New research finds that most students choose their majors based not on career prospects or even initial interest. Rather, they choose what to study just because of one early professor they liked.

According to a piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Those are the findings of a paper presented here during a session at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Christopher G. Takacs, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, and Daniel F. Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College.

Yea, I totally did that, too. It was you, Patrick Hutton, professor of history emeritus at the University of Vermont and your freshman class in the history of the ancient world, who led me to my academic major. Two schools later I suppose that major may be responsible for my entire career.

It certainly wasn’t a bad choice, but it wasn’t really that strategic of me, or I guess most American college students.

The researchers conclude that, therefore, colleges should make more of an effort to get great teachers involved in introductory courses:

Chambliss… noted that departments spend a lot of time talking about how to make their overall curriculum more inviting, but that a “very small intervention” and one that doesn’t necessarily cost any money can be more transformative. At a large university, making sure the right person is teaching the intro course can affect the experience and future choices of 500 or more students each semester, he said. “If you put someone who is not as good, you have damaged a lot of students.”

I mean, I guess, but it seems strange to draw this conclusion from the evidence he’s found. It’s true that a bad professor can turn students off a major, but this isn’t all about professor quality.

I choose history because I liked Professor Hutton. He was a good professor, for sure, but there were another 40 kids in that freshman history class and the majority didn’t choose history, if I remember correctly. Many other students didn’t like the professor’s teaching style or course structure so much.

There are good and bad professors, for sure, but the reason students choose a major probably has a lot to do with their personal preferences, not just objective academic talent.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer