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Dawn Muenchrath

How many students switch majors?

By Jill Girgulis, December 1, 2015 —

University sounds so simple. A student makes it through high school. Check. They get accepted into a university. Check. They decide to pursue a degree that suits their interests and abilities. Check. They flourish in the job of their dreams that they somehow knew at age 17 was something they’d want to do for the rest of their life. Check?

Undergrad students that feel dissatisfied with their major aren’t alone — at least, that’s what people tell them.

If you asked a member of the university faculty how many students end up changing degrees throughout their undergrad career, chances are you’d hear a fairly high number. Many would put the number at around 70 per cent, which is the range I was told by a relative who teaches at the University of Calgary.

I’m not sure if this number was supposed to be reassuring to students who find themselves unhappy with their initial choice of study program, but it sounds to me like a whole lot of indecisiveness. Have nearly three-quarters of all U of C students been so dissatisfied with their majors they decided to switch? And how many unhappy students don’t switch?

In order to get a sense of how students really felt about this issue, we conducted a short survey of 130 undergrad students from around campus. Students were asked two simple questions — if they ever considered switching their university major, and if they actually did it.

Out of all the responses, we found that around 64 per cent of students admitted to having second thoughts about their program of choice, but only a mere 34 per cent of those people had actually taken the plunge and changed their major — hardly the bold three-quarters some people will have you believe.

After running some statistics on the data, we found that our survey supported the idea that less than 50 per cent of students will eventually change their major — again, not the rumoured 70 per cent we initially thought.

So why the reluctance to switch majors? The opportunity to realign your degree with your interests is available, so why did we only see about half the students who’d expressed interest in switching majors actually go through with it? I think it’s because we feel obligated to “finish what we started” and avoid the sense of failure that comes with not finishing a program of study.

But there’s also the sword hanging over almost every student’s head — the fear of not getting a job.

When registering for this year’s courses last March, something strange happened. Rather than panic over my selection of awful lab times or back-to-back-to-back lectures, I worried about what I wanted to do with my life. It’s not enough to plan for the next year or semester.

Students are experiencing increased pressure to complete a degree that will land them the best job post-graduation. As a result, students pay for four or more years of education that won’t have had much significance to them.

You’re a different person now than you were at the end of high school, and this might mean your current major is no longer suitable. But that’s not such a bad thing. Chances are, you’ve probably thought about switching majors. Consider taking the plunge and joining the minority who actually do.

But in the end, it really is a minority of students who switch their major during their university careers. So even though my statistics prof would cringe at the method of research we employed, I am confident enough to declare this myth: BUSTED.

Jill Girgulis is a second-year neuroscience student who investigates campus urban legends in her monthly column U of C Mythbusters.

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