7 Tips for Picking Your Major in College

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Do you ever have those moments when you’re speaking but you hear someone else’s words coming out of your mouth? It might be your mom or an old teacher. It’s a rare feeling for me, but it happened today.

I was meeting with a student who wanted to change his major. He had narrowed down his focus but was still debating between a few options in STEM. I heard myself say, “There are many paths to success. There is no wrong answer.” Huh? He looked at me with the same look I gave my undergraduate faculty advisor when he told me it didn’t matter what I majored in.

I entered college with a double major in Psychology and International Relations. My first week on campus I met with my faculty advisor and he said, “Why do you want to double major? Just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one.” How could it not matter? This was my future! A wrong choice could put me on a miserable path for my entire career! I could make a huge mistake!

I was passionate about helping people and wanted to be a psychologist, but I thought a career in International Relations would give me an exciting lifestyle traveling around the world. I continued taking classes in both majors but his words stuck with me. In the end I chose Psychology and dropped International Relations, and I never looked back.

I watched my peers of all majors follow all different career paths. For some their career paths were directed by family obligations, financial factors, or relationships. In any case, each internship, job, and experience gives us important skills, knowledge, and abilities and helps us define where we want to take the next step.

While I did say that there may be no right or wrong choice, there is definitely an informed choice so here are 7 tips for picking your major:

1. Follow your passion. Prestige and earning potential are important factors, but your passion for a subject is going to keep you going during the grueling study sessions and all-nighters.  If you have a lot of interests, spend some time reflecting on your long-term goals and what activities inspire you.

2. Talk to faculty. Each department has a unique culture and faculty. You will be spending a lot of time with your faculty so explore whether the department’s culture is a good fit for you. Are they laid back? Hands on? Approachable? Helpful? Interested in knowing you?

3. Utilize Career Services. Career Services has several helpful resources, such as personality and strengths assessments that can help you identify which subjects you might enjoy and/or areas where you might be more successful. Career Services also has industry contacts and can guide you on possible internship and career options in various majors.

4. Keep your options open. If you want to apply for graduate or medical school be sure to take the necessary prerequisites. Some majors may align more closely to these requirements so it may save you some time; however, don’t let that be the only deciding factor. Ultimately, many graduate schools are looking to see that you have taken the necessary classes regardless of your major.

5. Do your research on undergraduate research. Undergraduate research looks great on a resume and gives you applicable experiences. Look into the various undergraduate research areas on your campus to see if any spark your interest.

6. Ask other students. Peers are a great resource. Seek out students in the major that you are considering and ask them questions. What do they enjoy about the major? What is the biggest challenge? Do they recommend it? Why or why not?

7. Visit the Advising Center. Academic advisors have a wealth of knowledge and can help you identify the major that may be a great fit for you. They have a deep understanding of the curriculum, and they can tell you if you have already taken classes that might meet the requirements of a certain major.

7 Blind Men and An Elephant

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Working in a large public institution has given me the opportunity to observe several leadership styles. Given the segregated nature of the functions of the institution, it is not surprising that many leaders have adapted their leadership style to ensure the survival of their department. At times, this can be frustrating because in my experience it creates seemingly unnecessary conflict.

I was recently reminded of the story of seven blind men and an elephant. In the story, each man is feeling a different part of the elephant. The one touching the tail thinks it is a rope. The one at the leg thinks it is a tree trunk. They start to fight about it. Whether or not the conflict between the men and their perspectives was resolved depends on which version of the story you believe. The lesson I take away is that we all think we know how it is but in reality we only see a piece of the whole.

I like this story because each of the men was right. In my own work life, I have recently started trying to identify the elephant. How can it be that we are viewing the same issue from opposing positions? What could the issue look like from your side of the elephant? And how can I best describe my side in a way that helps us both get a better idea of what the elephant really is?

In some cases, this has required assembling an elephant that doesn’t yet exist. In creating collaborative programs within the institution, different departments bring their components or values. Sometimes they are open to integrating these components and often they want their components to be the whole elephant.

I have recently encouraged the students I work with to see how they could combine their seemingly different perspectives to create a greater outcome. This is especially challenging because the temptation is to recreate our existing structures – silo-ed departments, specialized colleges, two-party systems. Everywhere we look we can find examples of people holding on to their piece of the elephant.