How to Choose a Career or Major (When You're Undecided)
Choosing a major to stick to for pretty much the rest of your life is overwhelming, and you’re not alone—though you may sometimes feel like you are. There’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about; tough decisions don’t come with easy answers. After all, roughly 75 percent of freshmen enter college without declaring a major.
You’ve probably recognized that going to college can come with a pretty hefty price tag. And it’s not just the expense of school that can bury you, either. The cost of being stuck in a career that you simply aren’t in love with can weigh heavily on your psyche.
But there are some steps you can take to weed out any wrong career choices, before you commit to one for a lifetime. Here are some ways to decide on a career that you will love.
- Read course catalogs: Your high school counseling office probably has stacks of college catalogs for you to thumb through. Take your time, read each description and the course list you’ll take to get that degree, and see if you can picture yourself doing that. Don’t necessarily hone in on your interests. What you like today may hold zero appeal when you’re 48 and have put 20 years into a career you wish was more satisfying because you outgrew that particular attraction early on.
- Don’t allow too many opinions to influence you: Have you ever heard the saying, “too many cooks in the kitchen”? Well, that’s what happens when you ask too many people their takes on your college or career path. It’s information overload, and it makes it even harder to make a good, reliable decision. Instead, ask a few people who you feel closest to what their thoughts are, and take those answers into consideration. It’s okay to discuss with only your guidance counselor and family, not bringing in your entire network’s ideas about what you should do.
- Focus on what you’re good at: If math is your worst subject and you absolutely despise it, then you may not want to pick a career path riddled with upper-level math classes. If writing is your strong point, then really focus on careers that may involve some facet of writing—maybe one that you’ll need to take a boatload of English courses to get that degree. But remember, once you master something, you’ve become good at it. Meaning, if a field interests you, don’t rule it out based on something you may not be great at right now. Practice can make perfect.
- Satiate your curiosities: Maybe you’re fascinated by languages, or you long to know what lies beyond our solar system, or you think ants are really neat. Linguistic anthropology, astronomy, or entomology may be your calling. Follow your passions and curiosities; your decision will make itself known. What a sense of relief you’ll feel once that happens!
- Don’t focus on the money: Student debt can be a deterrent for some potential college students. It can be crushing once those loans need to be repaid. (However, know that there are other forms of financial aid you can get aside from loans that will make the tuition balance more digestible.) While the money you’ll be making one day should be on the table, it’s not always best to choose a career based on its salary. Sure, it’s nice to bring in the big bucks, but it’s equally—if not more—important to be paid for doing something you truly, from the bottom of your heart, love to do. Besides, it’s actually proven that paychecks do not equal job satisfaction. But if your paychecks aren’t paying the school loans or the rest of your bills, then there’s not much satisfaction in that, either.
- Set realistic goals: Only you know what you’re actually capable of. That’s not to say you won’t surprise yourself. But it’s probably a good idea to keep your goals realistic. For example, if you’re in a state of limbo when it comes to choosing a career, then consider going to community college to complete core classes while you’re figuring it out. And then, set attainable sights from there. Perhaps a liberal arts or humanities bachelor’s degree could be the right move for you, because it opens so many realms of possibilities, particularly if you decide to pursue your master’s degree. Or your doctorate.
- Pay attention to the job market: When you’re researching different careers, add the Bureau of Labor Statistics website to your list of references. There you will find out everything: what you do in a career, how to get there, how much you’ll get paid, and the job outlook through the next eight years. You may want to avoid careers that are becoming obsolete.
- Easier isn’t necessarily better: Many people trick themselves into thinking an easy job will make them happy. Don’t fall into that trap, because eventually that easy job will become mind numbing and boring. Look at careers that have the potential to constantly evolve and keep you in a state of learning.
- Work it: Maybe you have a general idea, but you aren’t 100 percent positive. Think about taking an internship (even if it’s unpaid), to get a taste of what you’d be doing should you choose to pursue the career. Internships have recently become the primary source of entry-level positions, so it serves two (or more) good purposes!
- When in doubt: Do more research. You have the whole World Wide Web at your disposal. Take a list of potential career ideas, look into what’s involved, what others in the career are saying, what the growth potential is, and whatever else you’re interested in finding out.
- When you’re really stuck: Always remember that you can change your mind. When you’re in college, you can declare a double major, a minor, or scrap it and start over focusing on a different major altogether. There are many colleges who won’t pressure you to declare a major until you’re a sophomore, which means you have a year of college to figure it out. That may not seem like a very long time, but you’d be surprised by how many people come to a conclusion in that time. Not to mention, more than half of college students switch their majors at least once. But, if you’re like the multitude of others who are approaching that D-day when you’re supposed to declare, consider exploring a few different majors while still in your freshman or sophomore years. Pick one, two, three, or even four that you’ve been mulling over, take some classes, maybe using your elective credits, to get a basic taste of each one. That may help narrow it down for you. And instead of asking yourself which major should you choose, ask what major is right for you. Just rewording that question can lead to a different view.
20 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF AND ANSWER HONESTLY
You need to have open internal dialogue to really dive deep into figuring it out. Whether you’re trying to choose a career path as a student, or you’re thinking of making a career change as an adult, these are some questions you can ask yourself to gain more clarity and insight into what direction may best suit you. Write down your answers to these questions (and keep in mind, this is a fluid list):
- Do I believe in myself—for real?
- What are my dreams?
- Am I confident, or do I struggle too often?
- How do I define “work”?
- What type of impact do I want to make on the world?
- What type of career or job title would make me most proud?
- What am I truly interested in and curious about?
- How much school am I willing to commit to?
- What kind of skills do I have, both hard and soft?
- What would I like to get really good at doing?
- What kind of jobs have I enjoyed so far?
- Am I an introvert or extrovert?
- What are my core values and beliefs, and how do I want those to carry into my career?
- If money wasn’t a piece of the equation, what is my dream job?
- What is my personality like? Am I someone who needs hand holding, or can I go out and get ‘em on my own?
- Where do my passions fall, and what type of careers fit them?
- What really motivates me?
- What kind of lifestyle will satisfy me?
- Where can I see myself living?
- What are my priorities in life and career?
By being completely honest with yourself, it can help you maintain focus when deciding what your options are. It’s completely normal to change your mind and switch gears. But the more in tune you are with yourself, knowing your priorities and your goals, the closer you can get to choosing a career that’s right for you—one that will bring happiness and contentment into your life. And really, that’s all anyone can hope for.