This is the first story in a three-part series about undergraduate students at Drexel University who switch their major. Forthcoming stories will focus on students who come into Drexel as undeclared, and those who switch their major following a co-op experience.
Ever since Elizabeth Warnock was in seventh grade, she had it in her head that she would someday study psychology.
This inkling did not go away in high school, even when she took an online course in the subject — since it was not offered at her school — and did not do as well as she’d hoped. Despite this, she decided to pursue the major in college.
But when she entered into her first term at Drexel University, Warnock quickly discovered that she had the wrong impression all along of what psychology really was.
“I thought it was more the study of the mind, and didn’t know that there was all the chemistry and biology,” said Warnock, who is now a third-year student. “Science has always been my weakest subject, so I kind of ran away from the major.”
After realizing she’d been on the wrong track since seventh grade, Warnock had a hard time deciding which direction to go next. She looked through alternative majors, but no new option materialized that felt like a perfect fit.
“I was like, ‘none of this seems like me,” she said. “I’ve always been creative, but I’ve never really gone out of my way to pursue art.”
Because of this, the coursework associated with the fashion design major intrigued her. So even though it felt impulsive, Warnock made the switch to the fashion design major in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design for her second term.
“I was like, ‘Shoot, I have to change my major, might as well change to this,’” she recalled.
Warnock’s feelings and decisions her freshman year are not overall uncommon for undergraduate students across the country. In fact, about one-third of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs change majors, according to data from the 2012/14 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative study of about 25,000 students who enrolled for the first time in the 2011–12 academic year.
And this is no different at Drexel. Thirty-five percent of students who started at the University in a similar timeframe (fall 2011 or fall 2012) changed majors at least once, and this was slightly higher (37.8 percent) among students who ultimately graduated within six years.
Like Warnock, more than 58 percent of these students changed majors within their first year at Drexel. However, only 13.6 percent changed to a different college or school, like Warnock’s switch from the College of Arts and Sciences into Westphal.
Florette Press, an academic advisor for the College of Arts and Sciences, has helped counsel countless students — including Warnock — through these transitions. Her approach is to try to help students slow the decision process down versus allowing for impulsivity. Even though impulses sometimes work out, she added, it’s always a process to find what fits.
“I think there is a lot of pressure to declare a major, at Drexel especially,” Press said. “There is pressure to not be floating. Maybe that’s true of college in general, or true in general of life.”
Press has also seen students encounter a small turnoff that then colors their impression of their whole major. This is exactly what happened to Warnock when she started studying fashion design. Her first sewing class made her realize it wasn’t a good fit, so she switched again to fashion merchandising in her third term. When that didn’t work out as well, she was back to square one.
Warnock once again went back to the drawing board, and consulted with Press about switching into art therapy even though she had concerns about future career prospects in the field.
But Press made Warnock slow down and consider her options.
“She was like, “Is this another impulsive major? Do you really want to do this?” Because she knew me by now and my impulsive switches,” Warnock remembered.
After some careful consideration, Press pointed her in a direction she never would have considered — majoring in behavioral health counseling through the College of Nursing and Health Professions. Warnock said the major involves the right blend of the psychological principals she has been so intrigued by for years, without too much science.
“It’s the perfect major for me and I’m so, so happy in it,” Warnock said.
These blind spots in a student’s future careers field of vision are something that Emily Parry, a former career counselor for first-year students with the Steinbright Career Development Center, said lead to students switching their major at Drexel.
Some students don’t know enough about the world of work, so they haven’t explored all of the different major options, Parry said. Others — like Warnock — are exposed to career paths they never knew existed, and then decide to switch in order to pursue the newly discovered field. Still others, added Parry, change majors because the academic rigor is too much, like Warnock’s aversion to science.
“They are not performing academically, and they’re miserable,” she said. “This usually harps back to past experiences in high school.”
Another attribute of students who tend to switch their majors are those who have a ton of differing interests, passions or talents, and have a hard time narrowing them down into a focused major, both Press and Parry agree.
It’s students like this that Tim Gilrain, assistant dean of the Goodwin College of Professional Studies, said most often utilize the non-traditional major options offered by the college, like the First-Year Exploratory Studies program for undecided freshmen and the Bachelor of Science in General Studies program.
“It's not students who don’t know what they want to do,” he said. “Students have many interests and don't see exactly what they want on the menu. They want to pick and choose and create their own meal.”
For all students considering a switch, the Steinbright Career Development Center has several resources at its disposal.
One for students struggling to find or even narrow down and hone a specific career path is the Strong Interest Inventory career test, which is a personality assessment that measures a student’s interests and compares them to those working in certain fields who have also taken the test.
Additionally, Steinbright utilizes the LinkedIn alumni tool to help connect current students with fellow Dragons who majored in their academic field of interest, to see what kind of jobs they have now.
Warnock’s advice for students who find themselves in a similar situation to her own is to utilize any and all resources available to them, as well as to try a class or two before completely switching to avoid setting yourself back.
“And don’t think it’s a bad thing at all to change your major,” she said. “I’ve been told it’s not bad to change as long as you find what you love eventually.”
Gilrain would encourage students who may find it harder to switch to keep in mind that many professionals end up in successful careers that are different from what they studied as an undergrad.
“It’s important to earn a degree, have a well-rounded education and keep an open mind,” he said.
His colleague Lamont Wilson, senior director of degree completion programs with Goodwin, reinforced that it’s hard for students just starting their college journey to know in advance what paths their academic and personal experiences will point them toward.
“No greater learning can occur here than a student learning about themselves and what their interests are, what their strengths are, what it is that lights them up in terms of any particular field of endeavor to the extent that they can discover what they can contribute to our world, that which makes them want to get up in the morning and go forth,” he said. “That, I think, is a great service that we can do for that student.”
Press stresses that students should rely on their academic advisors for support, but that the onus is also on the student to do the research, find the right people to talk and be prepared with questions. Parry agreed with this focus on the major-switching student’s need to advocate for themselves and take action.
“I think that if you sit in indecision, it just increases your anxiety,” she said. “So, if you can take action or make a step or make an appointment, your taking one step to discovery that will help you feel less paralyzed by indecision.
“So my big message is take the step, actively engage, reach out.”
Although Emily Parry is no longer with the University, career counseling services can be accessed by all students through the Steinbright Career Development Center. Learn more about Steinbright offerings