The day has come. You’ve survived the HSC and now you’re starting to get your UAC application in order, and you see something about a science major. There’s just one thing you’re not quite sure about.

What the hell do you actually want to do?

This is probably about where you’re at right now, so when you’re looking at degree choices and you think “I’d probably understand more of this if it was written in Swahili”, it’s just more stress you do not need. You might want to study biology, but your dream uni only puts out a “Bachelor of Science” (BSci). That’s pretty normal – most science students enroll in a BSci. The difference is what science major you choose.

Hang on… major? What’s that even mean?

You probably think of universities as offering degrees. This is correct – but it’s a bit more subtle than that. What universities really offer are “units”, or single-semester subjects. If you complete a certain combination of units, that’s what entitles you to a degree. At some universities (like my very own UTS), degree programs have extremely tightly structured programs. You have to complete a total of 24 units, no electives, and and they’ve decided the order for us. Most universities, however, take a more free-wheeling approach. Each unit is built independently, and students simply need to complete the correct combination of units to receive their degree, in any order and at any pace.

So how does this help us understand majors?

Chances are, the “degree” you’ll enrol in is the BSci, and in order to receive a BSci, you will have to complete some units – generally a chemistry unit and a maths/stats unit and perhaps some others depending on the philosophy of your university. But this still leaves you with some 20 units to complete before you’re entitled to your degree. In theory, you could do whatever you liked with these and still get your BSci – but this wouldn’t get you a job at the other end, nor is it conducive to anything really. You’ll scratch the surface of lots of things, but be left scratching your head about the details.

So what most people do is pick a “major” – a certain combination of units engineered to specialise the student’s knowledge towards a specific field. This means that your degree will read BSci (*insert major here*) rather than just BSci, and, of course, you’ll have a more specialised and marketable skill set.

Okay so… what kind of choices do I have?

Obviously, the specifics change from uni to uni. The core four science major choices that’ll you’ll see pretty much anywhere are Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Earth Science. Between these four, you’ve pretty much covered all the more niche sub-sections of science. Most universities also offer Mathematics and Statistics majors through their science faculty, as well as computer science. The one thing about computer science is that most universities also offer IT degrees serving a similar purpose. It’s outside my field of expertise, so you”ll have to decide for yourself which is to your liking.

Of course, there’s no shortage of more specialised choices for your science major. Things like biotechnology, pharmacology, astronomy, environmental monitoring, paleontology, nanotechnology, neuroscience/psychology and even food science are available, and that’s only looking at the four major Sydney universities. Imagine what else there might be out there!

It’s all a matter of finding something that suits your needs.

Take your pick of science major from at UNSW, UTS, USyd and Macquarie if you’re hungry for more information. Keep in mind Science faculties offer courses that aren’t a BSci, but instead have a more specific title. My degree, for instance, is the “Bachelor of Applied Chemistry in Forensic Science” at UTS, which isn’t listed as a science major (in fact, it’s not listed anywhere since it technically doesn’t exist anymore, but you get my point).  

Oh god… how do I even begin to choose?!

First, take a deep breath. You’ll almost always have at least one semester of entirely core subjects before you have to choose a major, and you can do as many as two years before choosing a science major at most universities (again, you can get a BSci without a major – by this I mean that, after two years, adding a major to your program will mean extending your degree past the projected timeframe, or occasionally having to re-apply for a position in the program). The most common time to choose a science major is after first year, so you don’t have to know right now.

Here are some things that you should know so that you start considering what choices you might make:

The general majors (physics, chem, bio and earth sci) are great if you’re unsure about long-term goals. They don’t lock you down too much and leave plenty of room to specialise with further study. They’re a good choice if you just want to go with the flow and let the wind take you wherever it will. It’s also pretty easy to switch between these if you decide you’ve made the wrong choice, since some of them with share a fair bit of material. In particular, it’s easy to move from physics to chemistry and from biology to earth science. It’s a little harder to do those same changes the other way, and then harder again to do any other change, but still pretty readily doable.

On the other hand, if you know what fires you up, there’s not a drop of shame in pursuing your passion from day one with a more specific major. I will say though, that’s the choice I made, picking the Forensic Chemistry degree at UTS, and now, two years down that road and starting to doubt whether it was the right one.

That’s not to discourage you but just to remind you you’re still young, and people change.

To make it clear, I don’t regret my decision in the slightest. It helps that the structure of my degree means that even if I don’t pursue forensics, I’m still employable as a chemist. To boot, I am still passionate about forensic science and I love what I study. But now that I’m at the pointy end and about to start job hunting, there were consequences I didn’t foresee and perhaps, employability-wise, I’d have been better off doing a chemistry major and specialising later. But I’m still happy with where I’m at and I think that’s just as important as optimising myself for a job.

Anything else I should know?

Just a couple more things. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of a double major, or at least capable of figuring it out. Don’t feel like you have to choose between two things – take a double major and if you figure out one is them is what you really want, ditch the other. They’ll also allow you to do some interesting things. If there’s not a major specifically for your dream, you can mix two together to make a new one, kind of like making a new coloured paint.

Maybe, if you’re into robotics but can’t find a good course for it, combine computer science with biotechnology. Mixing food science and psychology may not seem like the most natural pairing, but the diet industry would kill for someone with that skill set. And, of course, you can apply this same thinking to a double degree. Take a BSci in neuroscience combined with an arts degree in religion and start your very own cult (please don’t do this). The possibilities are endless!

Be aware though, this does extend your degree. Taking a double major generally adds an extra year, and a double degree an extra two. So if you want to take a double degree with one double major, that’ll be six years – if you love it, that’ll seem like nothing at all, but it’s also 3 years of work experience you don’t have that someone else does. That’s nothing to be afraid of, but it’s something to think about.

Depending on your university, you may also be able to take a “sub-major”, sometimes colloquially called a minor. This is just a smaller combination of units that’ll leave you less skilled in that field than if you majored in it, but gives you good ground to learn and improve on it in the future through workplace training or further study. It’s a good solution if you want the benefits of the double major, but only want to spend 3 or 4 years at uni instead of 5 or 6.

Just remember to put yourself first when you make your decision – don’t prioritise what your parents want, or what you think you should do. Do what you believe you want.

Hopefully you feel better equipped to plan out your next step now with this information behind you. The most important thing to remember is that no decision is irreversible. Realistically, a lot of you will graduate university at 21 – present retirement age is 67, but will probably be a bit higher by the time you and I are getting there. That’s a full 46 years, or more. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you have to spend them all doing the same thing you thought you wanted to do when you 18.

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Matt Saunders is a huge nerd who first got into writing through fanfiction. He’d known science was the path for him since a young age, and after discovering a particular love of bad chemistry jokes (and chemistry too), he’s gone onto to study Forensic Chemistry at UTS. His HSC in 2014 was defined in equal parts by schoolwork and stagecraft, which left him, weirdly enough, with a love of Maths strong enough to inspire him to tutor any level, along with 7-10 Science and HSC Chemistry.