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Switching Majors: Should You Do It?

As students, we’re told that summer is the time to apply what we’ve learned in the classroom to the real world. We’re advised to look for internships, jobs, or volunteer opportunities that are extensions of our chosen fields of study. As a finance major you might have killed to land that internship at the high-profile bank. Or maybe you couldn’t wait to use those English skills in the coveted publishing company position. But as you review the past few months and start looking over classes for the fall semester, what happens if all you can think about is how mind-numbingly boring and painful your summer job was? What now? Is it worth it and even possible to switch majors at this point in your college career? It might be scary to return to the dreaded limbo of being “undecided,” but unraveling some common myths can make the decision to change majors a little more minor.

Myth #1: If I decide to change my major I’ll have to spend way more time in school and I’ll be behind all of my classmates. Plus, it’ll be far too expensive. It just isn’t worth considering. 

Okay, so this isn’t a complete myth — there are some cases where changing majors late in the game will make it harder to graduate on time and it will often mean more strain on your bank account. “In the few areas where more specialized skills are required, such as engineering, computer science and accounting, it would be hard for a student to change majors after sophomore year and still have time to complete all of the requirements for graduation,” says Robin Mount, the Director in the Office of Career, Research and International Opportunities in the Office of Career Services at Harvard University. For this reason, some schools require students majoring in mathematics, sciences or engineering to declare early on in their sophomore year, if not sooner.

If you decide to switch from a quantitative field to the liberal arts or choose to switch your major within the liberal arts, there is often a little more leeway. Many schools don’t require you to declare your major until the end of sophomore year or the beginning of junior year. If you are switching within the field, it is likely that you will already have taken classes that can count towards another liberal arts major (for example, switching from Literature to English), making the process easier. If you’ve already completed general prerequisites, it’ll also be less challenging to fit the classes you need to take into your schedule.

Nevertheless, there are some major consequences to switching late in the game. “The later a student makes a change, the more costly it is in tuition and time,” says Sharon Wiatt Jones, a former career counselor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the co-author of The Parent’s Crash Course in Career Planning: Helping your College Student Succeed. “In fact, at some state universities they require that you get permission to stay more than four years and the cost per credit is higher.” Jones advises against staying at school longer if you want to switch from your current major to one that’s similar, such as changing from Political Science to History or from Psychology to Sociology.

For some students, the extra time and money is worth it. “…I try to look on the bright side: staying in school an extra year and a half gives me all the more opportunities to build an awesome portfolio and rise to leadership positions on campus publications,” says Jessica Hansen, a junior at Iowa State University who decided to switch from majoring in Education to majoring in Journalism late in her college career. 

However, if you’re thinking about changing majors, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. Unless you feel passionately about making a drastic switch between fields, such as going from the sciences to the humanities or vice versa, it may not be worth the time and money to change late in your college career.

Myth #2: If I switch majors, all of the hard work and time that I put into my current major will have been a waste. 

Just because you decide to switch majors doesn’t mean that all of the classes you took for your original major were necessarily a waste of time. It’s just one more way that you can present yourself as a well-rounded job candidate. If you have a background in accounting but decide to go into journalism, you’ll appeal to publications that are looking for knowledgeable business writers. If you have an English major but decide to go into marketing, you’ll be able to use your strong writing for ad campaigns.

It’s also important to note that many graduates change careers after they graduate. Regardless of whether you stay with your original major or switch to another, the skills you learn in any class are likely to come in handy at some point. “You need to begin your field somewhere but you then will have the opportunity to hold a wide variety of jobs and most likely make numerous career transitions throughout your entire professional life,” says JoAnne Amann, a career counselor in the Career Education Center at Simmons College in Boston. “I have read some statistics stating new college grads graduating in 2011 will have five to seven different careers throughout their work life.”

If you do feel that the time you’ve invested into your current major is too valuable to risk compromising but you are passionate about another field, Amann recommends considering both a major and a minor. That way, you can allot time for taking courses in multiple areas of interest.
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Myth #3: I can’t switch because I’ve spent years thinking I’d major in “x” and I’ll have no way of figuring out what to change to. 

Declaring a major can be an important part of your identity. If you’ve defined yourself as a Chemistry major or Medieval Studies major since high school or even middle school, it can be difficult to suddenly give up that part of yourself. Luckily, most schools are prepared for these changes of heart.
Ever wonder what purpose the campus career center serves besides helping you pad your resume? “Many students never walk into their career center until senior year. This is a big mistake,” says Rochelle Sharit, a career advisor at Northeastern University. “Career centers offer much more than help with placement. They offer assessment tools that can help you discover career paths based on your interests, values, and strengths – all key to choosing a career path.” According to Fred Burke, the Executive Director of the Career Center at Hofstra University, these assessment tools include the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Strong Inventory Summary, both of which can help you identify appropriate careers based on personality type. Another test, SkillScan, focuses on measuring specific skills in categories that include Management and Leadership, Analytical Abilities, and Creativity.

Besides taking an aptitude test, voicing your interests out loud, whether to a counselor or friend, can help you find options that you might not have discovered on your own. “…When a student comes to me, disillusioned with her current major,  I listen to what she tells me about what she has found interesting in other courses, or in the wide world beyond the classroom, and then I help her to choose a collection of well-taught courses in disciplines that make her perk up her ears so that she can explore in realms that appeal to her to find direction,” says Dr. Alice Kelley, the Associate Director of Academic Advising and an Assistant Dean for Advising in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Just because a major feels safe doesn’t mean that you should rule out exploring other options that could prove to be a better fit. At the same time, it’s equally important to think about why you chose your current major in the first place. After all, there was a reason that you picked English or Economics to begin with. Are you still interested in that subject matter? Can you think of any teachers in your field who have been inspirational?

Myth #4: Even if I do want to switch my major, the process is too hard.

Saying that you need to switch your major sounds much more major than it actually is. In reality, changing your major is about paperwork.

Take it from Laura Maddox, a junior at Appalachian State University who has switched her major not once, not twice, but three times. Although she didn’t find the paperwork too tedious (most require signatures from the Registrar, the head of the department, and an academic advisor), the most time-consuming part of the process was actually deciding what to declare as her new major. Speaking with a career counselor can streamline that part of the transition and make it less overwhelming.

However, if you do consider switching majors, it’s important to factor in the time to meet with an academic advisor so that you can plan out when you’ll fit in certain requirements. You may decide that although the process of switching to a new major is relatively easy, the long-term commitments are far more difficult and costly.

Myth #5: Even if I don’t like the classes in my major, I should stick with it since certain majors look better on resumes and I really want to land “x” job.

You might know someone (or even be that person) who justifies struggling through classes they dislike by saying that the major will ultimately lead to a “dream career.” Unfortunately, this plan might backfire. It’s harder to devote time and energy to classes if you aren’t interested in the material and this could ultimately hurt your attempts to get a job. “…It is almost invariably the case that grades go up when a student is studying what she enjoys, and high grades in a major like English or Sociology or Art History tend to speak more eloquently to prospective employers than mediocre grades in ‘practical’ majors like Economics or Communications, which often are not really directly connected to the career worlds their majors imagine,” says Dr. Kelley.

Although certain majors, primarily those in quantitative fields, are required to pursue graduate work, no degree is the golden ticket to landing a certain job. Remember when you were applying to college and advisors emphasized that grades were just one part of your application? Just as important were the extracurricular activities that made you stand out. The same thing applies to finding a job.
 
“Unless it’s a focused area [like architecture, accounting, engineering, etc.], employers want to see someone who is well-rounded, has done well in school, and who has applied what they studied to the work world,” says Burke. Whether this is through an internship, a volunteer position, job shadowing or networking with alumni, employers want to see that you can use the skills you learned outside of the classroom. As frustrating as this can seem, most employers care less about your particular major, and more about what you got out of that major and how you took advantage of different campus opportunities. 

What if you want to go into a position in business but your school doesn’t offer a business major? Having a liberal arts degree, no matter the major, is just as valuable. “A liberal arts education is based on very marketable skills – communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and so forth,” says Gary Alan Miller, the Assistant Director for Social Media and Innovation in Career Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Employers are going to train you on their systems and processes.  So, often, they just want to know that you’re a good learner.”

 

If you find yourself questioning your major as you update your resume, there’s no need to panic. Whether you realize your major is the right one for you or you decide to switch to a new major, ultimately you’ll be doing something that’s worthwhile to you!
 
Sources
Rochelle Sharit, Career Advisor at Northeastern University
JoAnne Amann, Career Counselor in the Career Education Center at Simmons College
Sharon Wiatt Jones, former career counselor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the co-author of The Parent’s Crash Course in Career Planning: Helping your College Student Succeed
Fred Burke, Executive Director of the Career Center at Hofstra University
Dr. Alice Kelley, the Associate Director of Academic Advising and an Assistant Dean for Advising in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania
Robin Mount, Director of Career, Research and International Opportunities in the Office of Career Services at Harvard University
Gary Alan Miller, Assistant Director for Social Media and Innovation in Career Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Laura Maddox, Appalachian State University
Jessica Hansen, Iowa State University

Madeline Buxton is a rising junior at Yale University, where she is majoring in English and writes for the Yale Daily News Magazine. She spent two summers as an intern at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and is spending summer 2011 as a marketing intern at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where her responsibilities include drafting press releases and writing for the museum's newsletter. While not working, she enjoys relaxing by watching romantic comedies, writing/reading in independent coffee shops, and trying out new smoothie concoctions (hint: adding coconut to anything instantly makes it better).
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