Today I want to touch on a highly-debated and highly-talked about topic: picking a major. We’ve found that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what incoming students need to know coming into Stanford and how much of a plan they should have. The truth is that you don’t need to know your major the second you walk on campus. Unless you’re in a select few majors, you don’t even really need to know what you want to major in after your first year. To have an informed conversation about navigating majors in your first year or two at Stanford, I went to Alice Petty, Ph.D. Alice works right next door to the bullpen (the Orientation Coordinator work area) and is the Director of Pre-Major Advising. She’s also a former Academic Advising Director (AAD) and has intimate experience working with incoming students and all of the questions or concerns they may have. Below is what she had to say about some of the questions I had for her.
** I do want to preface this with some advice: Alice’s advice is just one advisor’s advice. There’s more than one opinion on most of these questions and it never hurts to consult with your own AAD as well before making any big decisions. Sometimes it can be helpful to get more than one person’s perspective.
REMY: How prepared are most incoming students and how many come in with a sure major?
ALICE: Incoming students very rarely have a four-year plan put together and how prepared students are is an interesting question. In a way, many students can’t be prepared for Stanford because there’s a lot here that you can only do at a handful of schools. Most haven’t been exposed to many of the opportunities available at Stanford. It’s most certainly worth pausing and seeing what’s available before you decide on a path that’s right. Student may be familiar with the humanities, but they may not know about Digital Humanities, Comparative Literature, or Inter-Disciplinary Programs (IDPs). On the other hand, you may know that you’re interested in engineering. But, have you gotten to see the various types of civil engineering that are available? Do you know what Material Science is? I frame it like this: you can’t order at a restaurant if you’re not at all familiar with the cuisine being offered. At Stanford, it’s difficult to know the right thing for you if you haven’t looked around. If you’re truly interested, it might be worth mapping out a four-year plan, but it’s definitely not necessary. There are a lot of variables that most students don’t account for, such as when should you move AP credit and when you shouldn’t. Another option is leaving more than one path in a four-year plan if you’re not entirely sure. It can be a good exercise, but most students don’t come in with a complete plan because the process can be overwhelming and requires a lot of in-depth research into available courses, pre-requisites, and major requirements. But that’s perfectly fine! They have plenty of time and can consult with their AAD before mapping out their Stanford journey.
REMY: I think that’s great advice. I remember seeing people on the Facebook page with four-year plans in, like, June. I wasn’t sure if I was just out of the loop or if they were ahead. To build off of my previous question, how many students do you think change majors during their time at Stanford? How many times do you think they change it?
ALICE: Well, there are a couple of ways to look at this. A lot of students will arrive with “I’m going to major in x”. If you count deviating from that statement as “changing their major”, then most students change their major. But, if you’re talking about changing their major once they’ve declared, it’s less common. However, it’s not unusual for someone to change their declared major at least once. Or, sometimes a student will go from a double major to a major accompanied by a minor. One of the things I really love about Stanford is that it’s very easy to change your major. A lot of students will come in saying “I’m going to major in [fill in major]” because it’s comforting to be able to say that. Most of the time what they say changes frequently in their first year, especially during the first two quarters. This goes back to exposure: they may be unaware of multiple disciplines that are similar to the major they had been thinking of, but that fit their interests a little better.
REMY: Hahaha, I can relate to that. I’m sure I changed what I thought I was majoring northwards of 5 times during my first year and I’m sure it’ll change once or twice more before I land on something. But, I know it can sometimes be difficult to get started on the path of finding a major in the first place. If I were to come in and say, “I’m undeclared and I have no idea what I want to do. Help me,” how would you respond?
ALICE: This is my absolute favorite question. I would say, “invest time in exploring.” It will pay off. There are very few majors where you need to know what you’re doing in your first year. It’s always worth it to explore. Try Introductory Seminars (IntroSems) or One-Unit Wonders (which can be found on Cardinal Compass)! Take a class where you get to listen to faculty members talk about what they do. Also, the AADs they promote events in their weekly newsletters where you can go to departments and meet faculty. Also, go to Majors Night. Shop around with the majors, talk to people at the tables, and ask questions. For instance, say you’re thinking about majoring in International Relations. Talk to people who major in IR and ask them about what other majors they considered. What’s close to IR? The answer could be something like Political Science. But, they may also surprise you and say Sociology.
REMY: Okay, here’s a more difficult question: what advice do you give to students who come in and are 100% certain about their major?
ALICE: I’m a big fan of exploration, but declaring a major does not preclude exploration. There are many views on this and some will disagree with me. In my opinion, for some majors, there’s no reason not to declare. Some majors have pre-requisites, but some don’t. If there’s no barrier in your way, declare, because you can always change your mind. It’s very simple to change your major, even after you declare. It’s really not like getting a tattoo, it’s more like coloring your hair. Students can always change gears.
REMY: I have definitely never heard that piece of advice before. I could definitely see how some may not follow that same line of thinking, but I think it’s a very useful perspective nonetheless. How much time do students generally have to explore and experiment with their prospective major?
ALICE: Two years. You have until the end of your sophomore year to declare, but some majors have foundation courses that you need to get through (*cough* *cough*, engineering majors). If engineering is on the table, those courses are important to look at. You’re going to want to get your math, chemistry, and physics out of the way during your sophomore year. If you do choose to take those in your first year, take an IntroSem or One-Unit Wonder that lets you know what the various disciplines are actually like. They can help you figure out which flavor of engineering you want to do if you feel like the field is a good fit. Also, keep Sophomore College on your radar early. Some of the great ones are engineering-focused. They’re a lot like IntroSems, but they’re deep educational experiences. You get a chance to explore a particular discipline or focus in-depth. Look at international seminars; their applications are during fall quarter. See if any line up with what you’re interested in. Educational deep dives are a good way to find if something is right for you. Worst case is you realize you don’t like it, but you had a cool experience. Best case is you find an absolutely amazing fit.
REMY: I’ve seen friends take some of those International Seminars. I wasn’t even aware they existed until I saw a friend’s Instagram post from England. On another note, what resources does Stanford provide for students to explore majors?
ALICE: Well, there’s Majors Night. Also, there are department open houses which are absolutely great and come with food. There, students get to explore the department, meet faculty and current students, even meet alums sometimes. As for online resources: majors.stanford.edu and department websites. Try and find upper-class students who are in the majors you’re interested in. Let’s go through some good questions to ask them: How did you find your major? What other majors did you consider? What was it about this particular major that made you choose it opposed to other options? What do you like best about it? What do you wish you had known before you declared? You can also learn just from their process of discernment and by listening to stories about how people get to where they are. You might be surprised about how people come to these decisions.
REMY: I remember talking to a graduate student, actually, about Electrical Engineering. That student absolutely loved it, but I could tell just from that conversation that it wasn’t for me. Say a student has a major that they’re interested in, how can they go about learning more about that major and make sure it’s what they want to do?
ALICE: A lot of majors have peer advisors. Talk to them! Incoming students may not know that many upper class students, especially if they’re in all-frosh dorms. Peer advisors are great people to talk to because they’re so engaged in the major and are specialized to have those conversations with you.
REMY: How difficult is it to double major?
ALICE: Difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And, it depends on what you choose. Scheduling can be very tricky with a double major and it requires a lot of planning. You can’t count courses that go towards one major for the other major. So, you need to schedule a lot more classes. There’s an inherent opportunity cost – because of the higher unit count and the logistics of scheduling classes it can be more difficult to do other things like study abroad, do research, write an honors thesis, or incorporate service into your Stanford experience. You need to think about if it’s worth the cost. If it’s because you can’t choose between two, be patient. Give it some time and see if one rises to the top. You can always major and minor or major and secondary major. These options can alleviate some of the restrictions.
REMY: Okay, to wrap up: what is the one piece of academic advising advice that you would give to all incoming students?
ALICE: *emphatically* EXPLORE. Be curious and explore. There’s real value, both personal and academic, in stretching yourself, trying new things, and being open to possibilities that may not have been on your radar before you got here. We do ourselves a disservice when we close ourselves off too soon. The most valuable thing that an experience like Stanford exposes you to is the range of possibilities. You have time to try a bunch of different stuff and see what’s out there.
I really feel like the information and advice that Alice gave me is super useful. There are some pieces that I hadn’t even thought about and will be looking to do in the future as I try and figure out my major(s) for myself. I want to thank Alice for taking the time to sit down and talk with me and I hope you all got something useful out of it!