"how do i pick a major?" from an international incoming freshman @ ivy league
from @khuyen on linkedin (reposting here so insights are centralized)
" A few input from my experiences:
- besides asking "what you want to do after graduation", also ask "who & what kind of person I want to be around". The who matters a lot.
- recommend applying Michael Horn s JTBD framework to choose educational experiences like a major in his phenomenal book "Choosing College". I found that just by reflecting on those jobs helped me make much better decisions. The 5 jobs are "Help me get into my best school: the classic experience relying on traditional rankings;
Help me do what’s expected of me: fulfilling parent and teacher expectations (a terrible and often expensive reason to go to school);
Help me get away: a move away from an unpleasant situation, but not necessarily toward something positive; Help me step it up: with anticipated events, a decision to be better; and Help me extend myself: the personal decision to invest in self-improvement. "
Another note is thinking about the types of people who choose the major. For example, do all the bio majors want to be pre-med? What is the work ethic of people in anthropology?
It’s important to value why people end up in a class. I would way rather go to a class that has an application process vs not. People choose to be there and are more intentional. Class is more intimate. To me that is more valuable than being in a room where the subject matter is ‘more’ interesting or aligned.
Most people I know are actually especially unsure of what they want to do after graduation! hehe.
They then choose a major based on the match of: 1) their present interests and skills; 2) something that will give them the most chances of making enough money later on. Ideally this also comes as PG’s staying upwind (not only in $).
I like the emphasis on exploring stuff both in the summers and through extracurriculars. I think that can help :)
Michael's covered good points on how to choose a major so I'll first cover a point on how *not* to choose a major before I add my perspective to his post.
How not to choose a major:
Based on mimesis. In his book, Wanting , Luke Burgis shares his motivation for studying investment banking in college. He didn't know what to major in and per Michael's earliest point agreed that the education system made it difficult to decide what to major in. So, Luke followed the crowd and chose what others, who he perceived as knowing what they were doing, chose. Point 5 in Michael's summary of how to choose a major is a good one since it relates to developing thick desires. In other words, thinking independently about how to choose a topic to major in. I've linked an article  below that shares an exercise to reflect on your thick desires. This will give you evidence to evaluate Michael's first point, thinking about what you want to do post-graduation.
Adding to Michael's thoughts:
A helpful mental question for me is: "is this the lowest brick?" This question relates to building a house (my analogy for knowledge building) and helps me think through the fundamentals of a topic and decide if I'm at the base or not. I like to start at the bottom and work my way up since I can play with the material in the subject much more after learning the fundamentals deeply. Practically, an example for students might be choosing to major in math or economics. While many students might think economics is best, I'd recommend math because, with a deep understanding of math you will understand economics. The inverse is not true, learning economics will give you a few applied principles but nowhere near the flexibility and breadth math offers. Transferability matters here too since the fundamentals of nature (hard sciences, math) are applied to every subject so you can easily get into the door and contribute.
 - https://lukeburgis.com/wanting/
 - https://luke.medium.com/your-core-motivational-drives-c269c35defd2
VKhosla has a good article on the liberal arts w/some general advice on choosing majors: https://medium.com/@vkhosla/is-majoring-in-liberal-arts-a-mistake-for-students-fd9d20c8532e
This is all excellent advice.
Something I wish I thought more about was when school feels like a “waste of time” vs an “investment of time”
For example, I adore learning about philosophy, but philosophy classes in my university felt like a waste of time. They weren’t productive. The assignments nor readings were enriching.
Whereas I felt that learning math was an investment of my time. I felt happier when my degree had more technical elements because I felt better about the ROI.
I feel like many international students could have cultural/financial/familial pressures dictating what major they should pursue. Was that the case with this student? How would this advice generalize to students with those pressures?
I resonated with what you said about staying in architecture because you found cool people there. I love biology but I didn't find biology classes as enticing because they can consist a lot of pre-meds checking off boxes. I don't intend to pursue pure math as a career, but I loved some of my math classes because I really get along with the kind of person who would take math for fun and could meet people in those classes who I'd want to work on side projects with.
p.s. cool resource for anyone thinking about engineering/cs and want to get an idea about all the potential fields in that space: https://github.com/ossu/computer-science
in conversation with a minerva freshman who has time to pick their major, thinking about business but interested in ai:
them: should i switch my major to ai?
me: don't rush to decide right now.
you have times to explore. work on monthly projects outside of school to see if you like coding. for example, do an andrew ng course (16hours total) and work on replicating one of his code bases. doing that over 2-3 months will give you a more tangible way to see what you like or don't like.
also, talk to other majors, ask them what excites them and learn what their path looks like after graduating. business v. cs degree have different leverage points and different paths. find which one you identify with.
being active about it outside of the class, you can get dozens of data points to see what fits.
Thank you so much for this post! I was confused about how to approach picking a major and this gave me great insights + points to reflect on