Which College Major Is Right For You? – 3 Aspects to Think About
by Guest Blogger Eliana Silbermann
“So, what’s your major?”
Every college student is asked this question seemingly at every opportunity. It usually immediately follows the student’s announcement that he or she is pursuing a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree. And many freshman or sophomores stumble over the answer.
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While you don’t need decide immediately, you would usually declare your major sometime in sophomore year. Everyone enrolled in university needs at least one, a few people will have two, and fewer still might have three or more–although for most cases, I would not recommend more than two at most. In addition, this question becomes complicated by the option of minors (but right now we’ll just talk about majors.)
This question can be tough. Maybe you aren’t sure what subject you could study with the necessary depth and focus. Maybe you only have a general idea of what type of career you’d like to pursue–or no idea at all. Maybe you looked at the hundreds of majors and concentrations available and too many look awesome; you are having trouble narrowing down your choices.
First, before you do anything else, take a deep breath. Any of these thoughts, concerns, questions, or doubts is normal and common. Very few people know what they want to do with the years ahead, especially if they are just coming out of high school or into college. Remember too, that you can always change your major if you need to, and go to graduate school in a different field of study than your Bachelor’s degree. You can return to school or change careers in the future. Even so, it is an important decision.
Next, find a pen and paper. Writing your thoughts can make them much easier to organize.
Answer these questions:
1. What do I like to do? What do I already know how to do? What are you good at? What am I not so good at (but how significantly better can I get with time, effort, and motivation)?
When examining your interests and skills do not only think about grades. Think about where you succeeded in school, of course, but also hobbies, books you like to read, things you’ve learned from your parents, summer camp, or other experiences. You don’t need to limit yourself to the most recent few years before college—look at everything you can remember doing and learning until this moment.
Most people have had at least several hobbies and interests throughout their childhood and adolescence. That’s okay! You can think about which ones stood out as most enjoyable or which ones you stuck with the longest.
In addition, there are likely common aspects of most or all of your hobbies. Maybe they involved problem solving, maybe they were athletic. Maybe they required experimentation with trial and error. How can you apply your interests and skills more broadly? If you have never done or studied something then maybe your similar interests and skills give you confidence to do so.
Think about what you are good at. It’s perfectly okay to have a hobby or a subject in school in which you don’t “excel” or even perform objectively well. But it will be hard to maintain a good GPA or good job if you choose a major and career that’s a weakness for you. If you do poorly at math then an engineering degree might be a bad choice.
Everyone has areas where they shine and areas where they don’t. Albert Einstein reportedly didn’t speak until he was four years old. Being honest to yourself about your own weaknesses is just as important as knowing your strengths. In no way do they mean that you are inferior to anyone else. Your talent might be your friend’s limitation and vice versa.
Keep in mind that just because you lack knowledge and skill in something does not mean you can’t develop either. There’s a lot to be said for hard work, and putting in the hours, as long as you realistically consider the outcome. Doing poorly at math because your high school teacher wasn’t right for you is different than doing poorly because of a specific learning disorder (learning disorders in math are more common than people realize!).
Investigate. You never know what hobby or skill might be a major until you do the research.
For example, let’s say you’ve learned to ride horses. You were great with the animals and loved every moment with them. Did you know that you can study equine science in some colleges? You would learn about the horse industry, including breeding, training, management of a stable and more!
2. What kinds of jobs can I get with certain majors? Will demand continue to grow or decline? By how much?
Sometimes this seems straight forward. A computer science degree can open the door to a career as a computer programmer. Other times it isn’t so clear at first. What can you do with a major in German or French? Perhaps there are many options—like for English or psychology degrees? These last two questions are true for many liberal arts degrees.
Be creative. If you study German, you can get work as a translator. English majors can become teachers, but also technical writers, copywriters, or editors. Psychology majors don’t have to become therapists (think human factors/engineering, I/O, neuropsychology, cognitive, consumer behavior etc.).
Look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website (among others). Is there a demand for this occupation? Do employers have a demand for this skill? What’s the predicted number of job openings for the next few years (remember look ahead because you’ll be in college for about four years!) vs. how many people are also looking to break in to the career field? It might be fun to get a degree in women’s studies but is there any demand for one? If not, consider taking some classes but not majoring. That’s why you have 120-150 required credit hours.
There’s a chance that some jobs will not only diminish but disappear completely. They may be automated or integrated with other jobs, or simply become unnecessary. Think about this too. You don’t want to be unprepared for this possibility.
Usually people will advise students to “do what you love!” This is not entirely correct. Don’t just pursue a major or job because it’s your passion. Think about the labor market’s supply and demand. Money is not everything, but it is important. Lack of money causes several types of stress and unhappiness. At the same time don’t get a job you would hate simply because it would provide a good income. If accounting bores you to tears and you ponder a full time job in accounting with absolute dread and misery, then that’s an equally bad choice as a major that provides little financial opportunity.
Find a balance. College is expensive but even four years is a long time. Thirty to forty years is even longer. You only get one life to enjoy as much as you can.
3. What are the educational requirements for these jobs? Are they flexible or rigid? Is graduate school necessary, optional, or harmful to my chances of getting hired?
Major not matter a lot to your occupation as much as completion of the degree itself does. It’s often possible to get a job in business with a statistics or economics degree rather than a business degree. Sometimes more effort is required, but it can be done. A psychology major can work in marketing if he or she presents an impressive resume. On the other hand, you cannot get an engineering job without a B.S. in engineering.
Some people plan to go to graduate school even before they start undergrad. For some occupations, students must complete a Master’s degree or PhD. For other occupations further schooling is merely optional. A graduate degree hurts your chances of hire for other jobs. To use psychology as an example, a PhD is often required. Even using the title “clinical psychologist” is illegal without a PhD in counseling psychology. To become an I/O psychologist you must claim at least a Master’s degree or you won’t get a second glance.
An example of when higher degree might hurt is business writing or technical writing. PhDs often harm your chances of a job because you appear overqualified.
If a graduate degree is optional for your particular career choice(s) look at your personality and circumstances. See if a Master’s, PhD, or neither would suit you best. See how much you want to complete this degree. A Master’s usually requires 2-3 more years of school and is less likely to be paid for with a stipend than a PhD. This would delay your entry into the workforce and saddle you with more loans. A PhD can take between 5-10 years or even longer. While it usually funded and provides a stipend, it too has financial costs (stipends are tiny amounts of money for the number of hours you work, the years you miss building career and industry experience etc.) and huge time and effort commitments.
A graduate degree may be right for you. But it depends on the individual. Consider yourself and situation thoughtfully.
Once you have reflected on these questions, find people already doing some of these jobs. Talk to family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors etc. Even if they don’t work in these particular jobs, they might know others who do. Now with the internet you can find lots of information and talk to many diverse people through websites, blogs, forums, linkedin.com, university websites (don’t limit yourself to your own university!) and watch full lectures from places like Harvard, MIT, etc. for free.
Approach them respectfully, politely, and humbly. Do not ask for anything more than a little of their valuable time and knowledge. Most professionals are happy to explain their profession to an eager, courteous listener!
Now you are ready to find out
what’s your major?
About the Author
“I’m a senior at University of Memphis. I’m studying psychology but working hard to start a career in marketing and advertising. I see myself as being both analytical (my degree is heavy in statistics, data analysis, research, and experimentation) and highly creative (I paint, I write, and I have a great eye for color and design). In both my future career and my personal life I hope to blend the two perspectives and strengths. I’m happy to share my experiences and advice about college, life, and figuring all of it out (although no one ever has all or most of the answers—certainly I don’t!) as best we can.
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