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The Unconventional Scholar: Don’t Discuss Your Major With Your Parents

The Unconventional Scholar is an occasional series, written in the style of my book How to Win at College, that offers unexpected but surprisingly effective tips for getting more out of your college experience.

Sorry Mom and Dad…Ignored Parents

If your parents are footing your tuition bill, you owe it to them to take your classes seriously. They can demand to know how you’re doing and even hold you to account for slacking. (If you don’t like it, you can scrounge up the $40,000 a year). There is, however, one area where I suggest you leave them completely in the dark: your choice of major. Don’t mention a word to them. Refuse to hear their opinion. Don’t solicit their advice. Wait until after you’ve already filed the papers before you break the major news.

I’m sorry parents, but there’s a very good reason for their secrecy: some of the happiest students I’ve encountered are those who chose their major entirely on their own for no reason other than it seemed really cool.

If you remember my article on the research of Ryan and Deci, a pair of psychologist from the University of Rochester, this observation shouldn’t surprise you. These researchers have repeatedly shown that tasks that are extrinsically motivated drain energy and willpower. Over time, they become harder and harder to continue. The effect is so subtle that even societal pressure — for example, a major being generally understood to be a practical choice — can act as extrinsic motivation, making an activity increasingly hard to continue.

Here’s what I’ve observed: Students who choose a major because it was expected or to please their parents are much more likely to burn out by their junior year. Even if they have good study habits and a light activity load, the draining effect of extrinsic motivation can build up a terrible resentment toward school work. Becoming an engineer because your parents think the liberal arts are “soft” is a quick route to mild student depression and falling grades.

But what are you going to do with a music history major!?

I’ve heard all the objections before. Some are valid. But I don’t think any are powerful enough to outweigh the negative consequences of an extrinsically motivated major choice. Let’s cover the big two:

  1. Without a “practical” major you’ll never get a job. See this past article. The research is pretty clear. You need a technical major to get a technical job. Technical jobs pay slightly better than non-technical jobs. Beyond that, your choice of major doesn’t matter for your future job prospects or pay. Trust me, the slightly larger paycheck of the technical majors doesn’t justify majoring in these fields if you don’t love the subject — you’ll just go from hating college to hating your job.
  2. It’s a parent’s right to have a say in how their tuition money is spent. I agree. In the broad sense. Don’t tolerate your son partying away $40,000 a year. But when it comes to this one thing, I’m telling you, I’ve seen it dozens of times — even hinting that you like or dislike a given major can push a student into crisis. It’s frustrating, I know, but it’s just the way the brain works. If you don’t let this decision — this one decision — come from inside, trouble can brew.

So to you, college student, I urge a bold step. Tell your parents that you take your academics seriously and appreciate their input. But when it comes to your major, they need to step back and trust you to do what you want to do.

(Photo by FirstBaptistNashville)

32 thoughts on “The Unconventional Scholar: Don’t Discuss Your Major With Your Parents”

  1. I waited to let my father know about the BFA 2 semesters after the fact.

    Parents are a real test of your mettle. Even as I’m applying to grad school, their lack of understanding in what I’m doing and why is a pretty big emotional burden for me. And its partly because I excluded them from my process of seeing that this course was a good idea.

    They had/have expectations and its hard to disappoint them. They may not have power of the purse anymore, but that doesn’t seem to change much.

    I think not telling your parents is pretty hard, and having them be passive is even harder (they worry even when you are doing well). Maybe there is a more political way to live free and negotiate the folks?

  2. I think not telling your parents is pretty hard, and having them be passive is even harder (they worry even when you are doing well). Maybe there is a more political way to live free and negotiate the folks?

    I agree it’s important to keep your parents in the loop, let them know how you are doing, etc. Just be careful about letting them influence your major choice…

  3. In addition to the general point (which I think you’re right about), I think you need a list of phrases to use to deflect parental advice. I don’t think anyone needs to be rude to simultaneously thank a parent for caring enough to provide the advice while making it clear that a college student is old enough to make up her or his mind on the direction of life.

    For years, my stock phrase has been, “Thank you for the advice.” Simple and delivered with sincerity (NOT sarcasm–that kills the message), and my parents quickly learned that meant that I loved them, I knew they loved me, and it was my decision.

    And if you ever intend to have kids of your own, you need to learn the same trick for deflecting the opinions of grandparents, so get used to it!

  4. A very good point. 😀 As I mentioned before, I burned out my junior year from extrinsic motivation (read: parent pressure). The stupid thing about it was I really enjoyed my major before I let the pressure get to me.

    We all can’t change the way our parents (and uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and even a great-grandmother too, in my case) think or give out their opinions but we can change the way we’re affected by them. It really does make one happier.

  5. Cal,

    Do you have any advice for those students who (willingly or unwillingly) live with their parents?

    My only strategy right now is to get out of the house whenever I have the impromptu urge to leave, whether it is for intense studying, extracurriular, or social needs.

    Leaving the house isn’t difficult, but dealing with the parents themselves most definitely is.

  6. Do you have any advice for those students who (willingly or unwillingly) live with their parents?

    Yeah, it sucks. On the other hand you get better food and free laundry! 🙂

    There’s no magic bullet there, other then: having set clear ground rules, asking for them to respect your decisions when it comes to things like your major, and being motivated to really kicking ass as a student so after graduation you can snag a nice job and move on out.

  7. See, I think the opposite is true for me. The more that I discuss big life decisions (choice of major, school admissions, etc.) with my parents, the more I feel like I have someone on my side looking out for me. Maybe my parents just aren’t as pushy as some. They’d never choose my major or career. I’m sure a lot of moms wistfully hope their son/daughter becomes a doctor, lawyer, or supreme court judge, but I think most parents are cool with letting their kids carve their own path in life.

  8. I’m sure a lot of moms wistfully hope their son/daughter becomes a doctor, lawyer, or supreme court judge, but I think most parents are cool with letting their kids carve their own path in life.

    The problem is not so much that your parents pressure you to take on a given major. Instead, even just feeling like your parents approval helped you make the decision can, for some students, lead to a loss of intrinsic motivation. Not everyone of course!

  9. When I was applying for College I chose as my major of choice to be psychology, this was in the early part of 2007. Needless to say 6 months later I was rethinking my choice, sitting at the table in Cafe. I decided that maybe I should major in Political Science instead of psychology with the help of a Political Science Major from Mexico sitting in front of me listening to me rant about Religion and the 2008 election. My Grandma was less then then enthusiastic because “How is that going to get you a job”. She constantly makes little comments like “If you talk that way how can you go into politics” when I sound a little childish at times. Or she uses the “I’m paying for your school I should have a say in your major.” This has caused huge arguments.

    Thank you for this article, I feel better now for telling her no with such a firm hand even though she thinks I am being childish I hope she see I feel happy in my major.

    • I want to major in Polisci and International Studies and my parents are against it. They think that it’s very hard to make changes in politics and that the reality is that I won’t be able to support myself and make the kinds of changes I want to make. It’s disheartening because I love the subjects. What are you doing now with your major?

  10. even hinting that you like or dislike a given major can push a student into crisis. It’s frustrating, I know,”

    Wow. thank you for that article. Actually made me tear up a bit. I’m in the middle of what feels like a ‘crisis’ in my mind. Got accepted to amazing UCLA for a major my parents wanted me to study, since I’m a transfer student and I’m pretty much stuck in my major now. Studying CogSci,always wanted to study Design, but impossible to get in. I’ve really feel I screwed myself, and I know its important to take responsibility for your actions but I can’t help but secretly resent my parents for always talking bad about my ‘design’ goals ever since I was little and only being proud of me when I mentioned ‘cogsci’. Now I’m going to waste two years studying something just bc I’m in. Any advice?

    thanks for the article

  11. Now I’m going to waste two years studying something just bc I’m in. Any advice?

    If that’s what you’re stuck doing that’s what you’re stuck doing. Focus on being an efficient A* student in this major. Follow the Rule of One to avoid overwork which will in turn breed deep procrastination. Finally, do some of your own reading on Cog Sci — if you can build your own, self-sustained excitement for it, you’ll find it much easier.

  12. I have to say that this is right on the ball. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to keep others happy that it’s hard to figure out what I want to do. I keep running out of gas because I try to force myself to work with extrinsic motivation.

    On the opposite end, I struggle with clinical depression – so am I stuck in a catch-22? There must be a way around these 2 issues.

  13. This is definitely 100% correct.

    When I was in high school, I was very much into science and medicine and the idea of being a doctor. At the time, my parents didn’t really push me one way or the other, and said they’d be okay with whatever I chose to do – perhaps this was because there were still a few years before I’d have to actually choose.

    I came into college as a bio major because I enjoyed it; as time went on, however, I came to enjoy it less and less until eventually I started hating it. I stuck with it though, I suppose partly because I was in too deep and partly because of the disapproval I’d be greeted with from family and family friends.

    I also started to think about doing things other than medicine and becoming a doctor, only this time when I mentioned it to my parents, they were vocally upset. I didn’t press the matter further because, hey, I’d always wanted to be a doctor, and I still had a year or two left, right?

    Looking back, I would have majored in something else; perhaps English and/or a language or two (German or Arabic maybe). I would have explored a lot of other career paths. I have not yet committed myself to medicine and I still have some time left, but I know I’ll have to break it to my parents sooner or later.

    Anyway, reading this article has helped me in a small, albeit important, way.

    • I’m in somewhat of the same boat right now as a sophomore fulfilling the premed track. Like you, I chose it partly out of pleasing my parents and more because of the stable employment that Cal writes about. I’ve noticed that the deeper I get into the sciences, the less passionate I find myself with almost no intrinsic motivation to pick up my biochemistry textbook.

      I am curious if you ended up pursuing medicine in spite of your ambivalence towards it?

  14. I have been trying to decide if I want to go pre-med. I’ve talked to my parents too much about the school I would like to transfer to and what I would like to study. The parents say I should pick a liberal arts major because they think that I don’t do well in math and the natural sciences even though I’ve proved them wrong several times. I hate writing papers that have to do with subconscious topics and would rather do math problems or learn about a physics concept. I’m nervous about taking college chemistry and physics. What do you suggest?

  15. I hate writing papers that have to do with subconscious topics and would rather do math problems or learn about a physics concept. I’m nervous about taking college chemistry and physics. What do you suggest?

    There’s no wrong answer here. Every subject will require hard work to master, but they are all masterable.

  16. I had a problem which is a variation of this – my parents asked me to finish as quickly as possible and I ended up just picking the path which logically would allow me to graduate as quickly as possible. But in reality I really disliked that subject and didn’t do well. They also spent most of my life not approving my desire to go into the arts. People say “listen to your parents” so often growing up but in reality it should be “listen to people who thoroughly know what they are talking about, like cal newport”. wish i had all this information BEFORE college. Thanks Cal.

  17. It is never too late to change your career path you can go back to school and do what you want. Of course, it will cost lots of money. As a matter of fact, I am today in the situation where I want to do Actuarial Science, but my parents want me to take up a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. I am struggling to convince them and some people tell me to do what my parents want. But I am not passionate about it, and without passion it is hard to be successful at school.

  18. I took Calculus 1 and failed it the first time, but I got a C- the second time. My professor suggested I should change my major of biomedical engineering to something that didn’t involve a lot of high end math like calculus. I totally agreed with her because there is no way I can pass even higher math if I can’t pass calculus. Also I do not like my major at all. What I am really interested in is forensic science. My parents don’t think this is a good major, but I really enjoy that kind of stuff. How do I explain that I want t pursue this degree? Also my parents aren’t paying for my college, I am paying it myself, but living at home.

  19. Hi ,
    I am really some problems with my parents right now because of what major im planning to study in university . I am an art student , i love art and i have the talent . However , when it came to my A level subjects i chose Art , Geography and Literature and my parents keep on arguing with me why i did chose a science subject and they want me to do a business major in university like marketing i had no choice but to accept because they were not listening . Please can you advise me on how to convince them to let me do art major ?

  20. I have a same problem too. My mom always want me to study accounting, but i want study japanese language. She start to yell at me and being rude about my decision. I understand she worried about my future, how if i cant earn much money, but pleeez everyone have their own way, right?

  21. Well I have already decided to do what my heart wants and my parents don’t like my decision and my father says ” I won’t let you go to University again.” Which means he won’t pay me any money to study in my favorite major.
    I’ve been studying Electrical Engineering for two semesters now and I want to take the Entrance Exam for industrial design.
    Wish me luck every body!

  22. Hey Cal,
    I’m a big fan of your books and I read straight A, so good, and deep work.
    After reading your books I decided I want to study physics because I had interest in the subject but mostly cus the field was broad and I could get a good foundation. I told my parents about this and they said the degree is not employable and were against the decision that I made and I am the type of person who likes lots of things and when I finally picked something with a good amount of thought put in I was let down. Actually before picking physics I was really into biology and life science(still am probably more than physics) and decided that initially because I wasn’t that proficient in problem solving but that decision was rejected by my parents and so I let it go.
    My dad advised me to study computer science because it is employable and gives a high salary which I never really cared about but I decided to give it a thought and I figured using the advice from your books on getting good at the skill will then inevitably make me like and enjoy the field and further get really good and cs was a field which was pretty broad and could be used in many fields and so I convinced myself I will be able to deal with this major. Two months in the course I have to sacrifice a lot of stimulating activities like games, movies, sweets, deserts, talking to friends ,etc, (except for your podcast I watch that a lot), to make myself enjoy studying the course but its not working I am spending lots of time and going back home late just to get my head through programming, its really bland and currently I feel like I’m getting burned out and am getting existential crises often. The pace is really fast that I have to depend on other people a lot which still doesn’t help much and I am memorizing
    code cus I can’t understand it fast and well enough. Altogether the journey so far is very boring and depressing. Now I’m thinking should I drop out of the course, or should I continue and not give up and tell myself things like doing things you don’t like is good, or you should work on your weaknesses(problem solving), never give up and all these stuff. I’m influenced by a lot of people, like David Goggins, Elon Musk etc, that I am confused like crazy and I don’t really know what to do now.
    Could you give any insights or advice please?


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