What is a Major in College?

What is a Major in College with a man looking confused

Students today have hundreds of options when it comes to selecting a college major. In fact, there are so many options that the decision can often feel overwhelming — especially if you have limited work or volunteer experience to base your decision upon. But what is a major in college, and how is a major different from a minor or a degree? And how do certificate programs fit into the picture?

This guide will answer those questions and more, while additionally providing you with examples of various majors and degrees that you may wish to consider exploring. Read on to learn about majors vs. degrees, plus tips on how to choose the right major based on your interests and goals.

What’s the Difference Between a Major and a Degree?

Degree vs. major: what’s the difference, and are they interchangeable? This is one of the most common topics our enrollment counselors receive questions about, so let’s discuss the answers.

A degree program is not the same as a major. Your major refers to the academic field you will study, such as majoring in accounting, music, engineering, or mathematics. By comparison, your degree indicates the level of education that you have completed or are pursuing. For example, you can earn a bachelor’s degree in a field like psychology or business administration before going on to earn your master’s or even doctorate in the same field or a related field. An example of this is earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) before advancing to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.

The Levels of Degrees

There are four basic types or levels of degree programs that are offered at U.S. colleges and universities:

  1. Associate’s Degrees
  2. Bachelor’s Degrees
  3. Master’s Degrees
  4. Doctorate Degrees

In addition to these four types of academic degrees, many educational institutions — including National University — also award a variety of credentials and/or certificates, which signify that the holder has achieved proficiency with a certain skill or specialty. While many credentials and certificates are optional, they can powerfully enhance your resume — especially if you additionally hold an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree.

We’ll talk more about professional certificates later in this guide to college majors, after providing details about each type of degree program. Continue reading to learn all about the differences between associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, including how long each one typically takes to complete — and the earning potential associated with each. We’ll also discuss how National University’s streamlined, intensive course design can help you earn your degree or certificate faster compared to traditionally structured programs.

Associate’s Degree

Are you driven to develop marketable skills and enhance your resume, but not ready to make the time commitment required for a bachelor’s or master’s degree program? An associate’s degree program provides an efficient, affordable, and pragmatic entry point into a diverse range of careers, with most programs able to be completed in just 24 months or less. If you’re eager to make a career change or take the first steps toward landing your dream job, completing an associate’s degree program is one of the fastest ways to begin building the academic and professional foundations you’ll need in the workplace. Non-degree awards like certificates can also be earned rapidly, but many employers require applicants to hold an associate’s degree — or higher.

While an associate’s degree program typically requires two years to complete, you may be able to earn your degree even faster by enrolling in an accelerated program. At National University, our unique program structure enables students to complete individual courses in as little as four weeks, generally with the option to satisfy some or all of the program requirements online.

When applying to an associate’s degree program, as with any type of college major, be sure to follow the instructions carefully to ensure that no test scores, transcripts, letters, or other materials are missing. It’s also important to select a program that has been accredited — a topic you can read more about here. National University offers a wide variety of accredited associate’s degree programs, with just a few examples presented below. To browse additional options, explore our program finder using your desired search filters.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a type of undergraduate degree that, in most cases, takes students four years to earn. Some undergraduate programs may take five years or longer to complete, whereas other programs can, depending on the college or university, be completed at an accelerated pace. With options to complete coursework online — plus a challenging four-week course structure, in most cases — National University provides students with the framework to finish their degrees faster and embark on rewarding careers sooner. Of course, the time required to finish your bachelor’s degree, as with any degree program, depends on factors like how you schedule your course load and whether you take time off.

There are two main types of bachelor’s degrees: a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA). Both designations indicate a four-year undergraduate program, with the difference lying chiefly in the subject matter involved. BA degrees typically involve a greater portion of coursework in the humanities, while BS degrees generally place more of an emphasis on science and mathematics.

While some accept applicants who hold certificates, associate’s degrees, and/or hands-on experience, many employers require applicants to hold bachelor’s degrees as a minimum educational requirement for entry-level positions. With its longer four-year format, the bachelor’s degree goes into greater depth than the two-year associate’s degree, enabling students to hone more complex and specialized skills. A bachelor’s degree typically culminates with the completion of a thesis — a major project that showcases the student’s ability to research, construct, design, write, analyze, and/or perform, synthesizing the skills and knowledge they have learned throughout the program.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is a more advanced degree that enables holders to both increase their earning potential while qualifying for more specialized or leadership-oriented roles in the workplace. Additionally, certain careers or job titles require applicants to hold a master’s degree, which is something you should research carefully when mapping out your academic journey. For example, did you know that you’ll generally need to earn a master’s degree if you intend to become a nurse practitioner, clinical psychologist, economist, family therapist, financial manager, or IT manager?

That isn’t the only reason to consider pursuing a graduate degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers who hold a master’s degree earn more per week on average than workers who hold a bachelor’s or associate’s degree: more than $1,570 per week compared to approximately $1,330 or $960 per week, respectively. While a graduate degree does not guarantee a higher salary, it does help position you to qualify for higher-paying jobs.

National University offers a variety of accredited master’s degree programs for those who wish to take their studies — and their careers — that extra step further. Here are just a few examples of the master’s-level programs you’ll find at NU, with many more listed in our program directory.

Doctoral Degree

A doctorate or doctoral degree is the highest and most advanced form of degree you can earn, regardless of the industry or field you have chosen. A doctoral degree may require anywhere from three years to more than eight years to complete in traditional, non-accelerated programs, though programs at NU can generally be completed in three to five years depending on the specific program and other factors.

Learn more by exploring our guide to doctorate degree programs, or request additional information from our friendly and knowledgeable team of enrollment counselors. National University currently offers three accredited doctorate programs, which are listed below with links to each program page.

Degree Specializations

Some degree programs require or encourage students to choose a specific track or concentration, meaning a niche, specialized area in which they will focus their learning. For example, the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) program at National University offers 10 distinct concentrations for students to choose from, including but not limited to Accounting, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, and Finance.

You can also specialize further in a field of your choosing by earning a relevant certificate, depending on the type of career and job title you are interested in. For example, there are numerous nursing certifications that can help qualify you for specialized fields like radiology or rehabilitative nursing — for example, the Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN) certification, which is awarded to qualified applicants by the Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board (RNCB).

To learn more about nursing certifications at NU, explore our nursing and healthcare certificate programs, or read about 39 different types of nursing careers. You may also wish to browse our other certification programs, which are available in fields like teaching and education, business and marketing, and criminal justice and law, by using our program finder.

woman working on a computer trying to decide a college major

How to Decide on a Major

Selecting a major is an important decision that impacts everything from the coursework you’ll take and the training you’ll receive, to your career and networking opportunities throughout — and beyond — your time at school. However, there’s no need to be intimidated by the decision: by answering a few questions about your background, your priorities, and what you’re hoping to achieve, you’ll be able to start narrowing down your choices until you find an ideal program. And remember: you don’t have to declare your major immediately, and you always have the option to change majors later. Plus, our helpful team of admissions counselors is always here to help guide and advise you.

With that in mind, let’s look at some key considerations that you should think about when you’re comparing programs. Here’s how to choose a major that’s likely to be compatible with your goals, motivations, and personal interests.

What Are Your Interests and Abilities?

If you aren’t sure where to start, one good beginning point is to consider your academic strengths and interests. For example, maybe you’ve always had a knack for solving math problems or building your own computers — or, on the other hand, maybe you know there are certain subjects you absolutely dread. When reviewing potential majors, make it a priority to check out the mandatory and elective coursework to ensure that you’ll be studying topics you enjoy learning about, or at least have an aptitude for.

What Are Your Career Goals?

It’s important to choose a major — and a degree program — that will help to train and prepare you for the specific goals or requirements you’d like to achieve. For example, you might already know that you’re interested in business; but does that definitely mean you should choose the business major, or might you be better served by majoring in a narrower field, such as human resources? The answer depends on whether you’re more interested in learning about the daily operation and management of a business, or you’d rather be in a more employee-centric role.

The above is just one example of how your professional goals can inform your choice of major. By identifying your career goals, you can more easily determine the skills and qualifications you’ll need, along with the subjects you’re most interested in learning about — and in turn, identify which majors (or certification programs) are best suited to helping you reach those targets.

What Are Your Motivations?

Your academic abilities and professional goals will both impact your choice of major — but what about your personal values, or the factors that motivate you to learn and succeed? Take some time to think clearly and honestly about the factors that matter to you the most, from the practical (like having high earning potential) to the psychological (like doing a public service for your community). Identifying your priorities and motivations is an excellent first step toward choosing a major that feels both fitting and rewarding.

Speak with a College Advisor

Think you may have narrowed your choice of major, but need a bit more guidance? Our team of knowledgeable college advisors is here to assist you. Contact us today to request information about our accredited programs and learn more about the majors that interest you most.

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When Do You Need to Declare a Major?

The phrase “declaring a major” refers to the simple but critically important process of formally indicating to your university or college which major you plan to study while enrolled. If you aren’t immediately sure what you intend to study, don’t panic: many universities permit students to declare their majors as late as their sophomore or second year of study. Of course, if you plan on applying to a two-year program, you should decide on and declare your major as early as possible in the process. And if you have any questions, our admissions counselors can help walk you through everything you need to know about declaring your major at NU.

You should not rush into this important decision, but rather, take your time considering the best option for you following the tips we discussed a few moments ago. But what happens if you discover you don’t like your major, or you decide that you’d rather pursue a different field of study?

Can You Change Your Major?

In short: yes. If you decide that your initial choice of major is not a good fit for you — or, as you might discover during your studies, you find yourself gravitating toward a different academic subject — you generally have the option to switch to a different major, though you should be aware that doing so could possibly delay your graduation date. Before you decide to switch majors, it’s wise to discuss your decision with an admissions counselor, who can help advise you on the pros and cons of changing to a different program.

What is a Minor?

A minor is like a supplementary course of study that is paired with, though secondary to, your major. While you will spend the majority of your time completing your major requirements, you will also dedicate a smaller number of hours to fulfilling your minor coursework.

This is because a minor requires fewer credits to complete than a major — at many colleges or universities, approximately 15 credits vs. 36 credits. However, National University utilizes a unique quarter unit system. For instance, a student who minors in accounting at NU will complete a total of six courses amounting to 27 quarter units, whereas a student choosing to major in accounting will complete at least 180 quarter units — highlighting the substantial difference between the Minor in Accounting and the Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree.

Do You Need to Declare a Minor?

Your major and minor do not need to be the same, though many students choose to pair them strategically. For example, you might wish to support a business- or finance-related major by minoring in a language, which will become a valuable asset for international business dealings. Typically, your minor is an opportunity to inform and build upon the skills, training, and knowledge you will cover in coursework related to your major. You may also wish to use your minor as an opportunity simply to explore a topic that personally interests you, regardless of whether or not it is connected to your major.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Have questions about the majors and minors offered at National University, or want to learn more about a specific degree or certificate program? Contact our enrollment officers for one-on-one support or apply to National University online today.

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