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Upperclassmen Offer Advice on Choosing a Major

By Joia Ramchandani

Freshmen, take note: the deadline for declaring your major is April 16. Do you know what your decision will be?

There are probably several key questions running through your mind: “what criteria should I take into account when selecting a major?”; “how important are issues like post-graduation opportunities, perceived difficulty, an open or structured curriculum, and gender balance?”; and “where do students stand on these issues and how much weight do they give to the various factors that go into choosing a major?”

There are a variety of ways to go about finding the answers to these questions, including interviewing upperclassmen, attending workshops and seminars, and researching facts and statistics online. As one would expect, interviews with upperclassmen give mixed feedback to each of these questions, but in the end, they raise important points about what’s important in choosing a major.

Do not think too far ahead

The underlying opinion of the upperclassmen interviewed was that career opportunities in your major are not a key issue. Students feel that the right applications will follow if you pursue what you love.

Josh Peters G said that he believes it is important to do what you find to be “fundamentally interesting, even if your major isn’t as employable.”

Now you might ask, is it rather naÏve and impractical to follow your heart’s desires without first analyzing the employability of your major? A relevant point, though, made by MIT career counselor Marilyn C. Wilson is that “there is no way to foresee what job markets will be like five to ten years down the road.”

Wilson encourages students to use their own interests to define a career path, not the other way around.

Do not be afraid of a challenge

Should you be concerned about the perceived difficulty level of a major? That question is slightly misleading, because upperclassmen say that there is no “easy” major or a free ride at MIT. However, most students did agree that some majors are more intensive than others.

Upperclassmen say not to be daunted by the difficulty level of some majors. In fact, many advise you to embrace the challenge.

“I came to a challenging school so I might as well do a more challenging major,” said Course VI major Jessie Wang ’05. “If I am here, I want to be as intellectually challenged as possible. I might as well get the most out of my opportunities.”

Wang added that the process of coping with a challenging major teaches you several invaluable skills.

“You really learn a lot of analytical skills, time and stress management methods,” she said.

Some students point out that the best way to make your course load as manageable as possible is to do what you are interested in.

Concetta A. Maratta ’04, who is majoring in Course VI, said that MIT “is pretty intense as it is.”

“You really have to like your major to get through school,” she said. “If I didn’t like my major, I wouldn’t have been able to finish.”

“The things I learn about are so interesting that I don’t really care how difficult the major is” said Course II major Amy L. Wong ’05, who then proceeded to enthusiastically tell me all the interesting things she gets to learn about every day.

Gender imbalance not a problem

Are students bothered by uneven gender distributions across certain majors?

Peters said that the gender imbalance in Course VI is “noticeable, but not an issue.” That sentiment was echoed by several upperclassmen from both Course VI and VII.

According to the Registrar’s Office, about 75 percent of undergraduates in Course VI are male, and approximately 70 percent of undergraduates in Course VII are female.

In fact, some Course VI girls say that they are not intimidated by the preponderance of males and actually view the gender distribution in their major as a bonus, although not for the reasons you might think.

“Gender imbalance is a plus for me simply because I think it will help me get a job,” Maratta said, concluding that women in the computer science field are rare and thus more marketable.

Department size has its effects

The general consensus on a large versus small department size and total undergraduate enrollment was that each has its own merits.

The students from smaller departments noted that they appreciated the individual attention they received from their professors.

Diana J. Wu ’04 said, “Course III is small enough so that it’s intimate and the professors really get to know you.”

Alternatively, numerous Course VI upperclassmen say that the high enrollment in their major was a big advantage because it was easy to find friends to do homework with.

When asked if they felt they had the opportunity to interact with faculty given the low professor to student ratio, most students from the larger departments agreed that professors tend to be quite accessible.

“The professors are really cool,” Wong said.“If you want help, you can always e-mail them.”

However, in larger departments you do have to be more active in seeking professors out. “If you want to make an effort to get to know professors, class size isn’t a problem,“ said Course VI major Michelle P. Luk ’05.

Consider the major’s structure

One important feature of a major that was raised by several upperclassmen is schedule flexibility.

Curricula in different majors varies from the extremely restrictive requirements, such as in Course VI, which can leave as little as four electives, or the more flexible, such as the general major option in Course XVIII, which leaves open seven electives.

Several students said they were appreciative of the many requirements they needed to take because the classes enabled them to expand their horizons and explore areas they didn’t realize they might be interested in.

Along these lines, Luk said “there are classes that I never would have taken on my own, but after taking them I was glad.”

Other students agreed with Course VI major Michel J. Lambert ’04 who said he likes “having everything mapped out,” because it makes it easier not to have to worry about what classes he should take each semester.

Upperclassmen give perspective

Hopefully, this will give you a a better sense of what questions to ask and what criteria to consider when choosing a major. Talking to upperclassmen will help answer some of these questions and, more importantly, can help you gain perspective; an important point raised by several of the students is that one of the most helpful things you can get out of any major is how to think and solve problems, not the specific content.

“I don’t know that I want to be an engineer for the rest of my life,” Maratta said, “but I think that engineering teaches you fundamental principles about how to approach problems and how to solve them, and that’s applicable to everything.”