O-Issue 2013: Majors

Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly endless College Catalog Web site.

By Stephanie Xiao

UChicago offers 51 majors, 29 minors, and seemingly infinite combinations of concentrations to its coterie of knowledge-hungry undergrads. To be exact, that is 100 percent satiation for an academic appetite.

On the surface, choosing a major at UChicago is a relatively straightforward task: take a few classes based on personal and/or professional interest to test the waters, and simply declare by spring of third year. This generally just entails submitting an online request and, if you want to avoid a prodding e-mail, informing your College adviser.

Every major, of course, has its own rules—certain programs have more stringent prerequisites that need to be fulfilled before declaring, while others require an application for admission. A major may comprise only 11 courses (Law, Letters, and Society) or it may require 19 (biochemistry)—and the numbers may even differ depending on the area of specialization within the same major. Minors usually require about half as many credits. Thus, it is probably prudent to take a quick glance at what potential majors might require of you, but you’ve probably already done that.

Many students nonetheless arrive at the University without a clue as to what their major will be. And that’s perfectly fine; you have so much time to figure it out. Everyone will tell you that. And yet, you still might find yourself envying the lucky few who come in on the first day knowing for sure they want to do econ. Knowing they want to do econ/math. Knowing they want to do econ/comp sci. Knowing they want to do econ/math/comp sci.

Speaking of, two things:

First, there are a lot of economics majors on campus. Perhaps due to the deservedly famed reputation of the department, which prompts adages like, “You can’t come to UChicago and NOT do econ,” or perhaps due to the odd association between the econ major and future financial success for those aspiring Patrick Bateman types. Based on the most recent quantitative data released by the registrar, out of 5,334 enrolled College students, there were 840 official econ majors as of spring 2013. The second and third most popular majors were biological sciences (481 students), and political science (406 students). The least popular majors currently are Jewish studies and South Asian studies, with two students each.

Second, a favorite UChicago pastime is majoring in twos and threes. Many students decide to double major every year, and the University’s official spiel on this tradition is that, professionally speaking, it usually does not make a difference. An even smaller collegiate clique opts to try their hands at the masochistic rigors of a triple major, and often finds it to be a Sisyphean, but happy, struggle. As of last spring, 1,072 students had officially declared a double major, while 54 declared a triple.

Of course, this also wouldn’t be UChicago without the smattering of idiosyncratic, and interdisciplinary majors offered by the New Collegiate Division. For instance, Fundamentals: Issues and Texts majors seek to answer one deceptively basic question (for example, “How does one love?” or “What is desperation?”) by focusing intensely on a few chosen texts, hence the name. The required introductory course could cover many works of one author, or focus on a single book, most of which are read an excruciating (but theoretically rewarding) minimum of three times.

Law, Letters, and Society is also an interdisciplinary major and draws heavily from the political science, history, philosophy, and sociology departments, among others. All second-years who have been admitted into the major are required to take an introductory class, “Legal Reasoning,” taught by famed professor and program director Dennis Hutchinson during the fall. Both fundamentals and Law, Letters, and Society require non-binding applications during spring quarter of your first year.

In addition, there is a major with a winning name and even more impressive interdisciplinary attitude: HIPS (History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine). All HIPSters must cultivate a foundational knowledge of the natural sciences, and then immerse themselves in such topics as the history of medicine, and its social, psychological, and philosophical ramifications.

Students who are on an exceptionally set path can pursue a joint degree program or professional option to really milk the benefits of their UChicago experience. The University offers four-year joint Bachelor’s/Master’s programs in humanities, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, international relations, and most recently, computer science. You also have the option to begin professional studies at the Harris School of Public Policy or the Pritzker School of Medicine during your fourth year through the professional option in public policy studies and the ultra-competitive professional option in medicine programs. The School of Social Service Administration has a five-year A.B./A.M. program.

If it’s any consolation, changing your mind is a very common part of the broader process of finding yourself during college. This sudden indecision where once there was a fervent desire to be a physics, philosophy, or English major may be brought on by a multitude of factors (for example, the Core curriculum, bitterly cold weather, the pitfalls of organic chemistry, actual philosophy classes, to name a few) but it’s certainly nothing to worry about.