Some forms of education are very narrow. For example, British university education is focused around a particular subject or topic. Similarly, as a person advances to higher levels of education, the field of study tends to narrow. However, in most programs at colleges and universities in the United States, there is a requirement to take certain courses outside of your major. Even in the absence of these requirements, there are compelling reasons to take courses that are not related to your major.
Learn to Think in Different Ways
Different portions of our brains function in different ways. For example, you may understand yourself to have a more dominant right or left brain and use this to describe the type of thinking patterns (loosely expressed as logical or artistic) that are more your strength. However, this dominance does not mean that you cannot function in the other way. In fact, by intentionally working a less dominant area of the brain, you can learn how to approach a situation in a new fashion. Sometimes when approaching a mathematical problem, a mathematician will solve it by looking at it through a different way of thinking. By exposing yourself to ways of thinking that are different from that required by your major, you are enhancing your own problem-solving ability.
Gain Exposure to Related Fields That May Help in Your Career
While the basic scope of training in any career field is relatively structured, the scope of knowledge that can be useful within a field is often fairly broad. Gaining knowledge of related fields can enhance people's careers when they can relate to what a customer or potential partner or colleague is saying. For example, the nursing student who takes a recreational therapy class will better understand what is going on with his patients in a nursing home. In fact, interdisciplinary classes can help expose a variety of approaches to the same situation, each flavored by the background of the students involved. Yale University Medical School capitalizes on this with several courses that intentionally create these interdisciplinary learning experiences.
Encounter Something You Like That You Didn't Know About
When beginning college, students have some idea of what they are interested in studying based on a possible career choice or the subjects they were exposed to in high school. Students may even select a major based on these factors or social factors on campus. However, many places, such as Rio Hondo Community College, have found that over half of college students change their major -- with many changing it three times. Considering this, it should not be surprising that students discover new passions by taking college coursework not related to their major. These courses expose them to new fields like chemical engineering and to new career paths such as being a museum curator.
Have Ideas When Your Career Changes
While there is no consensus about what makes a career change or even whether today's college students can expect to have seven careers in their lifetime, it does seem clear that most people will face some career changes. When you are faced with having to change careers, either because of market forces or because you have not found the satisfaction you seek, being able to think back on college coursework outside your major can help you determine directions that you might like to move in. While this is a longer-term benefit, it goes to show that there are many compelling reasons to study outside of your major.
Based in New York City, Christopher L. Smith has been writing since the 1998 publication of "Honest Talk About Serious Mental Illness." Smith brings professional experience in education, religion/spirituality and mental health, including as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Among Smith's graduate degrees is a M.Div. from Yale.