Swat Visually: Major Decisions

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

One of the things I loved most about Swarthmore when I was applying was how interdisciplinary it was. It seemed like every Swattie I met had passions, interests, or at least curiosities that spanned disciplines. While the Swarthmore that I have come to know well (perhaps too well) diverges in many ways from my high school fantasy, this initial observation turned out to be entirely accurate. Almost all of my friends from freshman year have ended up diverging completely from their original plans—whether from Engineering to Linguistics to Theater or from English literature to Cognitive Science. I have seen my friends fumble between the disciplines they love, think they love, and are just learning to explore. These journeys–with a particular shout out to my freshman year roommate–were what inspired this week’s look at how Swatties grow over their time here.

The best, and most frustrating, part of the data for this week is that there really weren’t any significant findings. Seriously, Swatties are all over the place. Even the trends I found were in no way definitive. When it comes to majors, Swarthmore is just a total free-for-all. That said, here are some of the trends I saw out of my rather small (n=62) data set. Some other important limitations to keep in mind are that the majority of my data came from underclassmen, who haven’t gone through the whole process yet. Keep this in mind as you look at the following data, particularly the number of students that switch majors versus those that do not. With that said, here’s this week’s data:

One of the most interesting trends this week was that Biology, Chemistry, and Engineering were the majors with the highest concentration of extreme responses. Either majors lock in their freshmen year and stay come hell or high water, or they drop it like a hot potato and end up switching to the Social Sciences or Humanities. From my interactions with engine, chem, and bio students, this makes sense to me. These are the majors you really need to love enough to commit to. And if you’re not ready to give it your all and lean into that suffering, you’re better off attempting to switch.

People’s reflections on switching majors fall into one of two tropes, depending on if they were able to switch. The students that did explore and try new majors all proclaim how awesome and important it is. Respondents cited the importance of trying new things and reaching out of your comfort zone, especially while you have the chance at a small liberal arts school. While the respondents who did and could switch had largely positive experiences, those who couldn’t switch had a very different perspective. For these students – all, not coincidently, in the natural sciences – were frustrated by how hard it can be to switch within and into the natural sciences at Swarthmore. Due to extensive pre-recs and rigid class sequences that you can’t just jump into, switching from, within, and to the natural sciences can be a real challenge and source of frustration.

Despite the struggles and obstacles associated with switching majors, the quantity of students who are able to transfer and the real diversity of paths students can take are really special. Swarthmore is many things we did not expect it to be, and isn’t many of the things we did expect, but the opportunities it provides us to push ourselves and have new experiences is worth recognizing.  Even if you never end up switching majors, the opportunity to affirm that decision by trying out other disciplines that you end up not liking as much is important. So, if you are reading this and haven’t gone out of your comfort zone yet, I hope you take this as a good incentive to get a little funkier with your class choices, and take advantage of the whole liberal arts thing while you still have it.

For next week, we are looking at the amazing diversity of final projects seniors pursue at Swarthmore. If you are a senior or alumni, please let us know a little about your final project, and look out next week to see the ways in which the work we do intersects, perhaps in unexpected ways. Fill out the questionnaire below!

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