What is your major? [What is your principal area of study at university/college?]

Tenacious Learner

Senior Member
Spanish
Hello teachers,
Do both sentences convey the same meaning?
What is your major?
What is your principal area of study (at university/college)?

Thanks in advance.
 
  • Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    No, they don't. "What is your major" is asking for your degree subject, whereas your principal area of study may be something more restricted. For example a Math major might have probability as her principal area of study.
     

    Tenacious Learner

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    No, they don't. "What is your major" is asking for your degree subject, whereas your principal area of study may be something more restricted. For example a Math major might have probability as her principal area of study.
    Thank you, Glas. How about 'What's your career? / What are you studying?'.

    TL
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    We would never say "what's your career?" - note that a career is someone's long-term professional evolution in a field, not their field of specialisation. "What are you studying?" would generally receive similar answers to "What is your major?". Note that "major" is US English, if you weren't already aware of this.
     

    Tenacious Learner

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hello Glas,
    All right. Let me see if I understood that. If I say, 'Maria is majoring in medicine, but she hasn't decided which specialty to choose yet: neurology or urology'. Then, after a few months she decides to choose 'neurology'.
    Can I say 'She is majoring in neurology'? If so, it means she's still studying medicine. Then, 'neurology' is her major, her 'specialty'; right?
    In other words, her career is medicine, but her major/specialty is 'neurology'. Correct?

    TL
     
    Last edited:

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    Let's avoid medicine, as that is a specific topic, and take for example a bachelor degree in arts. Someone's major might be, for example, English Literature. They might well be interested in a particular type of English literature, but that doesn't become their "major". Maria might well decide to specialise in Neurology, but she won't be "majoring" in Neurology - if such a degree existed it would be a lesser degree than "MD" and its equivalents, and Maria would generally speaking not be a doctor. Medicine is not her career, either - it is her field. Lastly, major and specialty are not the same. After obtaining her degree in medicine, Maria might then go on to specialize in Neurology, but note that we only talk about "major" for a first degree, not advanced degrees.
     

    Tenacious Learner

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hi Glass,
    Hmm ... It seems very complicated to me to understand what a major is. I have to admit that you have tried your best, it's just me. So sorry about that.
    Maybe the key is this sentence of yours '... we only talk about "major" for a first degree, not advanced degrees'.
    Which are first degrees, for example, for arts? And advanced ones?

    TL
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    A first degree is typically a bachelor degree (BA, BS, BSc, etc). It can be in arts, sciences, or various other disciplines. Personally my major was "Electronics and Electrical Engineering". Friends of mine had majors in "French", "Linguistics", "Law", "Business Studies", "Film and Television Studies", "Mathematics".
    Advanced degrees are masters (MA, MS, MSc, etc) or doctorates (PhD, DSc, DLitt, etc).
     

    Tenacious Learner

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Thank you, Glass. I've also done some research on the net. This is what I've found:
    A major is the area you choose to specialize in; there are certain requirements for your major as well. (You can also choose two majors if you like.)

    At the end, you will graduate with a degree with a major(s).
    Example: You earn (obtain) a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English.

    Do you agree?

    TL
     

    Juhasz

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    A major is the area you choose to specialize in; there are certain requirements for your major as well.
    The requirements aren't incidental - that is, it's not that there are requirements for your major as well. A major is a set of requirements; generally that you take a certain number of courses taught by a particular department and also perhaps that you write a thesis on the subject, complete a relevant internship, etc. For example, here's how my alma mater describes my major: "The major in religious studies consists of eight courses in religion, and two supplementary courses, approved by the advisor, in a field that provides sustainable skills or theoretical tools for the study of religion..." [Please don't ask me what "sustainable skills" are...]

    Majors are usually fairly broad and they are usually consistent across schools. That is, almost every university will have anthropology, art, biology, and chemistry majors (to name but a very few). The requirements will vary from school to school and even the terminology is somewhat inconsistent (Harvard, for instance, doesn't have majors; it has concentrations), but the concept is almost universal across American colleges.

    Areas of study/focus, specializations, and other such descriptors do not have similarly well-established meanings. They might have a specific meaning at a specific school (my graduate program required us to choose an "area of focus," which was similar to a major), but across schools, their meaning is ambiguous. If someone asked my, "What was your area of focus in grad school?" I would assume that that person would not be familiar with the specific terminology of my school. Thus, I wouldn't say, "Religion and the Social Sciences," which was the official designation, but would instead give a more specific answer about the particular subject I studied.
     

    Tenacious Learner

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    The requirements aren't incidental - that is, it's not that there are requirements for your major as well. A major is a set of requirements; generally that you take a certain number of courses taught by a particular department and also perhaps that you write a thesis on the subject, complete a relevant internship, etc. For example, here's how my alma mater describes my major: "The major in religious studies consists of eight courses in religion, and two supplementary courses, approved by the advisor, in a field that provides sustainable skills or theoretical tools for the study of religion..." [Please don't ask me what "sustainable skills" are...] OK. I won't. ;)

    Majors are usually fairly broad and they are usually consistent across schools. That is, almost every university will have anthropology, art, biology, and chemistry majors (to name but a very few). The requirements will vary from school to school and even the terminology is somewhat inconsistent (Harvard, for instance, doesn't have majors; it has concentrations), but the concept is almost universal across American colleges.

    Areas of study/focus, specializations, and other such descriptors do not have similarly well-established meanings. They might have a specific meaning at a specific school (my graduate program required us to choose an "area of focus," which was similar to a major), but across schools, their meaning is ambiguous. If someone asked my, "What was your area of focus in grad school?" I would assume that that person would not be familiar with the specific terminology of my school. Thus, I wouldn't say, "Religion and the Social Sciences," which was the official designation, but would instead give a more specific answer about the particular subject I studied.
    Thank you, Juhasz. I think, step by step, I begin to understand the concept. Thank you both for your interest and patience.

    TL
     

    Copperknickers

    Senior Member
    Scotland - Scots and English
    And lastly, remember that this all depends on the education system. In the USA you pick a major as your primary subject (e.g. Chemistry, Biology, History) which will require you to take classes relating to that major, and then you also might do a Minor(s). In Scotland, the system is similar, although I think the minors are less formalised?

    Anyway in England the system is different, you pick a subject (History, Biology, Chemistry) and then all of your classes must be related to that subject, as defined by the rules of your department. You can combine different subjects, e.g. 'History with French', where you take 75% History classes and 25% French classes, but you must usually choose to do that from the very start, as part of what is called a 'joint honours degree.' Most people do not do this, so 'Major' and 'Minor' are not really appropriate terminology for the English university system as a whole. I didn't have a 'Major' for example, since I studied Classics which encompasses many different subjects.

    Luckily I've never had to explain my degree to an American, because I have no idea how I would do so, so no wonder you are confused. :)
     

    Tenacious Learner

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    And lastly, remember that this all depends on the education system. In the USA you pick a major as your primary subject (e.g. Chemistry, Biology, History) which will require you to take classes relating to that major, and then you also might do a Minor(s). In Scotland, the system is similar, although I think the minors are less formalised?

    Anyway in England the system is different, you pick a subject (History, Biology, Chemistry) and then all of your classes must be related to that subject, as defined by the rules of your department. You can combine different subjects, e.g. 'History with French', where you take 75% History classes and 25% French classes, but you must usually choose to do that from the very start, as part of what is called a 'joint honours degree.' Most people do not do this, so 'Major' and 'Minor' are not really appropriate terminology for the English university system as a whole. I didn't have a 'Major' for example, since I studied Classics which encompasses many different subjects.

    Luckily I've never had to explain my degree to an American, because I have no idea how I would do so, so no wonder you are confused. :)
    Hello Copperknickers,
    Thank you for your interest too. I'm not that lucky. I have to explain what 'major' means to my students. Wish me luck. ;)

    TL
     
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