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Choosing a college major: factors to consider

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On this page we give some factors to consider when choosing a college major. For information on specific majors, check out our compilation of Quora answers about college majors. See also our pages on individual college majors at the college majors category.

Income

The average income of people who majored in a given subject varies greatly from subject to subject. The Wall Street Journal gives statistics on average mid-career salaries for common majors, and finds that they vary from $52k/year for education majors to $107k/year for chemical engineering majors.

One cause of the variance is that some majors attract more capable or ambitious people who would have earned more independently of their choice of major. But some of the variance is due to choice of major. In Major Premium, economist Bryan Caplan estimates the additional income that college graduates make relative to high school graduates by major (after controlling for ability), and finds that the percentage ranges from 24% (for male general education majors) to 72% (for female electrical engineering majors).

Broadly, the majors with highest average earnings are quantitative disciplines like science, math and economics.

Personal enjoyment

For many people, college is the main time in their lives that they have to pursue intellectual enrichment. In contrast with high school, you have more flexibility as to what you study, and in contrast with post-college years, you're not saddled with work and family obligations. There's a case for taking advantage of this time to study what you most enjoy.

It's also the case that you're more likely to earn high grades in a subject that you enjoy, which can be good for professional school admissions.

Professional qualifications

  • It's easier for people with technical backgrounds to pursue a non-technical career than the other way around. There are few jobs that require that you have a background in English literature, but there are many jobs that require that you have a background in computer science. This pushes in favor of majoring in a technical subject.
  • If you're interested in the possibility of going into academia in a given subject, you'll often need to major in that subject in college.

Workload

Grading is easier in some majors than in others. For example, at one college, average GPA ranged from 2.78 for chemistry majors to 3.36 for education majors. This difference probably does not reflect chemistry majors being weaker students than education majors, and there are reasons to think that chemistry majors are stronger than education majors on average. So earning a given GPA in some majors requires more work than earning the same GPA in other majors.

It's also the case that earning the average GPA in some majors requires more work than earning the average GPA in other majors: chemistry majors who earn a 2.78 GPA probably do more work than education majors who earn a 3.36 GPA. Survey results show that on average engineering majors study 19 hours per week while business majors only study 14 hours per week. This may substantially understate the difference in time commitment: science classes can involve time consuming labs.

Quality of peer group

Some majors attract stronger students than others. One indication of this comes from LSAT scores by major: criminal justice majors average 146 (29.5th percentile) whereas math/physics majors average 160 (80.4th percentile).

Majoring in a subject with stronger students can give you the opportunity to learn from and engage with higher quality thinkers.