"Major" is not what you studied at university
- "Major" = the subject you study most, among many subjects, when you go to a liberal arts & sciences university (mostly in the US) for a bachelor's degree only.
- The word "major" is right for: the subject you studied most when getting a bachelor's degree at liberal arts & sciences university (e.g. in the US).
- The word "major" is NOT right for: specialized degrees focused on just one subject. E.g. bachelor's degree at most universities outside US (e.g. Britain, China, Mexico); any postgraduate degree.
- Be familiar with other ways of talking about what people studied at university, e.g. the verb "study" with the name of the subject; the verbs "have", "do" with the degree type with "in" [the name of the subject]; the noun "subject".
Many ESL students use the word "major" to talk about what they study at university, at both undergraduate level (studying for a bachelor's degree) and postgraduate level (studying for a master's degree or a doctorate).
For most ESL students, the word "major" is wrong.
I can imagine some ESL might be thinking:
"But Americans always say 'major', so it must be correct English!!!"
Well, it is correct... for them. But it's not correct for you (probably). At least it's probably not correct for you if you studied for a bachelor's degree at a university outside of the US or Canada. And the word "major" is never correct for a postgraduate degree anywhere. Not even Americans say "major" for that.
Well, the word "major" describes something specific to one type of university education and one type of degree; it does not apply to all types of university education and all types of degrees.
Undergraduates: Bachelor's degree
There are different types of university around the world: one type is a liberal arts & sciences university.
In a liberal arts & sciences university, when studying for a bachelor's degree, you choose to study a variety of different subjects, and you formally choose those subjects after you arrive. Your major is the subject you choose to study most, usually chosen after 2 years already at university. The word "major" originally means "bigger". It is the subject you study that is "bigger" than the other subjects you study.
Even after you choose one subject to be your major, you can still choose to take classes in other subjects. You can even choose another subject to focus on as well, studying it more than others but less than your major. That subject is called your "minor". (The word "minor" originally means "smaller".)
Liberal arts & sciences universities (and so "majors") are very common in the United States, and also exist in some other countries. They are not common in the United Kingdom, China, Mexico and many other countries.
In the university education systems common in those countries an undergraduate student focuses on one subject throughout their degree. There are no other smaller subjects that you also study.So there are no "majors" when studying for a bachelor's degree in those university systems, and therefore the word "major" is wrong.
Postgraduate degrees: master's, doctorate/PhD etc
And post-graduate degrees everywhere are specialized: you focus on one subject. There are no other smaller subjects that you also study. So there are no "majors" in those degrees, and therefore the word "major" is wrong.
For example, I did my bachelor's degree in the English educational system. Before going to university, I chose to study one subject. In fact, that subject had to be on my university application form. And once at university, I could not study other, unrelated subjects.
I believe the university system in China (when it comes to choosing a subject for your bachelor's degree) is similar. You choose one subject before going to university, not many subjects, and you do not choose a major after 2 years at university. In Mexico too, students specialize in one subject right from the start.
Coming from the English system for my bachelor's, I never say "my major was..." or "I majored in..." because I did not have a major. Saying "major" would not be true or correct.
What to say when "major" is wrong
- I have a (bachelor's) degree in [name of the subject].
- I studied [name of the subject].
In my particular case, the formal name was the rather long combination "Chinese and Japanese Studies". Everything I studied was related to that subject. I did not take classes in accounting, psychology or chemistry. Every single class was part of studying China and Japan.
That is also why I ask people who studied in China, Mexico and other countries:
- What did you study? (if they finished university)
- What are you studying? (if they are still at university)
So it is not correct to say "major" when:
- you are not talking about a liberal arts & science bachelor's degree
- you are talking about any other type of degree (e.g. any post-graduate degrees like a master's or a doctorate)
- you are talking about your field of work or research.
And so almost anyone who studied in a Chinese or Mexican university and talks about having a "major" is wrong. Sorry. But I know what you mean, so that's OK. However, some foreign students of English don't understand when someone is talking about university and does not use the word "major", and that's not OK. But I'm here to help :)