“What is your major?”
Every student is eventually asked that one, big question by peers, professors, and parents. It is also the first question in every conversation with a relative. This question consist of only four innocent words but it can often be associated with uncertainty and anxiety. While the process for deciding on an academic career path can be unpredictable and unique to each individual, there are a few easy steps of guidance that seem to influence most Olin students’ decisions.
Step 1: Know your options.
There are three types of majors at Olin. Students can choose from mechanical engineering (Mech), Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), or a self-designed major that must follow a ‘coherent plan of study’ according to Olin’s Academic Life guide. A self-designed major would be something like robotic engineering or environmental engineering. Having only three options may seem limiting on the onset, but there is plenty of room for variation.
Step 2: Experiment
One thing that is obvious on Olin’s campus is the value of experimentation. This nature is represented in students’ decision process. Before a student can make a well-rounded decision, they need to test each option. Coming into Olin, many student do not typically have backgrounds in all types of engineering. For example, some students come with programming knowledge but may or may not have been exposed to mechanical design. Therefore it is vital to test several engineering branches to get a sense of what is available.
To facilitate this, first year students are enrolled in all the same core classes. These classes are Introduction to Sensors (ISIM), Design Nature (Des-Nat), and Modeling and Simulation (Mod-Sim). There is an obvious intelligent design behind these classes as they correspond to the major branches of engineering education that Olin offers. ISIM is about the basic of electrical engineering. Des-Nat is centered on mechanical engineering, and Mod-Sim teaches basic computer engineering. By taking these specific classes, all freshmen get a taste of each branch to base further course studies on.
A student does not have to declare a major until second semester of their sophomore year. So, students have two semesters to experiment and make a decision after taking these first freshmen classes. But classes during the school year are not the only way students experiment. During the summer, research and internship opportunities provided fantastic insight into if a field is the right fit.
Step 3: Talk to your advisor/advisor family.
Here at Olin, talking to your academic advisor is not only merely suggested, but it is required in order to enroll for your next semester classes. Each faculty member is assigned several (five to seven) students to mentor as an advisor. These students and advisors make up the advising family. A typical advising family would have at least one senior, junior, sophomore, and freshman who meet a couple times a year. During these meetings a great amount of knowledge is transferred among the members of the family. Students value the advice of the faculty advisor but also of the upperclassmen in the family. The upperclassmen can tell the underclassmen the benefits of each major option and the classes they entail.
Step 4: Evaluate the field
Upon graduation, a student’s major generally determines which full time job positions they will apply for. Each field has unique characteristics. Therefore, a major decision factor for students at Olin is to evaluate the field before they decided to dedicate four years of study to it. There are a plethora of questions students ask about certain fields and then must research to find answers. What does the typical environmental engineer do all day? Would a career at company X as a software major primarily be at a desk all day? What type of companies employ robotic engineers? Some of this can be researched online, while other information is best received from a primary resource, such as an alumni working in the field.
Step 5: Iterate
Just like in the process of engineering design, iteration is key for progress. It may take several iterations of these steps (in any order) to decide on a major. The more steps taken and retaken results in greater assurance of the right fit. While some students may only complete one or two of these steps to gain sufficient confidence in their choice, others may spend a whole semester in the evaluation phase. Altogether, the energy put into this decision is well worth the ability to confidently answer that big, daunting question with assurance.