Guide to College Majors by Academic Area

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College Majors by Academic Area

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Choosing a college major was difficult enough back when there were only 50 or so. These days, there are hundreds of majors, in everything from astronautics to viticulture. And it's not an embarrassment of riches for the college student frantically trying to pick one—it's an embarrassment of overwhelming-ness.

Fortunately, those college majors all fall into six broad academic areas. And picking one out of six academic areas of interest should be considerably easier than trying to pluck one thing out of 150 or more possibilities. What remains is not only a considerably less intimidating list to explore—it can provide plenty of fodder for parent-college kid conversation in the days to come. "What on earth is informatics?" you can ask. "And is ceramic engineering an art class?" (Um, no. It's not.)

Browse the entire list in one go, or jump directly to one of these six academic areas for a little more depth:

  • Visual and Performing Arts-Related Majors
  • Science and Math Majors
  • Environment-Related Majors
  • Business Majors
  • Engineering & Technology Majors
  • Language, Literature & Social Science Majors
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Visual and Performing Arts-Related Majors

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Choosing one college major out of hundreds of possibilities is much easier if your college kid already knows what he wants is something in the visual and performing arts field. And contrary to popular opinion and operatic plots, arts majors do not risk starvation (although that's certainly one of several classic parental misconceptions).

These majors represent a variety of deeply creative and artistic pursuits, each with many sub-specialties (and whose potential salaries may surprise you). The asterisks below denote traditionally competitive majors, which may be difficult to get into on some campuses or may require auditions, portfolios or recommendations.

Visual & Performing Arts Majors

  • Architectural design*, including architecture and landscape architecture
  • Art*, and its many practical art sub-specialties, including animation, digital design, fashion design, game design, graphic design, illustration, interior design, and photography, as well as classic art forms
  • Art history (which has more job possibilities than you might imagine—here are 15 careers for art historians)
  • Cinematography and film*, including critical studies, animation, and digital arts, interactive media, film and TV production, and writing
  • Dance* (here are 15 different career avenues to pursue)
  • Music*, including performance (specific instrument or vocal, as well as by genre of music), composition, history, ethnomusicology, music education, sound design, and recording technology
  • Theater Arts, including acting, directing, design, playwriting, technical theater, management, and performing arts entrepreneurship
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Science and Math Majors

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Over the last 30 years, the sciences have exploded into an extravagant array of possibilities. Some, such as bioengineering, can be very competitive to get into. Most of these programs have stringent GPA and prerequisite coursework requirements.

Pre-med students typically choose a major from this list, although statistically, music students stand a better chance of acceptance at med school. (If, that is, they can score decently on the science-heavy MCAT.)

Science and Math Majors

  • Mathematics and applied mathematics, an interdisciplinary field that applies mathematics to other practical fields, which can include, for example, biology, engineering, and economics
  • Agricultural sciences, including agricultural and environmental education, animal biology, animal science and management, avian sciences, biotechnology, entomology, plant sciences, and viticulture and enology (yes, that's winemaking and vineyard management)
  • Astronomy, astronautics, and astrophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Bioengineering and related fields, including medical technology
  • Biology, including its many sub-specialties, such as cell, marine, micro, molecular and neurobiology
  • Botany
  • Chemistry
  • Criminal science and forensics
  • Earth and space sciences, including geology, geochemistry, geophysics, paleobiology and paleontology, space physics and seismology
  • Environmental sciences, including atmospheric sciences
  • Food science, including nutrition science and culinary arts
  • Genetics
  • Kinesiology, including sports medicine and exercise biology
  • Marine biology and oceanography
  • Nursing
  • Physics
  • Physiology
  • Pre-med, pre-dent, etc. (Some colleges offer these as specific degrees, although you can apply to medical and dental school with any major—and these can be a resume liability if the student changes his mind.)
  • Psychology, a field that overlaps with the social sciences
  • Speech and hearing sciences and disorders
  • Statistics
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Environment-Related Majors

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When you hear people talk about the sudden explosion of new majors and fields of study, environmental studies and environmental sciences are a huge part of that. The following majors, which include hard sciences as well as social sciences, all tap into environmental topics.

Some students pair topics to add further depth and understanding. They may double major in marine biology and environmental studies, for example, or city planning and environmental studies.

  • Aquatic and fishery sciences
  • Anthropology
  • Atmospheric sciences
  • Biology
  • Botany
  • Ecology
  • Environmental studies, including law, policy, ethics, technology, and remediation
  • Environmental science
  • Resource management, including forestry, watershed, and wildlife management
  • Oceanography and marine biology
  • Urban planning
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Business Majors

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There's no doubt that certain career paths are more stable than others. Industry segments may come and go, but there will always be a need for accountants, statisticians and information systems experts. A business major is a fairly sure bet, but many of these majors have stringent entry requirements.

Business-Related Majors

  • Accounting
  • Actuarial science
  • Advertising, marketing, and public relations
  • Agribusiness management and agricultural systems management
  • Business administration
  • Construction management
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Information systems
  • Health administration
  • Hospitality management
  • International business and trade
  • Labor studies and employment relations
  • Management, including leadership/entrepreneurship
  • Management of information systems
  • Security and risk analysis
  • Statistics
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Engineering and Technology Majors

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The economy may ebb and flow, but new engineering and technology majors are always needed. That popularity means that getting into many of these programs is an incredibly competitive affair. At some universities, you apply for a place in the engineering program when you apply for admission to the school in the first place. But that's not true of every major and every school. Applied mathematics, for example, is less likely to be impacted. But students who are interested in one of these degrees should meet with an academic advisor very early on.

Engineering and Technology Majors

  • Aeronautics and Astronautics, which is the design, testing, and production of aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft
  • Applied mathematical sciences
  • Bioengineering
  • Bioresource science and engineering
  • Chemical and biomolecular engineering
  • Civil and environmental engineering
  • Electrical engineering and computer science
  • Industrial engineering
  • Materials science and engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Nuclear science and engineering
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Language, Literature & Social Science Majors

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The social sciences and liberal arts include an enormous number of majors, most of which have held steady for the last several decades.

Don't leap to any conclusions about the marketability of these majors. Anthropology majors get scooped up by corporations for their prowess with group dynamics and corporate cultures—which can be as arcane and ritual-filled as any isolated tribe. Don't discount English, history or comp lit majors; the world is badly in need of people who can write. And before you drop a snarky comment about philosophy majors only knowing how to philosophize, think about how many years they spend studying logic. In short, there's more to a liberal arts degree than you might think.

Literature, Language, and Social Science Majors

  • Anthropology and related fields, including paleontology and geography
  • American, English and comparative literature, and classics, the study of Ancient Greek and Roman culture, language and literature
  • City (urban) planning
  • Communication, including such sub-specialties as print, online and broadcast journalism, and tech writing
  • Pre-law, criminology, social justice, and related fields
  • Education, including early childhood and special education
  • Economics
  • English, including creative writing and linguistics
  • Ethnic and gender studies
  • Foreign languages and literature
  • History and archaeology
  • Library and information sciences
  • Philosophy and rhetoric
  • Political science and international studies
  • Psychology
  • Religious studies
  • Sociology