The Undeclared Major

I can’t decide how I feel about the undeclared major.  Every time a student says they’re undeclared, or a high schooler says they don’t know what to major in, some adult in the room immediately replies “Oh, that’s OK!” and proceeds to expound on all the people they know that went into college undeclared, that changed majors five times, and then went on to change their career several more times after they graduated.  And I know why these adults do this.  They want that young person to feel like they’re not weird, not failing in some way, so they immediately assuage all doubts about being undeclared.  And they are right that it is common and socially acceptable to be undeclared.  But I sometimes wonder if these adults aren’t doing more harm than good.  Because I don’t think young people want just to be told that it’s OK.  I think they want someone to help them figure it out.

I have no problem with people changing majors and careers.  As people learn more about their interests and strengths — and learn more about potential career options — they tend to shift their focus and ideas about what they want to do.  That’s fine!  I’m in the middle of doing that myself.  However, I do have a problem with adults who encourage aimless meandering through college and the early adult years.  It’s OK for students to not know yet what they want to do with their lives, but I don’t think it’s OK for them to become complacent about it.

I’m well aware of the fine line, because I don’t want students to feel pressured to pick a major that isn’t right, just for the sake of picking something.  I don’t like it when parents push their kids to be doctors and lawyers even if it isn’t the right fit, so I certainly wouldn’t want students doing that to themselves.  But it seems to me that in order to avoid putting undue pressure on students, some teachers and parents are going to the opposite extreme of being no help at all.  I don’t think that’s the answer, because overly-reassuring students that an undeclared major is acceptable can unintentionally give them permission to become stagnant in their career search.  The problem is that no one tells those students that changing majors often means it’ll take more than four years to graduate college and some of them still won’t know “what they want to be when they grow up” when they do finally graduate.  I know too many people now in their late twenties that were surprised by the consequences of not taking the career search seriously when they were in college.  I don’t want that for my students.

So no, it isn’t bad to be an undeclared major – but it is bad to be content with an undeclared major.  Yes, students should explore the options – but “explore” is an active verb, not passive.  It’s a search, not a sitting-back-and-waiting-for-the-right-career-to-come-along.  It’s about finding the right fit, having the guts to commit to a career choice, and then pursuing that career, preferably sooner rather than later so as to launch into the adult world.

I think high schools are partly to blame for the difficulties teens and young adults have in choosing a major and a career.  High schools tend to place students in a “subject” mindset.  Do you like science?  English?  Math?  What is your favorite subject?  But unfortunately, careers aren’t subjects.  Oh, different careers focus on different subjects.  Doctors have to be interested in anatomy.  Web developers have to be interested in computer science.  I am an English teacher, so my subject is English, and I have to know a lot about it and be interested in it in order to teach it.  But “English” isn’t what I do on a daily basis.  I teach.  That’s what I do.  I manage a classroom of adolescents and help them become adults (or at least I did until I became so nomadic – but that’s beside the point).  And yes, college majors also have subjects – you can major in English, math, and science – but the end goal shouldn’t just be a subject; it should also be a skill set.  And it seems that young people are left on their own to make that mental shift in how they view their studies.

So when students tell me that they’re undeclared, I won’t judge them or put pressure on them, but I do want to help them – though I will freely admit that I don’t always know how.  I know my last few blog posts have been a bit random.  We were moving again, so it was hard to follow a consistent topic.  I hope to get a bit more focused soon, though, and I want to research more about methods for career explorations, both for teens and adults.  So if you have any ideas for me to study, I’d love to hear them!

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