College major satisfaction, then and now

Inside Higher Ed reports on an interesting recent survey of Sociology majors in 2005, which said that “70 percent were satisfied with their major when they were seniors. By 2009, asked whether they were satisfied with their major after having been in the world of work or graduate school for a few years, only 40 percent were satisfied.”  Of course, this survey may just have been timed spectacularly poorly, asking recent grads in the midst of the worst recession since World War II how they feel about their college majors, and the article notes this unfortunate coincidence.

The survey raises an interesting question for those of us who are skeptical of the value of customer satisfaction surveys end-of-semester student evaluations:  how do students think about their educations over time?  I myself tend to think that students gain more appreciation for their courses over time and after they see how incredibly random and corrupt adulthood generally is.  But the survey results here suggest another possibility.

Now that I think of it, I was very satisfied with my education at the point I had completed it.  I wrote an award-winning Senior thesis, and I had been admitted (with a T.A.-ship) to my top choice of graduate programs.  So, mission accomplished, right?  Well, sorta

If I have any regrets about my undergraduate education, I regret that I was not instructed in historiography until my first year of graduate school.  I loved it–and love it still, and emphasize it in most of my undergraduate courses even if I don’t teach it explicitly.  I had to take a course only for history majors as a sophomore, but I don’t think it was particularly effective.  (I also take some blame for this because as always, I was in a hurry, and insisted on taking it as a sophomore instead of waiting until my junior year, which is when most majors took the course.)  The course was led by one instructor, but as I recall he invited each member of the History Department to assign a week’s reading and lead the class in a discussion of it.  That was a great idea–except that my one overriding impression was that this was a department of historians who didn’t know how to talk to each other and really didn’t have a great deal to say to each other.  It was unfortunate–we knew that many of them had written important books, some were still writing, them, and some had also had interesting careers in the military during World War II and the foreign service afterwards.  (At least one was rumored to have been in the OSS!)  But it was a pretty moribund scene in the late 1980s, or so it seemed to me as a crass 19- to 21-year old.

I guess I had learned how to appear smart enough and glib enough to get by without that much real learning.  I wasn’t all that.  My a$$ needed a good, solid kicking, and I just didn’t get it. 

The one strength of the program was that its small class sizes meant that we wrote research papers in every class.  I still remember with great fondness researching and writing each and every major paper I wrote as an undergraduate:  the gruesome facts behind little St. William of Norwich; the Jewish families of Colonial Charleston; an intellectual biography of Jonathan Edwards;  a long essay on Lucien Febvre’s Le Probleme de l’Incroyance au XVI siecle, la Religion de Rabelais (The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century:  The Religion of Rabelais); my thesis on indentured servants in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania.  I loved the library, and its vastness of silence and knowledge just waiting for me to reach up and pull off the shelves.  (Back before online databases almost no students used journal articles!  At least I didn’t, and I was considered a pretty dedicated researcher.)

Maybe my education wasn’t so bad, after all.  I learned what I needed to know at the time, and enough to get me to the next step.  I’ve had the luxury of time since then to follow my research interests wherever they wandered.  What about you?  Do you look back with appreciation on your choice of major, or do you regard it as a big mistake?

0 thoughts on “College major satisfaction, then and now

  1. I had a similar experience to yours. I went to a small state liberal arts school and majored in two majors, English and Religious Studies. I have since gone on to graduate school in Religious Studies but I look back and see both of those majors as important. It’s been fours years since I graduated and I’m now neck deep in a Ph.D. program but I don’t think I’d be where I am now without really great faculty in both of those programs.

    My current research interests draw on the post-colonial and post-structuralist theory I was exposed too then (much earlier than other students, according to colleagues I’ve talked with about this) along with the content of my various religion classes. Both programs had small classes and both programs required a lot of writing–both on exams in class and on term research papers. Your post has reminded me just how valuable this early training in research and writing was.

    I never really thought that hard about graduate school, I just kind of knew that’s where I should head after college. Perhaps my undergraduate majors groomed me for it. They made me read _Orientalism_ and some Foucault as a junior and it changed my life.


  2. One of the problems I had with my college education was that I was so much better prepared than most of my graduate student cohort. So, I had the same problem you encountered, but a couple years into my program. I was used to busting my ass, but I wasn’t used to busting my ass harder than before. Also, and strangely, because I was used to being around a lot of smart people all the time–instead of being the smartest in the room–it took me a long time to learn that I had to prove myself in seminars.

    I consider these minor issues. I left college with the ability to learn about most anything I set my mind to. I still feel that I have the skills to think critically about old and new topics, skills I gained with a 4-year degree at a top institution.

    My regrets are not learning another language, only taking historiography and theory my senior year, and going to a school where you couldn’t double major. Oh, and not taking more English Literature classes. I took my first one senior year and it was such a different intellectual activity. All of my work benefited from the new ways of thinking I learned in that class.


  3. I regret now, almost a decade out, that I wasn’t made to take more math and science. Also, a literature class. I placed out of many requirements, and found loopholes and workarounds to the others (I was just *so* set on doing history and International Studies stuff), and I find myself now wishing I had a better working vocabulary in those areas.

    I also wish I’d had more historiography, though I doubt I would have appreciated it at the time. It scared me in grad school and remains the thing-I-like-least about research. Though, as a teacher, and now advising senior-theses myself, I find it more and more useful.


  4. The one thing that I wish would have been the case about my undergrad major is that I would have gotten a better sense of *current* critical/theoretical debates/approaches. When I was there, my undergrad dept. had a major that was stuck somewhere around 1980, which meant that I read almost no theory before graduate school and which meant that I didn’t really understand the critical conversation in my field at all. That meant a lot of getting up to speed when I went on.

    But. I did learn how to read literature. And I learned how to be a strong writer and an independent thinker. Which meant that I was able to catch up on those earlier things.

    So, my conclusion is pretty much the same as yours: “Maybe my education wasn’t so bad, after all. I learned what I needed to know at the time, and enough to get me to the next step. I’ve had the luxury of time since then to follow my research interests wherever they wandered.”


  5. At the risk of hijacking the conversation, I want to pose a question prompted by your post. I never took a course in “historiography” in grad school, because my degree is not in history. Since leaving grad school, I have always taught in history departments. My current department requires grad students to take seminars in historiography. But in listening to my colleagues talk over the years and at different universities, it is quite clear to me (and to some of them) that when they talk about historiography, they are not all talking about the same thing.

    It is mostly a generational difference, but not entirely. To those who earned degrees before about 1980, historiography seems to be something like, “a survey of the most influential books and articles shaping field X over the last 50 years (or more!).” To the younger group, historiography might be, “books and articles that challenge our assumptions about the nature of evidence, narrative, and the importance of particular historical questions.” To the latter group, important texts to assign in a historiography course might not all come from the same field–a choice that seems incomprehensible to the former group (and is the occasion of departmental angst from time to time).

    So, what did you study in your historiography course, and what made it so important to you?


  6. I learned historiography the second way, with books like Gilderhus’s History and Historians. I like this just because of the way it cuts across many topics. Knowing, say, the Pirenne thesis probably has limited use to an Americanist, but both can debate the contribution of the Annalistes.


  7. The way that U/Grad courses in history tend to be taught in the UK emphasise historiography (or at least they do in my experience in R1 institutions). So, in first and sometimes second year when you do general thematic history courses, each lecture tends to go along the lines of the early argument was this, the revisionists said this, and now we are here. Or, if that’s inappropriate, here are the main debates on this topic- with some name-dropping of the big names in the field. In seminars and essays, we try to encourage students to understand that there is an argument going, and ultimately a good essay will be able to identify what this argument is. At the same time, at this level we usually also have a source project/ element of some kind to introduce them to using primary sources.

    Our honours level courses (for seniors) are much narrower and tailored on individual tutor’s particular research interests. Again, lectures will cover the main debates, but many of these courses also integrate a theory element- ie what is shaping these arguments (marxism, post-modernism, anthropology etc), and usually have some sort of source element in the form of an essay or project. In addition, at this level most courses also have a specific and compulsary historiography and sources class, which tend to focus more on the theory side of historiography (i.e. giving an overview of major theoretical thinking- again pomo, marxism, social constructionism, the annales school or whatever) and may also include individual lectures on types of sources (literature, letters, legal records, art etc) and how to use them. The assessment for these sort of courses is usually a sort of mini-dissertation- or it leads into the actual dissertation element of the course.

    At Masters level, there is also a historiography class again- and again dealing more with theory than history- and usually a research methods class- dealing with sources, techniques, how to use databases etc. Ideally, this should introduce you to something new, but depending on what you got at u/grad some people find it repetitive.


  8. Just to add on here, I too didn’t get historiography with my undergraduate major and, even now, I find it a struggle. When push comes to shove, time’s running out, and I’ve got a piece to finish, historiography always takes a back seat to the primary documents (the teaching of how to work with these being the real strength of my undergraduate department). For the most part, I’m fine with the imbalance being tilted towards sources but I’m trying to close the gap a bit. I do have a lot of colleagues in my graduate program who seem to tilt the other way and who place more emphasis on responding to historiographical debates than waiting to see what arguments emerge from the sources (which has been more my style). I suspect there may be some correlation (but not any firm rules) to what one’s undergrad emphasized or had the money to support (i.e. the funding for senior thesis archival research I received is not available at many/most institutions) and the way one begins to approach research projects in graduate school.

    When I first got to graduate school, I was angry that my undergrad department hadn’t really stressed historiography. Now, with a few more years behind me and a few years closer to creating my own undergraduate courses, I’m more satisfied with my department’s research emphasis. The research skills I gained then have kept me going while everything else in my training has fallen completely apart. Plus I also think there is considerable value to the standard 20-page research paper at institutions that have libraries and database access to support such projects. Writing research papers is probably the more usable skill for majors who don’t go on to graduate school than going in-depth into historiographical debates.


  9. That’s an interesting post. My path was an odd and wandering one, but I don’t regret it at all. I attended a small Catholic liberal arts college in New England as a political science major/philosophy minor, intent on some kind of career in politics. That didn’t work out, to say the least. I found out, how shall I put this, I didn’t like politicians. So I turned to grad school in history, which had always been my love.

    I’m an odd duck, really. A tenured US historian who never took a US history class as an undergrad (just Europe, mostly medieval Italy actually) and whose lowest grade as an undergrad (a C, broke my heart) was “Philosophy of History.” So when I went to grad school and took that first class in historiography, my head was spinning. It took me some time to see “how historians think.”

    But what I did get from that undergrad experience was just what you said: love of learning, love of that damn library (I adored being the only one there at times), love of finding books on topics that interested me, research experience, writing experience, curious professors, etc., all of which prepared me for a slightly different path.

    Worked out. No regrets.


  10. In terms of professional training, my undergrad (Swarthmore, ’89 Honors program – these will be relevant details shortly) waited too heavily towards historiography (6 topical seminars jr. – sr. year of the most influential books and journal articles in the field variety; 4 in the major, two in the minor, and no thesis.) I got to graduate school with a terrific handle on historiography having already read about half of a standard prelim list for an Americanist but having almost no research experience (outside of two years working in a museum – I could find material culture galore but documents? not so much.) However, I got up to speed quick enough. OTOH, being at Swat did me a terrible disservice in my later professional life. Readers of Tim Burke’s blog will know that Swarthmore Honors seminars are the geeky of the geekiest. It really was a cooperative search for truth and nothing like anything I ever had before or after. Classes were long (routinely extending past the scheduled three hours); argumentative – sometimes to the point of shouting, and collegial beyond belief. After particularly energetic debates we were likely to head to the bar chill out together and congratulate each other’s high points. The thing is, when I got to grad school, I thought seminars would be like that. I was overly agressive with my peers, and I’m still learning how to more gently correct people when I’m right (a standard Swat opening argument goes something like this. “I think you’re wrong and here’s why…”) and keep my mouth shut more often. I think professors could have and should have helped us out with this kind of stuff but maybe they thought we were beyond hope, or found it amusing or something. Anyway, some of the skills I needed to learn most in college, namely, how to get along with normal people who weren’t super geeks, I didn’t learn, and grad school barely made it any better.

    Now in my forties, I’m learning those skills, sometimes from my hs students. Sigh.


  11. The survey also seems to be getting at the education/job training divide. An undergraduate sociology degree is not a professional degree (though there are useful skills students should learn and be able to apply). Surveying students a few years later might also be at a particularly low point in this sense — I wonder if many of them have enough time/distance/perspective to really see how these skills may have transferred (in less obvious ways).

    I have some criticisms of my own undergrad major education, but then I now have a PhD and am working in that field. What I needed out of the major is different than your average major (who won’t go into that field specifically).


  12. Western Dave– Swarthmore History Honors ’09 here, and very curious to see what happens when I start graduate school. The requirements now are 3 seminars in the major and 1 in the minor, so I also had time to write a thesis in my (German) minor, but the program overall is still very weighted towards historiography.

    While looking through old honors exams for one of my preparations, I came across a question asking us about the distinction between secondary and primary sources and to evaluate whether we had learned more from secondary or primary sources over the course of the seminar. The question seriously alarmed me, because we had barely touched primary sources! I always assumed the focus on historiography was part of Swat’s identity as a graduate-school-incubator, but maybe it will be a disadvantage?

    I can say that my particular seminars were far less combative than yours seem to have been–sometimes I wanted more disagreements than we had! We’re no better at getting along with normal people, though…


  13. I made my formal “choice of major” only when I got the note from the registrar–on the eve of the third trimester of junior year–that I *had* to or I couldn’t register for Spring classes. So I took a quick look at my unofficial transcript and the decision made itself. I had accumulated lots of history credits while flirting with various other possible majors, and I just accepted the implicit verdict as to what that meant. So while I
    “majored in history” over a considerable time, I “was a history major” for what now seems like a shockingly short time. As a long-time disempowered undergraduate, it was also kind of gratifying to be able to simply direct the registrar to notify the history department that I had decided to come on board.

    The system at my place now is counterproductive. There’s no formal requirement, but various cultural and bureaucratic pressures adjure just-admitted students to declare majors while returning their rented high school prom tuxes and gowns. This only gives disciplines (including ours) too much time to mess around with their brains and decide what they really really have to know. Then students who (inevitably) change their minds when they discover the difference between history and the History Channel get trapped. Every other department, knowing from day one what their cut of the herd is, has also ramped up the total credit requirement. Or students have to get their gpa’s up to a certain specified point to be “accepted” in another major. (If they could do that they might not have wanted to leave). So the 5-6 year time to graduation for major-changers, at least, is no big wonder–except to their parents. In retrospect, I even more enjoy having had the opportunity to notify the authorities what I had picked from the curricular menu.

    On historiography we did only a modest amount, and that was (and is) fine with me. We had ten week trimesters, so they couldn’t do everything. In a required research seminar we read R.G. Collingwood and maybe somebody else, and that was that. My French Revolution prof really pounded us with the schools of interpretation, claiming that for the French the Revolution had never really ended. (It was 1968, so who could argue?) Beyond that, most or all profs managed to convey the message that historical knowledge was what we would later call “constructed,” not natural, and catch-up in graduate school was not too hard or painful. But then–in my memory, anyway–the formalistic reign of historiography at BFU was considerably less intense than it had become by the time Historiann got there. Maybe there were so many different world views in the department, the proverbial “100 Flowers,” that it was assumed you would osmose all that stuff in the hallways, which we basically did. I kind of preferred being given a bus token and map and thrown into the archives on the other side of the river. Maybe that’s why I still tend to think historiography is *somewhat* overrated as the central metaphysical structurator of inquiry into the past. But that’s a whole ‘nother question entirely.


  14. Lauren, my experience in graduate school was that those who had experience working within historiographical debates had a serious advantage during the coursework phase. I was utterly unprepared and really had no idea what it was I was supposed to be reading for and how I was supposed to incorporate historiographical debates into my seemingly unrelated projects. History for me had been all about primary sources, which also meant that, before grad school, I didn’t really do much reading aside from what was assigned and I had no idea how to read for anything other than information. I’m still figuring it out now, five years on, and I survived but I was certainly flailing and failing at the most basic level for a very long time.


  15. I’m not a historian, but in grad school I got a ton of what I think is political science’s equivalent to historiography: explorations of approaches to the questions, history of the field, and framing of the subject over time. There were four required classes that included at major chunk of this (both at MA and PhD level), and then other classes frequently wove it in. I’ve always identified the reasons for this as being in the quirkiness of my department; almost everyone in the department identifies with a methodological/theoretical/ideological faction that is nearly invisible within their broader subfield, and is highly committed to a certain line of fighting with the discipline as a whole. We as students produce weird dissertations (frequently brilliant, but not something you’d expect). Our faculty produce weird but highly respected books. We don’t fit in with the field. I figured we taught so much meta-stuff about political science because we were studying it, to figure out how to fit in with the natives once we got jobs.

    By contrast, in my undergrad program, at a nice, normal Ivy-League political science department, we spoke not at all about the state of the field. Ever. Even in the super-advanced-seniors-doing-srs-bsns-research seminar. Like, they threw KKV at us and that was that. Someone mentioned Perestroika to me my junior year, but it was in hushed tones during office hours. For someone like me with one foot in the poli sci department and the other in the women’s and gender studies department, it lead to a serious case of whiplash when it came to be senior thesis-writing time.

    I’m both satisfied and dissatisfied with my college career. I wish I’d done four years of my research language, especially since I went to a grad school with little to no language program, and didn’t have funding/the family situation to do a summer immersion program. And I wish I’d made closer connections with tenure-track faculty, rather than the adjuncts/visitors who taught the classes I found most interesting. But I don’t regret the level of focus I had, or how many classes I took, or their quirky distribution. It was me, and it was what got me here, so, how can I be mad?


  16. I am very satisfied with my undergrad experience, and was then as well. I attended a very small LAC of no renown in the middle of nowhere. Even though by intellectual standards it was a fairly mediocre place, I happened to be there at the same time as a handful of truly gifted teachers, most of whom moved on quickly. The liberal arts curriculum encouraged my intellectual curiosity by forcing students into gen ed requirements. I never would have chosen that philosophy class, but man was I glad I took it. Like many of you, I didn’t learn much historiography or theory in undergrad, and I wasn’t prepared super well for graduate school. I always felt about ten steps behind my peers who went to more polished and rigorous undergrad schools (esp. the Ivies). But I’m not sure that the purpose of undergrad is to prepare students for graduate school. Instead, I got the kind of education I hope my kids get – I was taught how to write, encouraged to think, and exposed for the first time to a large and diverse world. It shaped and inspired me, and got me so hooked on learning I decided to do it for the rest of my life. But even if I hadn’t become an educator, my education would have served me well.

    I also had a double major in English and History. The literary background has proved a bonus. One of the few compliments given to me by my advisor in grad school was that ze could tell I had studied literature by how well I read sources.


  17. When I think back to my undergrad experience (as a literature major), what I find is that my sense of satisfaction with material I learned correlates more directly to the professor that the material or approach. That is: two survey courses I took were amazing, the other two dreadful, even though my current interests do not correlate with that observation. One theory course I took was invigorating, and another was totally stultifying. So while I might chalk up my experience to things like the scope and sequence of the major requirements and offerings, I can also chalk some of it up to which courses I took with whom.

    So when I got to grad school, my sense of preparedness didn’t necessarily only stem from which courses I had taken, but which courses I had taken from rigorous, challenging faculty. So even though my focus was on modern and other periods of drama, I was less prepared for graduate work on Beckett or on Shakespeare, than I was on, say, Chaucer or the Romantics, because those were areas I studied with excellent faculty (for me at least) at the undergrad level.


  18. @Lauren The change in Honors after I left was designed to facilitate more thesis writing, interdisciplinary programs and more study abroad opportunities. I’m betting your seminars were as combative and passionate as mine were but you didn’t see it as combat, you saw it as a cooperative search for truth. At the time, I didn’t think our seminars were hostile or competitive because everybody at the time understood what was going on – we needed to push each other so that we could all do well on the Honors exams (culminating exams at the end of senior year given by outside examiners for non-Swatties). But the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. Trust me on this. What you will perceive of as perfectly innocent questions about someone’s idea or a methodology others in graduate school will take as a personal attack. It turns out in the real world people’s ideas and sense of self are far more connected than are at Swat where the process is as important as the idea itself.

    And if it’s not too late. Don’t go. Grad school is in all likelihood a dead end.
    Good luck.


  19. Hey historiann! _ I’m a little late jumping on the thread (I was painting the garage and hiding from the new dean instead of attending meetings during “duty days” -I’m always on duty, why a special day?)

    Anyhow, I am satisfied with my undergraduate education. In fact, I think I am more satisfied with my undergrad education that I was even a few years after I finished.

    Sure I missed a few things. I really don’t remember stats, I should have taken more Hungarian, not given up on Russian and given Latin a try. But thats OK I remember almost every research paper I wrote. My senior thesis gave me good hands on experience with historiography.

    Now that I am older, I wish I had paid better attention in the upper division colonial US class (You know, one of those pesky breadth requirements). I resented it at the time, but at least once a semester I remember a little something from that Colonial US class, or the Classical Greece survey, of the Great Civilizations of Asia class I took. So let me give a big shout out to Alicia Klaus, Susan Mann and Patricia Perlman! Thanks!


  20. I loved my undergrad institution and my majors. For the most part my instructors were extremely engaged, asked insightful questions for and on my papers that kept them from being that thing I did at the end to jump through the hoop, and they trained me to be a critical thinker, engaged and decolonized researcher, and respect my own intellect and that of others. It was my graduate institution that left concerns. However having the two models available to me, I think, makes me a better mentor and instructor. And while I have yet to meet more than 1 person in the 5 billion years since I graduated (guess which of those #s is the exaggeration) who feels differently abt our major everyone has enjoyed the name recognition and social capital that comes from being from our alma mater.


  21. I started in geophysics, jumped ship to interdisciplinary engineering and then, at the end of my third year as an undergraduate, chucked it all to become a history major on the strength of one awesome elective. I had a lot of catching up to do. There was one methods/majors course shoehorned in there that taught a bit about historiography but much more about the nuts and bolts of sources and different types of historical writing. That was fine — I had some seminars and electives that did a good job of introducing me to historiography and the joy of journals!


  22. Swarthmore honors ’01 here–halfway between Lauren and Dave–and this is all reminding me how contingent everyone’s experience is. I did not find my seminars especially combative, for the most part; in fact, I often found myself wishing people would argue *more*. (I didn’t major or minor in history and never took a history seminar, though; there were significant departmental-level cultures on these things.)

    I was glad to do as much historiography as I did (in art history, it’s kind of all historiography, all the time, since your primary sources are nearly all visual) because my grad program (which is not in art history) has been unusually un-theoretical. I rely on my undergraduate training to keep me afloat in the theoretical side of my discipline, while my coursework and training in graduate school have mostly focused on in-depth reading of key primary sources.

    I think there are limits to everyone’s undergraduate education, but in my experience we become intensely aware of them only as we age and gain more perspective. If I had known then what I do now, I would have swapped out about a quarter of my courses, and I would have approached rather differently many of the courses I would still have taken. Sometimes I wish I could really go back to Swarthmore for a year (though God knows I do *not* wish I could go back to being 20) just to get a do-over. But though I now wish I had done much more 20th-century stuff, with a wider global spread (Latin America and Africa were pretty much completely off my map), I was glad for the intense focus of the experience that I did have.


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