A Major Decision: Choosing Your Concentration

If you’re a sophomore at Princeton, this is an important semester. In April, you will finally declare your concentration, which may seem like one of the most daunting decisions you’ve had to make here. Will you lose out on opportunities by choosing one major over another? Will one department make you happier? Will another stimulate you more intellectually?

Today, I’m a junior happily enrolled in Spanish and Portuguese (SPO). But last year at this time, I was struggling with these same questions, and almost declared myself a Sociology (SOC) major. Ultimately, making the choice came down to seeking out advice and reflecting on what was best for me.

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One great part of being a Spanish and Portuguese concentrator is how much time you spend in the most beautiful building on campus, East Pyne!

Freshman year, I was pretty sure I would end up in SPO. I took courses in both Portuguese and Spanish, and the department helped fund my summer in Brazil. Beyond the intimacy of the department — which has few concentrators amid an incredible array of resources — what excited me about SPO were its interdisciplinary opportunities. The possibilities for independent work seemed limitless, in regards to both form and subject.

Sophomore year threw a wrench in my plans. I started taking SOC courses, and I loved how the discipline prompted me to question social constructs and think about how societal phenomena are not necessarily natural. Grad school had previously seemed far in the distance, but the more I learned about SOC, the more I realized I might want to study social sciences after Princeton.

With all this in mind, I found myself facing a major decision (pun intended). I set up meetings with professors in both departments in order to understand what each concentration has to offer. And yet the more I learned, the more I wished I could do both. On the one hand, I knew that SPO’s flexible curriculum would allow me to engage in the social sciences. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what I would concretely learn with SPO, whereas SOC offered me a concrete discipline: a lens with which to look at academic questions.

The more I learned, the more I wished I could do both.

After a lot of discussions and reflection, I was 95% decided on SPO. I rationalized that since I had taken way more SPO courses than SOC ones, majoring in SPO would open up my schedule to explore courses that excited me outside of my department, particularly in the arts and social sciences.

And yet, when it came time to submit the online form, I froze. I wrote a frantic email to my Spanish professor. I worried I might be hurting myself for grad school, since I wouldn’t be taking the research methods courses reserved for SOC majors.

Within an hour, I received two emails — from him and another professor I hadn’t even reached out to. They reassured me that I was making the right decision. In the humanities and social sciences, they said, interdisciplinary engagement is obligatory. They told me that several SPO professors have social science backgrounds. Should I apply to grad school in the social sciences, my future research would only be enhanced by the cultural and linguistic competency gained through SPO.

In the humanities and social sciences, they said, interdisciplinary engagement is obligatory.

I was convinced. Submitting the form was still intimidating, but, as cheesy as it sounds, I knew I had found my people. And as an added bonus, I reached out to SOC and was given permission to enroll in a methodologies course reserved for concentrators. The professor teaching the course put my mind at rest: grad students in the social sciences come from all sorts of academic backgrounds.

Ultimately, the reward for last year’s struggle has been a supportive department that has not only allowed, but encouraged me to incorporate ethnography into my independent research. This is not to say SOC wouldn’t have been wonderful, too; but I am happy where I am.

The takeaway from this story? Choosing your major is daunting — there’s no getting around that. But you can increase the chances you’ll be happy with your decision by doing your due diligence now. Talk to current concentrators and professors. Become informed about what makes each department unique. Self-reflect and think about what you want to get out of Princeton. Perhaps you’ll be able to arrange some sort of specialized curriculum, like I did with the sociological methods class. And when in doubt, stick with what you’re most passionate about. You can’t go wrong with that.

– Dylan Blau Edelstein, Humanities Correspondent