A Major Decision
When students should choose a major, what questions to ask, and what resources are available when deciding your career
For any college student, the next question they hear after “Where do you go to school?” is, inevitably, “What’s your major?” That’s hardly surprising. It’s one of the most important decisions a student will ever make—the first and biggest step toward a future career.
Ashley Clayton of Burlington is one student who followed a serendipitous route to her major. Now a junior studying art and psychology at Georgetown College, her decision involved several happy coincidences. As a child, she had never been particularly interested in art, but one year in high school, the music class she wanted to take was already full. To round out her schedule, she signed up for an art class instead.
“That’s where I fell in love with painting,” she says, “though I never thought about art as a career.” Then she learned that the husband of one of her teachers was an art therapist—a professional who helps people resolve difficult emotions by using art to express them. “I knew that art helped me work through my troubles, and I realized that I could help other people.”
She chose Georgetown College for its strong programs in both art and psychology, and has been taking a broad variety of courses in both departments—this semester, her schedule includes art history and a paper arts class, as well as courses in abnormal psychology and learning, experimental psychology, and German. She’s already delved into her future career: she spent last summer teaching art classes at a day camp for inner-city children in New Jersey—“An amazing experience!” she says. Ultimately, she wants to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, and to work with women and girls who are survivors of traumatic situations.
For some people, choosing a college major is simple. Growing up in Loretto, Ashley Raley loved to tend her dolls when they got “sick.” “I’ve always been tender-hearted, always wanted to help people in trouble,” she says. As a senior at Marion County High School, she took courses to become a certified nursing assistant, which included practical experience in a nursing home. When she enrolled at Saint Catharine College, just outside of Springfield, her path was clear. She is now majoring in nursing, and will receive her associate’s degree in May.
It’s an intensive and demanding program, but Raley thrives on it. She attends classes on campus three days a week, and has developed her skills in the college’s state-of-the-art nursing labs—full-fledged hospital rooms with a high-tech mannequin in each bed. Dressed in her blue uniform, she checks a “patient’s” blood pressure and cleans his teeth.
In between her classwork, she is doing clinical practice in the cancer unit of University of Louisville Hospital. All told, she spends up to 55 hours a week on her studies and clinical training, but she always finds time for the human side of her work. “Last week, I was feeding a cup of ice cream to a cancer patient who was all alone, with no family there. His smile made it all worthwhile, all the long hours.”
At times, she can’t help thinking about her friends who have chosen other majors with easier schedules—one friend is studying interior design, and has much more free time to relax and enjoy her college years. But Ashley Raley’s future goal is clear in her mind: nursing in a hospital near Lebanon, where she and her fiancé are building their home. She proudly calls herself a “small-town girl.”
For other students, college is a time of exploration, and they spend time investigating various possibilities before settling on a major and a future career. Nationwide, a majority of students at four-year colleges have not chosen a major before enrolling, and an estimated half to two-thirds will change their major at least once.
“More than 60% of our students haven’t decided on a major yet when they enroll here,” says Jerry Jackson, dean of enrollment at Union College in Barbourville. “They’re excited about college, and want a good future for themselves, but they’re still exploring. And we encourage that.” Union College has a core curriculum of required courses in seven areas, designed to expose all students to a range of fields they might not have considered. The goal is to have them focus on a major by the end of their second year.
Dr. Juilee Decker, chair of Georgetown College’s art department and one of Ashley Clayton’s professors, agrees that students should take as much time as they need in making decisions. “I was actually a biology major,” she says, “but then I took an art history class as a general education requirement, and I just loved it.” And to those who might think that art is not “practical” as a major, she points out that art majors have important marketable skills: “In any type of business field, creativity is needed. Artists fill that niche.”
But all this seems much clearer in retrospect. What can students do if they feel they don’t have a clue about their future?
“First, relax,” says Karl Wallhausser, a student advisor at Union College. “Dive into your courses. Look at what’s out there. Then think carefully, systematically, and honestly about who you are.” He recommends that students consider what they really love to do, and not just potential careers. Many nontechnical, liberal arts fields actually develop skills that are more broadly useful. For example, a student who loves English literature has many career options besides just teaching English. The ability to write well and to analyze what you read is valuable to many different kinds of employers.
Students can begin by thinking about high school subjects and activities they enjoyed, and any courses they especially disliked. For instance, someone who loved working on the school newspaper might thrive as a communications major, while a student who hated science courses would have a difficult time studying nursing.
Wallhausser says it’s often the parents who are most worried when a student hesitates in choosing a major, because they are concerned that hard-earned tuition money is being wasted. “But it’s a mistake trying to orient students to a particular field before they’re ready,” he says. It’s not unknown for students who start college with a firm choice of majors to discover, late in the game, that they don’t want to work in that field at all—and to change to a new major in their senior year, requiring extra semesters of study. “That’s when money gets wasted.”
Of course, there are exceptions. Two-year associate’s degree programs are very focused, and unless a student is earning a degree in general studies to prepare for a bachelor’s degree program, changing your major could mean starting over again. There are also some bachelor’s degree programs that require four whole years to complete, particularly in education, and for these, an early decision is essential.
The process of choosing a major can be an enjoyable quest, a treasure hunt through what lies inside you. By getting to know yourself better, you lay the foundation for a career that will bring you great personal satisfaction.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF BEFORE CHOOSING A COLLEGE MAJOR
Jerry Jackson and Karl Wallhausser of Union College in Barbourville suggest you take time to think it over and consider these questions, in choosing a major and a future career:
• What areas interest you? What are you absolutely not interested in?
• What do you most enjoy working with: people? things? numbers? ideas?
• What are you good at? What special abilities do you have?
• Where do you want to live after college? If staying near your hometown is important for you, what kinds of jobs are available there? (For instance, there is not much demand for astronauts in southeastern Kentucky, but there are plenty of jobs for teachers.)
• What are your financial goals? Realistically, how much money do you hope to earn? What fields would put you in this category?
A meeting with student advisors at your high school or college can give you many more points to think about as well as potential majors that you may have overlooked, so be sure to take advantage of their expertise.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: INTERNET LINKS TO COLLEGE MAJORS
For a listing of several Web sites offering information on a variety of majors, careers information, questionnaires, and statistics, click here: college majors.