Book Recs For Choosing College Major
March 31, 2018 7:01 AM   Subscribe

What are the best books for choosing a college major? My 17 yr old daughter will need to declare a major next year and is having difficulty pinning it down. Although, she has a little time to decide and could just do a liberal arts type degree, she really does want to pin her choice down soonish.

She definitely is on the college track, will be graduating high school with her associates degree, and excels in school. She’s very good in a lot of areas. I really don’t want her to be so unsure of what major to pursue that she gives up on college (like I did!).

So, maybe a book that might help and guide her and get her excited about some of the possibilities out there in college major land and subsequently the careers she could pursue.
posted by Sassyfras to Education (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
With the caveat that I have not actually read it, it seems like What Color Is Your Parachute? For Teens would be a good choice.
posted by obfuscation at 7:05 AM on March 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I cannot recommend a book because I think life is gonna work better than any book would. There are a billion career books out there and I can't say anything I read ever actually did anything for me or helped me when it came to cold hard reality. Lord knows you can take any interest test and you probably won't be shocked and surprised by the answers. (Gee, I'm good at writing and art! I was hoping I'd secretly have aptitude towards being an accountant!) It's all going to be guess and check.

But she can double major or maybe even triple major. Hell, I know of someone who had FIVE majors in college. I just wanted to point out that she doesn't have to pick Just One. She can pursue at least two options or maybe even more, depending on the school.

Overall, I'd say to do what you like more than to pick a major that you are doing only for the job opportunities but otherwise can't stand it. I used to be able to say that what your major is didn't matter so long as you graduated, but jobs these days are asking for specific degrees in related fields now. I'd say to lean towards general areas that she is good at and then nail it down from there. If she's good at science in general that might help to focus. If she's strong in both science AND art AND economics AND languages and could just do anything... well, pick a couple, see how they work and switch out to something else if need be. I know of people changing majors right at graduation, even. Nothing's set in stone yet.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:38 AM on March 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm a college academic advisor.

It's been a while since I looked at it, but I have coworkers who are big fans of You Majored In What?, which is particularly good for helping students figure out how to plan a career with the kind of liberal arts major that is sometimes seen as impractical. It's a career-planning guide, but my colleagues have found it helpful when working with students who are exploring majors.
will be graduating high school with her associates degree
I see a lot of students who come with significant college credit from dual enrollment classes they took in high school, and to be honest, I don't love it. I think it often hurts students more than it helps them. Those classes are very rarely equivalent to real college classes. Students often haven't mastered the material that they would have learned in the (supposedly) equivalent classes that they would take at our institution, and they often aren't successful in intermediate-level classes. Also, the dual-enrollment classes are often taught like high-school classes (small class sizes, lots of teacher engagement, lots of homework that gets collected and graded, etc.) and they give students a false sense of how college works. All incoming students spend first semester figuring out how to function in college, where you're expected to do a ton of independent learning, but the kids with dual-enrollment credit are often immediately placed in classes full of students who have already made that transition. When students come with associates degrees that they earned in high school, I worry about them a little. I don't think those students typically graduate any faster than anyone else, and they sometimes really struggle.

So anyway, my first piece of advice would be to assume that your daughter is going to take four years to earn her degree. She may get done quicker than that, but I think you should plan for her to take the full four years. Then you should give her some space to explore majors. It's ok not to be sure at first, and it's a really bad thing to continue with a major that isn't right for you because you've made a decision and you're going to stick with it.

I would start with some big questions:

1. Is she interested in math and/or science? If so, she may need to make some early decisions to stay on that path. If she's not interested in math or science, she probably has a bit more flexibility. If she is interested in exploring math and/or science, she should tell her advisor that at orientation.

2. What classes did she really enjoy in high school? She should make a list. Then she should think about what she loved about the classes. Sometimes it's just that the teacher was great, which isn't necessarily helpful. Sometimes it's the content of the class, which is helpful. Sometimes it's something else, which could point her in another direction. If what she loved about her history class was that she was able to get immersed in research and write a long paper, then that could point towards history, but it also could suggest another social science that would allow her to do a lot of research, analysis, and writing.

3. What does she enjoy learning about on her own? What does she read for fun? If she were going to watch a documentary for fun, what would it be about? Are there activities she has done outside of school, either formally or informally, that have been particularly engaging or meaningful to her? Don't just think about academic stuff. She should think holistically about her interests and learning style.

4. What is she good at? Again, don't just think about school. This is often particularly hard for students to answer, because the things that they're good at seem easy and natural to them, so she should ask her friends and family-members to help her think about things that she's good at.

5. Once she's written this all down, she should talk it over with some people she trusts and who know her well. That could be you, or it could be her best friend, or it could be someone else. Does she see any patterns that stick out?

6. Ok, now, after she's done all that, she should look at a list of majors at the her prospective university. I usually have students start by crossing off anything that they know they're not interested in, because that gives them a more-manageable list. Put a star next to anything that's unfamiliar to her. She can look those things up over the summer if she wants. Circle anything that sounds interesting right now. At the end of this exercise, make a list of everything she's circled. When she meets with an advisor at orientation, bring that list.

Most of all, she should realize that figuring out a major is a process, and she should embrace that process. It's scary not to know your direction, but it's a good, healthy kind of scary. It's ok to take some time to make a decision, and it's ok to change your mind if you realize that a different decision might be better.

Sorry. That's not a book, which is what you asked for, but I have a lot of thoughts about this. Maybe I should write a book!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:40 AM on March 31, 2018 [69 favorites]

Cal Newport, So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. It's not strictly a book about choosing a major, but it could help a lot in seeing a major in a different light.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:57 AM on March 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm a college professor, advisor, and administrator, and I second ArbitraryAndCapricious's answer.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:20 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not a book but something to consider; certain departments inside schools vary on their quality and more importantly their perceived quality after you graduate. I went to a pretty good state school with a decent reputation (nothing amazing, but a degree mill it is not). However, the department that provided my major had a terrible reputation in both academic circles outside the school, and in the larger career tracks that major feeds into. I have never used my degree in a professional capacity, and if I went to grad school, even on the same track as that degree, would need several years of post-bac classes to catch up. A school is not going to tell you “this degree from our school is viewed as substandard in industry x.”

Once you have it narrowed down to a few choices, it’s worth researching their perceived value outside the school, or from other academic institutions of kid is thinking graduate school.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:58 AM on March 31, 2018

I read a statistic years ago that the average college student changes majors four times, which turned out to be exactly how many times I changed mine. ArbitraryandCapricious’ advice is great, but it’s important to remember that she doesn’t have to make a forever decision right away.
posted by FencingGal at 9:32 AM on March 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

It would definitely help to know why she's making this choice next year. Is she considered a transfer student or otherwise subject to credit/time limits by your state university system? Or is her high school telling her she should choose a major? The former could change things significantly, but if it's the latter, then everyone saying it doesn't really matter is right.

My local public library had a whole series of books entitled something like "What can I do with a major in __?" Casually reading them in high school was actually really useful, not because I thought I was making meaningful career choices but because I really had no idea what sorts of jobs were out there. For example, I knew geologists existed, but I had no idea what they actually did or who might employ a geologist. (As I recall, the jobs weren't all so degree-specific.)

She quite possibly does need to figure out very, very broadly what she's interested in. For example, it's usually much easier to switch from electrical engineering to history than vice versa (and at some universities the opposite may not be possible), so if she's debating between a few things she may need to make a tactical preliminary choice. (I think how easy it is to get in/out of the agriculture majors varies with the university. Arts may require an audition or a portfolio. And so on.)
posted by hoyland at 10:03 AM on March 31, 2018

To clarify, she will be graduating with an associates degree from community college next year. She will be attending a university after that and as such is required to declare a major at that point since she will be entering university with an associates.

She (and we) isn't sure what jobs and careers are out there beyond the typical ones you hear about: teacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer. It'd be nice to give her some resources in book form for her to read and study and maybe sort out and narrow down her options.

While I appreciate the advice given thus far, I would really like some book recommendations. And please know that I, myself, had zero idea what to do with myself in college as far as focusing on a certain degree, got overwhelmed, didn't even know how to narrow things down, didn't know what jobs were out there (seriously, I could be a medical examiner or forensic psychiatrist or counselor for troubled teens or a court reporter?!?), and instead dropped out of college. I heard repeatedly that I had time to figure out a major, that I didn't need to know, etc. and blah blah blah. It wasn't helpful and I never got any direction on how to actually figure out what I wanted to do. Everyone kept telling me I had time and I'd eventually figure it out. Not helpful and not true.

She has such a wide range of talents and interests that I feel she's unsure what to do - even though I think she'd be successful and would excel at anything. Majors she's considered have ranged from agriculture to equine to civil engineering to forest ranger to teaching to psychology to business. So, like I said, pretty broad areas of interest and she'd like to narrow the field down KNOWING that at some point she might change majors or areas of interest. At this point she doesn't even know where to start.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:21 AM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

She could look for a university that has an interdisciplinary studies major. The one I work at does. Instead of having a major and some random minors the students demonstrate through a senior project the links they see between the various courses they've taken. One of my sons graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington about 20 years ago and he loved taking courses that were multi-disciplinary by design. Here's a link to the description interdisciplinary studies at another state university.

I'm sorry I don't have any books to recommend.
posted by mareli at 10:47 AM on March 31, 2018

With the exception of a very few highly specific professional majors (nursing, engineering, accounting), college fields of study don't lead directly and exclusively to particular careers in the straightforward way that people generally perceive them to. That goes not only for obvious arts and humanities majors, but also for natural sciences, business, social sciences, etc. Sometimes, there's even a paradoxical absence of match between "major in X" and "get a job in X"-- for instance, an undergrad major in Criminal Justice is notoriously one of the worst ways to prepare for admission into law school. English, psychology, economics and history are all in the top-10 majors among folks starting medical school. Most top CEOs were not business majors. Physics PhDs get hired all the time on Wall Street. Etc.

Instead of looking at a major in X studies as direct training for a job as an Xist, a better way to proceed is to regard a college major (in combination with everything else on the resume-- internships, test scores, extracurricular achievements, volunteering) as signaling various things to employers about the types of aptitudes and qualities that student possesses. These signals could include: student has raw intelligence (success in "hard"/cerebral major like physics or philosophy); student has writing/reading/communication ability (success in verbal majors like English or history); student has quantitative ability (math, chemistry, physics some CS); student is practical-minded and pragmatic, a problem-solver (business); student is extroverted and/or has strong commitment to helping people (sociology, education, social work); student has broad cultural interests and will be good at understanding different types of people (English/history/arts), etc. Any of these signals could also be generated by things other than a college major, so e.g. a major in philosophy with a minor in business, or a string of business internships, speaks to a student's ability to play ball in the commercial workplace just as effectively as a major in business would.

All of this means that your daughter shouldn't feel under the gun to pick the One Right Major, but that she should be doing extensive work to expand her understanding of available career fields past the top 5 that get made into procedural dramas on NBC. That'll help her understand what sorts of people get hired into the jobs she might want, which can then help her engineer her credentials so that she, too, shows herself to be that sort of person. Her college career services office would be a great place to start; they can help set her up with informational interviews, shadowing opportunities, externships, etc., that'll help explore what career paths are out there and what they look like in day-to-day practice.
posted by Bardolph at 11:51 AM on March 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

I don't have a book recommendation, because I don't believe this requires a book. She's not even in college yet. Call me old-fashioned, but I figured out my major by taking a bunch of different classes and seeing what interested me.

She might need to fill out a form saying "I'm majoring in x", but it's not a final answer. She can change at any time. Just list whatever her favorite subject in high school was as her first major, and then if she changes her mind, she can change the declared major accordingly.

Every book will tell you the same things: What do you like? What do you want to do professionally? Make a Venn diagram of those two things, and the intersection is what you should major in.

Ultimately, though, unless she has very specific career goals in mind (i.e., it'll be hard to be an architect without majoring in architecture), the choice of major won't matter much. I used to know a guy who majored in math at Yale. He worked in marketing for Abercrombie and Fitch. Careers are fluid.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:23 PM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a college professor in the liberal arts/humanities. Your daughter can change her major at any time. She's being asked to declare now largely for bureaucratic, processing reasons: to gather data about enrollment trends and also to assigned to her an advisor who will help her set her course schedule based not on university-wide requirements (called gen. eds., core courses, or electives, which she's completed already at the high school level) but on the required courses, set by a department or program, that she will nee to take in order to complete a specific major.

This is a shame for all the reasons ArbitraryandCapricious outlines. In my field, the differences between what a student does in high school and what students do in my classes, even the ones I teach for non-majors (those gen. eds., etc.), are vast. I know because my kiddo goes to high school, and I also work with local high school teachers.

I'm often surprised to discover that most folks don't know that college professors are usually hired to do three jobs at a university -- only one of which is "teach classes." At my institution, teaching classes is 50% of my job. 40% of my job is research; essentially, I have to discover new things, prove that my discoveries are valid, explain how those discoveries impact professional fields related to my area of study, and use those discoveries to enhance how I prepare students to succeed in their future careers in order to keep my job. The last 10% of my job is service (serving on committees that make decisions about what courses, programs, and events to develop or support -- and we often do this in consultation with employers/industry leaders so that we can graduate students who will have the skills and knowledge they need or anticipate they will need ).

All of that's to say that college professors have a very different training, perspectives, and job duties than high school teachers. So many students in the gen. ed. classes that I teach discover not only new skillsets and passions but also careers that they didn't even know existed. I hope your daughter, then, will take electives that speak to her when they're offered, even if they will technically duplicate credits she's already earned at the high school level. They may not "count" for her major, but they may open up expected doors for her.

All that being said, I think that rather than buy your daughter a book (and there' no one book out there that I know of), start having her read the website of the university she plans to attend as if it were a book. I mean really read it; make lists; take notes.

Most universities aim to be known for excellence in a few, select programs. Choosing to be affiliated with one of those programs either by majoring in it, minoring in it, or earning a certificate in it is a good idea for any student enrolled at that university. It will ensure that the student has support because programs with track records of success tend to have resources that they are eager to use to maintain as well as grow their reputations. That includes: graduating students and getting them jobs.

Your daughter might start by looking at the news stories featured on their website: Which faculty, department(s), or program(s) seem to be getting the most "air time" on the university's front pages? Most universities also have a website for their alumni association that will feature news about the accomplishments of the university's graduates.

Next, she should look at the faculty, department or program pages featured on these sites. When she looks at department or program pages, she should review the courses they require to complete the major/minor/certificate and see if she can find short descriptions -- or even better, syllabuses -- for those classes. Do the titles of the courses required by the major seem interesting to her? Is she excited to read the required readings or do the assignments on any syllabuses she can find? In what formats (online, big lecture, small seminar) are the courses offered? She may have to bop here between a department or program page and her university's centrally-maintained course catalogue or schedule.

She should also look on these pages for the opportunities that these programs and departments offer to their students: clubs, student groups, internships, community service opportunities, labs, speaker series, graduate programs, certificates, supplemental scholarships, etc. Would she be excited to participate in any of these?

She might also peruse the social media accounts that individual departments or programs run. Do they speak to her interests? Do they seem to do a good job of building supportive communities around their students?

She should also look at the webpages for the individual faculty members who work in a department or are affiliated with a program. She should consider: Are most of the faculty listed as "assistant," "associate," or "full" professors (rather than lecturers, adjuncts, or teaching assistants)? Is there a mix of young and old faculty? Diverse faculty? Do the faculty seem to publish regularly, attend conferences regularly, or win awards, fellowships, and grants? Is there evidence that faculty collaborate with one another as well as with their students on various projects? These are usually good signs of a healthy, supportive department/program.

Your daughter should feel free to start sending some emails, too, with any questions she might have. She can email program administrators, advisors, staff, department chairs, even individual faculty members. I wouldn't email deans, provosts, vice provosts, or presidents ; ). But most of us who work at a university are eager to talk to prospective students and give them more advice than they ever needed. See, for example, this answer.

And that is going to lead me to my final, I promise, point: I see so much guilt lurking in your original question and follow-up. You seem really afraid that your daughter will repeat your mistakes. Gently, this is a lot of pressure to put on your daughter and on her college experience. I also think that you should maybe be a little more forgiving to your past self here. Having lots of interests is a good thing. Putting a young person under tremendous pressure to choose something, anything, right now right now right now before it's too late is going to set a lot of people up for failure. Including your daughter. To me, it sounds like you didn't have the support you needed -- from your family, your friends, your university -- to finish college.

I would encourage you to help your daughter, then, realize that it's okay to not know something -- and to realize that the best course of action when you don't know something is to ask for help and advice and to keep asking until you get what you need. Universities are big places, and it's really easy for students to slip through the cracks: to not know who has the answers to the questions they have, to feel intimidated or like their questions are silly, to assume that it's all up to them to figure stuff out and if they can't figure it out then they must not deserve a college education -- and then they feel too ashamed to ask for help.

I can't tell you the number of times I've wished, with 20/20 hindsight, that a student had just come by my office hours or sent me an email so that I could have jumped in and helped them out before it was too late.
posted by pinkacademic at 1:22 PM on March 31, 2018 [14 favorites]

Randall Munroe's take.

Seriously, she's 17. Apply for a general liberal BA program, urge her to sample every department.
posted by Marky at 1:28 PM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

If she's grappling with "what jobs even exist in the world," she may want to peruse the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. There is a lot more information packed into the website than you might initially think. Here's an entire subsite for students, for instance. There are breakdowns for each industry - here's one I share with my studio art students. (I am also a college professor, like several other of the answerers.)

Note that a number of industries will hire from a broad range of majors, though, and that major is perhaps not always as strongly linked as you may expect to career entry and progression, barring obvious exceptions like nursing or other licensed careers. Networking is often just as important. If she picks a major she struggles with, her networking with peers, faculty, and community members will be weaker than if she picks something she can excel at both in and out of class.

I also recommend that she start working part-time, if she isn't already. First of all, working also is a form of networking. But also, one great way to narrow down what type of work you want to do is to experience different work environments and see what you enjoy, what you can put up with, and what you detest. I've learned through having a number of different jobs that I really don't like being on call, for instance, and that while I can handle cubicle life I prefer more variation in my day-to-day. Those discoveries really helped shape my career path.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore is a helpful book, I think. But really, she’s better off looking at labour market stats and directly talking to people doing things she could be interested in (on reddit, or through any opportunity possible). O-net online is a good resource- . As far as vocational testing, the strong bank interest inventory compares the taker’s interests (academic, leisure, etc) to those of people five years in their fields who are happy with what they do. (Decent test, though it excludes newer jobs.)

I could not in good conscience recommend that any young person without access to independent wealth go for a humanities or social sciences major in today’s climate (a minor, for interest, absolutely). (I almost think it’s unethical at this point for universities to continue to recruit for majors in those fields.)

An applied field that’s projected to have value for a while, something in STEM (especially computer science), healthcare, or business (for a generalist type of degree, if really no decision could be made) would do her more favours.

Taking a year or so off to work, volunteer, intern, and think things through wouldn’t be a bad idea.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Which books does she already have? That is, what subjects does she truly enjoy reading about at length? What does she idly Google on her phone when she has downtime? Does she ever just go on Wikipedia and meander around in a pet field of interest?

What kind of problems does she like to solve? In which interests does she “geek out” and have a blast, while others stand around going “ew, that’s so boring/hard/weird/gross”?

Lastly, look at weaknesses. Which strengths are so present that they NEED an outlet (or else they’ll manifest in negative ways)? Girls especially get negative feedback about things that often pinpoint career aptitude — even high-achieving girls! Someone “faultfinding/critical” might make a great auditor, “stubborn” can do amazing things in leadership or the law, and a “gossip” might be the kind of keen observer who excels in social science or training others. If her confidence has been flagging about anything, ask if the real problem is a latent talent that isn’t getting its due. College is a neat place to redirect those forces.
posted by armeowda at 3:32 PM on March 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

I could not in good conscience recommend that any young person without access to independent wealth go for a humanities or social sciences major in today’s climate (a minor, for interest, absolutely). (I almost think it’s unethical at this point for universities to continue to recruit for majors in those fields.)

An applied field that’s projected to have value for a while, something in STEM (especially computer science), healthcare, or business (for a generalist type of degree, if really no decision could be made) would do her more favours.

I disagree on many points here. Getting an undergraduate business degree is, at least in the US, often viewed as less marketable than a humanities major. Not everyone is going to be suited for a career in STEM/healthcare and despite popular opinion there are many other viable career options (see the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook I indirectly linked to above). As I said before, employers often hire based on more than just the major studied and success in major leads to stronger networking. Particularly in the US, our educational system is behind other advanced nations in many aspects but innovation and self-reliance are factors that help keep us afloat globally despite a growing education gap in math/sciences/reading. And finally, university should not solely for career preparation anyway, plus many people change careers several times post-graduation (partially, I think, due to the disconnect that sometimes happens between an academic interest and the day-to-day of the job).
posted by vegartanipla at 4:19 PM on March 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

Seconding the suggestion for an interdisciplinary degree - that's what I did for my undergrad (and sort of for grad school). There's no specific How To Interdisciplinary book that I know of - I guess the idea is that any book could work. The hard part about interdisciplinary degrees is that it can be hard to get jobs with it because people too often go "wtf degree is that" (in my experience) but at the same time it can open up options for jobs where experience/knowledge in both X and Y are valuable.

As far as jobs go: it's highly likely that whatever job your kid can or will get after graduating isn't going to match up with whatever degree they're in, whether due to the economy or changing interests or just that new jobs are popping up at a high rate all the time. And hell, maybe the kid's entrepreneurial. I understand that you yourself have had issues with choice paralysis, but that doesn't necessarily mean your kid does too. Absent the bureaucratic issues, what does your kid want to do?
posted by divabat at 5:03 PM on March 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

You and your daughter may find it very helpful for her to take the Strong interest inventory. Instead of asking what you are good at, it asks what you are interested in and then matches to the interest profile of people who are already in certain professions. It can capture the difference in interest and personality profile between jobs like IRS agent vs bookkeeper or nursery school teacher vs professor.

It can give your daughter ideas about the kind of jobs she might like to do, she can then work backwards to see which majors might fit with the widest variety of interesting careers. It looks like you don't have to go to a career counselor anymore - I see it on the internet for about $100.
posted by metahawk at 6:16 PM on March 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

As pinkacademic said, your daughter is not committing to a major at 17 -- it's purely an applications datapoint.

Having said that, for my (ivy) alma mater, alumni interviewers do see this 'declared' major, and presumably, so does admissions. The one interviewee I have had among the dozen or so I've interviewed over the years who has gotten an acceptance declared 'English', despite having quite strong math credentials as well. She had an obviously Russian last name; her parents work for Microsoft -- I am pretty damn sure that on top of her impressive abilities (and activities that genuinely supported an interest in English), applying as an English major from TechTown USA got her application a second look.

So if your daughter is ambitious enough and can rustle up activities / recommendations to support a slightly unexpected major, that may be an advantage in higher-tier admissions.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:58 PM on March 31, 2018

Hey, you asked for a book, I'm gonna recommend a book!

Making the Most of College, by Richard Light. Didn't read it when I was in college but found it really useful as a starting professor doing academic advising. Not just about choosing a major and a plan of study (those two are not the same!) but a big part of it is about that. Probably overweighted towards the expensive/selective part of higher ed (it's based on interviews with Harvard students.)
posted by escabeche at 2:58 AM on April 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just saw a book called "I Can Get Paid For That? 99 creative careers to live a life less ordinary" by Jo Stewart that may be of interest.
posted by divabat at 5:34 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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