Can I change my major field in graduate school?

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Updated: February 13, 2024, Reading time: 6 minutes

changing majors grad school

It’s a fact! A high percentage of undergraduates change majors during their college years. Some more than one time. It is also true that many people go on to successfully apply to and earn a graduate degree in a field different from that in which they earned their bachelor’s degree.

As an undergraduate, a student can switch majors, even several times. When making the jump to graduate school, people often feel the need to take a new and different direction.

How about having a similar change of mind and making a similar change in your field of study when you’ve already begun a graduate degree program? Is this possible?

This FAQ will try to answer this question by clarifying some terms and by pointing out some of the key differences between, on the one hand, switching majors as an undergraduate or changing direction in the transition to graduate school, and, on the other, changing direction while already in a graduate degree program.

Changing Your Major as an Undergraduate

For undergraduates switching majors is the simplest. Since one is already accepted to and enrolled in the college or university as such, changing your mind on one major field doesn’t require any new applications to be submitted. For undergraduates changing a major is always possible.

Speak to your academic advisor to determine your new curriculum program how this will affect existing credits and whether you will need to take additional courses. Your academic advisor will also be able to help you officially declare your change in major, so the paperwork remains up to date.

Changing Direction in Graduate School

For those wanting to enter a graduate program in a different field from their undergraduate degree, the process is also quite simple. It requires, very often, a few more steps in the application process, such as graduate exams/tests, a statement of purpose, and prerequisite courses, among others.

Changing Focus in Your Graduate Degree Program

Once a person already is in a graduate degree program, switching concentrations is quite easy. For example, a graduate student in an MA of History program moving from Modern History to Early Modern History. The key factor to note here is that changing concentrations occur within a department, and, more specifically, within a degree program.

This is not an actual change of your major. In fact, as a graduate student, you don’t actually declare a major. In graduate studies, a person is accepted by a department and/or faculty to a specific program. In short you’re not really changing majors, as in changing from one degree to another and from one academic department to another.

Changing Majors as a Graduate Student

It’s clear now that the talk of “changing majors” as a graduate student is a misnomer, or, at best, likely to create confusion. It’s already been noted that the notion of “major” in graduate school is incorrect. So, if there is no “major” that a graduate student chooses, then they can’t change majors.

The notions of a degree’s field or area, as well as concentrations or specializations in a graduate degree, are similar to but not the same as a major in undergraduate studies. The degree’s field is like an undergraduate major because both have to do with the degree itself. Specializations are like the notion of undergraduate majors because they both refer to the focus of the degree.

Now that we understand that there are in fact no majors in graduate studies, but, rather, there are fields and concentrations in graduate studies, we can clear up the paths that graduate students can go down when they want to change directions on their educational journey. One is more drastic and complicated than the other.

Changing Graduate Degree Programs

In this scenario, the student would seek admission to an entirely separate degree program. This is quite different from switching majors as an undergraduate or shifting concentrations in a graduate program. To change degrees as a graduate student, a person would have to provide:

Matters are more complicated for graduate students wanting to make a big change because of the nature of graduate education in comparison to undergraduate education. In graduate studies, students (when they are funded) receive funds from a certain academic department.

This funding comes from financing sources allocated to the department for funding graduate students. Often competition for such funding is very competitive. Since the funds are designated to a specific department for the specific purpose of funding graduate students, the funds are not transferable between departments and degree programs.

Thus, if you have funding for a certain graduate degree program, this funding will not be available in a different degree program. If you made the switch in degree programs, you would have to obtain new funding or foot the bill yourself.

It may be better, especially if you have funding, to finish the graduate degree you are in and then seek admittance to another degree program. Another consideration would be to inquire with the degree programs you are interested in about the possibility of transferring credits earned in your current degree program to the other degree program.

Changing Concentration-Specialization in Graduate Degree Program

This option is taken in one graduate degree program. It is not a change in degree or overall focus. It’s instead a re-direction of the special and intense focus that one takes within a degree program. For example, a Master’s in math education will require students to gain an outstanding knowledge of and pedagogical skills in each of the basic fields of math from arithmetic to calculus.

However, one might choose a specialization, such as elementary math education. In the course of the master’s program, the person in our example might find that elementary-level education is not for them, but teaching math in high school would likely be a good fit.

In this kind of circumstance, a change in concentration is quite manageable, and wouldn’t require much more than the consent of your advisor and a shifting of courses in your course plan. You would be able to remain in the same department and degree program.

You would not need to go through an additional application process. And, you would be able to keep any financial aid and funding arrangements that you have made.

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