One of the challenges when you first start college is that with so many different terms and components to keep straight, things can quickly get confusing. Of all these, one distinction you'll want to start thinking about right away is degree vs. major. Often you may be asked what you've chosen to major in, but what exactly does this mean, and how is a "major" different from the degree you ultimately hope to earn?
The short answer is that a degree is conferred to you upon completion of all the requirements for graduation, and your major is the more specific area of study you focused on while completing your degree. While there are several different types of degrees based on broader disciplines (see below), the term "major" applies to various concentrations within a discipline. Below we break down some of the key differences.
Types of Degrees
Degrees are divided both by discipline and the level of study. In terms of dergee levels, students can choose to pursue associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees, and often they progress from one to the next over the course of several years.
Within each degree type, there are variations based on one's focus of study. For example, the most common bachelor's degrees are a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), but some colleges also offer Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees. The type of degree you pursue will often be dictated by your major, but there can be some overlap.1
What is a "Major?"
The area of study you focus on while pursuing your degree is often referred to as your major. Majors consist of a group of core classes as well as any additional requirements determined by your degree program. Sometimes called a "major concentration," a major is paired with your degree when you graduate to give future employers and/or graduate programs an idea of what you studied, your level of knowledge in a particular area, and what kinds of skills you may bring to the workplace. For example, you may major in business and get a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree, or you may opt to major in nursing or healthcare administration for your Bachelor of Science (BS) degree.2
Often colleges and universities will offer specializations (sometimes called concentrations) within a specific major and degree program in order to allow students to focus their course of study even further. For example, someone who wants to work in cyber security may choose to pursue a BS in Information Technology with a concentration in digital investigations.
In some cases a degree specialization can allow you to keep your focus broad enough to cover numerous career path options while still getting a little extra experience in a particular field. If you are interested in accounting, for instance, but want to give yourself the option of pursuing a variety of business-related positions, you may choose a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) with a specialization in accounting rather than a Bachelor of Accounting or a Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree.
Remember that you can change your major if you discover a better fit for your interests down the road, and switching majors doesn't always mean you need to pursue a totally different type of degree. Planning ahead for the career path you want can help make things easier in the long run, but if your goals change, your major and degree can change with them.
Ready to learn more? Explore online degrees at AIU.
1. The College Board, "Quick Guide: Your College Degree Options," on the Internet at https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/find-colleges/college-101/quick-guide-your-college-degree-options (visited May 2, 2016).
2. CareerKey.org, "What is a College Major?" on the Internet at https://www.careerkey.org/choose-a-college-major/what-is-a-college-major.html#.Vygcjqs3chY (visited May 2, 2016).