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How are you supposed to know what to major in?

  1. Oct 16, 2011 #1
    I don't get how someone coming out of high school is supposed to know what they want to major in?

    I enjoyed my high school math and physics classes, but how am I supposed to know if that would translate to me enjoying or even being able to handle getting a degree in those subjects?

    And I didn't take any engineering or computer science classes in high school so how am I supposed to know if I would want to go that route?

    Even if I did take a bunch of different intro classes my first year in college to try and see which subject appealed most to me (which would be a huge waste of time and $$), how would I know if I could enjoy/handle the upper level classes in those disciplines? The real meat of a math/physics/chem/EE/ME/etc. degree is probably very different from the stuff covered in their respective 101 classes so how on earth am I supposed to know which subject to major in?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 16, 2011 #2
    Most degrees require familiar first year courses. If you think you're interested in a particular area, take that course in your first year, while executing the usual requirements that most degrees need anyways. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just did a general first year, which consisted of physics, biology, chemistry, english, computer science, economics, etc. From there, I decided I wanted to do physics. After a year of physics, I switched to Electrical Engineering. Not everyone knows what they want to do.
  4. Oct 16, 2011 #3
    It's rare that you'll know EXACTLY what you want to do when entering first year. Take me for example. I really thought biochemistry was what I was interested in but now I'm in theoretical physics. Find out what your general interests are (i.e. what you've enjoyed in high school, what you find cool in magazines/news/TV) and do some research into what sort of courses lead towards a degree in that subject.

    As already mentioned, most science degrees have a common first year (bio, chem, physics, etc.) so you'll experience each subject then. But you'll also have electives and that's where you can explore a little and see what interests you more.
  5. Oct 16, 2011 #4
    Thanks for the responses guys. But could you address my point about the general freshman classes in bio/physics/chem/math etc. not being indicative of those majors as a whole? One may love their first semester course in mechanics but I don't think that necessarily means they would enjoy or be able to make it as a physics major.

    Also, how would one know if they want to do computer science? Or which specific discipline of engineering? Sure you can read about what classes each major takes in their degree plan but how can you know if you would enjoy those classes until you actually take them?
  6. Oct 16, 2011 #5
    I take it this is a rhetorical question as there is no one answer to how you will 'know'... I was an electronics tech in the Navy, then got a BA in psychology (after switching from biology)...and now I'm getting a second degree in Electrical Engineering. Subjective life experiences and a good guesstimation is more than likely the path most take...
  7. Oct 16, 2011 #6
    There is no magical answer. The best you could do (that I can think of) would be to take your intro courses and read up on more advanced topics at the library of the courses you like. For example, find which textbook they use for a 2nd year EE course, if you like intro to EE as a freshman, and see if that stuff seems interesting.

    The one thing I recommend is find out how difficult it is to transfer into the programs you are considering. If it is harder to transfer into the school of engineering than it is to go from engineering into physics/chemistry/math, then I'd suggest start with engineering.
  8. Oct 16, 2011 #7


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    Rather than picking a major based on how much you enjoy the classes, decide what you want to do as a career and go for that. What does your ideal job look like?

    Now, I realize you're too young to really know exactly what you want to do as a career, but maybe you have a general idea?
  9. Oct 16, 2011 #8


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    Some suggestions to help with figuring it out:

    1. Join the undergraduate (insert subject of interest here) society and use their functions as opportunities to talk with upper year students. Ask what their courses are like, what labs they do, what research projects they've had the opporunity to be involved in - that kind of thing. Sometimes just listening to them talk will help you learn about what the subject is about.

    2. Go to departmental colloquia. At first year you likely won't understand too much, but sometimes its that first five minutes of introduction and overview that can really capture your interest.

    3. There's no reason you couldn't go sit in on a senior class that looks interesting - just to see what they do.

    4. At some point you have to start doing your own reading. Rather than trying to pick a subject and read up on that in general, I would suggest spending personal time reading up on specific subjects that interest you. Then try to fit your degree to what you enjoy learning about the most.

    5. It's okay if you don't get it right on the first choice. Sure, it may end up costing you more time or money, but in the grand scheme of your life, it's more important that you figure out the best path for you.
  10. Oct 16, 2011 #9
    It was a warm summer night. Alyssandra appeared into my room, bent down and whispered the words "maths and physics" to my ears. Then she disappeared. Ever since, I've sworn that I would figure out what this maths and physics business is...maybe she'll reappear if I do!

    I jest you not.


    Try reading independently on a topic that interests you. Say, Calculus. It would be cool if you get another friend or two to join along. I learn a lot more when discussing the topic and problems I'm working on.
  11. Oct 16, 2011 #10
    Yes engineering is harder to transfer into at my school and I am currently a student in engineering.

    I want to have a challenging career in an area that I enjoy that I am also successful at. By successful, I don't mean money; I mean that I want to feel like I am making contributions to the field.

    The crux of of these criteria lies in the successful aspect. I could find plenty of challenging career options in areas I enjoy, but it is tough to find one that also gives me a good chance of being successful. For example, I love piano, sports, and fantasy novels; and pursuing a career as a pianist, athlete, or fantasy author would all provide a great challenge for me. But I would never consider those as career options because I would have little chance of being successful.

    I also love math and physics-- at least so far (only taken high school level). But I struggle with whether I should lump those two in with piano, sports, and fantasy novels as things that I find interesting and challenging but do not possess enough talent in to make a successful career.

    I know if I majored in math or physics my mind would be blown with all the things I've learned and it would all be very interesting, but at the end of the day having a blown mind and finding things interesting does not a successful mathematician make. Currently I am an engineering major and although the material will certainly be very challenging for me since I'm not a genius of any kind, I will always be thinking about how I am just learning the basics of much wider disciplines: math and physics.

    I think about how you only have one life, so why not see if you could handle majoring in math or physics? But then I think about my three ideal job criteria, and engineering starts looking like the more practical choice.

    BUT WHO'S TO SAY I COULD BE SUCCESSFUL IN ENGINEERING?? There are tons of smart people in engineering too so why would I think I could make contributions in that field but not math????? Idk. :( :( :(

    [EDIT]: I guess the answer to the above question would be that the world has no place for mediocre mathematicians or physicists, but there are tons of mediocre engineers out there with decent jobs (trust me, I know many personally). So the reason I would pick engineering over math/physics is that at least if I don't turn out to be an extremely gifted engineer I still wouldn't go hungry
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2011
  12. Oct 17, 2011 #11
    I don't think you'd ever know if you can actually make contributions if you don't see anything to the end.
  13. Oct 17, 2011 #12
    so what should I see through til the end? Math or physics or engineering?
  14. Oct 17, 2011 #13
    Word of advice right now just from reading the bold part alone. NEVER EVER EVER make a decision on a college course, major, based on high school experience. You'll thank me later. :cool:

    Dude, if you're not getting any pressure from your folks to enroll in college, "slow down". From your post is sounds like you're going into science / math. That's where your interest lies. This is simple then, chief. Simply study the basic concepts in the math's and sciences. with that you'll be fine with any upper level course since it will build on the basics. You have two whole years to decide. And no, you wont be wasting money since you're forced to take GenEd's anyway.when you switch majors about 4x, that's when you're wasting mommy and daddy's bank.
  15. Oct 18, 2011 #14
    You may have two whole years to decide in the US, but that is not the case in the UK. Your decision between art and science is made, in large part, at 16 when you choose which three subjects to study at A level, and in detail at 18 when you chose which college subject to "major in". I kind of liked all the science, so did a combined science course. But that was a mistake! So in the UK you should/have to decide exactly what you are going to "major in" at 18. That means you *have to* decide what to do based only on your "high school" experience, you can't leave it to college. But in the Uk I think the subjects you do at O level are a reasonable guide to what to expect at A level, and the A levels a reasonable guide to what to expect at college. You should think hard about what hobbies you enjoy as well. If you love school physics, you should enjoy it at University - if you kinda like it & enjoy fixing up motorbikes then do engineering - if you kinda like it & love disecting frogs, think of being a medic. So give a lot of thought at 14 and 18 about what exactly you like doing now, at home and school, and how this might relate to what you might do at University and in life. Kinda obvious advice -what else can you do?!
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