Making a "Major" Decision

A life decision

Making a career and academic major decision can be a difficult and onerous task for a soon-to-be college student. Especially given the growing number of options and possibilities for degree programs and careers available across higher education and the global marketplace. The debate regarding declaration of a major equals timely graduation is far and wide. It’s clear that not every decided student changes their major, but research has shown that even declared students are just as uncertain as their undecided peers. Our focus now becomes on creating tools to help students make smarter career and degree program decisions. Providing the tools and technology is a part of the step to aid in the self-discovery process as students learn about themselves and their interests, values, skills and personality will establish a greater foundation for making a sound decision. A new tool should help provide a framework for counselors and advisors at all levels of the student lifecycle to engage with the student to have meaningful conversations about selecting a major. Likewise, it should provide the student and their family the opportunity for self-discovery based on interest and skills. The challenge is being both a diagnostic tool, while providing university specific major exploration opportunities in an attractive and enjoyable web platform. This post will walk you through the challenges, research, opportunities and innovations we experience while working on the Academic Exploration Tool. 

Diagnostic vs. Exploratory

There are a host of wizards, tools and diagnostic instruments to help you vector in your skills, abilities, interest and goals to select a career and/or major. For example, most have taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MTBI) which is an instrument designed to self-assess and report psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. Additionally, there are tools available at like the “Jung Typology Test”, which helps students discover which career choices and schools are the most suitable for their type. There is also a collection of interactive personality tests that range from pure empirical diagnostic tools for scientific discovery to entertainment-based tests. The Holland Occupational Themes is a personality test based on the work of John Holland that focuses on career and vocational choice. This test consist of 48 tasks and ask the user to rate how much they enjoy performing each task. ACT and College Board also offer career and major exploration via their individual appliances online for narrowing down a career and/or major decision. The University of Tennessee Knoxville has developed a resource called “What Can I Do With This Major?” (WCIDWTM), which is an online resource, as well as, a series of PDFs that Universities can subscribe to that provides access to career keywords and areas based on individual majors. A simple google search indicates that several institutes of higher education leverage this tool. In our initial research and discovery with our own advising network, we found the WCIDWTM tool to be highly utilized across our campus.  Additionally, tools like the Occupation Outlook Handbook by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics were utilized. All of these tools were leveraged in different ways and by different institutions. In our research, we found that there were close to 2-3 tools used in tandem to advise a student on selecting a career and/or finding a major. Most notably, our own internal major sheets, the WCIDWTM and the Occupation Outlook Handbook were the most utilized tools for advising undecided or exploratory students. This required multiple sheets of paper or PDFs (our own major sheets), a second screen with the WCIDWTM page pulled up as well as tertiary pages for the Occupational Outlook handbook (see graphic below). All of this information was vital in the career to major exploration process. This left us asking the question, “How could we combine the great tools that were being used for counseling, advising and exploration into an integrated, data driven, attractive web platform to be used across the lifecycle by both students and university members without it being a wholly diagnostic scientific instrument?  

What’s out there?

Many universities have addressed these issues, but with different approaches and varied technologies. Some have created a wonderful resource for quickly access their degree programs by subject, type and alpha-split, while others have won awards and created a platform that is truly transcending and inspiring for how we approached our platform. Clemson University  and Arizona State University have put together the most impressive degree search platforms across R1 higher education institutions. Some of the noticeable differences are the aesthetics. Primarily, the content strategy for both platforms is quite impressive. The organization, consistency in content types and the shear volume of information organized into one platform provided a great direction and heading for our project. However, we knew that we wanted to include the four areas above, to disrupt the idea of utilizing four screens and outdated and outmoded major sheets. We have yet to see the combination of these ideas across higher education, which puts the Academic Exploration Tool in a unique position that combines content strategy, data and web content management like no other platform in the world. Our content strategy was to encouraged all programs to include student images, youtube videos, and headshot images of the contact for that particular program.  From a technical perspective, we’re bringing in three important automated data sources to execute the heavy lifting. First, we’ve indexed and imported over 5,000 career keywords associated with our degree programs. Secondly, we tapped into the open API from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, allowing each program to select from hundreds of featured careers available on the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Thirdly, we are introducing a new registration, planning and auditing system on our campus within our portal environment called myUK: GPS (Graduation Planning System). This system will catalog all of our degree programs within our enterprise resource planning system (SAP). A web service will be created to feed the academic exploration tool with each academic degree program information, we’re calling major templates. This data will be leveraged via a web service from an SAP staging area to drupal, which will allow for dynamic curriculum information, providing course related information from freshmen first year to senior last year. This will also incorporate information down to the course description by a simple click or tap. This curriculum web service is a unique feature which will allow for us to begin the process of discontinuing the creation of physical major sheets. Now, using the web service and the dynamic program description information, we can dynamically generate a PDF on the fly - essentially replacing the process of manually creating a major sheet in InDesign or Photoshop. This is a game changer. Not only for our internal staff for retrieving just-in-time data and information, but from a workflow perspective.

We Love a Good Challenge

The University of Kentucky is a research 1 institution that holds over 16 colleges, a graduate school and 93 undergraduate programs, 99 master's programs and 66 doctoral programs and four professional programs. For our students, this has resulted in a co-curricular, interdisciplinary undergraduate experience. To contribute towards the rich academic experiences available, UK is 1 of 8 universities in the nation that contain academic and medical campuses on one contiguous campus. So the challenge and importance to represent our academic offerings were of the utmost importance. At the time, there was no one way to search and explore majors across the university, other than the collection of major sheet PDFs sorted by college and alphabetically. This format mimicked the action of walking into a lobby and selecting a major sheet print-out from a carousel. This process dates back to the turn of the century. We simply brought it over in a similar style to the web. We needed to fix the process of exploring a major and communicating curriculum, before we could change the way we organize the information. The creation of the curriculum on top of an informational major sheet was inefficient and cumbersome. Every change, edit or modification required a graphic designer or typesetter to make the edit, publish the document and replace it on the website. Furthermore, the curriculum was not dynamic, it was not managed by a database, source or repository. Career exploration was disjointed. Our advisors, counselors and students shared with us the process for finding a major, exploring a career and finding a point of contact with either, required multiple searches, screens and web resources. To that end, the consistency of information was important as this concept needed to scale across the enterprise, while still maintaining a consistent experience across each program. To make sure that this process was indeed, scalable, the colleges and departments needed control of the content and their pages. And of course, given our charge, this project needed and indeed was, research driven based on STAMATS research from 2012, 2015 and multiple years of the e-Expectations Report (Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 2014, 2015) as well as interviewing and gathering feedback from our own prospective and current students, staff and faculty.


We started started with a problem, established in 2012 as we migrated over 7 web properties from flat HTML pages to the growing content management system, Drupal. The platform was in v6 and we were the first on campus to introduce this system in it’s entirety as our preferred web communication platform. Fast forward 4 years later, we knew we needed a creative solution for delivering our degree program information in a dynamic, exciting and attractive manner. Equipped with some early wireframes, research, feedback and a bounty of ideas, the creative folks at Up and Up delivered an experience that was easy to use, understand and was driven by multiple points of research and data sources. They asked themselves, “If I wanted to be an astronaut, where would I start?” The result was a platform that we’ve been able to scale, grow and improve. A platform, that is equally informative and exploratory for a prospective students, current students and can be used as a prescriptive tool to aid admission, advising and career professionals across campus. Our feedback across campus has been phenomenal, you can see and learn more here from this short we developed about the success of the Academic Exploration Tool and our new custom built tool, myUK: GPS.

The basic premise of the site is that a user can search by 4 basic avenues; first, the non-cognitive phrases, that continue to grow as we learn more about how the college's associate skills and interest with their majors. These are phrases like, “I like to help others”, “be creative”, “solve problems”, “experience new places and cultures” and 7 more phrases. Each program selects 1-3 of these phrases to associate with their major. As the platform grows and the non-cognitive interest bank evolves, we will continue to add more. The second way in which you can explore is by career interest and keywords. The foundational keyword repository is based on over 5,000 keywords associated with career to majors, based on the WCIDWTM resource. We spent time over the summer, with the help of some talented student interns, mapping career keywords with each one of our undergraduate programs. From there, we imported in these keywords as searchable taxonomy within the platform. Now, users can search on these keywords  - now with autocomplete! These keywords continue to grow, with each revision, college level authors are constantly adding new keywords to the database, making the search experience more diverse and accurate. The third option, which is based on the program-level keywords is a search for the actual degree program, words like “Nursing”, “Biology” or “Engineering”, this is very similar to a search-engine type query. Lastly, users can navigate directly to all or select program types by querying results for all programs such as “Undergraduate”, “Minor” or “Preprofessional”.



The results page required us to think differently about the photography, tags, and description. Where we re-wrote each program description and kept the copy down to 3-5 sentences rather than 3-5 paragraph that were displayed on a major sheet. Now, we were faced with the idea that a user would have to scroll close to 3-4 times just to read a description, we wanted to limit this significantly to create a better user experience.

The individual program pages, although all of the content is managed and provided by the college content author, we have some simple requirements to keep them within the content framework, but still provide them with flexible content areas for zip-downs, paragraphs with custom headings. Each flexible content area provides them with WYSWYG editor, where they can bring in custom graphics, photography, youtube and vimeo embeds, etc. The revisiting process has provided the college level authors with the autonomy to customize and be creative with their pages, while reducing their burden to worry about broken images, code or policy issues as all approvals are made by the Registrar area on campus. We’re averaging 10-15 revisions on a normal week and leading up to an event or campus wide changes (registration and senate approval of degrees) we see close to 100 or more. The revisions range from updated student profiles, feature career changes or basic keyword updates.

Data Driven Career Exploration

We knew that the career exploration component was disjointed. After meeting with our own Career Center professionals, they have the same process as other advisors, where they are referencing the website, while comparing and contrasting majors and curriculum sheets for each program. In many cases, the program major sheet did not include career keywords or information on the document. We knew that provided a great open API.


Users have the option to choose from hundreds of featured careers with the option to showcase median salary, number of jobs, 10 year job outlook, word environment and similar occupation. College content authors have the choice to select all or none of these data points to display alongside their featured career. We wanted to ensure that it was clear this information was being provided directly from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, rather than data produced by the university, so we’ve included reference links and a basic mark to indicate the original source of the data.

Continual Innovation

We’ve helped to shape the way we communicate degree programs across the enterprise, by patiently listening to our users and content authors. This platform has fundamentally changed the way programs advise, counsel and market their academic degree programs. Each program has its own inquiry form that feeds directly into our Constituency Relationship Management system for follow-up communication and engagement. We have seen creative uses of the platform that we never even fathomed, where programs and content authors are continually innovating across a platform that is extensible, flexible and fun to use. Each person that encounters the platform, sees new and exciting possibilities for how to organize similar information. For example, how could we position and help students discover Student Organizations in a similar manner? Could each Student Organization have access to edit and update their own organization page? These are certainly all possibilities on a platform like this. Furthermore, how can we improve the alumni to program connections, utilizing data pulled from services like Linkedin. Could we have a featured section on the College of Engineering that highlighted recent graduates’ Linkedin profile on a regular basis? These are integrations that will truly extend this platform to become the linkage and resource to new academic discoveries, career and professional connections and life-decisions that can be both assisted or independent.

As we expand into building our Graduate, Doctoral and professional programs and even online programs and certificates, the platform will bring in a new set of users, students and experiences. As of today, there are over 50 active content authors and this number will continue to grow as we expand the platform across the enterprise. Soon, we will have one dynamic repository for academic offerings at the University of Kentucky. The data linkages with myUK: GPS will be revolutionary across higher-ed, bringing in affordances and innovation that will be game-changing and streamline manual human processes. As we consider how students, advisors and authors utilize the platform, it’s our job to continue to improve, tweak and modify the content to meet the needs of our users, luckily, we have a flexible and robust platform that can grow as we do.