JUSTIN’S GUIDE TO MAJOR CHOICE

By: Justin Shelby
Many students agonize over their choice of major. This is the right thing to do because you should be trying to get the most out of your very expensive degree. You should be trying to maximize the value of your degree. Where most Vietnamese students, I think, go off the rails is defining that value in purely economic terms. I think that value is bigger than that.

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That said, this still does not mean you should study what most interests you, or only study what you [think] you love. You need to keep in mind that your money and time are both valuable resources. They must be spent wisely. In accordance with this principle, you should almost never pay for what can be obtained freely. Generally, paying for free stuff is stupid. It is possible to be stupid; so don’t be.

This leads us to my three prime directives for major choice. One, you need to study something that is hard. So hard that you honestly believe that you couldn’t study it effectively on your own. It is important to note that what is trivially easy for one person might not be so for another. It is stupid to pay 80k over 4 years to learn what you could learn at a library or on the internet for free. Two, you need to study something that gives you a super-power (more on this below). And three, you need to study something that you find interesting.

Here is a list of majors that are neither hard nor really impressive (but that you may find interesting): communications, business, marketing, English (unless the major requires proficiency in Old English, a dead language), Art History, ethnic studies (especially if you’re studying your own ethnicity, bleh), education, and any other subject that didn’t exist 100 years ago.

None of this is to say that these subjects aren’t valuable or interesting. True, some of them in fact are not valuable or interesting (e.g., ethnic studies). Others are both valuable and interesting (e.g., English and other relatively simple modern languages, like Spanish and French) but majoring in them isn’t impressive. When I hire people, I generally pass on those who majored in these things unless I have a very specific reason for hiring them. For example, I have one English major (technically, comparative lit, I think, but I hired her thinking she was an English major) on my payroll. But she didn’t just major in English. I happen to know that she studied meter extensively. This is a technical specialization that allows her to analyze literature in a way that average readers of English cannot. I appreciate, value, and respect the discipline and thought that goes into acquiring such a specialization. I hired my last assistant over other applicants because she majored in STEM. I remain biased, in my hiring process, towards people who have mastered something that average people cannot do.
Here is a list of majors that are impressive: mathematics, economics, engineering, dead languages of any type, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, linguistics, statistics, philosophy (Especially Analytic philosophy, but try cracking open some Continental standards and tell me that reading and understanding them isn’t a technical skill), physics, biology, astronomy & astrophysics, and computer science. Shit like that. If you’re confused about what constitutes an impressive major, ask me. Majors not on either of these lists are probably on the bubble: impressive depending on how they’re taught, where they’re taught, and by whom they’re taught. Psychology is a good example: it can be very impressive or not at all impressive. Unfortunately, telling the impressive cases from the unimpressive cases takes a certain amount of inside knowledge, so most of the time majors on the bubble fall into the unimpressive category.

The impressive majors I’ve listed also give you super-powers: they allow you to do or understand things that the average person cannot even attempt to do or understand. Can you crack open the Greek New Testament and read it? No? I can. It’s one of the most important documents of Western Civilization and I can tell you why the translations suck (especially the King James translation. Of course, I will do this only after I’ve put on my finest condescending corduroy. With two elbow patches).

On the other hand, can I read and understand business and management literature? Sure. Recently, I was hired by someone to read and summarize about 20 Harvard Business School case studies. Could I have done this better if I was a business major? Maybe. The point is that, while I can and do get paid to interpret and synthesize information within the domain of business, the business major cannot even attempt to do what I can do with Greek and Latin.

Let’s take English. Can I analyze a piece of English literature in the original? Can you? Absolutely. As well as an English major? Maybe, and maybe even better depending on the text. I was originally attracted to Classics because I felt that I couldn’t understand James Joyce without really understanding all his many allusions to Greek and Roman literature (I still remember quitting Ulysses in the bath tub and saying I needed to learn Greek. At the time, I thought I was kidding). Paradise Lost, one of the greatest English poems, contains so many references to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and the Hebrew Old Testament that an English major is almost incompetent to really understand or appreciate it. Understanding one of the greatest works of English literature requires a background in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (which is still way over my head). Conversely, can the English major undergraduate even simply analyze a piece of Latin literature in the original? Nope. They can’t even try.

Literally every astrophysics major I knew could read and understand Shakespeare without any preparation. Very few English majors I knew could calculate the proper motion of a star even if all the variables and values were neatly laid out for them. And this is an almost trivial task for astronomy students.
Another good heuristic for impressiveness is whether or not someone who isn’t learned in your field can argue with you, credibly, on topics within your specialty. I once read a paper – one that received a high grade from a prestigious institution – on poetry that claimed that all artists of a certain ethnicity had certain beliefs. This claim was either tautological or laughable. The author hadn’t even thought to test his idea by performing a simple survey – as if artists of this type were incapable of bubbling in. The naked assertion also betrayed, at best, an incredibly narrow view of “artist”. These were all valid objections that I could make to the course of the argument. But if I were to make a claim that a certain passage in the Aeneid reflects a certain passage in the Iliad, could the author reasonably contest my claim? Well, no. And for the simple reason that he is unable to read the primary source material (because he doesn’t read Greek or Latin). He can’t even evaluate the evidence. I grant that perhaps my objections to his paper would be overcome, but I at least can make the argument. He could not even engage on my problems.

The above example is gentle and self-serving; instead of me, imagine a computer scientist or statistician making similar objections (since the objections I made are accessible to any thinking person without a technical background in English literature). At least the author of this paper and I exist in the same universe of literature; it is unlikely that the paper’s author would have anything at all to say about technical issues in computer science or statistics. They cannot even understand the argument, not without substantial prior preparation.

Essentially, your education should give you some sort of super-power. Otherwise it is, in my opinion, a waste.

It is 1am. 1:12, actually. My tiredness might make you think that you need to an English major to write a proper sentence! Which would rather undo this whole essay. So to conclude:

Major in something so hard that you truly believe you couldn’t study it effectively without the help of experts (this is subjective and will vary by person since we all have different aptitudes). Major in something impressive that gives you a super-power (this is rather objective – majoring in Marketing will never allow you to perform a task that a non-marketing major couldn’t also at least attempt. Majoring in statistics will.). Major in something that you like, so that you are motivated to do well and receive high marks in your major. These are the primary directives. Following these directives will prevent you from wasting time and money. My lists of majors are subjective, biased, and tongue in cheek. They must be so: I’ve never majored in Black American Studies or Chicano Studies or Gender Studies, so who am I to say that they’re completely worthless? (No really, they are.) However, if you want to maximize the value (not just the economic returns) of your degree, then these directives are ironclad and sensible. You can and should decide their application for yourselves. I’m well aware that somewhat special situations obtain for students who wish to return to Vietnam after college, and perhaps I will cover that situation in a different post. For now, I will merely refer you to these principles.

Justin Shelby