Janet Walkow Christine Jacobs

‘Major’ Decisions

College is an exciting time when a person can explore particular interests and discover personal passions. At least this is what I recall from my undergraduate liberal arts education. While I focused on science, my program encouraged taking classes and seminars in all areas ranging from art history and philosophy to social sciences and nutrition. I was encouraged to go out of my comfort zone and pursue diverse topics. While some of my friends were enrolled in professional programs (architecture, engineering, pharmacy, education), most of my peers pursued a general curriculum until they found something that engaged them or identified a course of post graduate studies.  It was a great time and we knew that we needed to make the most of this great academic bubble. While there are always some who are competitive, that didn’t dominate.

College Conversations

I have been reflecting on my college experiences as a result of some poignant conversations with students. In the past few weeks, I’ve talked with several students about various academic dilemma’s: I haven’t declared a major. I just declared a major (as a junior) and now I’m 3 years behind. I dont know if I want to stay in grad school and finish a Ph.D. or settle for a Masters. Why does everyone else know exactly what they want to do since high school?

The stress is evident in their faces and voices. Each of these students is smart, talented and motivated, but within a short time, it becomes clear that their struggle has a lot to do with what other people expect. Parents are pressuring them and it seems that all of their peers have locked into a path – many of them knew back in high school what they wanted to do after college. That’s the point I tell them the story about parent orientation at UNC, when they asked parents whether their incoming freshman daughter/son had already selected a major. The hands flew up quickly and many took on a arrogant affect  – so proud that little Susie or Johnny knew their major. But, the facilitator quickly burst their bubble, telling them that students who “know” what they want to pursue as incoming freshman, typically change majors 5-6 times; those entering as “undeclared” only change 1-3 times.

Why the Rush?

These days, there seems to be a rush to declare a major or decide your career path by the time you finish high school. The pressure mounts in college and one can feel like they’re the only one without clear direction. But, the truth is, you’re not alone. An informal survey reveals that many will say they have a defined path, when that’s not the case. They simply want to fit in and not be an outlier.

Making decisions about majors, careers and aspiration are important. It’s good to think about options and even try them out by taking classes, internships and shadowing. However, college should be viewed as a way to take academic risks and venture beyond your traditional thinking in order to expand the possibilities for your future.

It’s Okay to Take Your Time

I didn’t have any idea what I want to do “when I grew up” until I took an elective my junior year of college that seemed to blend many of my interests into one nice package.  I didn’t have any idea how this translated into a career or job, but I had found something I wanted to pursue. The decision was easy and there wasn’t any pressure. It all made sense to me and I was on my way. When I relayed my story to the students, each appeared relieved and told me they wish someone had told them in high school that it’s okay to take time to explore options and decide. College is a wonderful opportunity to learn not only about academic subjects, but also discover much about yourself, your dreams, your passions.

Janet Walkow is the Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute at The University of Texas and a co-founder of Leading Women. Read her full bio.

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