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Choosing an Undergraduate Major

Updated on August 2, 2013
Yoon Sik Kim profile image

A Ph. D. in English, Dr. Kim teaches at Murray State College. A bug rancher, he also keeps honeybees (Google Dr. Kim's Honey Farm).

Choosing Undergraduate Major

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Learn as Much as You Can About the Field Before Making a Decision

Taking and sampling introductory courses alone may not help you determine which field of study you should go into; for example, taking Biology, Chemistry, or Physics courses will not let you taste the day-to-day reality of being a nurse or a medical doctor. To learn more about the daily life of a nurse or a doctor, you can spend a day or two at a local clinic as a volunteer, trying to assess if this line of work is your career choice. Such active information gathering will help you make your career decision easier as you see how, being a nurse, for example, will allow you to interact with patients on a daily basis, an activity you enjoy doing. Similarly, taking a course in Journalism is different from actually being a reporter for a day. Such real-life experience will help you narrow the gap between what is ideal and what is real and practical. To make an informed decision, you need to know as much about the career as possible through such reality check.

Choosing an Undergraduate Major

Ideally, by the time students enter college, they should have some idea as to what they would like to major; however, there are many students struggling with this life-changing decision. The conventional wisdom has taught us to major in whatever you enjoy doing or go into the field you envision yourself working for the rest of your life. Developing what you are uniquely good at still makes sense. However, there still is a need to revisit this important decision-making process given the fast-paced, technology-driven, competitive global society we now live in.

Consider a Major That Offers a Variety of Career Choices

Avoid majoring in a field that is too narrowly defined as it will limit your career choices; instead, choose one that is versatile and flexible in more than one career. If you major in Math, for example, you can translate your skills in many other areas: Computer Science, Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and more. More than any other disciplines, Math will train your logical, critical, and analytic skills essential across all disciplines of science. Meteorology, for instance, uses a mathematical model to predict the movement of a hurricane; similarly, a mathematical model will allow a medical researcher to carry out, in the abstract, how a pandemic will spread without having to conduct field study in reality. Similarly, if you major in English, your solid writing skills will help you move into many other careers: journalism, law, education, and freelance writing, to name a few. It is important to major in a well-rounded discipline to broaden your career choice.

Practical Education Today May Become Impractical Tomorrow

Similarly be aware of the ever-evolving nature of the job market as the societal demand can change quickly. Let’s say you have mastered one computer programming language by majoring in Computer Science; however, due to constantly changing nature of the field, the computer language you have mastered may become obsolete in a few years as people develop a better programming language. Currently, one of the highly demanding fields of study is health profession due to global shortage of nurses. Although the demand will last for a while as the baby boomers age, it is likely to plateau once the field gets over-saturated. That is what happened to the field of Computer Science, a field of study that came into being only in 20th century. In 19th century, there was no such a thing as Computer Science. Today even the field of Computer Science is saturated; computer programmers are having difficulty getting jobs.

Choosing A Career Path Through Your Major

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Choosing a Major

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Consider a Dual or More Major If Possible

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (released in 2012), people hold on average 11.3 jobs in lifetime:

Individuals born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 11.3 jobs from ages 18 to 46. These baby boomers held an average of 5.5 jobs while ages 18 to 24. The average fell to 3 jobs from ages 25 to 29, to 2.4 jobs from ages 30 to 34, and to 2.1 jobs from ages 35 to 39 and also from ages 40 to 46. Jobs that span more than one age group were counted once in each age group, so the overall average number of jobs held from age 18 to age 46 is less than the sum of the number of jobs across the individual age groups. (See Reference 1)

Ideally you should major in your area of interest and then minor in, say, more practical area. For example, let’s say you really wanted to study painting in Fine Arts: you should major in Fine Arts and then minor, say, in Education so that if you cannot find a job in the fields of Fine Arts, you can teach with your state Teaching Certificate. Once you secure an income from teaching, you can still pursue your dream in painting or a job in your field of specialization. Waiting for a better tide in one’s career search is not uncommon; for example, T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest modern poets, worked, at one point in his career, at a bank while pursuing his dream of being a poet.

Consider the Job Markets

Avoid the crowd. Typically there are more students in non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields due largely to the fact that most students lacking quantitative skills tend to flock to “softer” fields, such as the Humanities and Social Sciences. If you major in these non-STEM areas, therefore, you need to expect to see a lot more job applicants than you would in STEM fields. This often means that to land a job upon graduation, you should be at the top of your graduating class or you should have graduated in one of the top schools in the nation. Otherwise, you will be facing possibly hundreds of applicants for one opening, thus reducing your chance. Most important, the pay scale is usually better for the graduates in STEM. For example, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, natural sciences managers make around $130, 000; engineering managers, $125; computer and information systems managers, $122,000; petroleum engineers, $120, 000; and physicists, $118, 000. The average annual salary for all STEM occupations was $80, 000 (See Reference 2).

1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (p. 1)

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf

2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2011/05/art1full.pdf

Do Careful Researches

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Money Is Important but Is Not Everything

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      Yoon Sik Kim 4 years ago from Republic of Oklahoma

      Thank you very much for visiting and your thoughtful insights and comments.