Don’t Sweat the Major Stuff

There are few things that are more distressing to a college student than finding yourself in major purgatory, that uncomfortable time frame prior to declaring your undergraduate focus. You vacillate between various majors and look at what track lines up with the classes you’ve completed. As you watch the majority of your peers confidently walk into the registrar’s office to declare their respective majors, you sit on the sidewalk outside, confused about what you want to pursue.

It gets worse, though. As if not knowing what direction you want to take weren’t bad enough, your friends and family outside the Claremont bubble constantly ask you what you’re thinking about majoring in, what you can do with the tentative majors you’re considering, and how much the starting salary is for each respective career. As spring registration quickly approaches, you have no idea whether to continue on that pre-med track you were on, or if you should stray and knock out the requirements for that humanities double major you were considering. Your adviser looks at you, furrowing their brow when you mumble about generic routes you could possibly take and what requirements you have completed.

Major purgatory is a destination some fortunate souls don’t have to spend time in, but for the majority of us it’s a common stop on the road to graduation. The amount of time you spend there, however, depends on you. For the sophomore, there’s the convenient choice of picking whichever major you’ve completed the most requirements for already. Not only is that convenient but it’s probable that you enjoy the material, given that you’ve taken multiple courses in the subject. Yet for the anxious first-year, or for us more worrisome sophomores, that’s not really an option.

You could do what I did. Since the start of first year, I’ve wallowed through the mires of major purgatory. Chemistry or Spanish? Math or history? The list of oscillations is endless.

Though I’m still stuck in this distressing in-between phase, I’ve been able to alleviate the distress by getting to know myself better. I’ve personally dedicated whole afternoons to investigating possible careers, talking to friends about what they could see me doing, or evaluating my potential happiness in a wide variety of painstakingly exhaustive hypothetical future scenarios. If something in an unrelated class sparks my interest, I’ve tried to see if I can somehow apply it to my tentative major. Try it out. Who knows, maybe that procreative ethics discussion in your class could help you realize that a career in public health or that being a gynecologist could actually be your calling.

Understand, though, that it won’t just come in one night. Coming from someone who has gone through five potential majors, in both humanities and STEM fields, it’s important to have a goal and to understand what you want in order to work toward it. Your major obviously doesn’t have to be tied to the type of career you’re searching for; however, I think it’s important for it to help you work toward acquiring important skills, whether they be qualitative and research-related skills or the ability to be open-minded and aware of current issues. That’s where our privilege of attending liberal arts colleges with such a broad range of courses allows for outstanding self-indulgence. Who knew that our choice of something as seemingly insignificant as a specification on our degrees could potentially be a prime opportunity for self-discovery?

Though I’m still undeclared, I feel that the broad range of courses I’ve taken have helped me develop tremendously over the past year and a half. I personally made the effort to carry an equal load of humanities and STEM courses my first year, not only because I was undeclared and wanted to keep my options open, but also because I didn’t want to develop just one set of skills. Though this decision did engender an early sophomore major crisis, when I thought I couldn’t fit all my course requirements in addition to pharmaceutical school prerequisites (one of the many career phases I went through), I appreciated the ability to not just define myself as one specific discipline.

Looking back on my first year and thinking about the remainder of my sophomore year, I actually think I’m going to miss being in major purgatory. It’s definitely not the most comfortable situation to be in, but I like being in that in-between place, that liminal space where I can choose what direction I actually want to head toward. It’s not that bad. Major purgatory may be a temporary place of discomfort and perhaps even agony for some, but in the end we will all eventually walk out of the registrar’s office with an official document embossed with our well-vetted major. The journey toward that final decision can, in the end, be the most rewarding and exciting part of our undergraduate years. 

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