Undeclared Students - Managing Common Pressures and Dilemmas
Being undeclared can be both exciting and worrisome at the same time. On one hand, you have freedom and openness to all possibilities that come your way. You are using college, appropriately, to discover your strengths, interests, and motivations as an adult. On the other hand, you might envy your friends who talk in detail about the professors and courses in their majors. You also face questions from home about what you want to do with your life.
We want you to know that it is normal to struggle when you don't know answers to people's questions about your future. It's also OK to be unsure about a major or possible career. But if you feel insurmountable pressures that are not managed, you may quickly become paralyzed by or lost in the decision making. Choosing a major should be fun and creative, so it is important to devote some level of attention and effort to the process of selecting a major. Even minimal action brings this important college decision closer into view.
Below you will find descriptions of some of the common pressures that students face when exploring majors. There are people and resources to assist you, and we offer some suggestions to help you out of each dilemma.
1. Pulled in Many Directions
Some undeclared students feel torn between their own thoughts and the opinions of others. Here's just one example:
- "In high school I loved history and art, so I was thinking about one of those as a major,
- BUT my dad and my uncle told me I should go into computer programming so I can get a job for sure,
- AND one of my best friends here is in anthropology and another loves cytotechnology...but I don't know what those are,
- YET I know I want to help people...I just don't what major that is,
- ALTHOUGH my step-mom said I should follow my passion... but my passions are animals, hiking, and I don't know what else?"
Helping You Out:
EVERY person in your life will try to help you by telling you what you should do. (So helpful, right? More like noise, sometimes.) If you listened to all of them, you'd have 24 majors and be in college for most of your life! It's important to believe your inner voice that tells you whether you feel happy and successful when studying in a particular field, and share those feelings with your family and/or your academic advisor. Do your best to separate your authentic feelings about your studies from what you think you're "supposed to" study or from what sounds impressive.
2. Asking the Wrong Question
Many students - declared or not - come to college asking the question "What can I do with a major in [xxxxx]?" This question is problematic on two counts:
- It presupposes that the fundamental purpose of a college education is to lead you directly to one type of employment.
- It puts undue pressure on you to forecast what you will be doing many years from now.
It might be true that some majors are more professionally oriented (such as social work, education, and nursing), but it is just as true that most college majors prepare you for a wide range of job and graduate school alternatives. Further, the purpose of a public higher education is to better prepare you to participate in a civic democracy. You can do that with any college major, and especially through SUNY Plattsburgh's General Education program.
Helping you out:
The better questions to ask are (in this order):
- What do I love learning about (e.g., different cultures, famous authors, mathematical proofs, invasive species, stock market, etc.)? And/or what issues do I consider important enough to contribute my talents to them (e.g., (in)equality, poverty, arts education, human health, environmental conservation, etc.)?
- In what kind of environment do I think I'd like to work (e.g., corporate office, school, hospital, construction site, museum, campaign headquarters, in the scenic outdoors, etc.)? And/or what could I envision myself doing on the job (e.g., testing samples of something, going to meetings, helping people in need, traveling overseas, teaching children or adults, performing in some way, working with clients, etc.)?
- What knowledge (e.g., chemistry, human behavior, family dynamics, ancient civilizations, technology) or skills (e.g., leading, persuading, writing, creating, problem-solving, empathy, data entry) might I need for this type of environment?
- What I can do now to explore and obtain this knowledge and skill (e.g., discuss options with the Career Development Center counselors, discuss my answers to these questions with my academic advisor, engage in extracurricular activities that help to build necessary skills, etc.)?
Notice how the words "major" and "career" are not mentioned in the above questions. The focus is on what you might enjoy, because they match with your current interests, talents, and values. Asking the questions above will make a major and career decision come more naturally.
3. Wanting the Destination without Enjoying the Journey
Some students quickly discover a huge gap between what they thought a field of study was and what the field of study really requires of them. Here are just a few examples:
- I've always been into working out and good diet, so I definitely want to be a nutrition major - but I had NO idea I had to study so much chemistry!
- I want to go into public relations because I'm good with people and I talk a lot - but I had NO idea that PR required sooooooo much writing.
- I'm a huge fan of CSI, so I want to do something like that - but I'm not good in the sciences or math.
- My therapist helped me so much I wanted psychology - but why do I have to learn about experiments, research and stuff?
Helping You Out:
Sometimes your childhood dreams can come true, but other times they need to be "revised" according to what your real strengths are. When we're younger (and even into our first years of college), we have an idea of what we want to be (i.e., like a lawyer, or physical therapist, or trader on Wall Street); that's the destination. However, you have to love the steps along the way (i.e., like analytical writing, lab sciences, or advanced accounting); that's the journey. If your current skill set is not up to the actual demands of a field, the road to your destination can be paved with frustration and feelings of inadequacy.
Use your initial coursework to uncover where your real strengths are. Do you enjoy lots of reading? Group work? Lab work? Writing? Are you a leader? Are you creative? A logical, linear thinker? Do you do best at factual accounts of things, or prefer abstract concepts and theories? Do you learn best by hands on experiences, or by your own contemplations and reading? Does individual or group behavior interest you, or do you enjoy studying about data and things more than people? The answers to these and other similar questions are important to knowing what major(s) best fit you.
4. College Majors Don't Walk Door-to-Door
Some undeclared students feel anxiety over not having a major; this is normal. However, a certain percentage of undeclared majors put off the inevitable choice by doing nothing. Here are a couple examples:
- I'll just take all my GenEd courses and something will come to me.
- I'll know what major I want by the end of my sophomore year.
- I'll ask someone else what major is best for me.
This could very well be true, in that a course in your GenEd program gets you interested in a subject matter, or that someone else is able to see something in you that you don't see yourself. There's nothing wrong with being undeclared, but waiting without investigating can be problematic.
Helping You Out:
When you are looking for a summer job, we bet that you don't stay at home and wait for employers to come to your door. You go out and find one - whether it's through online searching, pounding the pavement looking for help wanted signs, or calling people you know. You're already familiar with this process!
Choosing a major works the same way. Acting on your uncertainties makes them go away. Here are some things you can do:
- Print a complete list of majors at SUNY Plattsburgh. Cross off any major that you know already you would never study. This is a "process of elimination" exercise. By doing this activity, you will easily clear your mind of anywhere between 50% and 90% of all major possibilities.
- Now look at what you have left. Are there any majors that you've never heard or do not know what they're about? Take a closer look at what they're about by surfing online. Look at the major requirements in the Undergraduate College Catalog to see if the course titles appeal to you. After this exercise you should be able to eliminate a few more.
- Talk to someone about your major exploration process. Keep in close contact with your advisor and/or the Career Development Center. Your advisor can furnish you with major information and other resources, and can be a positive, encouraging force during your process. The Career Development Center is not just for seniors looking for a job! The professional career counselors are there to guide students from the very start - and that includes helping you through choosing a major that fits your personality, aspirations, and strengths.
By doing a little exploration each semester, and with help along the way, you can make an effortless transition to a major that fits you well. The key is to work at it, a little at a time.
Office Location: Feinberg 101-103
Phone: (518) 564-2080
Fax: (518) 564-2079