The University Network

How To Choose A College Major – Interview With Dr. Theodorea Regina Berry From University Of Central Florida

TUN sits down with Dr. Theodorea Regina Berry, dean of the University of Central Florida’s College of Undergraduate Studies and vice provost of student learning and academic success, to discuss how students can pick a major that is right for them. 

TUN: Dr. Berry, thanks so much for joining us! 

DR. BERRY: Thank you for having me.

Choosing a major is clearly a very important and personal decision in a student’s life. So,  what are some of the primary questions students should ask themselves before choosing a major?

Students should ask themselves two very important questions. The first of which is, “What am I passionate about? What do I care about the most?” 

Oftentimes, those things get demonstrated in the ways in which students spend their time outside of school, outside of the classroom. Sometimes it happens in school, but it is usually outside of the classroom. 

The second question that they have to ask themselves is, “In choosing a major, what is the career that I am aspiring to?”

Because, sometimes, what we think we need to major in — in relationship to getting to a particular career goal — isn’t absolutely necessary. 

For instance, oftentimes, people think that they have to major in political science in order to become a lawyer. But if they talk to someone who has been to law school, they would often find that most law students spend an inordinate amount of time writing. If they don’t have strong writing skills, (law) might be a difficult path to travel. (Law students) also have lots of analytical skills. So, something like philosophy or even English might prove to be a better major for someone seeking law school.

At what point in their college careers should students choose their majors? 

It really depends on the student. Some students come to college with lots of ideas about the kinds of things that they want to do and just haven’t figured out the path to take. Others are super clear, long before they get to college. And, some people think that they’re clear before they get to college and get into a class that really sparks their desire and ambition, so they change their path. 

Most colleges and universities have a policy in place that dictates that students should choose a major before they finish their second year of college. 

Obviously, the sooner they (pick a major), the more likely it is that they can finish in four years. 

Oftentimes, students believe that, when picking a major, they’re deciding what they are going to be doing for the rest of their lives. Clearly, that can bring on some overwhelming feelings. So, do you have any advice that might help curb some of the feelings of stress and anxiety that students may experience while choosing a major? 

If they are choosing a major as an incoming freshman, the first piece of advice I would give is to relax. You can change it. And, you can change it without a lot of detriment to your academic career. 

The second piece of advice I would say is, sometimes, the major you select as an undergrad may become something completely different as you move forward. 

One of the things that we’ve learned about being a college graduate is that it opens up lots of opportunities to do a lot of things, some of which may not necessarily be completely tied to the major that you had when you were in college. In part, this is because lots of businesses and organizations want someone who has a certain kind of skill set. Can they write? Can they analyze? Can they work well in groups? So, you could have a myriad of different majors in the same room, but they have the same skill set. 

At the end of the day, businesses feel that it’s more important that individuals come in with skills and that they can train them to do the jobs that they want them to do. 

So, I wouldn’t worry about whether or not you find out that you want to do something completely different from your major. Can you articulate that you possess a certain kind of skill set in order to be able to acquire the position that you want? 

And finally, my last piece of advice is, you can always do something different if you make the decision to go on to graduate school. 

I think I’m a clear example of that.

I had a double major in music arts and mass media arts with a double minor in biology and physics. Need I say more? I went to graduate school and discovered that there were some things that I was much more interested in than all of the classes I took that had to do with my majors and my minors. 

Did they help me develop those skills in relationship to being able to be a strong academic leader? Absolutely. 

At the end of the day, it still comes back to what kinds of skills you acquire and what you’re interested in that draw you into the things that you find yourself doing in the future. 

Where can students turn for help when they need help deciding their majors? Is there a place, maybe on-campus, where they can get help? 

Absolutely. At the University of Central Florida, the primary place to stop is the Knights Major Exploration and Transition Center. This is the place that is ideally designed for those students who are undeclared, who are undecided or who are considering changing majors and transitioning from one major to another. That office has the support staff and the expertise to provide students with the kind of knowledge they need to make decisions in relation to the major they are choosing. 

We also recommend that, even if a student has chosen a major and they’re considering changing a major, the first stop they should probably make is to their college adviser. It might be that their college adviser could recommend something within their own college, or they would send them to the Knights Major Exploration and Transition Center for additional guidance. 

Those are the two primary areas where students should go to get the kind of advice and expertise that we offer on our campus. 

That’s very specific to UCF. Do other schools offer similar resources? 

Absolutely. So, in my experience as a professional who has been at other institutions throughout my career — UCF is my sixth academic posting in my professional career — every college campus has a specific space for those students who are undeclared and undecided and for those students who are transitioning. 

Every college manages it a little bit differently. For instance, at one institution where I worked, individuals had one place to get all of their advisings, whether they had declared a major or they were undeclared, undecided or changing majors. 

In other places, all of that information happens within their college. So, there’s a space within their college that deals with students who are undecided or undeclared. And, within the same college, there might be individuals who are moving forward in relation to the major that they had (originally) chosen. 

And in some places — in fact, at my very first academic posting — all of that advising happened by way of a faculty member. The faculty member would help guide students through that process and help them to identify what might be the best move to make in relation to their decision. 

In this day and age, there’s a lot of resources available to students, and they have lots of options in relation to getting academic support. 

There are all sorts of factors that can influence why a student may choose a specific major. Interest is obviously huge. Two other big factors are average earnings and demand. There are some websites like the College Scorecard, which is offered by the federal government, that students can use to analyze things like how much money they can expect to earn with their degree and what their chances are of landing a job after graduation. 

So, my questions are, how reliable are these sites? And, to what extent should students be using sites like the College Scorecard to help them decide which major they want to pursue?

The College Scorecard is a really good site and it is quite reliable. I will caution, however, that like many of the websites offered by the federal government, it is at least a year behind, because it takes them about that long to collect the data. 

The other thing to pay attention to, however, in relation to these websites, is that they tend to give you a broad brushstroke in relation to what is available. Certain things are going to change based on what part of the country you live in. 

For instance, if you are a computer science person and you live in Florida, there are probably a number of opportunities available. But, there are probably more opportunities in the Bay Area of California, where you have Google, Microsoft, Apple and a whole bunch of other Silicon Valley-type companies that hire college students, sometimes right after their internships. 

If you are interested in finance, Chicago or New York might have different kinds of numbers, overall, than what the United States government might report for job opportunities. If you’re in Nebraska or Alaska, there might be more opportunities in the oil industry and engineering. 

So, I would also pay attention to the fact that students have to decide, are they going to be willing to relocate to get their dream job? Or, do they need to stay closer to where they call home or where they went to college. Then, look at what those numbers look like. 

Taking those things into consideration, it might be wise for students to also check the employment websites and employment data of certain regions and certain states to ensure that they are making the most of what opportunities might be available in the area where they want to be. 

Thanks, Dr. Berry, for taking the time to talk to us. 

I’m happy to do it. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.