The Complete Guide to Choosing a Major

What should I major in? The quick answer to that question is: It depends.

 

First, it depends on your personal interests and academic strengths. Next, it depends on the economy and the likelihood of getting a job in your chosen field after graduation. And finally, it depends on your career and lifestyle goals.

 

If you choose the right major in college, you’re on your way to landing that dream job you’ve always wanted. But there are hundreds of degree programs to choose from, so how do you know you’re picking the right one? What if you don’t even know what interests you? This guide will put you on track to finding the answer to the question: “What should I major in?”

 

Photo by Csaba Balazs

 

What really grabs your interest?

Choosing your college major requires research. You’ll have to figure out what truly interests you and also determine what you want out of your career. For instance, is making a lot of money the only goal, or is it also important to you to help people? 

 

Naturally, you want to choose a college major that holds your interest. The last thing you want is to become bored with your career. However, merely being interested in something isn’t enough. You may be exceptionally interested in architecture and design, but if you don’t have the mathematical ability – or at least the capacity to learn advanced mathematical concepts – it may not be the right choice for you. 

 

It’s also worth looking at your core values, which can help you choose a major (and eventually a career) that’s rewarding and fulfilling. The same is true for your passions; if you’re passionate about animals, the environment, or something else, that’s a good place to start.

 

Don’t forget to get details of what people actually do in their jobs. Ask your college advisor, professors, and teaching assistants; they can put you in touch with alumni. Get your parents and your own social network involved. Look at job descriptions for positions across different industries.

 

How to identify your interests 

What are your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? If you can answer those two questions, you have a good idea about what you’re interested in. 

 

You may enjoy playing organized sports, reading, or playing strategy games. Maybe you’re a researcher at heart, or perhaps you spend all your spare time outdoors. Each of these interests correlates with a college major, but sometimes it’s not easy to pin down your biggest interests. 

 

If you’re on the fence about what’s most interesting to you, explore several options that seem to tie in with your hobbies; there’s a good chance that reading job descriptions in each field will help solidify your position.

 

Photo by Helena Lopes

 

How to identify your strengths 

What classes did you perform best in? What subjects did you excel at? Although high school isn’t always an indicator of college performance, the last thing you want is to jump into a major with both feet only to discover that it’s so difficult you get discouraged.

 

Don’t forget your personal life here. Do your friends always come to you when they need tech help? Relationship advice? Do you invent stuff just for fun? Are you a Rubik’s Cube master? Do you pick up languages easily? These are skills you may want to explore further.

 

What are your values?

When you work in a field that aligns with what is meaningful to you, you’re more likely to feel rewarded. Other than the paycheck, that’s one of the main reasons people choose the fields they’re in – and that’s something to aspire to. 

 

For example, if you believe in social equality and justice, you may be cut out for a career in the legal field. Likewise, if you find yourself being a strong advocate for environmental responsibility, engineering or a major in a scientific discipline may be right for you.

 

Identify your passions 

Passions are a lot like interests, but they’re stronger than hobbies. These areas of deep interest draw on your values and abilities, and they become your most serious desires. 

 

If you have a passion for helping children, for example, you may choose a major that relates to pediatric healthcare; if you have a passion for arguing facts (and winning), you may make an exceptional attorney.

 

When you’re trying to answer the “what should I major in” question, explore all your options and ask yourself:

  • Is this interesting? Is it likely to remain interesting to me over time?
  • Am I able to perform and excel in this area?
  • Will this major lead me to a fulfilling, rewarding career?
  • Am I passionate about the work done in this field?

 

If you can answer yes to those questions, you’re well on your way to choosing the right college major.

 

college female sitting on steps studying for her major

Photo by @andreonegin via Twenty20

 

The basics of choosing a major

Choosing a major is the hard part. After you’ve settled where you want to be, all you have to do is let your school know that you’re following a path. Many colleges don’t require you to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year, which gives you ample time to explore your options by taking a variety of courses. At that time, you’ll also declare your minor.

 

Major vs. minor 

A major is the field in which you focus most of your energy on the path to your degree, but a minor is a secondary concentration of courses that usually (but not always) complements your major. If you major in psychology, for example, you might minor in sociology or another closely related discipline.

 

Associate Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, Richard N. Pitt, spoke to The New York Times about double majors. He doesn’t think they have to be closely related to be useful. “Complementary majors with overlapping requirements are easier to juggle, but two unrelated majors probably yield bigger gains in the job market,” he notes. “[A double major] increases your breadth of knowledge.” The same might be said about a minor.

 

What’s out there in terms of jobs? 

It’s easy to check on future job trends so that at least you know if you’re likely to find employment once you have a degree in your field.

 

The top career fields in the United States – those that both meet employee needs and have the most comprehensive salaries and benefits packages – include:

  • Advertising and marketing
  • Architecture and engineering
  • Business and finance
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Information technology
  • Social services

 

Here’s a closer look at each but remember, if your passions don’t carry you into one of these broad fields, that’s okay. There’s lots of room to explore.

 

Advertising and Marketing 

People in the advertising and marketing fields are on the cutting edge of technology, and they typically provide services that help sell products by generating public interest. The field itself is growing faster than average, particularly in the age of global connectivity, and the median annual salary for a manager in advertising and marketing is just over $120,000.

 

You generally need a bachelor’s degree to get by in advertising and marketing, but some roles – such as those in upper management positions – require a master’s degree or MBA.

 

Architecture and Engineering 

Skilled architects and engineers are generally in high demand. With a strong foundation in mathematics and science that carries into design, building and maintenance of structures and systems, the median annual wage for professionals in this field is around $80,000 per year. Often, graduate degrees and professional licensing are required.

 

 

Business and Finance

Employment in the business and financial sectors is a lofty goal, and there’s frequently a demand for talented financial planners, accountants, loan officers, and administrators.

 

The median annual wage is approximately $70,000 per year for professionals who hold bachelor’s degrees in these fields, although higher-earning jobs may require advanced degrees, certifications and professional licensing.

 

Education

Education like healthcare – will always be an essential field. The need for teachers, special educators, school principals, librarians, and other experts in the education field is continuously growing. On average, teachers in elementary, middle and high schools earn about $60,000 per year (accounting for veteran educators and first-year teachers alike).

 

In comparison, the average school principal earns about $95,000 per year. Many positions in education (such as that of principal) require a master’s degree.

 

Healthcare

Healthcare occupations are routinely understaffed, so the demand is high. In fact, by 2028, the U.S. Department of Labor projects 1.9 million new jobs in the field. Jobs such as audiologists, dentists, nurse anesthetists, optometrists, and pharmacists are among the highest-paying in the field, while pharmacy technicians, home health aides, and EMTs, and paramedics are among the lowest.

 

For all healthcare-related jobs, the median annual wage is just under $70,000 per year, with specialists in the medical field typically earning at least twice that.

 

Information Technology

Information technology, or IT, is one of this decade’s fastest-growing fields. Jobs such as database administrators, software developers, cybersecurity analysts, and web developers require varying levels of education, with a bachelor’s degree the minimum. Some advanced jobs and significant industrial positions require graduate degrees.

 

The median annual salary for people in the IT field is around $90,000.

 

Social Services

Social services, such as those filled by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and social workers are in demand, but those positions generally pay less than other in-demand jobs.

 

The median salary for community and social service jobs is below $50,000 – and often, these jobs require advanced degrees, clinical experience, and state licensing.

College majors with the highest employment rates 

Employment rates vary by year and even by region within the same year. For example, if you choose a major in the performing arts but live in a small town in Idaho without a community theater, you may have a tough time finding a job in your chosen field.

 

However, some majors lead to careers that generally have higher employment rates than others.

 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupations with the most job growth through 2028 include:

  1. Healthcare (personal care aides, RNs, medical, and health services managers).
  2. Marketing (market research analysts and marketing specialists).
  3. Management/Business (general and operations managers, management analysts, financial managers, business operations specialists).
  4. Accounting (accountants and auditors).
  5. IT specialists (computer user support specialists).

 

This list coincides in the main with one from Indeed, which adds culinary arts, mathematics, psychology, civil (and systems) engineering, economics, and PR to its top twenty.

 

While demand and employment projections shouldn’t be the sole criteria on which to base your decision of what your major will be in college, it can inform your choice. Your own interests and abilities, however, should take precedence.

 

Choosing the right major is a big decision, but it’s a decision you can change – and because you typically won’t even have to declare a major until your junior year, you have plenty of time to explore.

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