Major dilemma: Pick a major you love and don’t let it define you

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“What’s your major?”

You’ve heard this question before. You heard it at Playfair, amid a giddy sea of meetings and greetings. You heard it on the first day of class, when a professor asks introductions of every student around the room. You even heard it at parties, shouted over beer pong or indiscreet dancing. It’s the “What’s your sign?” of the 21st century. It’s your first impression. It’s... you.


You might have blocked this part out, but you’ve been thinking about your major since at least your senior year of high school. Nearly all college applications request an intended major — and besides, it can help you get in. You might be a girl interested in computer science. Maybe you want to major in chemistry and English at MIT. Or, perhaps you intend to pull a triple major: vocal performance, information systems, and... math?

Whatever the circumstances, to prospective colleges, a major is like a promise: This is what I’ll do. This is who I will become. It’s not set in stone, but it’s a start.

And suddenly, it’s orientation week, and “What’s your major?” is the first thing everyone asks.

What’s my major? For most of my first year, I was doubling in physics and English, and I would answer the former, the latter, or both — depending on my audience. In Matter and Interactions, I was a physics major. In British Lit, I was English. To my friends, I was both. At parties, I was, “What? Let’s keep dancing!”

Every major has a certain connotation (some more vivid than others) that is impossible to escape. Whether you’re “such a typical CS major” or “so not what you’d expect from a CS major,” you’re still a CS major. Even if you break the stereotype, you’re still tied to it.

So declare it already. Most of Carnegie Mellon’s colleges have declare dates set during the first year (mid-spring), though some allow you to wait until you’re a sophomore. Either way, it seems a little premature.

By mid-spring of your first year, you’ve taken, what, four or five classes? And half of four or five others? Oh, and CSW. You haven’t had time to take courses in general relativity, organic chemistry, literary theory, group theory, decision analysis — the topics that might make you question your love for a given subject. Moreover, you haven’t taken Principles of Economics, Intro to Psych (or Anthropology, or Programming), Survey of Forms: Anything, Concepts of Math — the classes that might introduce you to a major you never knew you wanted to pursue.

I’ve heard this story too many times: A student discovers the major he or she should have declared — “too late.”

Too late. By the time you figure out the subject you want to be your major, you’ve already taken a handful of courses for your old one. Maybe your new major is in a different college. Maybe you chose this school specifically because of your old major’s department. Maybe your parents won’t approve.

But screw your parents, screw paperwork, and screw phony departmental prestige — this is your life. Okay, I know: Life is long, and life is complicated. There’s grad school, finding jobs, losing jobs, marriage, kids, quarter-life crises, mid-life crises. Considering all that, whether you choose history or economics doesn’t seem like that big of an issue.

Still, your decisions matter. If you settle now — during your crazy college years — you’re setting a lousy precedent. Are you going to pass up Mr. (or Ms.) Right because you found someone not-so-right first? Are you going to turn down a new job because you’re afraid of leaving your old one? You might not be your major, but you are what you do.

But wait — everybody already knows you as your old major. Switching would be embarrassing, an admission of defeat. Then again, who’s everybody?

When you think about it, the people whose majors you can actually remember are more than likely your friends on the periphery. People you don’t know, except as “that bio major,” “that ChemE.” Their majors fall into the general category of background knowledge: where they live, where they’re from, what they’re doing over the summer.

Your real friends, on the other hand, should mean more than such petty facts. Frequently, I find myself forgetting what states my friends live in, what they’re studying. When you’re dealing with true-blue, shoulder-to-cry-on, hold-your-hair-back, laugh-til-you-snort friends, their majors can seem, well, minor.

Naturally, it works both ways. If you change your major, your friends may not even notice, let alone care.

Going back to this “too late” debacle — I think we say “too late” too soon. With four years and the possibility of summer courses, you should find the time for a couple of false starts. It can be painful to relinquish those units you spent months attaining — to admit that you took a class for no reason at all — but it’s necessary.

I mean, I ate Lucky Charms for breakfast this morning. I chose jeans over khakis. I took Diff Eq last semester. None of these decisions is going to help me to earn my degree du jour (double major in creative and professional writing), but I don’t regret them.

If you try to reduce everything to units — things you can collect and redeem like the tops of cereal boxes — you’ll go crazy. I know, it’s easy to think like that. Carnegie Mellon makes you want to think like that. But not everything is redeemable — all of it, however, is valuable.

So, here’s where you come in: Do what you want. If you don’t know what you want, try everything. And, stop asking, “What’s your major?” I can think of plenty of better questions: What are your hobbies? Who’s your favorite author? What’s the Skibo frozen yogurt flavor of the day?

If all this sounded preachy — the exorbitant use of the second person, the look-at-me-I’m-a-sophomore wisdom, etc. — keep in mind: I’m speaking partly to myself. I can rattle off a list of four or five majors I’d love to attain (most of which I find myself loathing at least some of the time), and I’m okay with that. I’ll make and re-make the decision about my major(s) a couple more times between now and graduation. And, whatever I decide, it’ll be exactly what I want.