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Message from the dean

This website is addressed to two audiences: Princeton freshmen and sophomores, who must make important decisions about the shape and direction of their education as they choose their courses and select their concentrations, and Princeton parents, who care deeply about their children’s education and give advice about those decisions on the basis of their own values, wisdom, and experience. The website conveys a clear message: Undergraduates should be choosing their concentrations on the basis of their intellectual passions, not because of what they (or their parents) believe to be the presumed utility or practicality of a field of study. The website is intended to help students appreciate that, whatever their ultimate career goal, they can concentrate in any field, and that doing so will enrich their lives and equip them admirably for productive and rewarding careers.

The website introduces 92 graduates who followed their intellectual passions to major in subjects they loved—subjects they found to be fascinating, challenging, and mind-expanding, subjects that in most cases bore very little obvious connection to the wonderfully engaging careers they have subsequently pursued. To reiterate, the purpose of the essays presented here is to encourage current undergraduates to do just what these alumni have done: to follow their intellectual passions and study what they love, with confidence in the fulfilling lives that lie ahead and the knowledge that in no way will their choice of major limit the career choices they may wish to make in the future.

In making a pitch to students to follow their intellectual passions, I am also encouraging them to look at all of the options available to them. That means considering the many smaller departments as well as the departments that traditionally draw large numbers of concentrators. In offering that encouragement, I need to be absolutely clear: I have no interest or intention to persuade students who really want to major in the largest departments to do otherwise. A majority of concentrators in those departments are rightly attracted by engaging courses and compelling programs of study that accommodate a wide range of undergraduates, from students with sophisticated, highly focused intellectual interests to students who are seeking the broadest, most flexible liberal arts concentration.

But a significant minority of concentrators are attracted to those departments for other reasons. Students tell us that when they choose their concentrations, other considerations often trump intellectual passions. They gravitate to the more popular departments (a self-perpetuating cycle), the majors they think are more likely to help them get a job or win admission to graduate or professional school, the departments perceived to be the wisest, safest choices. Some of them concentrate in the largest departments not because they want to, but because they think they have to—that is, they choose those departments for extraneous reasons instead of pursuing studies in their desired fields. Others of them don’t know what they want to study and end up in the largest departments by default rather than intention. Those students are not discontented with their concentrations, but when they are asked what they would have majored in, given the chance to make the choice again, their answers range widely across the departments. It is those students especially to whom these essays are addressed.

My overriding purpose in preparing the website is to help all students to take the best advantage of the many intellectual opportunities here at Princeton—to help every undergraduate find the major that most closely matches his or her intellectual interests. 

Given that objective, why would I make a special effort to encourage students to look closely at smaller as well as larger departments? 

Why consider smaller departments?

The first reason is that we place a high value on intellectual community—among undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty—and it is much easier to create a real community in a department with a smaller number of undergraduate concentrators. Concentrating in a smaller department enhances the closeness of a student’s relationship not only with the faculty but with fellow concentrators.

The second reason has to do with the important place in the Princeton curriculum of independent work, especially the senior thesis. Students in smaller departments have much easier access to senior professorial faculty than students in the largest departments. Ideally, students should be able to choose as a senior thesis adviser a faculty member with whom they have studied before. In smaller departments, that happens as a matter of course. In the largest departments, it is much more difficult to accomplish.

The third reason is that the entire student body benefits from diversity, not only in students’ backgrounds but in their intellectual interests and educational experiences at Princeton. A conversation with someone in a field seemingly far removed from one’s own has the potential to enlarge and change one’s thinking in important ways. The University is in the business of fostering such interactions, and their frequency will increase as the representation of the smaller departments on campus grows.

We want to enable more students to follow their intellectual passions—to study what they love, not what they see other students studying, not what they think will be the safest, most practical choice to further their future pursuits. The purpose of a Princeton education is to stretch the mind and challenge the imagination—to teach students to think and reason and analyze and document and prove, to cast a critical eye on conventional wisdom, to make sense of evidence, to read a text with care and critical insight, to conceptualize and solve problems, to express themselves clearly and convincingly on paper and in oral exchange. These things can be accomplished in all fields of study, whether they are obviously practical, or whether their “relevance” is more obscure. 

And many fields of study—indeed, any field of study—will enable students to be admitted to graduate and professional schools and lead them to successful lives and careers. It is simply not true, for example, that politics or history students have the best chance of getting into a good law school, or that economics is the only route to a career in financial services, or that in applying to medical school, the biology or chemistry major has an advantage over students in philosophy or religion or sociology. The music major who wants to go to law school can prepare appropriately by taking courses in constitutional law. The anthropology concentrator who is headed to medical school can easily complete the necessary pre-med requirements. The philosophy major who is interested in Wall Street can take courses in financial markets, be readily admitted to a training program for investment banking, and, ultimately, to business school.

Often, concentrations in smaller departments will set students apart from their peers and give them a significant advantage in their future pursuits. In today’s world, the East Asian studies expert will thrive as an international banker; the individual with a strong grounding in German language and culture will have a real edge in international law; the physician who is fluent in Spanish will be better equipped to practice in most large American cities.

Real-world perspectives

If you’re skeptical that I can be right, listen to the experts. From the dean of admissions at a leading law school: “We have a huge variety of majors—electrical engineering, music, physics—all across the board. In fact, we sometimes get tired of yet another politics major. Students generally do better in majors they’re really interested in; by all means study what you feel drawn to.” From another law school admissions dean: “Concentrating in other fields [than politics, history, and economics] can be a distinguishing feature. In particular, rigorous training in the humanities will really help students get the most out of the way we teach.” And from a third dean: “Concentrators in the humanities and the sciences stand out as applicants. We encourage concentrations in any field!”

Similar testimony comes from the private sector. From a major financial services firm: “More often than not we interview applicants who have chosen a major other than economics…. Overall we are looking for those candidates who possess the raw intellect and ability to learn the business. Critical thinking is a key component of any major, and often the students who receive offers are able to exemplify their quantitative and analytical skills in the interview setting.” From a leading investment bank: “We recruit students of all majors. What we care about is whether students know about and have an interest in our business.” From one of the best-known consulting firms: “We devote considerable resources to identifying and recruiting talented, driven individuals, and we welcome applicants in any field.” And from a leading consumer products software company: “We are less interested in students’ academic backgrounds than in their talents and passions.”

And the testimony from medical school admissions deans strikes the same note. One writes, “We look for a broad-based student body. The nontraditional student really enhances the traditional student body.” A second dean adds, “We really do mean it when we say that we welcome all majors.”

I asked the alumni profiled here to speak to three themes: what they studied at Princeton, and why they chose the departments in which they concentrated; what they’ve done professionally; and how their studies may have prepared them to function successfully in the careers they’ve pursued. While each one responds in a distinctive voice, you will notice a number of recurring themes:

  • Pick a field of study you can be passionate about: Do what you love and pursue it tirelessly; love what you do; enjoy your education; follow your intellectual passion while you have the chance. 
  • Smaller departments afford every opportunity for access to members of the faculty, with substantial payoffs, such as individual attention from world-renowned scholars and frequent, close interactions between faculty and students that encourage intellectual confidence and build personal friendships.
  • The skills you will develop in any major are broadly applicable: Research, writing, oral communication, analytic and critical thinking, close reading of texts, and problem-solving are a universal set of intellectual skills that are of use across all pursuits. 
  • A less-common field of concentration makes you stand out when you apply for admission to professional schools or when you look for a job. Among the large number of applications from students in more conventional disciplines, yours will attract attention and pique the interest of the admission committee or hiring officer; your unusual background and experience will make your candidacy more interesting and compelling.
  • In sum, any concentration you choose will broaden your understanding of the human experience, prepare you for a wealth of adventures and challenges, and open doors throughout your life that you never thought would be available to you.

Let me say a few words, finally, about the principle of selection of the contributors to this project. I looked for recent graduates: alumni from the 1990s and 2000s. Some of them have settled into well-established career paths. Others are still in graduate school, figuring out their future directions. The individuals profiled here are meant to be illustrative, not representative. The selection is a function not of my judgment that some departments and professions are more worthy than others, but of which alumni were able to devote time to this project amidst the competing claims of their current professional obligations and personal commitments. Some departments may appear to be overrepresented; in those cases, a high proportion of the alumni I invited agreed to participate. Some departments may appear to be underrepresented; in those cases, despite my entreaties and reminders, it was simply more difficult to secure contributors. For all of the obvious omissions, I am confident that these profiles convey the essential messages of this website: that students should choose concentrations that match their deepest intellectual interests, and that smaller departments, like the larger ones, provide routes to wonderfully fulfilling and engaging lives and careers.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Dean of the College, 1987–2011
Professor of History

Any concentration you choose will broaden your understanding of the human experience, prepare you for a wealth of adventures and challenges, and open doors throughout your life that you never thought would be available to you.”