How do I choose a major? It's the question on every student's mind before and during their college education. Picking a major is a big decision and you can't keep your options open forever.
While some majors can be changed from one to the other easily, other majors are more rigid. Also, some majors shape your class selection from the beginning. While there are no hard, fast answers, there are a few tips and guidelines that will help demystify the process.
Do your core classes first
If you are uncertain of your direction, stick to the core classes for the first year or two. This is especially true for the undecided students, but frequently students discover a love for something that they had never heard of before. The core classes, or "GenEds" (general education requirements) usually involve a wide array of topics like art, math, science, philosophy, speech, English, history, sociology, or psychology.
With minimal exceptions, you will have to take your GenEds at some point in order to graduate. Taking only GenEd courses at the beginning of your career can be likened to getting an associate's degree before you go on to a bachelor's.
If you take this course of action, however, your last years of college will be focused on the major you decide. Having all upper-level classes the last years in college can be challenging, but such hardship is likely better than having wasted time and money in unnecessary classes.
It's not all about your passions: 3 BIG questions
While it is often advised to pursue what you are passionate about, this is not always the wisest choice. If we have learned anything from watching American Idol, it's that people should not necessarily make a career out of something just because it's a passion of theirs.
When you are passionate about a subject, you still need to ask three more questions to see if you can make a career out of it. What am I good at, what kind of work do I enjoy, and how important is stable income?
1. What are you good at?
Usually we have pretty good ideas of what we are good at. Look back at your high school classes. Were you good at math? Science? Writing? Look at your hobbies. Do they involve problem solving? Working with people? Organizing information?
Not only should you ask yourself this, but ask the people who know you best. Sometimes other people understand you better from the outside than you understand yourself from the inside. The more counsel you get, the better prepared you are to make a decision.
Sometimes you have a skill that comes so naturally that you don't even realize that it is special. Examples of this might be someone who can organize, counsel, teach, or lead. It is not just a “skill” they have; it is who they are. And they may not recognize it apart from someone telling them.
2. What kind of work do you enjoy?
This is different than “what is your passion.” All jobs have pros and cons, things you will enjoy and things you won't. The career you pursue should always involve pros that outweigh the cons.
Find people in the career that you are considering. Ask them about the parts they love and the parts they don't. Find out what the real-life cons are, and decide if they are something that you can live with and still enjoy your work.
3. How important is stable income?
This is another caveat to consider when you are encouraged to “pursue your passions”. If it is a career that is highly competitive (think acting, singing, or writing), then be prepared to wait tables or do other jobs to help pay the bills.
If you are open to teaching what you are passionate about, then consider either getting a degree in business and minoring in your interest, or getting a double major. Owning a dance studio, teaching private music lessons, or being a photographer will likely mean you will be running your own business. No matter how good you are, the success of your business will ultimately be determined by your ability to run your business.
What topics interest you?
What topics do you enjoy discussing and what do you enjoy learning about? Are you fascinated by how the human mind works? How people in society interact with each other? What factors affect the economy? How do complex systems work together? Look at the class descriptions. Which ones pique your interest?
This sounds similar to following your passions, but it is different. Passions are more like blaring commercials in your mind. The deep, lifelong interests are the curiosities you feel in your gut. You can be passionate about a multitude of things, but is there a question or idea that just keeps bugging you? The answer to that question will provide a lot of guidance.
What are the job prospects?
If job security is very important to you, then take a look at what jobs are the most in demand. A good resource to utilize is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov).
The Bureau of Labor Statistics will help you identify individual careers and give you information on the median income level, the type of education needed, and the job functions it entails. It will also tell you the projected job growth in the individual careers. If there will be a lot of jobs in the field you are studying, you will have a better chance of employment right after college.
Some degree tracks tend to generate strong job prospects because they are specialized and sought-after like accounting, finance, or medicine. As a rule of thumb, “STEM” degrees give you great job prospects. STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Also we live in a tech savvy culture. People who have a strong command of the sciences, math, engineering, or technology will be more suited for jobs in almost every industry. STEM-related degrees can be quite helpful on the job market.
Utilize career tests
These can be anything from a simple online career assessment, to companies that offer extensive testing that evaluate not only your personality, but also natural thought patterns and skills.
Not only will career tests help identify your strengths, they can also help identify your weaknesses. This is not to say that if a career involves something that's a struggle for you, then you shouldn't do it. Rather, it will help you identify certain areas which will require special effort to overcome.
As Socrates echoed, “know thyself.” Everybody has skills that come naturally and skills that don't. Choosing a career path is much easier when you are aware of both.
It is ok to change your mind!!
It is very common for people to switch majors. It's ok. It's better to recognize partway through college that you don't like your major than to recognize after you have graduated that you don't like your career.
But beware! Changing majors, or changing schools to change majors, can come at a cost. Some classes won't transfer between schools, and some of your credits for one major won't help you in another major.
Expect that with every change in your major you are going to lose some of the credits that you earned. But that sacrifice can be a small price to pay if you are shifting into a career path where you can now succeed and enjoy your job.
If you're still unsure, consider a “safe major.” A safe major is a versatile major---one that can translate into a variety of job opportunities. There are three particular areas that are the most flexible in terms of job prospects.
One of the most adaptable degrees is anything involving business---i.e. accounting, marketing, business administration, entrepreneurship, finance, economics, etc. These degrees can be helpful not only for working for a company, but also for starting and managing your own business.
In addition, business degrees provide you with good, practical skills. Who doesn't want to know a better way to budget and plan financially for the future?
Computer and Information Science degrees:
As noted above, we live in a digital information age and our entire world seems to revolve around computers. As technology changes, the job prospects will likely grow in favor of technology jobs.
A background in computers is valuable no matter what career path you take, and it shows employers that you can tackle new problems presented by new technology.
Effective communication is not career specific. Communication skills are generally useful in any field. In most companies, you will sink or swim depending on your ability to communicate clearly and effectively.
Communications will not only prepare you for presenting yourself well in job interviews, but it can give you the skills that translate into upper management. Administrators, bosses, and CEO's inevitably have to impart vision, give instructions, clarify ideas, explain and interact, and all of that is a matter of communication.
The need for skilled healthcare workers continues to grow, and fast! One of the most beautiful things about the healthcare industry is that you can blend other interests in with many in-demand niches. For examples, you can blend business and healthcare in Healthcare Administration, or you can blend healthcare, business, and technology with a specialization in Healthcare Informatics.
Choosing a college major is a daunting task, but don't be discouraged! While certain jobs require specific majors (like engineering), most majors can translate into a variety of jobs. Having a degree isn't merely about what you learn. It tells employers that you are a hard worker and a finisher, two of the most important skills to have for any job.