How to Pick a College Major

Categories: College

Are you a youth and planning to go to college? Maybe you are an adult and want to go in a totally different direction in your career. Then there are those that want to stay in the same industry but specialize in a particular area of study. Whichever group you are in, you need to go back to school, or just continue on in your studies – but if you don’t plan, you might be headed in the wrong direction.

A recent newspaper article indicated that those that graduate from college with the highest debt are those coming out of arts schools, yet their job prospects might not be so great. That WSJ article lists 3,500 colleges and their graduation rates and median amounts borrowed. Like any college or university, they will tell you about the most successful students and how well their careers are going. Attending college orientations and visits with our children, we had these wonderful top of the class students obtaining great fulfilling jobs paraded before us. They wanted you to think that if you attend their school you would be successful too. One school in particular we visited had a great arts school, and we heard about famous grads that were working for Disney- everyone was impressed and excited, but the odds were low of most students landing a similar job.

It seems as if most schools do a very poor job at helping students pick a career that not only fits their interests, but has great job prospects as well. In addition, little guidance is given when it comes to borrowing. More schools are talking about debt now, which is good, but too often they don’t give a lot of information, because if they do, they fear admissions will drop if students knew the real story.

How do you make the most of your college experience to prepare you for a future career?  First of all it is good to have goals and knowledge. The main goals of education should be to prepare you for your next phase of life in your career, and as solid well rounded people that a liberal arts education promises.

How do you choose a good career?  To a large extent it is a combination of knowing yourself and knowing the job market. If you set your sights on making a lot of money, without considering your own natural abilities and interests, then you might end of being very unhappy. Some people believe that as long as they have a lot of money to do the fun things, then they will be happy, but for some that doesn’t work out for them. On the other hand if you totally pursue your heart without consideration of practical side of things, like the ability to earn an income your new degree will provide, then you will either starve or end up living with your parents, and maybe with a ton of debt that you can hardly ever re-pay. Lastly, if you don’t do it without any consideration for your heart may tell you, you might miss out on all sorts of wonderful things that are in-store for you. Case in point is majoring in social work. This career can be one of the most wonderful areas of work, and if that is someone’s calling and interest go for it, however be mindful that the income potential is modest, so plan to minimize debt and plan for the lifestyle that career will provide. The same might be said for teaching and other careers with many openings, but just good to plan appropriately.

It is easy for me to have this perspective now that I am in my 50’s, but difficult when I was 20 and was just ‘finding my way.’ It is better to take inventory when you are just starting out in life- since switching gears later is hard, if you have a family and lingering college debt. Start with knowing yourself a little better. Take an inventory of the things you like to do, or have enjoyed doing so far.  What are you naturally good at, what makes you happy at work?  What are the undeveloped talents and abilities that you have? You may have difficulty seeing them yourself. I know I do. What has helped me, is taking various aptitude tests, often offered through high school or college counselors, or personal, career or college coaches. Secondly, ask other people. For example, co-workers and friends told me I had teaching and writing abilities, natural administration skills, good with technology and other things, that I never really thought of. Having other people’s perspective is so valuable, because we can’t often see things about ourselves. Early on don’t be afraid to ask for counsel and seek advice. Sometimes I find this hard to do, since I have to swallow my pride: publicly admit that I don’t have many things figured out- but I am finding out as I age how valuable this is.

Some career professionals will tell students to get a 4 year major in STEM degrees: science, technology, engineering and math. Doing a little web surfing, the following areas seem to be hot these days (sources: ForbesYahoo FinanceNY TimesUS News and World Report).

  • Medical: medicine, nursing, pharmacology, pharmacy, bio-medical engineering, treatment therapy
  • Science and Math: biochemistry, computer science, applied mathematics, mathematics, physics and statistics
  • Engineering: software, bio-medical, civil, environmental, petroleum, chemical, transportation, electrical and construction
  • Information Technology: programmer, network specialist, and various others
  • Business: finance, accounting, business services, human resources, and management consulting
  • Less than 4 year degree: some IT, medical aid workers, airplane repair and maintenance

For some people, careers are not always a straight arrow path. I am reminded of the Sheryl Crow song title, “Every day is a winding road.”  You might start off your career in  one direction, and through the fun adventure of life, eventually end up doing something all together different than you planned or expected. During the journey you meet people that will be important to you in guiding your career. You may have different jobs that teach you new skills, and you might learn about abilities you do or don’t have. I think that is why many people go back to school at all ages to get advanced degrees, study for entirely new careers, or just to expand their knowledge of where they are. You are never too old to learn or try something new.

If you do go to school, try to minimize debt as much as possible. Not only will the debt burden be easier to shed, having less or no debt allows you to be more flexible in pursuing various careers and interests later. To learn about more ways to pay for college, read my previous article: 14 Ways to Fund College.

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