Choosing a college major can be one of the most challenging decisions for young Scientistas. With so many interesting scientific problems to solve, Scientistas can suffer from the tyranny of choice : paralysis in the face of so many exciting potential avenues to travel! Even with a broad interest like vaccines, one has to decide between biology, toxicology, chemical engineering, pre-medicine, and immunology! The great thing about STEM is that many majors overlap and will help you build a satisfying career. This important decision is one that many undergraduate students face and it is normal.
1. Define a career theme: When you finish high school or are just starting undergraduate courses, you may have some ideas of what major or career you want. Think about your career theme. A career theme is a list of words or phrases that are associated with a particular field. For example, before picking toxicology, I knew that I wanted to work in the pharmaceutical or biomedical field so some of my career themes were: drug discovery, vaccines, infectious diseases, impact, and leader. When you write your list of career themes you start to find out what career you want. This will help you pick majors that fit your career goals.
2. Consider your options: Some colleges and universities have restrictions or limited slots for different majors so considering your options is important. After you defined your career theme, you will be able to narrow down alternative majors. It is a good idea to have options just in case you change your mind or find that a major is not for you. Remember many people change their undergraduate major, but the sooner you finalize your major, the sooner you can move forward with coursework, extracurricular activities and building your career.
3. Think about what you want to do after graduating with your undergraduate degree: Do you want to design things? Do you like writing? If you like medical research, do you want to run clinical trials or are you happiest at the bench? Thinking about how you imagine spending your time after graduation will help you focus your interests and career choice. Are you going to graduate school, medical school, or another professional school? Are you going to work? These are a few questions that will help you decide on a major. For example, if you want to become a research scientist, you should pick a major that will allow you do research and will prepare you for a PhD Program. If you want to start your career directly, attend career fairs. Even if you aren’t yet on the job market, you’ll learn what job types and companies are available. The great thing about a STEM degree is that you have many options.
4. Talk to people: Before picking a major, talk with people that will give you information about the major(s) you are considering. At minimum talk to four people. I suggest meeting with a professor that teaches a course in the major, the department head to learn about the related course requirements , a senior student pursuing the same major, and a mentor. By meeting with each of these people, you will learn how pursue this field, as well as career opportunities it offers. After a few meetings you will have a more informed idea about your potential major. A bonus tip is to schedule meetings as soon as possible because people get busy once the semester starts!
5. Attend academic organization events: Another way to learn about a major is to surround yourself with people in the major you are considering. For example, if you are interested in electrical engineering attend some Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) events to learn more about the field. After attending a few events and meeting people in the major you will see if the major is for you.
Picking a major doesn't have to be a stressful experience. There is no “correct” choice. In this process, you may even learn about career pathways you haven’t considered before. If you prepare well, picking a major will be a pleasant experience. Remember: a STEM degree can take you anywhere and it is the foundation for you career! Good luck when picking a major, Scientistas!
What are your tips for picking a major? Share your experience to help your fellow Scientistas in the comments.