Choosing a major more like shopping than soul-searching

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What would it be? Biology? Econ? The dreaded comparative literature?

The process by which I found myself in a Carnegie Mellon University office waiting breathlessly to choose my major -- despite the fact that I am neither "undeclared" nor a Carnegie Mellon student -- was one part cosmic irony, one part journalism and one part zany impulse.

When I was a college freshman, dropping a course catalogue on the floor and seeing what page it opened to seemed as good a method to pick my academic future as any.

Then, perhaps because I switched majors at least four times, I was asked to write an article on how to pick a major.

With thoughts of second chances dancing in my head and hoping my own journey might inspire at least a few confused students, I set out to re-choose my major the right way.

It was this search that eventually led me to Debra Ignelzi, a Carnegie Mellon career consultant with a soothing voice and a slew of colorful leis slung around her office.

Like many of the counselors and advisers I phoned at colleges across Pennsylvania, Ms. Ignelzi began by reassuring me that while it may not be common to try to travel back in time to freshman year, it's perfectly normal to be confused about one's direction in college and life.

In the words of Kelly Cleary, senior associate director for students in the College of Arts & Sciences at University of Pennsylvania's Career Services: "It's OK to be clueless."

"But," she added, "you need to be intentionally clueless."

A common misconception many students have is that someone else will make their choice for them, said Bill Klewien, an adviser in the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University.

In reality, an adviser can help students only to a certain extent.

"They're the ones who are driving the bus, and I'm the navigator," said Jennifer Cwiklinski, a career advisor at the University of Pittsburgh who works with undecided students.

Students picking a major should be prepared for a fair amount of introspection. Sure, they should ask themselves what their hopes and dreams are, but they should also think about where their values, interests and aptitudes lie. That's a lot of soul-searching for 18-year-olds.

Liza Bernard, director of career development for Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, has a friendlier way to put it: "The whole process is going to be a little bit like a shopping spree," she said.

Shopping is a lot less scary for a college student than soul-searching, so bear with me. The goal of the shopping spree is not to pick the major that seems to provide the most lucrative future or the sensible-sounding major, but rather, to find a field that catches and sustains your interest.

"You're not signing your life away," Ms. Cleary said. "You're making a choice about the courses you're taking in the next two or three years.

"Very rarely does an art history major become an art historian or an English major become an English teacher," she said.

"Employers are looking for certain skills and aptitudes so much more than they're looking for a major," said Marie Deem, assistant dean of academic affairs for academic and career advising at La Roche College.

The moral for the overly ambitious is this: Stop worrying about your employability. Whether your passion is law or basket-weaving, dive in.

"Choose a major because that's what you love and that's what you're good at," said Ms. Ignelzi.

While that's all very warm and fuzzy, it does little to help the majority of college freshmen whose self-knowledge is about as extensive as their culinary skills.

"Start by looking at what courses you've enjoyed," Mr. Klewien said. Do not start at anything so concrete as " 'I want to be a marketing manager for a publishing company,' " he said.

Advisers recommend a number of tools to help students explore their own interests and options. One common tool -- which Ms. Ignelzi said was her favorite -- is an evaluation called the "Self-Directed Search."

"Students love this because it's tangible," she said. "It's something they can really sink their teeth into."

She gave me a Self-Directed Search booklet and, eager to grab a piece of that tangibility, I checked my way through a series of statements.

After marking activities I would enjoy (Work on a scientific project) and activities I would not enjoy (Fill out income tax forms), I marked activities I am competent at (I find it easy to talk with all kinds of people) and those at which I am utterly incompetent (I can act in a play). At the grueling end, I tabulated the results to determine my "Holland code," a three-letter group that's supposed to illuminate the areas of life.

The result was "EIA," meaning that I am supposedly, in rough order, enterprising, investigative and artistic. That sounds fancy, but according to the same test, the two occupations that would fit me best are "vendor quality supervisor" and "communications consultant."

Neither gave me an inkling of what my major should be. (Vendor quality supervision?)

For some students, the Self-Directed Search is a great way to explore their own ideas and aptitudes. For others, it's confounding.

It's not the only option. There's a whole slew of assessments marketed to lost collegiate lambs, each promising a slightly different take.

Many career counselors and advisers also recommend that students take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator -- a personality test -- to begin to develop an understanding of who they are.

I dutifully slogged my way through the questionnaire and was dubbed an "Extroverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiver," which sounds suspiciously like some sort of spyware.

Ideally, identifying a personality type provides insight into atmospheres and situations in which a student will thrive. I did some research into my type, and there was the suggestion, gleaming at the top of the heap: Journalism.

Swell. This thing works.

"No assessment knows you better than you know yourself," Ms. Cwiklinski explained.

Often, exploration -- whether through tests or introspection -- serves to reaffirm what a student already knows. Who would have thought that a reporter might be inclined to study journalism, besides, well, everyone?

In real life, after some hasty shifts, I settled on art history, but I see myself curating a museum as much as I see myself supervising vendor quality. (Not at all.) I loved the courses, though, and that, the advisers said, is what's really important.

As I left her office satisfied and confused in equal measures, Ms. Ignelzi gave me one final piece of advice.

"Make the decision that seems most interesting to you," she said. "Your career life is a winding road."

Your major, no matter how you approach it, is just a beginning.

Vivian Nereim is an art history major at Yale University and was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette.


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