Choosing a major can be challenging. That’s because picking a major isn’t just about picking a major--it’s often about picking a career or lifestyle, too. Wondering how to decide on a major that helps you reach your personal and professional goals? We’ve got five steps to help you make your decision.
Know why you want to go back to school
People go back to school for lots of reasons, but it’s important that you understand your why. Landing a promotion at your current job likely requires a different major than switching careers all together. And if you’re looking to meet a particular salary goal, it helps to do some research into expected salaries in various fields so that you can choose a major that will translate into the job and pay you want. In short, understanding your motivation can guide you toward a major that helps you make the change you’re hoping a college degree will support.
Be realistic about your post-graduation salary needs
As you think about your salary, remember that there can be a pretty big difference between someone’s starting salary and what they can expect to make after ten years or so. Be realistic about your immediate post-graduation salary needs (e.g., remember that any student loans you’ve taken out will likely be due when you graduate), but consider the long-term return on investment different degrees offer. Some degree fields with a strong return on investment are
- Business Administration
Keep your expected salary in mind--without making it your entire focus--and you’re on your way to finding a major that matches the overall lifestyle you’re hoping for.
Discover what interests you.
Earning a degree usually takes a least a few years, so if you don’t choose a subject that’s interesting to you, it can be difficult to find the motivation you need to continue, particularly when your schedule is hectic or when a class is tough. If you don’t have a strong sense of where your academic interests lie, think about things like
- Your favorite hobbies or pastimes
- Volunteer work you engage in
- Social causes you support
- People who’ve changed your life for the better
If you still aren’t sure what to major in, don’t be afraid to start as undecided! About a third of all students change their major at least once. Taking some general education courses and talking to your advisor can help you refine your interests and put you on the right path.
Find out what credentials will you need for the career you want
Knowing how your major and degree fits into your ultimate career goal is important, particularly because some careers require specific degrees or credentials. For example, to work as a registered nurse, you’ll need at least an associate’s degree in nursing before you’re eligible to take the licensing exam.
Other careers, like accounting and teaching, don’t necessarily require you to get a specific degree, but they do require you to pass a professional exam and receive a license (which specific degrees can prepare you to do).
But not all careers require a specific major. If you’re looking for a major that allows you some flexibility in your career path, try English, philosophy, or history. These fields can all lead to a wide variety of careers, since writing, critical thinking, and cultural sensitivity are all among the top skills employers want.
Ask people with careers you’d like to have what they majored in
One of the best ways to choose a major is to ask people in careers you’re interested in what they majored in and how they got their start in their field. Once you’ve identified a couple of people with your dream job, reach out and request an informational interview. (Be sure to do some preliminary research and develop good questions to ask ahead of time!)
Finally, remember that no matter what degree you earn, you can add on certifications, credentials, or even a graduate degree at a later time--and sometimes your employer will even cover the cost.
Following the five steps above should help you narrow your search and zero in on a major that’s right for you. But if you’re still feeling unsure, don’t worry--signing up for some general education classes at your local community college or through an online credit provider like StraighterLine can move you towards a degree and give you a chance to explore some new areas.
Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.
Need some inspiration? Wondering what today’s most in-demand degrees are? Check our post on today’s top majors for adult students.