What Should Be Your Major in College?

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

Most people don’t choose the right major in college. 

This isn’t because it’s hard to do (it’s not). It’s because they don’t have any kind of decision-making framework to follow.

Your college major should be:

  1. Something that you are passionate about (and hopefully good at). 
  2. Something under-indexed in your preferred industries. 
  3. Something unpopular at your institution. 

Some of these may seem counterintuitive, but there are good reasons to find a major that incorporates all three. 

Before we get into the framework, here are 4 things you should NOT do when choosing a major:

  1. Choose based entirely on emotion.
  2. Have your parents decide for you.
  3. Choose the popular majors in your university.
  4. Choose the major you think your preferred employer is looking for. 

And here’s what you SHOULD do when choosing your college major:

1. Finding something you are passionate about. 

Think of what you might want to do after college. You don’t need to pick what you want to do exactly, but it is helpful to narrow down to a group of things you might want to do.  

These should be industries for which you have an affinity. Ones that you enjoy learning about in your free time. 

If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, look at what you’re good at. We often get excited about the things we are good at and are good at the stuff we get excited about (because we spend a lot of time doing them and thinking about them).  

Take a look at your hobbies and the things you would do for free. Those will point you in the right direction.

Photo by William Bayreuther on Unsplash

Once you find industries you’re passionate about, work on:

2. Finding something under-indexed in your preferred industries. 

If you don’t have a very obvious skill or talent in the industries you’re passionate about, then choose something extremely under-indexed in those fields. 

For instance, computer science is a great major if you want to work in public policy. Most people in public policy have a degree in political science or law or economics. Very few people have a degree in computer science. That gives you an edge. That makes you stand out and differentiates you from pretty much everyone else in that field. 

Of course, studying computer science is fine if your goal is to be a software developer at a tech company. But if your goal is to work in technology, then you should major in something that most people in tech would not do. Make a contrarian choice.

For instance, you could study philosophy. If you studied philosophy, you’d be different. You’d think differently. Very few people who study philosophy go into technology — but an extremely high percentage of those that do have become very successful…people like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Nick Beim, and others. SafeGraph’s VP Product, Lauren Spiegel, studied philosophy. 

Do some research to see what the conventional path is in your industry, and then subvert it with an under-indexed major. You will increase your value to any employer because you’ll see the same world through a different lens. 

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

3. Finding something that is unpopular in your college.  

It is also a good idea to pick a major that is unpopular in your college. You will inevitably have much less competition in getting attention from the star professors, and you will have an edge in recruiting. 

For example, if there are very few students with architecture majors, that might be a good major consideration.

Companies spend a lot of time and money on recruiting, so it’s better to be the star in an unpopular major than average in a popular one. 

Usually, the worst thing you can do is choose one of the five most popular majors — you might be just a lemming if you’re not brilliant. 

Looking back when I was in college.

I studied Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR). Today, that would be called “data science.” It was a fascinating major and not one of the top 20 most popular majors at UC Berkeley.

I loved it, but I ended up getting even more out of my statistics classes (which was even a less popular major). I also took two super African American literature classes that helped shape much of my world view today.

In the end, I got really lucky taking my major — who would have known at the time that data science was ultimately going to be so important? My fellow IEOR classmates became extraordinarily successful — we were in the right place at the right time. But it was not a conscious choice; it was more of a lucky choice. I don’t think a major in data science would necessarily have the same effect today.

You want a major that helps you think through large and complex issues. And you want to study something that will be hard for computers to do. For instance, it might not be a good idea to study radiology.

Philosophy is a really great major. Students get to read and study the world’s greatest thinkers. They struggle with hard problems, ethical dilemmas, and more. For years, at Harvard, the number one attended class was Justice (intro to philosophy) with Professor Mike Sandel.  

Knowing how to code is a great skill to have. But knowing how to think will be even more important.

Wherever you land, I hope this paradigm helps make your choice a little more obvious. 

Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.

1 thought on “What Should Be Your Major in College?

  1. Chris

    I agree with the first two pieces of advice, but not the third (“chose a major unpopular at your college”). Your argument seems to be that this will mean less competition for access to professors. But in practice it may mean fewer professors, period, or access to professors who are less well-known in their field. Conversely, as an undergrad, I found that most professors, even in big departments *wanted* more students to come to office hours. The problem isn’t so much constrained access; it’s getting students over the intimidation factor and to actually show up.


Leave a Reply