Nobody wants to be the guy who switches from pre-med to philanthropy to culinary arts in the same year. But how do you make such a big decision? What if you like lots of things or you don’t know what you like at all? You don’t want to waste thousands of dollars on a major that isn’t right for you or one that doesn’t set you up for a successful career. You need help deciding what should I major in?
I’ve been working with students for over 20 years in both ministry and as a college instructor. I’ve seen countless students go through a quarter-life crisis tailspin when they think about deciding between college majors or switching majors. The thought of wasting a year or more’s worth of tuition, let alone all the projects and classwork down the tube, makes most students at least cringe, if not completely lose it.
Parents: I know you dread that phone call hearing that your son or daughter might need one more year of college now that they decided they want to switch majors. Arguments ensue. It’s best to avoid it all if at all possible, right?
So what should I major in?
How do you know what’s right for you? What if you are in a spot where you think you picked the wrong one. What do you do? If your faith is important to you, you might even be questioning is this what God wants for you. You want to make sure you are doing meaningful work that He has prepared for you to do.
First, let me take this enormous pressure off you. Your major, while it feels like a huge decision right now, is not as big as you think. Ask around—many people are in careers that are different than what they studied and prepared for in college. Your 18-year-old self should never dictate what your 30, 40, or 50-year-old self does in life. Life gives new opportunities, you change, and the world changes. Don’t feel you are locked into a career because of a major choice. Whether or not that first job will be a life-long career needs to be off the table.
Now that we’ve released the pressure valve on that, I will say that picking a major is important in getting that first job. So assuming you are at the right college with the right options of college majors, how do you decide what major is right for you and is going to set you up to start on your career?
Which college graduates make the most (and other awful ways to pick your major.)
So many students are making their decision in these four ways. Here are the wrong ways to decide your major:
- Don’t pick a major based on enjoying a class. Your career will not look like a class. Your professor will not be your boss.
- Don’t pick a major based on liking your teacher/professor. As awesome as that prof is, he is in his perfect job, not yours.
- Don’t pick a major solely because of its potential income. Students often want the highest income possible, thinking that will make them happier. Studies1 have proven that is a false belief. Once you get to a certain baseline income, your happiness is not increased by making more money. So don’t spend time thinking about which college graduates make the most. It won’t make you happier.
- Don’t pick a major based on what your parents do or what they believe is best. Sorry parents, I totally get that you have the best interests at heart for your kid, but you made your choices in life and your kid gets to as well. And it’s a different world with loads more options for your child. There will be bitterness if you force a choice that isn’t right for them.
How do you decide - What should I major in?
The following questions are a better way to figure out your area of study in college:
- What am I good at? Ask everyone that knows you well what you are gifted in—picking the right major means knowing yourself well. If you struggle with that, there are a handful of tests you can take that can give you some answers to who am I? Enneagram, DISC, fivefold, and more2 all help.
- Intern and job shadow. A great major sets you up for the right first job. You need to discover what the first job is that you want and then ask the people in those jobs what major would prepare you the best to get it. Do a bit of LinkedIn stalking and offer to take folks you are interested in emulating out for a coffee. It might just be the best $7 you’ve ever spent at Starbucks. At the very least, it will help you build advocates in the industry and give you valuable insights into companies and careers.
- What lifestyle do I want to have? What? I know what you’re thinking…”Hold on… didn’t I just say income doesn’t matter?” Not exactly. Income absolutely matters, it just doesn’t directly correlate with a satisfying career and happy life. For this question, think about what kind of lifestyle you want. Do you care about being in front of the computer a lot? Maybe you love kids and always want to be surrounded by them? Maybe travel is incredibly important to you. These things should influence what job you want and thus your major choice. For me, I grew up with teachers as parents and had summers to travel and enjoy hobbies and time with family and friends. I had to learn the hard way that I wanted that lifestyle while also not wanting to be a teacher. So when looking at jobs, I always negotiated for more vacation time instead of just more income. In fact, I have taken lower-paying jobs that afforded me more vacation and flexibility so I can spend time in the summer with my family. These types of priorities and constraints clarify choices.
- The last thing to consider is income potential. Your major sets you up for a certain first job and lanes of jobs that typically have a cap on income potential. Loads of students don’t do the math of choice of major at certain colleges to student debt. Meaning, are you going to a really expensive college, racking up the debt to go into a career that makes no more than $35,000? That is going to take you a long time to pay off, and you will look back and feel bitter at that decision when others can have options that you don’t because of that debt. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center offers a couple of tools3 for comparing the programs, college majors, costs, and student outcomes at thousands of different schools. I encourage you to do this research.
After considering those four things, talk to God about it all in prayer. Tell Him what you are thinking and ask him to direct you. In the Bible, He tells us, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). He cares about you and created you to have purpose. Need help talking to God? Check out this article. Just remember, He cares about you the way you are right now. You can never earn more love from Him or more belonging.
I remember working with one student who had done all these things and was just suffering in this decision process. She experienced months of tears, medication, counselors, and eventually needed to rest from the mental exhaustion of the decision. It had become a life-altering decision in her mind, and she was more than stuck. After talking with her, she had done the research and thought it through more than enough. What she needed to do was just jump. Go for it. I’m happy to say that she did, and she is now in a wonderful career and looks back in wonder at the stress of that decision.
So if that’s you: trust yourself and make the best decision you can, and don’t look back. Get that first job that gives you the experience and recognition that will lead you to the next. Fulfilling careers are built brick by brick. Pick the right major so you can begin to design the life you will love.
Last note: if this article is not satisfying the itch of “what should I major in?”, you probably are wrestling with a larger question of what should I do with my life?. That is a deep topic that I wrote about here. Check it out.