As a bright-eyed freshman, Colleen Ryan had 117 different undergraduate degrees to choose from concentrated into 97 majors, across 14 different colleges at Michigan State. And despite the wide variety of choices, finding something she was passionate about was difficult.
Forty percent of MSU students change their major once, according to Assistant Dean for University Advising Deb Dotterer, and Ryan falls into that category. She began her freshman year as an economics major. However ,she quickly realized the classes weren’t of interest to her and switched to animal science less than a semester into her time at MSU.
“I’m pretty happy with the switch,” Ryan said. “I did economics because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but once I got into the classes, I realized that it was really boring. I changed to animal science because I originally wanted to be a vet and the classes are a lot better.”
Only 30% of MSU students never change their major, and aside from the 40% that change once, there are another 20% that change twice and 10% that change three or more times.
Senior Thomas Corner is part of that 20%. He started out as a Lyman Briggs student, unsure what path he wanted to take. He then switched to actuarial science because of his passion for math, before changing again to mechanical engineering in the middle of his sophomore year.
As a senior, Corner said he never felt pressed to finish classes in order to graduate on time. Corner said the change has made him a lot more satisfied with his education and excited for his future.
“It’s a nice challenge, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Corner said. “I (now) enjoy the stuff that I’m doing.”
Dotterer, who oversees training and development for academic advisors at MSU, said students changing their major — especially at a school as large as MSU — is quite common.
“They’re coming and approaching college and (their) career with what they know, what they have experienced in high school and from their years at home,” Dotterer said. “Then they come to a university environment where they’re exposed to a multitude of majors, particularly at large institutions like ours.”
The same goes for college students all over the country.
In December 2017, 52% of math majors switched, 35% of all STEM majors switched and 31% of business majors switched, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Twenty six percent of healthcare field majors also switched, like sophomore Alexis Kilgren.
Kilgren was a kinesiology major at first, planning to take a pre-med track until she found herself “really unhappy” pursuing that goal. By the end of her freshman year at MSU, Kilgren had switched her major twice — first to hospitality business and then to finance.
“I’m definitely a lot more focused,” Kilgren said. “I’ve put studies a lot more on the front end of things. I’ve really been trying to do well in my classes and focus on making a four-year plan ... because I don’t want to graduate late.”
Although the change was drastic — and required Kilgren to switch between two completely different MSU programs — she said she’s a lot happier with where she is now.
However, students like sophomore Charlotte Bachelor didn’t have to journey as far to find their best fit. (Bachelor is a former State News employee.)
Bachelor began her college career as a journalism major before switching to media and information. She said making this change was fairly easy since both majors are in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
“They share the same advisers, so it was pretty easy going to those classes,” Bachelor said.
However, when Bachelor made another switch to public and professional writing in the College of Arts and Letters, she found the process a bit more time-consuming. Bachelor spent a lot more time meeting with academic advisers to discuss the change, which she described as very beneficial.
“One of the advisers ... sat down with me and kind of talked to me about the different requirements and what classes I would need to take. So they’ve been very helpful,” Bachelor said.
In the switching process, students are instructed to meet with an adviser for the major they want to switch to prior to making the change, Dotterer said. This meeting is intended to help students understand how their previous credits will transfer, as well as the path they must take to graduate in their desired amount of time.
When Ryan made her transition to animal science, she followed this process and said advisers had a list of classes she needed to graduate and walked her through what courses she needed to sign up for within the next year.
Corner described his experience with academic advisers at MSU as helpful, and said they guided him toward a path he was passionate about.
“They helped me decipher what path I should take, what classes I needed to take and what could fulfill certain credits,” Corner said.
However, not everyone felt the same support when switching majors.
Kilgren said when she switched, she wishes she was given more guidance from advisors on how to discover what she was passionate about. She said they were helpful logistically, but not in terms of the big picture.
“I would say they were helpful to an extent,” Kilgren said. “They helped actually make the changes, but at the same time, for me, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So when I switched to (hospitality business), they weren’t super helpful in guiding me.”
Brianna Aiello, the Associated Students of Michigan State University vice president for academic affairs, has never changed her major personally — but as the MSU administration’s student representative, she recalled a time when a student came to her with concerns about how advisers handled another student’s situation.
“The adviser kept trying to keep them to stay for the full semester to just wait and see if that major was good for them,” Aiello said. “They ended up staying a whole semester and then they didn’t do very well in their classes because they weren’t engaged in the material.”
Aiello said she sees room for improvement “in regard to advisers listening to students when they’re unhappy and finding ways to help them out of those situations.”
“I think normally, most advisers do a pretty good job with that,” Aiello said. “But I think a lot of times what happens is, our university is kind of decentralized where not a lot of departments work together very well, so I think if more of them worked together we would see more success.”
“The university is always looking at, ‘How can we better inform students about the different majors we have and about the different opportunities we have across campus?’” Dotterer said. “Some of the major advisers certainly help students understand by talking about what the major involves, what kind of career path they can do, and how they can get engaged in student organizations that relate to that major. So, all of those are a part of the advising experience.”
“All Majors” Career Adviser Lauren Hinkel works closely with exploratory students. Hinkel described the different resources she provides to students, including an interest profile assessment called “Career Compass.” The tool assesses different aspects of a student’s interests, talents and passions in order to lead them toward careers that might interest them.
Hinkel noted that her biggest piece of advice she gives to students who are unsure of what they want to do in their future is, “It’s okay to not know right now and it’s okay to know and then not know again later on in your career.”
“I think that, oftentimes, we really put this schema and this pressure in our head that we have to find that one perfect career. And if we don’t find it, we feel lost,” Hinkel said. “You will have — on average — about 10 to 14 jobs in your lifetime ... your life will be full of transitions and you will continue to find self-discovery throughout your adulthood and into your career.”
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