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While packing for an upcoming international move to New Zealand, I found fictional stories I had written as a child and teenager. I usually wrote one small book every year by hand on typing paper, which I then hand-sewed into a softcover book.

I grew up in a modest three-bedroom ranch-style home in rural northeast Ohio, where the summer air was heavy with humidity. I escaped the heat by spending many contented hours writing stories in my father’s basement study.

With my writing and reading pastimes, I envisioned that I would study creative writing in college and become a novelist. The managing editor of our local city newspaper kindly suggested that I might want to consider more flexible career options. Through her guidance, I began writing articles for the newspaper about topics of interest to teenagers and gradually developed an interest in features writing.

Still, I retained my novelist aspirations when I began undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in late 1990. I initially enrolled in mostly English courses, applied to the college’s creative writing major and even spent a summer working on the program’s application, but I was not accepted.

Looking back on this experience, I am surprised that I was not more apprehensive. I am generally optimistic, though, and viewed the rejection as a divergence that would reveal my professional path’s eventual direction. What I slowly learned through life experience is that my career path would not be clear-cut, but rather would be an evolving plot with a few surprises over time.

Weighing the Options

As a college professor of communication, I often encounter undergraduates who struggle over what major to choose. Their concern is understandable. Major possibilities can seem bewildering to students who are still identifying career interests. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education reported nearly 1,500 academic programs at colleges and universities. Moreover, institutions added 355 academic programs such as informatics and global studies since 2000 in order to stay current and competitive.

As students contemplate potential majors, they must also weigh financial and employment concerns. When I meet prospective students and their parents, they always ask about career options for communications majors and our department’s rate of internship and job placements. Due to the current economy with high education costs, as well as the fact that today’s graduates must have flexible skills in order to transfer between jobs and even careers, many students and their parents seek adaptable college majors that will best ensure employment.

Finding Guidance

Choosing a major can be especially difficult for first-generation college students. Unlike students who might consult their college-educated parents about choosing classes and majors, first-generation college students frequently lack immediate family members who can provide insight from their own experiences.

As a first-generation college student, I had to locate outside sources for guidance about choosing a major and career. I asked older students about how they selected their majors. I spent hours reading career guidebooks in the library and visited Oberlin’s career services office with questions about internships and graduate school. The college’s staff and faculty were very helpful, but it was up to me to take the initiative and approach them.

Navigating the Major Decision

Now, I enjoy helping students navigate the maze of academic programs to choose a path that fits their aspirations and talents. This navigation process involves self-inventory, doing the necessary research and, sometimes, risk-taking.

Take a Self-inventory

To choose a major, students should first conduct a self-inventory. I ask advisees: What high school and college courses have most intrigued you? What are your talents? Do certain social, political, economic and/or religious issues concern you? What extra-curricular activities have most engaged you?

After students work through these questions, I help them eliminate potential majors that are not a good fit before we closely examine more suitable programs. I also encourage students to take a career aptitude test at our college’s career services office, and to use the test results to develop a course schedule and consider major options.

Take Courses Strategically

No matter what majors students choose, they are typically required to take general education courses across a number of disciplines for their degree. Early on, in consultation with their advisors, students should consider taking a few general education courses, along with a class or two in prospective majors. This strategy enables students to explore potential majors for a year or two while also completing courses that both fulfill general education requirements and are required perquisite courses for many majors. For example, it is easier to pick up courses such as statistics and calculus early on than to add them later to a major with a tight course sequence.

Students might consider combining majors and minors to add flexibility to their degree. Students often double or triple major, or add a minor or concentration. In fact, the U.S. Education Department reports that bachelor’s degrees awarded with double majors increased 70 percent between 2001 and 2011. Students should ideally choose a major by the spring of their sophomore or junior year to avoid taking an extra year of courses. Of course, many pre-professional programs require a certain course schedule, but I would advise students not to rush into a major.

Research Majors and Careers

As students consider majors, they should interview professionals in their fields of interest. Learn about their day-to-day tasks and the paths they took to enter their careers. Along with completing internships in considered fields, this is a relatively low-risk way for students to see what work environments and careers best suit their personality, talents, skills and values.

Students should understand that even the best-laid plans can change during college. When my creative writing major didn’t work out, I became actively involved in campus media and completed magazine journalism internships. During my senior year, a media research internship at a national political advocacy organization sparked my interest in a higher education career. A master’s degree in journalism, a post-graduate fellowship abroad and doctoral studies led me to communication teaching and research.

In the end, today’s employers seek graduates with transferable skills such as effective oral and written communication, the ability to work well in teams, critical thinking and independent problem solving. Many employers lack the money and time for on-the-job training, so students should develop these critical employment skills through college classes and internships. 

Students can learn more about various occupations, including future trends, by searching the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook at: However, students should not choose a major just because it leads to employment. A major should be intellectually engaging, use a student’s talents and deepen one’s understanding of the world.

Expect to Evolve

Finally, students they should know that their career and wider personal aspirations will likely evolve after college. A college major is just one tool to help students achieve their goals. In my own case, I did not anticipate that my recent sabbatical year’s research in New Zealand would re-spark my interest in this part of the world and lead me to emigrate there for work later this year. As I anticipate this new adventure, I am grateful that my undergraduate and graduate majors strengthened my academic and life skills so that I could continually grow in creative, and sometimes unexpected, ways.