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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A major popularity contest

Published: December 5, 2008
Section: Features

A group of economics students huddle around a table, analyzing last night’s problem set, throwing around terms like “consumer surplus” and “law of diminishing returns.” Two sophomores frantically try to finish up that afternoon’s biology lab. A group of psychology students continue the perpetual, unending, eternal, interminable nature vs. nurture debate. Does this sound like a typical tour of the Brandeis library?

According to research conducted by Brandeis’ Office of Admissions, the most popular majors during the 2007-2008 term were Economics, Biology, Psychology, History, and International and Global Studies.

There are over 320 undergraduates majoring in Economics (10% of Brandeis students), while just under 300 leave Brandeis with a major in Biology (9%). Psychology and History boast about 260 students each (8%), which, on a more practical scale, means that far from just witnessing these scenarios, many of you have been a participant in one such scene.

For Akiva Landsman ‘12, these numbers are not surprising, gauging the palpable tension that seems to run through the school prior to any economics or chemistry test: “Whenever there’s an econ or chem test you can see it in the freshman class—they’re all worried.”

Netanela Faratci, a first-year on the pre-med track and planning on majoring in Biology, guessed the stats from her own “insider” viewpoint: “There are about 900 students in the freshman class and about 200, maybe more than that, in [General] chemistry. And a lot of them want to major in Bio—maybe the majority. I would even expect there to be a higher Bio percentage.”

Either way, anyone who has been at Brandeis long enough to overhear a conversation about popular professors such as Coiner, the popular Introduction to Economics professor, can almost assuredly guess that at Brandeis, Econ and Bio reign.

The popularity of these majors has led many students to reflect on why this is the case. Jeremy Elkins ’12, sees it from the perspective of college students being “a self-selecting group of people.” Prospective students choose a school that advertises the departments that they themselves are most interested in pursuing, furthering the popularity of certain majors at Brandeis. For example, in recent years about one third of the first-year class has entered with an interest in pre-health, possibly lured in by Brandeis’ oft-touted 75 percent acceptance rate to medical school. Many of these first-years become sophomores who choose to major in either Biology or number seven on the popular majors list, HSSP. With Brandeis’ link to the business school on campus, economics is similarly a likely choice.

Others see the high concentration of students in these areas as a result of students’ familiarity with the subjects before they encounter college level classes. Jennifer Kim, advisor for the sophomore class, regularly helps students with the process of choosing potential majors. “I think that people come in with those types of interests because most of their high school classes are in those types of subjects.” Subjects like psychology and history are often offered by high schools, possibly even as core classes. History of Ideas and Linguistics are rarely offered as electives, if at all.

With statistics such as the ones listed above, it seems likely that Brandeis students often choose a major that seems to have the most linear link to a highly-paid profession in the long run and, eventually, help pay off that college loan. Undergraduate Advising Head of the Economics department, Professor Michael Coiner, explained, “With college costing more and more, students and parents are, to some extent, looking for majors that they perceive as more ‘career-oriented’ or ‘practical.’ The perception among students is that economics (along with some other majors) will pay off in terms of access to a future career.”

Economics Undergraduate Department Representative Mohit Gourisaria ’09 echoed that perception: “An economics major has the best prospects as far as getting a job right out of college is concerned. Finance and Consulting (both of which look favorably upon econ majors) are some of the best paid jobs in the market, even in the current economy.”

According to Dean of Admissions Kim Godsoe, this reflects an underlying attitude demonstrated by Brandeis students when choosing their majors. “Why are majors in the social sciences more represented than majors in another school [of study]? I think that it goes back to the idea of people thinking of social sciences as being a very applied area of study and being very linear with careers,” said Godsoe.

Andrea Dine, a career counselor at the Hiatt Career Center, often deals with students’ concerns about ways to incorporate their passions and majors into a legitimate career. Though she concedes that majors like Economics and Biology do have very apparent career links from an outsider’s perspective, she disagrees with the commonly-held perception that students who major in these fields will have an easier time finding a career than an Art History major, for example. Dine does agree, however, that economics students will most likely have an easier time finding jobs in the international arena, citing the fact that “economics is often a popular major of international students because it is widely recognized globally.”

In fact, a study recently done by CNN entitled “10 Most Popular Majors and What They Pay” compared the typical beginning salaries of college graduates with various popular degrees. They found that though an Economics major’s typical salary is an impressive $57,132, Marketing tops them all, with a beginning salary of around $59,471. Also fairly lucrative is Computer Science (which has yet to make the top 10 majors list at Brandeis) with average earnings per year of $46,849.

Earnings aside, most students agree that being in a “popular major” has both advantages and disadvantages. Landsman, a potential philosophy and IMES major, points to the support system that popular majors offer. For instance, general chemistry, a pre-requisite of the Biology major, offers help with chemistry six days a week. “In my philosophy class the teacher can organize study sessions but there’s nothing supplemented like chemistry.”

In Elkins’ opinion, popular majors are “well-established, well-grounded in Brandeis curriculum… It’s a safe bet. It’s like investing in government bonds as opposed to investing in the stock market.”

There are downsides to popular majors, however. For Faratci, a pre-med first-year, the sheer size of some of her classes can seem “intimidating” and “overly competitive.”

Proponents of some of Brandeis’ less popular majors citetheir own advantages, such as increased ineraction with faculty. Dan Weisz ‘09 is the UDR for the Chemistry department, which historically has attracted only about 10 students per year. For Weisz, the small size has a definite positive side: “Upper-level class sizes are small, usually between seven and 15, allowing for good interaction between students and professors. Most undergrads who want to work in a professor’s lab have the opportunity to do so, and benefit from substantial access to the professor, due to the relatively small size of the labs.” However, this also means that “there are fewer options to choose from when deciding on a lab to join, and certain interest areas might not be represented in the department.”

So, at Brandeis, is choosing one’s major, as an oft-quoted line from the Broadway play Wicked implies, “all about popular?” The consensus at Brandeis is yes, students’ academic interests do overlap, but with that comes advantages and disadvantages. Everyone agrees however, that making the choice is a major decision.