Deciding on a Major

Making a decision to attend College is a significant and hard choice, but to then have to decide on a major and confusion readily sets in. For undergraduate degrees the decision can generally be postponed until after core requirements are fulfilled and this typically takes 2 years of full-time work. But then the question percolates… what do I major in?  Out of all the possibilities what do I select?

There are several factors that go in to making a decision and this blog will discuss some of the primary factors students should be thinking about. It’s easy to get caught up in what others want you to major in, but I tend to encourage students to steer clear of this trap. There are two reasons why I caution students against it. The first is that what someone wants you to do may not necessarily reflect a strength or interest you have. You will need both skill and interest to dedicate to a field of study at the college level. You will only be in beginner courses the first semester you start your focus, after that your courses rapidly increase in rigors necessary to be successful. If you lack sufficient love and/or motivation for the subject, it will be very difficult to succeed in the overall program. It’s best to let the major selection process reside with you and you alone.

The two factors that I generally encourage students to consider is where they fall between wanting a major they love to wanting a major that will have practical job prospects post-graduation.  There are some majors that have direct correlations to well-paid job prospects post-graduation and it’s perfectly fine to be motivated to build your college experience around the lifestyle you want after graduation. I call this the pragmatist option. You look for the practical, reliable option that allows for marketable skills. Then there are those of you, who like me, pick the subject you love that may not have practical applications or the applications require further education and/or have narrow career options. For example a computer science major has a lot of options in a wide range of industries to deploy their education, while an English major (which is what I was as an undergraduate student) has fewer options at the Bachelor’s level but may have a love of the major.

It’s important that you select your major in a way that is consistent with who you are and what type of college life you would like. If your post-graduation career is ultimately important to you then seek out early career counseling to explore what the current job market is like and where your skills and interests are applicable.  Above all be sure to select a major that plays to your strengths. By the time you reach the last two critical years of undergraduate life, you will have a strong knowledge of what you are innately good at.  You’ll be challenged but you will be able to rise up and meet these challenges. And if you are in doubt, seek out your advisor or if you attend AIU, contact me directly.

When You’re Stressed: Stress Management Part 3

Years of clinical experience has come with years of running coping therapeutic groups and lots of hours spent in individual counseling helping clients find ways to cope with stress. My first number one tip is always whatever you choose as your coping behavior it should fit seamlessly into your life and not ADD to your stress.  The reason I give this tip is that there is a lot of advice/tips out there that require experience, time, physical strength, or a lot of preparation education before they become capable of managing stress. When you’re stressed, you need something that you can do right now that can help you feel better right now, help you feel more in control, and builds your resilience (that capacity to bounce-back from stressful situations).  As such, I’m going to break down coping strategies in this blog into three general categories: (1) cognitive, (2) emotional, and (3) physical. So let’s get started.

During stress, how we think about the stressful situation/event can make the difference between your ability to cope and feeling overwhelmed. In fact, this is so important that in the next blog I will specifically address cognitive challenges. Why is cognition so important to stress management?  It’s all about the brain. I used to explain it this way–our capacity to reason, plan, make behavioral adjustments that overcome our instinctive emotional responses has to do with the neocortex of our brain–the “new” brain. That top and front part of our brain that developed last in evolution. It has the capacity to interrupt the instinctive/emotional response loop and the hormones that flood our bodies when we are stressed. But because it’s in our greatest survival benefit to respond automatically to stressful situations (think at one point this was the difference between being eaten by a lion and being able to survive), we don’t automatically think our way out. But that doesn’t me we can’t apply this amazing coping response.

Quick and Dirty Tips
The Value of the Question:  If you stop and ask yourself questions about the situation you are currently in, you get your neocortex involved. Some practical questions are: “Who are my supports?”; “Am I thinking myself into a box?” “What happened that led to this situation” and “What do I want to do to help myself cope with this situation?” — start questioning and consider writing down some short answers.  Notice, I didn’t put a question that says “How do I fix this situation?” — looking to fix a situation that’s stressful tends to be non-productive. Instead we need to focus our thoughts on being proactive and foward thinking. What can I do right now to feel a bit better?

The Value of Self-Affirmative Thoughts:  If you are finding yourself, as most of us do when stressed, thinking negatively about yourself then taking short moments to challenge those negative thoughts is important. When we start thinking negatively about ourselves we increase our stress because we decrease our ability to think we can manage our stress.  But it’s not easy to fundamentally change negative self-perceptions. So we need to think what’s the minimum we need to change for this situation. Don’t try to alter long-term patterns of thinking. Get used to the quick and dirty statement of “Under these circumstances [specify the circumstances as specifically as possible] I am capable of finding coping strategies that can work” Quick and simple. This gets you started on self-empowerment.

Think Specifically:  It can be easy to start to think globally (my life is ruined, this will never change, everything is a mess, nothing can work, etc.). No one can cope with any situation that effects ALL things, thankfully most situations are very specific and often time-limited. Get as specific as possible when you think about your stressor.

More Experience Required Cognitive Coping strategies will be addressed in the next blog.

Our emotions give color to our lives. Positive emotions support relationships, careers, resiliency; while negative emotions can devastate us. In fact, most individuals seeking psychotherapy do so precisely because positive emotions are hard to access or nonfunctional due to biochemical changes. We need positive emotions to encourage us; yet negative emotions play important roles in our survival and these are the emotions that can keep us safe. Fear pushes us to run or fight–to ourselves; anger can be a strategy to stand up to social injustice in society; sadness can call us to make positive changes in our lives because we feel defeated or disempowered.

Quick and Dirty Tip
The Opposite Emotion Exercise:  When situations are stressful sometimes we have to change our emotional focus to something less upsetting. I call this the Opposite Emotions Exercise. If you are sad, you need to turn toward joy.  If you are angry, peace and joy. If fearful, safety.  I recommend you plan for this if you can so you can quickly implement it before feelings get stuck.  And stick to your coping choices because they will change how you feel if you allow enough time to pass. You don’t have to feel perfect, you just need to take the edge off to liberate your cognition to take control over the situation rather than your mood.

Stress leads to a complex flood of hormones in the body that impact most of our organ systems. When the physical body is responding, we need to break the response. This requires some form of physical intervention.

Quick and Dirty Tips
Walk or Run:  Our stress responses served an important purpose way back on the African Savannah.  They allowed our bodies to flee or fight off dangers. These are short-term physiological responses; in fact one of the reasons chronic stress can lead to physical illnesses is because the stress response is meant to last only short periods of time. When it lasts longer, our organs become more vulnerable to damage from stress hormones. As such, we need to take control of the physical response to stress as soon as possible. Running and walking were two ways our ancestor’s reduced their physiological responses. They walked or ran until safety was reestablished. You can see this in other animals even today.  Exercise for short periods of time can go a long way to helping reduce the physical responses of stress.

Deep Breathing:  Slowing our breathing down and taking deep breaths through the nose and out through the mouth can go a long way to reducing the physiological stress response.  It also helps us slow down to get our thoughts together.


These are just a few ideas to get you started. We’ll dive more into emotional and cognitive issues when coping with stress and challenges.

Day By Day: Stress Management Part 2

Stress isn’t just caused by being a student in an online school. For most of us, stress is part and parcel of our day-to-day life. And sometimes stress is the only thing dominating our lives, particularly if you are coping with one of the following situations:

  • Birth of a child
  • Marriage/Divorce
  • Moving to a new home
  • Death or illness of a loved one

These are the big stressors that generally require outside professional help if you are getting overwhelmed and finding yourself irritable or outright angry, despondent or depressed, or simply unable to cope with the changes in one’s life that are necessitated by one of these items. Thankfully, for the bulk of your life these events will occur with wide gaps between them to allow you to simply focus on one at a time. But what about the everyday stressors?

  • The over-scheduled day
  • Work deadlines
  • General family caregiving
  • Relationship maintenance
  • Parenting
  • etc…

Let’s back up a moment to define stress itself. Stress is two things: (1) a biochemical response to stimuli that is (b) psychologically anxiety provoking and overwhelming. So stress is a cognitive and emotional response to a situation that then causes a change in our bodies. Once that occurs we physically and emotionally feel stressed. For some, physical signs of stress are stomach issues. For others, its an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and still others it may be a chronic headache or muscle tension. We can have feelings of anxiety, irritability, even depression and exhaustion once we’ve hit critical mass. We all have some physical cue. So think for a moment. What’s yours? How do you know when you’re stressed?

Yet a physical sign or an emotion are the last things to come about. Before we even get to those outcomes, we have a thought or a few thoughts if you’re a worry-wart like me. Our thoughts–how we are perceiving and understanding a situation–are defining what we are experiencing. For example, I have an autoimmune disease and often have to make lots of calls to insurance, pharmacies, and doctor’s offices and they all seem to come at one time. This overwhelms me, but for other people this is a simple task of making calls. So why does it cause me to experience stress? Because I have thought about these calls in a specific way that has made it so I get uncomfortable and panicky.  And my stress begins as soon as I see the infamous To-Do list. All those items and my brain immediately starts thinking I can’t possibly get all of this done, how am I going to do all of these things and still get my other work done, what if there is a problem… etc. These thoughts immediately set ablaze a complex physiological response of chemicals that then cause both a physical and emotional response. For me it’s the proverbial stress headache and anxiety.

How do we deal with our day-to-day stressors. Well the first step is to identify what they are. I’ve attached a worksheet for this. It allows you to mark up what aspects of your life take up the most time and are the critical stressors. Look at categories of stressors so you can sniff out the patterns. Chances are you have a few big categories that really get to you all the time. Use the worksheet to brainstorm ideas for coping. Then come back here to read the next blog that looks at coping with stressors.


Student Stress (Part 1 of 3)

Being a student  is stressful. Stress comes from a range of directions, all of which we will be discussing in this three-part blog post. One of the most critical dimensions that give rise to stress for the student is the student identity.  The student identity is essentially a constellation of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that constitute how you perceive yourself as a student.

Generally in the years I’ve been teaching, students fall within a continuum of two points: Point A may be defined as the “approval-seeking” student; Point Z may be defined as students who are “socially required to attend”. There is a lot of overlap with students but by and large students will fall somewhere within these points.

The student who more closely identifies with approval-seeking is most concerned with grades, class structure, and teacher feedback.  Positive feelings and stressful feelings are shaped by these valencies. If, for example, a grade is lower than expected, a student may feel increasingly sad; if a grade is delayed or if no grade is used at all, a student may begin to feel anxiety. A teacher who is strict and hard to please, may challenge the student intellectually, but this will additionally cause greater stress for the student. A teacher who doesn’t provide direct feedback may leave this student feeling conflicted about their personal worth.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the student who is required to attend school to fulfill a social obligation expected by his or her family or peer group. This student may experience less stress associated with the classroom. They may be less motivated to do well and there may be greater variability in grades. Easy work, gets better grades; more difficult work, typically less effort. Their sense of self is less vulnerable to teacher feedback and more likely to be impacted by peer perception (something we’ll get into in the next blog).

Once you know where you fall on a continuum between point A and Z, you can begin to isolate what factors in your learning environment are benefiting you and which are leading to stress. For example, are you mismatched with a teacher who gives students greater freedom by not requiring grades, or a teacher who grades so strictly students who normally achieve As are unable to despite a great deal of effort?  Oftentimes, students have to modify their identity in some way to increase adaptability and reduce stress. It’s one of the reasons knowing how you define your student identity is critical.  It can often be the difference between success or failure in a classroom environment.

While not exhaustive, take a moment and consider the following questions:

  1. How important are grades to you and how do you feel when you receive a less-than-superior grade?
  2. How do you work with a permissive teacher, who doesn’t value grades, but rather the experience of the lessons?
  3. How important are peer relationships to your classroom experience? 

Student_Identity Worksheet PDF

So You Want to Go to School Online?

Online education has become one of the fastest growing aspects of higher education, even education in K-12 schooling has begun to embrace elements of online delivery. Schools vary on how they incorporate online content delivery and some schools only embrace one-way directed content, such as reporting news and announcements. Others set up more complex blogs, like this one, that allows user participation. Universities, however, are looking at how to deliver a wider range of content fully integrated in the online universe. This may include a handful of classes fully delivered through online class content management systems or partial delivery of class information through sites such as YouTube, where lectures may be posted. Finally there are the fully integrated online university, such as University of Phoenix, Walden University, and this university I’m writing for.

While most students are attending traditional f2f or Face-to-Face schools, there’s a growing demand for the online environment for what industry workers call the “non-traditional student”. I like to call this the student who has a life outside of college. These are students who are typically working or parents who are staying home with children and individuals with disabilities that prohibit attending an online university (stay tuned for an article on being a student with a disability; you’ll want to read it). The online landscape can present a dream come true to a student who can’t attend a traditional university. The final student who benefits from the online university are those looking at the bottom-line. While traditional universities continue to go up in cost, including state schools that have typically been more affordable, the cost of attending school has become increasingly out of reach to students. Online universities have come in to fill in the need.

As a president and founder of an online university, I had to answer a few questions, particularly as we expanded. First and foremost on my mind was how to create an immersive classroom environment—how to create something that felt a little like a “real” university.  Twelve years ago, there were a few high-end expensive classroom management systems, platforms that run Walden University and University of Phoenix. These systems were essentially designed to incorporate live-chats co-mingled with discussion boards and options to provide online tests. Students would then be able to view their grades and interact with students. But they came with a price tag. I was creating a small online college and wanted to particularly target low-income and disabled students. Individuals typically left out of the entire educational-market system. In short, paying for CMS was not an option. However, the good news was there were lots of open source options that were coming out near daily for me to utilize to create a low-cost to free fully integrated online school.These days, the world of online education has rapidly expanded to a range of fields. For example, many professionals in the medical, nursing, education, social work, and psychiatric fields can take a significant number of the their continuing education credits (CEUs) online for lower cost than what they would pay for face-to-face seminars. Organizations that have educational needs are offering them through online environments, such as non-traditional religious education. In short, it’s a field that is growing broader, while offering a wider range of financial options to meet the needs of more types of students, but…

…there are greater demands on the student than might be initially considered. Online learning is isolative by nature. While you are in classes with other students, the requirements for group participation varies and when required it’s usually minimal and localized to the topic at hand. Don’t consider the online universe as a place where you will meet lots of new friends.  We try to do this, but it’s a mountain that seems to keep growing defying our abilities to create social networks between students. Most online universities end up having to create a face-to-face conference to do this and thus increase the cost burden on students. So if you are a socially focused individual online learning may not be your best option.  Online learning requires you to managing your own learning goals and time. I hear a lot of “that’s not a big deal” from the audience, but as someone who has managed and taught for years it’s a huge challenge for both students and teachers. Life simply gets in the way in such a way that you don’t see in face-to-face universities. While a student at Rutgers University, I left my family and friends behind (before cellphones), and sat in a classroom for a few hours. Then I could wander to the library for another few hours. I had no interruptions and could get my school work easily done. But in the online world, there are hundreds of interruptions, unless you go to your local library if you have a portable computer and they have the internet and wifi. You could be in the middle of writing the best thought you’ve had all day on your paper when your spouse walks in and demands attention. You could be busy typing away when the baby wakes up. Or you could get sick and find yourself in the hospital and if your hospital has wifi and internet, you may be trying to write with an IV sticking out of your arm. In short, there are a lot more interruptions to manage and depending on the culture of the online university you’ve selected, there may be little to no understanding why you didn’t get your paper in on time. That is the challenge that I’ve seen and heard students face particularly in an online university that is trying to “be” a face-to-face one. The challenge is most face-to-face universities are teaching younger students (ages 18-25), who are not married nor have children or full-time jobs. The online student is traditionally in their 30s or older, with full-time employment, often married or living with a partner, and often have children teens and younger. In short, the online student lives a higher-demand life. If you fit that role, be sure to find out how the university you are looking into treats their high life-demanding students. And as a side, be sure to ask if there are face-to-face requirements and how much they cost on top of the general tuition, as these are often billed separately. Don’t get stuck with years of work and an inability to travel to the f2f component—schools are not obligated to comply.

If you find that not needing school to fulfill your social needs and that your home life can handle your return to school in a much more flexible environment than face-to-face, then the next thing to consider is quality. It’s hard to assess quality and it’s certainly nerve-wracking the higher in cost you go. The main thing to ask is whether or not refunds are available. If you don’t like the school, you want to know how much of your hard-earned money you’re going to get back. Also don’t be afraid to ask where students are working after they’ve graduated. I’ve had a lot of individuals ask me over the years where students are and many of our students are working in the field they have their degree in. Several are even publishing books on their subjects of study.  So be sure to ask about post-graduation options or even if the school has a career office, ours does not, but most of the larger schools do.

Hopefully this helped you in the exploring of the online school universe and that you find a good match for all your needs—or most.

See you later,
Dr. Katherine Batten MacDowell
President and Founder, Augustus International University