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Why Students Choose Majors

We ask a lot of 18-year-old students. Upon entering college, students weigh advice and expectations from parents, teachers, and administrators when choosing a major to study for the next few years. On top of that, they're supposed to decide as quickly as possible, ideally before the end of the first semester. For a "major" life decision, that's not a lot of time to weigh the options.

Over the past few decades, a growing body of research has been teasing apart the reasons why people choose certain majors. Career prospects and financial concerns have emerged as some of the defining criteria for this decision, as you might expect.

However, new research has identified a different deciding factor: the instructors of introductory courses.

A 2008 physics demo from Snead State Community College.
Image Credit: Larry Miller

For this research, sociologists Christopher G. Takacs (University of Chicago) and Daniel F. Chambliss (Hamilton College) surveyed 100 students at a single, unnamed college over a few years. The survey results revealed that a students' choice for a major may be more pliable than previously thought. In fact, the sociologists found that early faculty interactions were strong predictors of a students' choice regardless of whether they already had an intended major or not.

It appears that professors have a large role to play in this important decision, negatively or positively. Professors can sway younger students to either leave an intended major (if an uncharismatic professor alienates the student, for instance) or pick up one they hadn't seriously considered before (if the professor inspires the student).

Consequently, the researchers suggest that college administrators in STEM, who have struggled to compete with business and social science departments for enrollment, should focus more strongly on teacher quality, especially for professors of introductory courses.

Some majors can maintain a student's interest better than others, however. According to the researchers, majors like English and History can survive the "hit" of a bad professor, but students will quickly lose interest in more demanding or esoteric fields. Majors that require a lockstep progression of courses (e.g. physics and engineering) also saw dwindling enrollment after a poorly received professor.

Past survey research has revealed that students chose their majors based chiefly on their interests and secondly on job characteristics, including financial concerns. Well-paying jobs are important to students, but likely not as important as studying something that aligns with their interests. Takacs' and Chambliss' research suggests that charismatic professors may be among the most important catalysts for that interest.

When employers, professors, and government officials try to convince students to study STEM fields, they often trumpet the financial benefits of careers in the field. While students should and do consider the financial implications, it doesn't appear to be the most important consideration for recently independent 18-year-olds.

This latest research suggests science departments, including physics departments, should show off their best professors in introductory classes to boost enrollment. Perhaps departments could entice the best professors to teach these courses with incentives, financial or otherwise.

In my personal (note: anecdotal) experience, most of my philosophy professors were excellent teachers who worked closely with their students. My physics teachers, on the other hand, presented more of a mixed bag. While I had several excellent physics professors at my school, there were several classes that left me uninspired in large part due to the professor's lack of enthusiasm and charisma. I majored in both areas, but I saw several friends and acquaintances leaves science fields after particularly difficult classes with unhelpful professors.

So, Physics Buzz readers, what made you chose your college major? Do you think you chose your major for the right reasons? What do you think students should consider when making this decision? Let us know in the comments.


  1. I left Chemistry and majored in Physics because a Chem prof was a particularly nasty person. I was young & dumb and used the same lab book for both my classes and my (ahem) independent work trying to make rockets (ala Homer Hickam - but I didn't know that at that time). I sealed up the pages of the rocket science stuff with staples & tape but the prof opened those pages and made his disapproval known to me - for over an hour.
    The last thing he told me was that if I wanted to 'play with rockets' maybe I should major in physics ... so I did.

  2. At most schools, freshman physics majors take completely different introductory courses than do non-physics majors. I would think this would make it somewhat difficult, albeit not impossible, for a student to switch into physics later on in their career.

  3. There are good and bad professors in all fields. While it's true a good one may attract students and a bad one repel them, trying to beat other fields at a game they can all play will not lead to any long term gain. That is, if STEM people are successful at luring students with good profs, then people in the fields that have lost students can negate the effect by doing the same. Competition for students is a zero sum game. (The students would benefit overall if we can get fields to compete this way, though.) The only way to have a lasting effect is to make STEM fields more lucrative. Getting more funding for research, creating a better environment for technological innovation, and anything else that will improve the financial prospects of STEM students will work. Luring them in with good profs or PR will only cause transient ripples in enrollment.


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