason, you feel like you need more info – a lot more – before you can make an educated decision. And you aren’t alone in thinking this.

Many students change their majors at least once in college. Sometimes, they do it because their classes are difficult. Sometimes, their interests change. Sometimes, its because of other people. A boss, a friend, a teacher, or a colleague inspired them. It made them want to stick around and become a part of something new and different.

And that’s only scratching the tip of the iceberg. Whether you’re applying to college or already done with the first two years of your undergraduate degree, it’s common to find yourself gazing into the horizon and wondering what really comes next.

Take it from me. When I was in high school, I wanted nothing more than to be a doctor. A primary care physician, to be specific. I had been fortunate enough to get a hospital internship my junior year – getting a firsthand look at various endoscopies, cosmetic surgeries, autopsies…the whole gamut. The marriage between medical science and patient care was something I truly enjoyed – and I found my soft spot in primary care.

Later, when I started my first year at the University of California Berkeley, I had decided then that clinical psychology was actually the thing I wanted to pursue. The human condition had become fascinating to me; as they say, the brain truly is the last frontier in medical science. The unresolved mysteries were exhilarating – and presented an opportunity for me to contribute to their unveiling. I took various pre-requisites for the degree, and soon realized that I was just as interested in genetics. Human behavior is one thing, but genes are another beast all together – the ability of single proteins to modulate entire physiological systems, including our neurological network, was dumbfounding. I couldn’t get enough of this extraordinary concept. That lead me to switch once more into biology, and finally into chemistry. I did this when I realized how the foundation for life was encapsulated in the mystical world of macromolecules. To properly study biology, I needed a better understanding of chemistry.

During these formative years, I worked as hard as I could. From Monday through Thursday, I’d take double the average course load and spend half my waking hours in the library. On Fridays and weekends, I would ride a one-hour bus over to San Francisco and whittle hours away doing research. I’d return to my dingy apartment at 10pm, exhausted, muddy from the rain, but thoroughly happy. My best friends and I were all doing what we loved – advancing basic science and getting one step closer towards life-saving treatments. It didn’t matter that I was basically making $6/hr on the job – the product of my work was meaningful and useful to mankind.

Then I got a taste for the good life. In the middle of my undergraduate, I transitioned from academic research into pharmaceutical R&D. The facilities I spent these glory days in were shiny, new, well-equipped – and produced results at a blistering speed. I became acquainted with top-notch scientists who were also stellar speakers, businessmen, and managers. Nobel laureates graced the workplace regularly. I saw, for the first time, what it meant to truly ‘collaborate’, an underutilized concept in the academic landscape. I was blessed with capable and dedicated mentors who taught me what it meant to use science to make tangible products. For the first time in my life, I made decent money.

I lived frugally, and used my savings to travel. With two close friends, we spend three months planning a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. We visited the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, partied it up in Hong Kong and Singapore, and witnessed the culture of beautiful Burma, crystallized in time from decades of western trade embargoes. My world views changed permanently, and for perhaps the first time ever, I felt like I understood what it meant to be a global citizen. No sociology, history, or anthropology course could have instilled such a momentous feeling in me.

After college, I became a teacher – to suburban students, inner-city high schoolers, inmates, adults continuing their education, the whole range. You might be thinking – what? How did all that grandiose talk about contributing to science end up in a career in education? The answer was simple – I enjoyed it. Speak with the 18-year old me, though, and he would have never seen this coming. My life was totally planned out, with no room made for contingencies. My stubbornness (and in a way, my dedication) made sure of this. On any given day, I had a clear, 10-year plan for my life.

The truth is, though, that life is flexible – and that a lot of things change based on your personal experiences (and not your expectations). I ended up dabbling in way more fields than I had expected, but if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a single thing. Even accounting for all the setbacks, each phase in life has ultimately gotten me closer towards the most important thing – waking up in the morning and loving what I do.

Choosing a Major 101: 

 

1. Don’t let the high-school classroom dictate your major.

-Some teachers are better at teaching than others, and the impressions they make will influence your interests. That’s to be expected. But realize that in no time at all, your impressions will change rapidly as you a. get exposed to college-level coursework and b. get exposed to real work, through internships and volunteer experiences. Don’t judge a given playground until you’ve actually set foot in it.

-There are way more academic disciplines than there are high school subjects. Many interesting fields are waiting on you to discover them. Further down the line, you will find that there are also way more jobs than there are academic disciplines. Keep an open mind to it all.

2. Expectations and reality are two different things.

-Chances are, college classes (and even entire majors) will be different from what you expected.

-Actual work and classroom theory don’t always align. a) Listen to feedback from older students and b) get work experience to figure out what a career in so-and-so really means.

-TV always misrepresents life on the job. Always. I can guarantee you that there is no doctor like House, no forensic analyst like Dexter, and no outdoorsman like Bear Grylls. There’s probably a postdoctoral fellow out there similar to Sheldon Cooper, but in general, don’t base your expectations of work on popular media. Getting firsthand information from a regular Joe or Jill, or reading about it (the Reddit subforums IAmA and askreddit are nice for this), will help you to ground your expectations.

3. Careers are different from majors.

-Technology creates new disciplines at a lightning pace. Formal education naturally lags behind. A lot of exciting career paths are multidisciplinary and aren’t tied down to particular majors.

4. Your skills and training are defined by you, not by your major.

-An undergraduate degree is simply a title conferred upon completion of a certain set of classes. You can take classes outside of your major that will be just as useful in your future career as your actual major. Don’t think that your skills and talents are limited by your credentials.

5. Many people end up working outside of their major.

-This is especially true when you choose an academic rather than a technical discipline. Life is unpredictable and full of chance encounters. Many people set off on career paths based on their major, but others also do so based on the first job they land, new interests they develop years out of school, and sometimes just by being in the right place at the right time.

 

Take-Home Pointers:

 

Keep an open mind. Take your current expectations with a grain of salt, because college offers a wealth of new directions and opportunities.

First and foremost – enroll in classes that challenge you and teach you relevant, real-world skills. If you want to learn trivia and ‘fun stuff’, you can always do so in your free time, anywhere, at any time. Take advantage of a university’s exclusive facilities, resources, and opportunities to get some valuable training done.

Build work experience through internships and volunteering, because that’s just as important as taking classes and getting your degree. In fact, what you do outside of class is sometimes more important than class itself. Think of all the successful startups that were achieved by talented, motivated students who got together to achieve a mutual goal outside of school. Actively attend career fairs, build your professional network, and make yourself known to professors and potential employers. Don’t be shy to use family connections when you have them. Success is as much about the people you know as it is about the work that you do.