When I tell people that I received my undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University, they usually ask if I am a doctor, or a nurse, or involved in medicine in some way. It’s a question I’ll answer for the rest of my life. I was a political science major. Many people don’t know Hopkins has Humanities and Social Sciences, and some don’t even know that there is an undergraduate program at all. (Here is the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at JHU – if you hover your mouse over “Departments,” you will see that 13 of the 22 departments are non-science disciplines.)
Recently, the Los Angeles Times did a story about a young woman who graduated from CalTech with a degree in Humanities. She was the only one in her class who majored in Humanities without a science or engineering major as well. The reporter notes that the recent graduate started as a molecular biology major, and then changed her major to math, then decided she preferred studying economics and history. Fortunately, CalTech’s course offerings were able to accommodate her changing academic interests.
There used to be a story floating around about a student who majored in English at MIT. In fact, there is no English major available at MIT today, but students in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences can major in Linguistics, Literature, Writing and Humanistic Studies, and 17 other non-“hard” science disciplines.
The lesson here is flexibility – choosing a college where you can change your major – sometimes more than once – and still finish in four years. Most students start college “undecided,” and many colleges won’t even let students declare a major until the end of their first year or even their second year. Put yourself back into those 18-year old shoes – for 12+ years, their entire academic career, they’ve had very little say – if any – in what courses they take. As they start college, they are able to explore course options they may never know existed.
I do recommend that students take a look at possible majors as part of their college search process. There are several web-based tools that can help with this. One resource is “What Can I Do With This Major,” which has a fantastic grid with clickable majors that can help students explore potential careers related to the major in which they think they are interested. I also use the MyMajors.com quiz with my clients.
But students shouldn’t feel locked into a major, and even after they’ve identified some early interests, they should be sure to explore not only their potential major at all of the colleges on their list, but also other departments that may be of interest.
College is about broadening horizons, living independently and forming new and lasting relationships. While part of my work involves helping students get into their college(s) of choice, the other part is about making sure that the colleges on that list are a good fit for the student, even if they decide to change majors at some point during their academic career.