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Major decisions: Look before you leap on an academic path, advisers say

- Sometimes it seems that life is all about having the "right" answer to a series of simplistic questions. Nail down "Where are you going to college?" and almost immediately you face "What's your major?" Despite the pressure to think otherwise, you don't need to have an answer right away. In fact, Berkeley student advisers encourage you to spend a few semesters window-shopping before declaring a major — and before settling on an answer to that other fateful question, "And what do you do?"

 'People ask me about their majors a lot. My advice is always to take lots of intro classes that fulfill your breadth requirements, so you don't fall behind while you're experimenting with different majors.'
-Zack White, L&S Peer Adviser and third-year Sociology major

"Far too often, in both academic and career planning, students feel they have to decide before they've really given themselves a chance to sample all the possibilities," says psychologist Chris McLean, manager of Career and Academic Programs in the Tang Center's Counseling and Psychological Services unit. "You really only become clear about your interests through trying a variety of classes, extracurricular activities, and internships. But the most important point we try to make is that your identity is not defined by your major. It's perfectly appropriate to change your mind or re-evaluate your path along the way."

Take third-year student Zack White. As a freshman, he came to Berkeley as an architecture major. "In high school, I had my whole life planned out. Basically, I was going to be an architect because I knew I could make a lot of money," says White. But his first year at Berkeley "really opened my eyes to how much more was out there." Looking for a socially conscious major, he flirted with Urban Studies and then settled on Sociology, with a minor in Public Policy.

Jennifer Verzosa 'Even though I've declared Social Welfare as my major, my mom keeps asking me why I don't take some computer science classes. She thinks that's a much more marketable skill.'
-Jennifer Verzosa, third-year Social Welfare major
Or Jennifer Verzosa, also a third-year student. "When I was a freshman it seemed as if a lot of people knew exactly what they wanted to do," she says. "I was 17 and I felt like I had to have it all figured out." Verzosa was planning to major in the biosciences before she spent a summer working for a nonprofit and became involved with the Suitcase Clinic, a student-run effort that provides services to the homeless. She ended up declaring Social Welfare as her major in the second semester of her sophomore year.

Such stories are common. Compared with the 900-plus freshmen who come to Berkeley specifically to study Engineering, Chemistry, Environmental Design, Natural Resources, or Optometry, there are more than 3,300 undeclared freshmen in the College of Letters & Science (L&S), many of whom have only the barest itch of an idea of what path they should take.

And that's OK, according to Alix Schwartz, Director of Academic Planning for L&S's Undergraduate Division. "This is a huge place with more choices than most universities," she says. L&S alone offers more than 60 majors. "The way to think about choosing a major is as an exploration, sampling all kinds of familiar and unfamiliar things to find your passion."

Tracy Bunting 'I came in thinking Mass Comm., I guess because my brother majored in it. So I thought I'd try it out. But in the spring of freshman year I took History 7B with Leon Litwack and I just fell in love with it. Everybody asks me what I'll do with a History major, and I say it doesn't matter, a core major will prepare you for almost anything.'
-Tracy Bunting, third-year History major

That's the focus of L&S 1, a two-unit course for freshmen that Schwartz helped create last fall to give students the chance to explore the intellectual landscape of the college. Professors from different departments visit each week, discussing their own research. The course also features recent alumni who talk about how they've turned their majors into employment.

Schwartz emphasizes that L&S 1 is not a "choose your major" class. "This course is for first-year students," she says. "They have time. We want them to see the seminar as way to pick engaging classes to fulfill their breadth requirements. If they end up majoring in one of them later, great."

Students beginning to contemplate a major need to stop thinking about it in terms of a career, suggests Kathleen Barrett, an L&S adviser. "Part of working with students is getting a sense of what they really love, then destroying the myth that they can't get a job with that major," she says. There may be few employment ads under "anthropologist," for example, but Anthro majors land a variety of jobs: senior editorial manager at Arabia Online, Java developer at Bigsafe, and paralegal are just a few titles on the business cards of Berkeley Anthropology alumni. (See the Career Center's What Can I Do With a Major In. website to see the range of actual careers resulting from various majors.)

After all, "there are very few humanities majors that translate directly into careers," contends the Tang Center's McLean. "But if you're pursuing a major that interests you, then you develop all kinds of skills, like communication, problem-solving, or teamwork. Those skills are completely transferable to a variety of careers - and very much sought after by employers."

Garrett Chinn'I picked Bioengineering when I was still in high school because it's a really good, broad major with a lot of interdisciplinary aspects. I wasn't sure at the time if I wanted to go the medical or engineering path. But with BioE, the option's there to go either way. And in a period of economic decline, bioengineering's one of the few fields that's continued to grow.'
-Garrett Chinn, fourth-year BioE

The pressure to pick a major with a job waiting at the end like a pot of gold comes both from students themselves and from their parents. Verzosa, the student who switched from molecular biology to social welfare, is still fielding pleas from her mother to take some computer science classes, "just in case," Verzosa sighs. "She thinks that's a much more marketable skill, and that I'll be able to get a job and make money right out of college instead of having to go to graduate school."

With student fees rising and the economy looking bleak, advisers can certainly sympathize with students and parents who feel that a good job immediately after graduation should be the payoff of higher education. Many Berkeley students have the added pressure of being the first in their families to go to college, or having foreign-born parents who balk at unfamiliar, esoteric majors.

But the biggest problems arise when parents force their students into the obvious money-making paths — pre-med, pre-law, and business — at the expense of their natural inclinations. McLean counsels that communication, and a little empathy, can help.

Romy Ganschow 'I just declared Anthropology as my major a month ago. I was interested in it when I first came here, but I thought about Psychology for a while, and French. I've always seen college as the place to try lots of different things. I don't want to be an anthropologist exactly, but then, I've never seen my major as what I want to do for a job.'
-Romy Ganschow, third-year Anthropology major

"The student needs to figure out what the parents' underlying concern is — that she's not going to be able to get a job with a History major, say — and try to address that concern in the same language," he says. "She can show them what skills she is going to develop in this major, what internships she could get, and where other history majors have ended up working."

But first each student has to make a choice. Most first-year students are in the same boat as Nithya Senra, who hasn't a clue what her major will be. "I know what I'm not interested in — like English and computer science — so I can rule those out," she says. "But I like so many subjects — right now, economics, political science, and philosophy, for example —that it really makes it hard for me."

Barrett recommends scanning the L&S list of 60-plus majors and crossing off the ones that don't grab you (but beware of dismissing majors because you've never heard of them — they could turn out to be your passion). Next, shop from the shorter list — sit in on a class, study a department's website, and talk to people in that major. If the field seems appealing, enroll in an introductory class that will fulfill a breadth requirement. (This and more good advice is on L&S Undergraduate Advising's Choosing a Major website.)

While students do not have to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year or, for transfer students, early in their junior year, those considering some of the most popular L&S majors need to begin preparing early and make sure they have a fallback plan. "Capped" majors like Computer Science, Economics, Mass Communications, Psychology, and Social Welfare experience such a high demand that they can accept only a limited number of students, and all except Social Welfare require applicants to fulfill certain course requirements while maintaining a minimum grade-point average. For students who want to major in Business Administration starting their junior year, the requirements are even tougher: only 50 percent of applicants are accepted to the undergraduate program at the Haas School of Business.

Decision time approaching and you still don't know what to study? The Career Counseling Library at the Tang Center offers analysis services that can help. Students can take Strong Interest Inventory and Myers Brigg Type Inventory tests to narrow down their range of interests and meet with counselors like McLean to clarify the options suggested by the tests. And for those still adrift in the sea of majors, the counselors will work with them to isolate the cause of their indecisiveness. "Sometimes the problem is that they have difficulty making decisions in general, not just in this one area of their lives," says McLean. "In those cases, we discuss the process of making decisions — how people consult with their family members, instructors, peers, and mentors to arrive at what's best for them."

Ultimately, these advisers say, choosing a major is not about picking a career or a lifelong path. It's about finding your niche at the university for the next few years. "A major should be sort of your home on campus," summarizes Barrett. "It's where you'll meet other students with similar interests, do research, go to colloquiums, and hopefully, find a mentor so that you can get guidance for your last years here - and long afterward."