A Major Decision

set of chess pieces on board

John thought he was destined to be a biology major because of his love for anatomy and physiology, his insatiable curiosity about how living organisms are able to adapt to changing environmental conditions, and his goal of becoming a doctor. What John realized as he headed into his junior year of college after working full-time as a medical assistant over the summer, his first real immersive experience in healthcare, was that he was most interested in and excited about the biomedical devices involved in medicine. John shared with me that after his days at work he would research and read about instruments the healthcare team members used to gain a better understanding of how the devices worked as well as what new technologies were on the horizon. John also became increasingly curious about the intersection of biology and engineering and the implications on healthcare advancements, both with regard to diagnosis and treatment. John further confided in me that if he was truly being honest, he wasn’t surprised that he really didn’t enjoy the patient interactions required of physicians, and he was always most interested in understanding the scientific and technical aspects of medicine. However, he felt there was an unspoken expectation from family for him to become a doctor and thus thought biology was the only major for him to pursue. In light of his summer experience, increased confidence about his academic and career interests in biomedical devices, John wondered about changing his major to something in engineering, perhaps biomedical or mechanical or even electrical engineering. He loved high school honors physics and had a strong background in math, scoring high enough on the AP exam to earn credit for calculus, one of the two quantitative requirements for biology. Because statistics, which he completed first semester freshman year, was the only other required math course for biology John had not taken any additional math.

Given the significant amount of math beyond calculus required and the overall type and number of required courses for any of the engineering majors, it was not possible for John to switch to an engineering major and graduate on time. It appeared as though he may be able to graduate with one additional semester if he was willing to pay for a significant number of classes for two summers. However, taking summer classes would mean he would not have the opportunity to gain additional experience via internships or work experience, nor earn any money; and changing majors at the beginning of his junior year would result in exceptionally rigorous schedules each semester and no room for electives between now and when he completed his degree. For a whole host of reasons including the added stress and expense, as well as detracting from other priorities for his undergraduate experience, John knew that changing majors was not a good decision. Thus, after consulting with advisors and faculty in both biology and engineering, as well as meeting with a career counselor, John decided to complete his biology major. Additionally he learned that by completing complementary coursework, joining an engineering project team and seeking a summer internship, he could acquire important knowledge and learn valuable skills to make him competitive for an entry-level position in the biomedical industry upon graduation.

John’s situation, while unique, is not uncommon. First, he wrongly presumed there was only one major that would prepare him for his original career goal. And second, he had a transformative experience in college that resulted in him reevaluating both his academic and career decisions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a third of students change their majors at least once and one in 10 switches majors two or more times before graduating. Decisions about “what to major in” or whether or not to change majors contribute significantly to the national four-year graduation rate being a meager 45%.

Given the exorbitant cost of a college education, the amount of information, and number of opportunities available to students it is understandable that selecting a major can feel daunting. The stakes feel even higher considering the changing and varying opinions about how closely related majors are (or are not) to careers. It is no wonder that the “major decision” is often a significant source of stress for students and families, both during the college admissions process and throughout the undergraduate experience. Whenever possible, students should engage in a multi-faceted, dynamic process before committing to a major. I believe it is worthy of significant exploration, over time, and with consideration both prior to and once a student arrives at college.

It is critical for students to consider a number of factors when selecting a major, including but not limited to their interests, abilities, values, career aspirations, and financial situation. I encourage students to engage early and often with advising and career development resources on their campus to support them in the process of selecting a major, or confirming their choice of major if they were admitted directly to a major at the time of their acceptance to the institution. And, should a student choose a major and then have second thoughts, they should give some thought to these important considerations before making any changes.

If you have suggestions for ways to assist students in selecting their major, please comment below! Want to chat about how to support your student in selecting a major or optimizing their overall college experience? Schedule a complimentary 30-minute consultation with me, I am eager to help you support your student from decision to degree.


Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC.

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