What’s in a major? Students and academic advising dean talk declaring

May 17, 2021, 9:15 p.m.

At Stanford, your major is up there with identifiers like your name and hometown — everybody asks. But, how does one go about choosing this seemingly critical identifier? Does your major seal your fate? And how do you find a major advisor?

Choosing a major

What should students consider when choosing a major? Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Academic Advising Louis Newman says that students should generally not focus on income potential.

“If you choose your major well, it will be something that you feel excited about intellectually,” Newman said. “It will be something that you feel gives you an opportunity to work closely with faculty and maybe with other students on projects that are interesting to you, and it will teach you intellectual skills that will be transferable down the line.”

Newman explained that students often face peer or parental pressure when choosing a major. He also acknowledged that low-income students sometimes feel a need to pursue financially stable professions to support their families. Even so, he said that there are often misconceptions about what it means to pursue high-earning careers.

While it is true that engineering students generally have larger starting salaries than humanities and social science students, Newman said that 10 or 15 years out from graduation, those earning disparities shrink significantly. 

“It’s actually not true that people who major in, if you will, fuzzy topics, as opposed to STEM fields, tend to earn less money in the long run,” Newman said.

Regardless, some students do prioritize the income question. Jean Rodmond Junior Laguerre ’23 said that he choose to major in computer science, in part, due to the abundance of jobs and financial security. Kelly Kim ’23 agreed. She believes more scholarships and funding opportunities should be made available so that all students can pursue their dream careers, but acknowledged the income considerations many students make when choosing their major.

“I think we live in a society where we need to think realistically,” international relations major Kim said. “As much as idealism is lovely, you need to really think about what salary would you want to be making out of college, if the trajectory of your career is possible given the financial and familial resources you have.” 

Despite this, Newman insists that Stanford students can pursue a wide range of majors and find success career-wise.

“I would encourage you to gather randomly eight or 10 parents of current students who went to college, ask them what they majored in and what they’re doing now,” Newman said. “You discover, almost certainly, that the vast majority of them are not doing anything directly related to their major at all.”

Mathematics and computational science major Mac Bagwell ’21 agreed, saying that in his experience, many professionals seem open to hiring from a wide range of majors.

Even after one chooses a major, it is not set in stone. Bagwell changed his major during his Stanford career and said it “was a hilariously easy process.” While various programs may differ in how accessible it is to change majors, doing so is still often an option.

As students research various majors, they may also worry about programs being too difficult for them to pursue — but Kim encourages risk-taking.

“I think if you know what you want to do and you love it enough to do it, then it’s bold and it’s admirable to pursue something that you may not be the best at in the beginning but you still love,” Kim said.

If a student is interested in pursuing a major but is unsure of whether they can complete all of the requirements, Newman suggests speaking with academic advisers to assess options. One of those options may be choosing a different but similar major that has slightly different completion requirements.

Often “students can find something that they would love to do that isn’t exactly the major that they imagined,” Newman said.

There are many different reasons to choose a certain major. Laguerre chose a major that could service his “ultimate goal” of doing something for his home country. Kim decided on her major because she felt it was a good fit to help her grow. Bagwell just took courses he liked and found which department they fit into best.

“After a while, I just kind of looked at what my classes were and said, What is the easiest major to have?” Bagwell said.

Researching different majors

Students are expected to officially declare their major by their sophomore spring and will begin receiving email reminders from the University by the beginning of their junior year, according to Newman.

Various digital resources can be helpful when exploring major options. Newman recommends the academic advising website for those searching for the right program. When Bagwell was choosing his major, he utilized major sheets: documents posted on department websites that outline the requirements for various programs. Kim says that the Stanford Bulletin and ExploreCourses were crucial when she declared her major.

“My friends and I joke around all the time about how much we have memorized every single course on there,” Kim said.

But people can be just as helpful as University websites in the exploration process. Laguerre and Kim explained that that talking to upperclassmen and other students brought them clarity. Kim has also benefitted from peer advising office hours, when students in different departments hold sessions to provide academic advice.

Bagwell and Kim also recommend talking to mentors and professionals, like student services officers and professors. Talking to faculty and attending their office hours can be useful for not only declaring your major, but also for getting advice and recommendation letters, according to Kim. Bagwell said that he answered a lot of his questions by talking to recruiters and people in the field. The Stanford Alumni Mentoring website can make in-the-field mentors accessible, Kim said.

Once a student finds a major, they then need to find a major advisor. Newman suggests reaching out to the Office of Academic Advising or student services officers, who are available to answer questions about each department or academic program. He also encourages students to email faculty members they are interested in having as advisers.

Sometimes people come into Stanford knowing exactly what they want to do, but the students interviewed acknowledged that you don’t need to have everything all figured out.

“I know a lot of people who have no idea what they want to do, absolutely undeclared, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that,” Kim said.

All of the students interviewed ended up majoring in something different from what they originally expected. They emphasized the importance of exploration, especially for frosh.

“Just taking classes that you want to take is the most important thing,” Bagwell said. “The biggest benefit, I think, of being a freshman or a sophomore is that most majors are flexible enough that you can pretty much just be in the exploration mindset.”

Bagwell acknowledged that some departments do have more specific requirements that may encourage declaring early, but emphasized that those are the exceptions. Laguerre agreed that frosh should not stress about majors.

“If you’re freshmen, you’re afraid. What are you worrying about? Just have fun,” Laguerre said.

Laguerre applied to Stanford expecting to pursue biomechanical engineering. This spring, he is declaring computer science, a subject he hadn’t been exposed to before college. Students should take advantage of the new experiences available to them at Stanford, according to Laguerre.

Regardless of why a student chooses a major, or how they find it, there are no wrong choices.

“Your major is not your destiny,” Newman said. “There are lots of people who’ve been very successful and lead very happy and productive lives — who have majored in every single different kind of thing that the University offers.”

Kirsten Mettler '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. She is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life and Desk Editor for News. Contact her at kmettler 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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