Freshmen reflect on choosing a major
“What are you majoring in?” is a question we have all been asked when making new acquaintances at Stanford or meeting people out in the real world. The query is usually followed by some mumbling from those of us who are still unsure; a rattling off of two majors, two minors and a thesis from those overly sure; and a standard response from all the rest.
To be fair, there are many possible answers. Stanford offers over 80 majors — ranging from geophysics to Slavic languages and literature — in 70 departments spread out over three schools: the School of Earth Sciences, the School of Engineering and the School of Humanities and Sciences. There are options to double major, minor or pursue an individually designed major.
According to the Office of the University Registrar, in the 2008-09 academic year, the most popular majors, measured by number of degrees conferred, were human biology, economics and international relations. In 2010-2011, computer science moved up to become the second most popular major.
“[The major] provides a set of topics, a focus and discipline that becomes the locus for their intellectual development,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, in a July 2011 interview.
“The worst reason to pick a major is because you think you should study that or ‘everybody is studying that’ or ‘this is the up-and-coming major,” she added.
While Stanford offers a wide range of majors, students tend to classify options into “techie” and “fuzzy” categories, the former referring to hard and applied sciences and the latter to the humanities. Although 80 percent of degrees are awarded in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Times Higher Education ranked Stanford first in humanities and arts subject rankings this past fall, the University has developed a reputation as a “techie” school due its location and connections to Silicon Valley.
“I came to Stanford because I knew I could get an amazing liberal arts education here,” said Eleanor Walker ’15, a self-declared “fuzzy.” “Honestly, I was surprised by the emphasis on engineering and other hard sciences.”
Another common student concern is balancing general requirements with classes in the major, especially if pursuing a major with a demanding course load.
“The prerequisites are onerous, and I would rather not do them if I had a choice,” said Aaron Sekhri ’15, a potential symbolic systems major. “But I am of firm opinion that no knowledge is ever a waste and that regardless of the lack of utility of those courses, there must be a reason the program directors have selected them.”
For student-athletes, with practice, game and travel commitments, major options can become limited.
“It would be really hard to pursue something like pre-med or engineering because of time constraints,” said golfer Mariko Tumangan ’15. “I am confident that athletes at Stanford could succeed at their sport and a demanding major if we had more than 24 hours in a day.”
Despite Stanford’s many resources, including academic advisors, pre-major advisors, workshops and fairs designed to help students find their passions, selecting a major can be particularly confusing for freshman.
Eri Gamo ’15, is unsure about her potential major.
“I am thinking about everything from symbolic systems to computer science to neurology,” she said. “I did not come to Stanford with a concrete plan or idea because I wanted to explore.”
Gamo said she believes her eventual choice will stem from her passions.
“[I] want to major in something I love and something I can do in the future,” she said.
Other freshmen, like Paul Benigeri ’15, who intends to major in computer science, are already sure that they have made the right decision in selecting a major.
“My eyes were opened to computer science in high school, and so I came to Stanford to chase my dreams,” he said. “I cannot imagine doing anything else.”
Indecision about major choice may not be limited to the freshman year, as one upperclassman explained. Narjis Sarehane ’13 was pursuing electrical engineering before recently deciding to switch to management science and engineering.
“People often get worried about switching majors, but if you are not happy in your current major, it really is not worth it,” she said.