how should students pick a college major?

I’m throwing this one out to readers to weigh in on. A reader writes:

I work in higher education. I am changing from Admissions to Academic Advising. I really enjoy your advice and would love to know your opinion on something. How should a student go about choosing a college major? I was at a community college and I learned that most students do not have a very broad concept of what is out there for them to pursue. They mostly only know about careers in education, medical, what is popular on television, and what jobs their parents have.

My thoughts on this one: Do some serious reflection on what you want to do after you graduate. Talk to people who are in those fields to reality-check yourself. Figure out if your degree is actually going to prepare you for that field. Too often, students are surprised when they graduate and discover that their degree hasn’t put them on the path they want, or that they misunderstood what it would do for them.

I majored in English, but I wish I had majored in something like business. I was already reading and writing a ton on my own, publishing articles, etc., and I’m not convinced my English classes had that much of an impact. And yeah, there’s obviously more to it than reading and writing, but I wish I’d followed a path that would have taught me something entirely different than what I was already self-teaching myself. (But then again, I was also in a fog at the time as far as long-term impact of choices, and I’m not sure I could have figured out what was going to make sense for me down the road.)

Readers, what do you say? Do you wish you’d done things differently when picking your major? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

{ 365 comments… read them below }

  1. Phoenix*

    I’m not in higher education, but graduated from college a few years ago. One consideration students might make is the ease of switching from their initial major to a different one, if they choose. I was in engineering, and we were commonly advised to pick one of the less “specialized” majors if we knew we wanted to pursue engineering but weren’t sure what kind, exactly. This allows you to take some time (and some relevant classes) before deciding, and minimizes the pain that comes with switching if you decide to.

    1. A Prof*

      Ugh, I teach in higher education and have real mixed feelings on this. We have one major that is particularly flexible. On the one hand, it is great for the reason you mention– a lot of students will pick it up because it’s flexible and they end up discovering it’s a great subject even though they only knew a little about it before; if they like it, they can switch to a more “thorough” major in the same field, and if they don’t, it complements other fields well.

      On the other hand, we are cursed with all of the students who initially started another major, found it was “too hard”, and then switched into our flexible major because it looks easy on paper, even though they have no interest in the subject matter whatsoever. So we produce a bunch of “Teapotmaking” graduates who don’t really want to make teapots but kind of got stuck with it.

  2. Dawn*

    Go with what interests them. I chose my major because it’s what my BF at the time was majoring in. While it has eventually worked out for me, it was a supremely bad idea!

    Majoring in something that interests them ensures that they will make the most out of their college years- taking internships, engaging fully in classes, networking with their peers through related interest groups, etc. I would argue that those things are much, much, much more relevant to life after college than what their major is.

    1. Mallorie, the recruiter*

      I’m going to play devil’s advocate in this…. with how expensive college is, going for something that interests you can really ruin things down the road (like being interested in art, having 60k in debt, and not being able to find a job). While I wish money didn’t play a role in this, the reality is – it does. I have talked to SO MANY college grads who are literally begging for part-time teller positions. In this economy, I think real advice would be — decide if you even NEED to go to college, at least RIGHT NOW. Obviously some careers will require it, but many don’t. Encourage young people to go to college when they aren’t sure what they are going for or what career path they will have is very, very bad advice.

      1. S*

        Yes, but to play devil’s advocate to your devil’s advocate – even people who work as electricians/plumbers/etc – usually steady, well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree – are having problems finding steady work in this economy. I don’t necessarily disagree with you (although I think college can be a great way to find out what career path you want to pursue – what 18 year old really knows what they want to do for the rest of their life anyway, without being exposed to lots of different topics and fields?) but I think it’s something to keep in mind.

        1. Chinook*

          I definitely live in a different economy, but I can tell you that anyone with a trade can make a living if they are willing to move and/or work outside their comfort zone (not comfort with safety but with the type of industry they work in). If you can fix or build things, then it is always possible to even barter your way to a roof over your head and food on the table in exchange for your work. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a way to translate my abilities to type and answer phones into this this type of relationship.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            Was going to say something similar. . .I don’t know one out of work person in the trades right now. Dissatisfied and grouchy, maybe. You might end up in Canada, or the Bakken shale, or driving across the US for short-term assignments, but the work is there for the person who wants it. (FWIW, my circle ranges from those working in independent $100,000+/yr businesses to $10B+/yr companies.)

            1. TL*

              I know several tradesmen out of work in my hometown. But it’s a very blue collar place, with lots of people in trade and very few in “business.”
              And not a lot of people want to live there who weren’t born there, so getting degree’d people to move in is a bit of an issue.

              1. Chinook*

                “And not a lot of people want to live there who weren’t born there, so getting degree’d people to move in is a bit of an issue.”

                This part doesn’t make sense to me – I come from generations of people who have moved to where the work is. And, as much as I may whine about missing teaching, I also know that I could increase my chances for getting a position if I was willing to move (I am not because my spouse works here.) I grew up in a culture where you can do what you want for a living or live where you want, but to do both is considered to be darn lucky.

                1. TL*

                  Most people don’t think of it as an option – it’s just not on the radar. And when they get there, if they don’t fit, they’ll just spend their time trying to get out.

                  Environment matters to a larger extent than a lot of people give it credit for, I think.

              2. annie*

                I agree, so this seems to vary based region but my experience is the trades are having a very tough time in Chicago right now. Many family and friends are out of work or very, very underemployed – lots have not rebounded and the older ones may not ever rebound from the crash.

            1. Clerica*

              Not to mention that many non-U.S. countries aren’t quite as, ah, loose about giving away jobs to non-citizens before their own are employed.

        2. the gold digger*

          ven people who work as electricians/plumbers/etc

          Can’t tell by me. I am having to beg to get estimates for painting our house. I had five guys show up and got only two written estimates.

          1. IndieGir*

            That’s been my experience as well — I’m ready to throw thousands of dollars at someone to lay some tile for me, and I can’t even get a call back!

      2. Mike C.*

        If you aren’t interested in a topic, then it becomes much, much harder to put in the time and effort to make it useful to you.

        Given ten years of practice and instruction, just about anyone could play the violin at the level needed to play in the community symphony of a moderately sized town. But if you hate playing the violin, how in the heck are you going to stick through the ten years?

        1. De Minimis*

          I don’t think anyone is advocating that students study something in which they have no interest at all, just that “do what you love” may not be the best advice.

          There should be a middle ground—they should have at least some level of interest and of course aptitude, but they should also have some idea of what they may want to do after college and how this course of study will help them. Just thinking “I’ll go to grad school” or that they’ll just somehow magically find a good job will not work out well for most students.

            1. Traveler*

              I would also add that what you love quickly loses its luster when you don’t have the money to pay the bills or pay back student loans.

          1. Mallorie, the recruiter*

            I don’t think anyone is advocating that students study something in which they have no interest at all, just that “do what you love” may not be the best advice

            ^This was my exact point. It’s not that I am advocating for young people to be miserable just to earn money, but I ended up “doing what I love” by complete accident without even completing my degree. I think working is a better way to “find yourself” and a much better financial decision than college… for many (not all).

          2. Kelly O*

            Or “I’ll just go to law school.”

            Seriously I know so many people in varying degrees of completion of law school right now, and some of them are doing it just because they have a passing interest in Law and Order reruns and can’t find a job. Law sounds good. Lawyers make lots of money? All those stories about competitive markets are just news bias, right?

          3. OP*

            I read a great book that’s not too old called “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work you Love.” It was so good I’m going to reread it now that I’m transferring from Admissions to Academic Advising.

            Thank you for all the posts and great discussion. I’m really enjoying studying and learning from each of you.

      3. GrumpyBoss*

        I think you bring up an interesting point – there are several majors now days that you will never see an ROI given the cost of a college education, especially if someone is going to a pricey school.

        When I was in college over 20 years ago, you didn’t rack up the crazy debt, and not to mention, a much healthier job market. I knew a lot of people with very esoteric majors who graduated and got a job in a dot com somewhere. Now, if you major in Left Handed Dyslexic Poets of 14th Century England, you may find yourself with $100k of student loans, and unable to even get a barista job at Starbucks!

        1. Nicole*

          I know this comment is a few years old, but I thought I would reply anyway for posterity.

          I went to a liberal arts college (a somewhat pricey one), majored in two lib arts disciplines, and have done some some counseling for young adults who are also deciding whether or not to major in an “esoteric” discipline. Honestly, I haven’t found much difference in career tracks among my peers. I’ve known engineering and business majors who are having long spells of unemployment and philosophy/art history/classics/whathaveyou majors who are gainfully employed and doing extremely well.

          I feel that the major does not matter as much as a) how you sell the major (i.e. how you transfer the skills you gained into the workplace environment, which, if you’re clever enough, is very possible with an esoteric degree), b) the other work and internship experience that accompanies it, and c) how willing you are to learn other skills on the job

      4. Sarah*

        I was an art history major for my undergrad and then earned a masters in arts policy and administration. Even without my master degree, I could have worked in the field – although at entry level. In the arts, you have to be willing to move to where the jobs are. But it is possible.

        1. Traveler*

          Yes – but there are a lot of outlying factors that need to be considered. Is that art history major going to have their degree funded? The graduate degree funded? Do they have the money and ability to move? Will the job their art history degree provides be enough to pay expenses and pay back student loans if their degree wasn’t funded? Just because its possible, doesn’t mean its practical.

          1. Sarah*

            Just for some background on me – I took out $50,000 in student loans for my undergrad at a private, selective university. My grad school was paid for through a TA position. I steadily paid off my undergrad loans. I was lucky that my husband who I married after grad school had a house, so I did not have the expense of rent or a mortgage, but it is possible to pay off loans (if you have to take them) and have a career in the arts. Even if I had a rent payment, I just would not have been putting more towards my loans each month than I needed to.

      5. Cucumber*

        OP works for a community college. CC is cheap, and most of them do offer great educational value. Let’s say you have a kid living in Boston. It will cost about $8-9k for her to get an associates degree at Bunker Hill Community College, and she can do it while working a full or part-time job, attending what most schools call a “Weekend College”, night classes, or a schedule that works for her.

        CCs are great places to get started on a general studies degree that can be transferred to a bachelor’s program. You would be amazed, but there are people walking around with degrees from big name schools, public Ivys and so on, who started with two years at their local junior college. And overall, a person with a AA or AS degree, working towards a BA or BS, will be able to compete so much better than someone with no degree.

        Also, community colleges offer electrician, HVAC, and other trade certification programs.

        1. Cajun2Core*

          DITTO! My wife is an undergraduate adviser at a State University where there is a community college in the same city. She sees so many people who are not ready for a 4 year University try and make it in a 4 year University and fail miserably. Not everyone is cut out for a 4 year degree/University and a Community College is a good way to find out if college is for you or not and if it is not, then there are often other options in the Community College. If it is for you, you most likely have 2 years or so done at a relatively cheap price.

          1. Juli G.*

            This! There’s really not a major difference between Computer Science/English/Econ 101 at a 2 year or 4 year college except about $75 a credit hour.

            There are trade offs from going to CC (I missed out on the traditional college experience and found it difficult to integrate myself as a somewhat introverted junior so I drove home most weekends to see my boyfriend instead BUT I walked away with only 7K in school loans too and I didn’t have to work my junior and senior year bc I had lots of living expense cash saved) but it’s a great way to figure it out.

            1. Anx*

              I am living my life in reverse, which I don’t advise, but I have found a few good points about my path.

              I went to college undecided, got a useless degree in something I liked and was good at (until college). Now I’m back at a comm coll gettin an AS in a parallel field, mainly hoping to expand my network and to just do something since graduation.

              I actually really got the most out of the 4 year experience in those first two years. I should have taken better advantage of undergrad research opportunities a university can offer, but otherwise I really like the comm college experience now that I’m older.

        2. Callie*

          One of my jobs is in academic advising. I work with students all the time who went to CC first but they didn’t bother to look at the transfer equivalencies for the school they wanted to transfer to, so half their CC credits don’t count. Or they took4 3-credit classes when the university requires 4 4-credit classes so they have to take ANOTHER class when they thought they were done with that area.

          And some degree programs have a special “core” of classes you have to complete in the major before you can move on to the higher level classes. (I’m thinking of music and most other performing arts.) Even if you already have your gen eds out of the way, it’s STILL going to take you at least 3 and probably 4 years to get through the sequence, so you ended up taking 6 years to get a 4 year degree. So if you want to transfer to somewhere, PLEASE look BEFORE you start at the CC to see what you need at the other school, what they will accept, if there is a sequential curriculum in the major you want, because otherwise you will not save yourself any time or money.

          1. annie*

            Yes, this, absolutely. I have two cousins who got burned on the non-transfer-abililty of their CC credits and ended up taking five years to finish school, which wiped out the amount they saved by going to CC first.

            1. SevenSixOne*

              “Take gen ed classes at a community college, then you can transfer your credits to a university!!!” would just go away.

              I don’t know anyone who was able to transfer all their credits to the new school. Lots of credits won’t transfer at all, and there are strings attached to the ones that do. Maybe the credit hours tranfer, but the GPA doesn’t. Maybe you have to pay to take a skills test to prove you know the material covered in those classes. Maybe you have to attend a hearing with faculty members, plead your case for why you deserve to have these credits transferred, then wait months to find out if you’re approved and wait in limbo since those credits are prerequisites for other classes you need to take.

              …but my sample size is all people who have gone to college in the last ~15 years. Are counselors and parents giving advice that was true when they were in school?

              1. SevenSixOne*

                I mean…

                I WISH THE MYTH OF “Take gen ed classes at a community college, then you can transfer your credits to a university!!!” would just go away.

                1. Callie*

                  I wish that would go away and I wish the myth of “everyone can work their way through college because *I DID*” would also go away. Where I work, in our subject, there’s a sequential core curriculum and there may be only ONE section of a required course offered, and since it’s a sequence, they’re only offered one term per year. So it’s take this class at this time or don’t take it at all and you’re a year behind. You have to finish the 2 year core before you can move to the upper level classes. The core classes basically take all day. So your options are work on campus (most campus jobs require work study and even if they don’t all campus jobs are limited to 20 hrs/week when class is in session) or work off campus where most retail and food service jobs require ALL AVAILABILITY, ALL THE TIME to even think about hiring you. Then if your major is a performing art of some kind you have rehearsals and performances and lessons, on top of homework and practicing–and I don’t know about other majors but I imagine every major has it’s quirks and weird, time consuming requirements.

                  I really wish college were more affordable without having to resort to loans or ridiculous amounts of work. I see so many students struggling to do homework and practice adequately on top of working and it’s hard to watch. SCHOOL should be their job.

          2. OP*

            This! Exactly! Even in states with good articulation agreements you must know where you want to go next before an AA is a good idea at a community college. I’m all about students doing 2+2 but you must talk with academic advisors at both schools and know what you are doing.

          3. Anx*

            Also, in my experience, Comm Colleges are more tightly staffed and counselors have less time to actually counsel and talk to you. You need to stay on top of EVERYTHING and always ask for a second opinion.

            Just today I found out that despite assuring that I was ‘all set’ regarding my transfers, that one of them was never evaluated.

      6. Aimee*

        Majoring in something you are not interested in just because you think it will help you get a job is also a very bad idea, for several reasons.

        1) Many people (myself included) tend to do poorly in classes they’re not interested in. If you fail a bunch of classes, it can add years on to your degree!

        2) How often does your undergraduate major really even matter when it comes to job hunting? Maybe it does for that very first job out of college, but in the long run… I’ve never been asked what I majored in on a job application or interview. It’s just not relevant.

        3) Many eighteen-year-olds don’t know what they want to do for a living yet. I know I didn’t. We get asked the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question all the time when we’re kids, but I didn’t have a clue. Sometimes you just have to try a bunch of different things to figure out what you want to do! First and second year students in particular should explore lots of different types of classes to find their passion.

        4) Play to your strengths! I work for a university, and I see a lot of students majoring in subjects they are weak in. For example, many students who are not very good at science or math major in biology because their parents want them to be doctors. That really does not work out well for the student. It would be much better for that student to major in something they’re good at, even if it’s something like English or history that doesn’t scream marketability, than to major in something they’re bad at and risk flunking out.

        I think, if graduate school is a realistic option (I know for many people it’s financially out of reach), major in whatever you find interesting. Pick a major that allows you to take classes you find fun! Then you can focus on a professionally relevant degree in grad school.

        If graduate school is not a realistic option — well, at the university I work for, the career center will provide help to students struggling to choose a major. They can give personality tests to help a student pick a career that suits them. They also have “What Can You Do With a Major In…” webpages for every major the school offers, with lists of possible careers and employers and a list of campus resources and clubs for people interested in that major.

        1. Kelly O*

          “2) How often does your undergraduate major really even matter when it comes to job hunting? Maybe it does for that very first job out of college, but in the long run… I’ve never been asked what I majored in on a job application or interview. It’s just not relevant.”

          Just had to point out that while this is true for some occupations, it is not true across the board, and there are a good number of jobs that require a degree in a specific field. So, while it is valid for a sample, it should be taken in context.

          Although to a point I’m with you. I’m looking at my options for completing a B.S. and am considering just going to WGU and finding something vaguely business-y so I can get that coveted piece of paper and get on with finding a better job.

        2. Maura*

          As picky and ruthless as those online applications are, we’re no longer in the days of choosing a major because you like it (said the Spanish/Portuguese and Painting major). In my current job search, I see many, many listings that require specific majors (unnecessarily so, IMHO. I happen to think that a humanities degree is quite versatile, but I guess employers don’t anymore). I have a friend who specifically majored in Biochem (rather than Lab Technology) because he wanted a broad major that would give him more options. But when he applied to Lab Tech jobs, he was told repeatedly that there are so many qualified Lab Tech majors that they won’t look outside of that pool–even to Biochem, which is totally relevant. He ended up going back to school for dentistry. I have so many friends who have been in that boat. I plan to tell my kids to think about what they want to do, and to work backwards to find the major that will help them get there–which is the opposite of the conventional wisdom when I was choosing a major.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Except that requires you to tell the future. Your friend could just have as easily have applied for a job and been told “sorry. lab tech is too narrow, we want someone with broader experience.”

            1. Coffeeless*

              That’s the problem I see. People just aren’t able to accurately predict what’s going to be a growing, job-able industry/degree in 5 years. Look at all the students who enrolled in law school (which used to be a good idea), and then found the job market tight and ended up with a ton of debt by the time they graduated. I’m in a similar field, where it was forecast that job prospects would improve in the coming years. Then the economy tanked. Now, not so much. It’s hard to predict the future.

        3. Anx*

          2) But getting that first professional track is the hardest part, isn’t it? Well, I don’t really know because I’ve never reached that point. When getting that first job is so difficult (which many youth underemployment stats suggest), then a major really is critical

          4) As a life science major, I think there’s another reason so many students struggle. They were excellent science students in high school, but once you reach college, you’re taking more math/chem/physics classes than the ones you are really interested in and testing styles are very different. I wish more universities had chemistry and physics courses that were more focused for life science majors, instead of large lectures with uninterested TAs.

          1. Felicia*

            I just got my first professional track job two years after graduating (it can happen! there’s hope!), and my major had little to do with it. I got it entirely because of the 2 internships I did. It is vaguely related, I suppose, but I could have also gotten those internships if I had been doing any of 10 different majors. (people doing those internships do a variety of majors). It might be different for you because you’re doing something science related, but for majors not related to science or math, the major really matters far less than the work experience. And if you know you’re not going to grad school (none of the career paths I was interested in required it, and most would have viewed it as a bad thing),, your grades don’t matter at all. Which was disappointing because I got really great grades. But no employer asked and if I told them they wouldn’t care.

    2. Traveler*

      I don’t think it ensures it. I think the most important thing is understanding where the student is coming from – if they have to work while they go to classes, or pay their way through because there parents cannot – they need to make sure at a very young age that they are making practical choices. Too many people kept telling me to “do what interested me/do what you love” when I was young. I know they meant well, but it was the worst advice I could have gotten.

      1. SevenSixOne*

        We need to talk more about how the vast majority of people who Do What They Love And Don’t Worry About The Money (TM) are able to do that because they have the luxury of… not worrying about the money.

        Very often, they’re set for life thanks to the money they saved/invested grinding it out for years in a high-paying job (and drawing from the network and skills they gained there), their spouse’s high-paying job, Mom and Dad’s trust fund, Granny’s life insurance payout, etc.

        Not saying you can’t be successful Following Your Passion if you’re a broke recent grad with little or no work experience, but it becomes exponentially harder if you actually have to make money doing it!

  3. Anonymous*

    When picking my own major, I worked off of my interests and capabilities. I looked for something that I enjoyed doing and was good at. That didn’t completely narrow it down though, in my case that left teaching, music, engineering, and mathematics.

    But I had a narrower list! By looking at my skills and interests, I then looked at the potential career growth and earning potentials. That plopped me firmly into engineering. Once there, I followed my interest and went into astronautics, although there was better earning potential for me in chemical or petroleum. At that point, I had to go with something that I could see myself enjoying for decades to come, and astronautics is definitely interesting.

    Hope this helps! Make a short list based on your abilities and interests, then pick one that has growth potential and you can see yourself doing years down the road.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, I walked into college thinking I was going to do astrophysics, walked out majoring in biomathematics and now work in aerospace. Sometimes you just have to try things out.

  4. Mike C.*

    Pursue a broad based liberal arts education and pick something you’re good at, find interesting and have a plan on how you’re going to use that major later on.

    I went to a small engineering school – a third of the degree was stuff from every science major, a third was writing intensive humanities/arts, and the remaining third was your major. That broad education has really, really helped me out. You get a chance to understand what you’re good at, you learn enough to know what questions to ask, and you learn to communicate those ideas to others.

    1. Mike C.*

      To add to this – because of that broad base, I’ve been able to work in a few very different industries. You just have to show folks how having a variety in your background is useful to them.

  5. Sandy*

    Comb through the course catalogue and get a really good idea of what you will ACTUALLY be studying in a day to day basis once you choose that major.

    Meet with as many people as you can who graduated with that major. Although the academic advising office can and should help with this, it’s also a great opportunity to practice your networking skills. Some people will have translated their major into some neat job opportunities you never would have considered otherwise, and others will be professional baristas. You want to get a sense of all of them!

    1. AnotherAlison*

      On the other hand, I did just that, and it was a terrible idea. : )

      I was a freshman engineering major, and I looked ahead to the descriptions of the first mechanical engineering courses I would take. After seeing the description for Machine Design (below), I was intimidated and switched departments, only to switch back later, and get an A in machine design (and complete my degree and work in the field for years). 6 weeks into college, I can say I really had zero comprehension of what that course description meant. My advisor should have told me I was being ridiculous instead.

      Analysis of machine elements such as shafts, springs, screws, belts, bearings, and gears; analytical methods for the study of fatigue; comprehensive treatment of failure, safety, and reliability. Introduction to finite element methods in mechanical design.

  6. Ginger*

    Pick a major based on a.) what you like to do, and b.) what will realistically help you achieve your career goals. My parents thought my major in English was a waste; they thought I picked it just for “fun.” But I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and I have an awesome job offer starting this fall! I’m a recent graduate, and I’m so grateful to my past me for picking a well-rounded major.

    Students should never pick a major based on what they think will make the most money because the economy and job market can change a lot in 4 years. And students should never pick a job based on what their parents want because that will just make them miserable. I really liked professors and advisers at my college that encouraged and helped students talk to their parents about their decisions on a major.

    1. Ginger*

      And (so far, at least) I do not regret the English major one bit. Yes, like AAM I was learning writing, communication, and analytic skills on my own, but if I had chosen something more “practical” like business, I would have never been in a community of professors and students that supported my love of reading and writing. Everything I published was through the help of my English major friends; I had never been published before college because I was doubtful of my skills, but my friends helped me break out of my shell.

    2. LMW*

      I actually started out in Architecture because it was more “practical” than English. And I was miserable until I switched because it really wasn’t where my interest or talent was. I can’t imagine how unhappy I would have been if I’d gone for something like business or economics or engineering because it could have given me a good career. Fortunately, one of the things that drew me to my university in the first place was that they made it very easy to take courses in other areas, switch majors, etc. I still graduated on time (with a double major and minor).
      I loved pursuing my English major, especially because it was something I was good at. And that enthusiasm is what helped me build a career. (In retrospect, the only thing I would have done differently would be maybe choosing a less expensive university.)
      TL;DR: I think it’s very important to discover what you are actually good at and enjoy before committing to a major.

    3. Dan*

      “Students should never pick a major based on what they think will make the most money because the economy and job market can change a lot in 4 years.”

      Literally the absolute most money? Yeah, maybe. But there are several jobs that historically pay very low, and several that historically pay very well.

      1. LAI*

        Well, for most people, your major doesn’t necessarily equal your career. A good friend of mine was an English major and she is now a very well-compensated executive at an advertising agency. I also know people who were Philosophy and Political Science majors who are now doctors. So I think that Ginger’s advice was that students shouldn’t pick a major specifically because they think it is going to lead to a career that makes them a lot of money. Will you make more money as a computer programmer than as a teacher? Probably. But you can be a computer programmer as a History major (if you know how to code) and you can be a teacher as a Computer Science major.

      2. Clerica*

        Mmm, but the ones that historically pay very well often tend to attract a lot of candidates, particularly now when every third online article is about which majors pay the most money or which jobs are the most stable economically. (Many of these articles are basically clickbait and not based in reality, btw, just based on which ones they can link to affiliates for). So yes, employed people in that field can make a lot, but so many students are now picking that major that the market is saturated and if you weren’t employed before the saturation, getting that 3-5 years’ experience may well be impossible.

        1. Anx*

          That’s a great point. I’d much rather pick a degree with low unemployment than a higher salary. 25K is considered ‘low salary’ by some metrics, but many of my friends and I consider that to be a lot better nothing.

      3. Coffeeless*

        Historically, law has paid very well. Right now, I would not recommend law. It’s risky to base your decision on that.

  7. R*

    As a recent college graduate, I found that the best advice is to encourage students to first find a subject that they are passionate about and sparks their intellectual curiosity. Once they do that, the next step is to find out what one can do with that major in terms of jobs. I have found that the best thing an academic advisor can do is help a student isolate the key skills that they are learning and help the student find practical applications for their skills.

    For example, I loved to read and write and decided to become an English major. After I made that decision, my advisor helped me explore career fields that valued people with the skills that I acquired with my major, including publishing. I then found internships in that field and started building a writing portfolio to help me prepare for a career that valued my reading and writing skills.

    1. De Minimis*

      I like this advice….study something that you are interested in, but also have a plan for the future. My mistake was I did the first part of that, but not the second. Like many, I studied English, but I wish I had gotten a better idea of career prospects for those who didn’t want to teach. I probably should have majored in something else and then taken electives in the English courses where I had an interest. By my last year or so of school, I had lost interest in a lot of my coursework, and realized I’d probably chosen the wrong major, but it was too late by then.

      As a result, I did not really get on a professional career path until I hit my mid-to-late 30s.

      1. Mimmy*

        This, soooo much this!! I did have some sort of plan, but it was probably not as well-defined and thought-out as I’d led myself to believe. I got caught up in “analysis paralysis” and just couldn’t work up the confidence to actually make a decision and figure out what steps to take (frankly, I’m STILL struggling with this :( )

    2. The IT Manager*

      find out what one can do with that major in terms of jobs.

      +1000 Study something you are interested in, but think past graduation about what you want to do with the rest of your life and what is realistic.

      I’d also add think about less tangible aspects. Some careers tend to be deskbound; some rely on individual efforts; many require working in groups; etc.

      1. Coco*

        “Think about what you want to do with the rest of your life” was actually very unproductive advice for me when I was in college (just graduated last year and am now in grad school). Although it would be ideal, I don’t think it’s fair to expect college freshmen or high-schoolers to have those kinds of plans.

        Plus, one major can actually open the doors to a wide variety of lifestyles and jobs. For example, with a degree in Spanish you could get a job as a Spanish teacher, an interpreter, a freelance writer, or just use Spanish in a totally different field. You don’t need the rest of your life figured out to know that you enjoy speaking Spanish and you could get a job doing it.

      2. Kelly O*

        I was a pharmacy major when I started college. I worked in a pharmacy for a year and decided very quickly that a practicing retail pharmacist was not what I wanted to be, and changed my major.

        Working in a pharmacy again as an adult just reaffirmed that belief. Having the opportunity to see the day-in, day-out routine can make a huge difference sometimes, even when it’s something you’re theoretically quite interested in.

    3. Anon Accountant*

      “find out what one can do with that major in terms of jobs”

      This x 1,000,000

      And consider if those jobs are something you think you would be interested in doing. When possible talk to people that have those jobs. Your college career center should be helpful in this. Talk about a typical day, duties, career paths, etc. with others.

    4. Bwmn*

      This +1000 too.

      I was an dual anthropology and social welfare (think social work but with no practice component) undergrad major. Basically two degrees that have no automatic entry into the job realm. Haphazardly, I also got a student job in the university hospital doing data entry – and that was what really helped me get all of my initial jobs out of undergrad.

      It didn’t get me to my ultimate career of choice which is grant writing/fundraising – it did lead me to the nonprofit realm, and I’m not really sure that there was any specific degree that would have gotten me into fundraising any quicker (and I say this as someone with a Masters in Nonprofit management). But finding employment/internships – that’s what really helped me at least get started as a young college grad.

      I also want to add that even through most of undergrad, I had a lot of social anxiety and so a job like fundraising that is a lot about interacting with people would have scared me to death. I got into the job via grant writing and eventually got positions with more and more of a front facing role. I’m good at this now, but if I was making a choice about my career at age 18, it’s not a skill I would have identified at all. Not to mention the idea of “my job is to ask people for money” – would have sounded awful. So I while I think being career oriented with part time employment and internships is critical to avoid floundering after graduation – I don’t think a definitive “I want to study X to become Y at graduation” is ever going to fit for all students either.

    5. Laurie*


      Came here to say exactly this.

      I took econ in high school, and hated the teacher, but found myself absolutely in love with the subject. That was a good tipoff to me that I enjoyed the topic for itself, and not because of who it was associated with.

      When I applied to colleges, I went with more liberal arts offshoots of econ, before finally switching to finance for the career opportunities and earning potential.

      Ten years later, here I am, still in love with the subject, enjoying the content of what I’m doing and the earnings, and looking forward to exploring the subject more.

  8. Kai*

    Great question.

    My thoughts: if you go into college with little to no idea of what kind of work you want to do, don’t worry too much about your major. Major in whatever you want. Chances are it’s not going to much a huge difference in what field you pick.

    Take classes that interest you, from a variety of fields, if you can. Take extracurriculars, get an internship, get a part-time job, volunteer. Get involved in things that seem right to you, and as you learn more about yourself and what you like (and start meeting people in different fields), you may get more clarity on what sort of career field is right for you.

    I was an English major, which most people assume means you either want to be a writer or a teacher. In my case, it was pretty close–I’m dipping my toes into editing now and want to keep doing that indefinitely–but that’s certainly not the case for a lot of people. Don’t listen to people who think that each major can only lead in one or two directions and will be the deciding factor for the rest of your career. It’s really not true.

      1. Brett*

        I think your coursework is more important than your major in those cases.

        I studied geography, but worked in a marine biology lab. My coursework included o-chem, p-chem, physical oceanography, all the lower division biology, and half a dozen upper division biology courses (as well as marine law and ocean law).
        My major had little to do with marine biology, but my coursework had everything to do with it.

        Obviously it is easier to have a major that aligns with your coursework, but you do not have to.

        1. Mike C.*

          I had too many labs that absolutely required specific majors, but you’re certainly right about the cross-over opportunities. I started with AmeriCorps doing salmon stream restoration, went into food safety testing and am now in aerospace.

          Maybe i need to amend my thoughts to “if you’re going into the sciences you need to be a science major” but even then there are lots of places a science major can do well in outside of the sciences (law and journalism come to mind, and I’d love to see more politicians that understand science), and I can see lots of science-adjacent jobs where a non-science major would do just fine in with the appropriate coursework.

          1. Brett*

            Well, I was a liberal arts major working in a science lab :)

            I think I had an advantage in working in an academic lab, where reputation mattered a lot more than major and the PI gets a lot of flexibility in who they hire. Still though, I was able to turn around my work experience in a marine biology lab into lab positions elsewhere (even though I was a college dropout from a liberal arts major at that point). It may have even been an advantage, because so many labs wanted people with liberal arts associated skills (cartography, writing, design, etc).

      2. Kai*

        Oh, for sure. But for non-specialized fields, it’s more flexible than many folks will have you believe.

        1. Mike C.*

          I think it would help if employers were a little more understanding of the skills that could be brought to the table. I can’t tell you how many times I hear complaints about “LOL Humanities majors, doing nothing but writing papers and flipping my burgers” and in the same breath “WTF I can’t find anyone who can write a coherent sentence!”

          I remember numerous interviews where I had to explain why someone with a math background was useful.

      3. De (Germany)*

        It’s not quite as rigid as people think, though. I have a MSc in Biology (specialising in Bioinformatics, but my degree does not reflect that) and I am now a software developer. Lots of people here are engineers, Mathematicians or from the other sciences.

        1. De Minimis*

          It might have been different for the engineering students, but my alma mater had a ton of academic core requirements to where you had at least a course or two in a lot of different fields. The science and math students were in the same college of arts and sciences, so they had to take their share of social science, philosophy, humanities, etc….I’d guess most schools operate that way.

          Honestly I thought the academic core classes were a little too much, they took up well over half of a typical undergrad student’s transcript to where you did not have a lot of flexibility to change your major or do anything different if you wanted to graduate in 4 years.

          1. De (Germany)*

            German universities don’t work like that. My first year was one third Biology and two thirds Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, but the rest of my degree was only Biology. We also pick our majors before applying to universities and can’t easily switch.

            1. Felicia*

              In Canada, although it’s not quite as specialized as German universities, I’m getting the impression that it’s more specialized than American universities. The first year is fairly general and you can be undeclared, but after that at most universities in most programs, your major is half your courses or more, though it’s probably easier to switch than in germany, it would still suck to study something you didn’t like most of the time for 4 years. I have also heard about American universities having like a math , science, english etc. requirement for all universities, and at least in Ontario, that’s not a thing, your elective unrelated to your major can be whatever you want.

              1. TL*

                American universities do have math, science, english, ect… requirements, though they vary by type of university – my brother went to Georgia Tech, which required math up to Calculus 3, whereas my liberal arts school only required Calc I.

                1. De Minimis*

                  Mine required College Algebra, and one other….either Calc I or something called “Finite Math” which I think was designed more for the math-phobic student. I took it and if I remember right it mainly involved a lot of basic probability/stats. It was actually pretty useful.

                  The first liberal arts school I attended exempted students from the general math requirement if they scored high enough on the math portion of the SAT.

                2. Felicia*

                  Ontario universities have no such requirements, I think we specialize a lot earlier and a lot more. Which I guess makes this even more difficult for us. But I also didn’t have to take math passed 11th grade, which is whats required to graduate high school, because to get into university non STEM programs mostly just require your grade 12 English grades and then the grades from your other 5 best subjects.

            2. Cath in Canada*

              Same in the UK. I started my BSc registered as a biochemistry student, and after the end of my first year I was able to switch to genetics – my only other options would have been microbiology and physiology. In my first year I took courses in all of these subjects, plus organic chemistry and statistics, but that was the furthest I ever got from my core subject.

        2. Ellie H*

          Yeah, my boyfriend went into college planning to major in biology but came out with a math degree, he’s a programmer but is now considering going into computational biology. There can be a lot of cross-applicability.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Sorry, Kai, but I think this is bad advice.

      I loved being a student and I was very disappointed to learn that my major (engineering and then computer sceince) didn’ have a lot of room for me to dabble in the history and english that I did enjoy, but knew I did not want to make a career out of. College classes are expensive and I think many people need to get from college to post college as fast as possible in order to stop building up debt and start making money. there’s not a lot of room in most cirriculums for extra courses outside people’s majors so they end up “stuck” in the major they choose.

      Take extracurriculars, get an internship, get a part-time job, volunteer. Get involved in things that seem right to you, and as you learn more about yourself and what you like (and start meeting people in different fields),

      This is good advice seems to fail to consider that a student’s major will drive the kind of internships they get and a lot of times what companies consider them preapred for for their first career job. Majors matter.

      1. Kai*

        It sounds like you had an idea of what you did want to make a career out of, though, and were able to differentiate that from the things that simply interested you outside of your career path. I didn’t have that knowledge for several years; the only way I was able to glean it was by taking a variety of classes and extracurriculars. Many young college students are in the same boat, and that’s when the original question comes up: How should I pick a major? Of course, like you say, some majors don’t have that kind of flexibility to explore different areas.

      2. Sunflower*

        My college required a solid amount of general education credits and that was a good place to take courses in stuff you were interested in but weren’t going to make a career out of

      3. Mike C.*

        This is something that I think is a shame. Engineers and scientists need to have a good understanding about what can go wrong with the work they do, and how it affects other people. The classic case has to do with the height of overpasses in New York. In the past, they were made too short for buses to travel under, and prevent whole classes of people from easily accessing major parts of the city easily.

        1. LabTech*

          Agreed. My organic chem textbook suggested that environmental disasters like DDT were unavoidable and “created new research opportunities” (or something equally horrifying to that effect). My chemistry degree really should have required an ethics class.

      4. Xay*

        As others have mentioned, the amount of flexibility with your major and coursework depends on the type of college you attend. I went to a small liberal arts college with broad distribution requirements so as a psychology major I could dabble in physics, foreign languages, history and drama. I had several options for internships and study-abroad because the companies and organizations that recruited at my college were familiar with the school and were open to recruiting students from a variety of majors.

        OTOH, when I worked as an academic advisor at a large state university I was surprised how few options students had to take classes outside of their major depending on which major, if the person was a student-athlete, etc.

    2. Jen*

      +100 to the extracurriculars.

      I still use things from my degree (Mass Communications) every day at work (Marketing), although in the early days it was hard to convince employers that I had taken a viable path (most entry-level marketing jobs in my area went to Business School grads who’d done their program with a focus in marketing). But I was really engaged with the course content, so internalized it and found creative ways to apply it (still do, really), which is the best anyone can ask of a fuzzy non-trade education.

      But where I really missed a trick was not participating in extracurricular activities, clubs, societies, etc. until my last year. Both in-faculty and more broadly. That’s where you start building your network, expanding your horizons for what kind of jobs are out there, and making connections you otherwise wouldn’t have.

      If you think about it, your pre-university peer groups are usually quite homogenous, and based on the socio-economic makeup of the high-school catchment area, and the student’s parents’ friends. My university experience was that it broke that paradigm wide open, and I was amazed at all the unknown unknowns that came to light.

      So, while this is already too long, I’ll try to sum up: take classes that engage you, then try out a ton of extracurriculars. Use those opportunities to talk about what excites you about class, and find your tribe, then find out where it leads.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        And yet other than the department manager, who has a business degree, everyone in our marketing department was a journalism or communications major. Go figure.

    3. Jillociraptor*

      I think you’re right on the money. Frankly, most college majors aren’t (and aren’t meant to be) career preparation. You learn a skill-set in the sense of critical thinking/writing and probably some specific knowledge to certain fields, and you show that you’re able to persist and achieve in a somewhat challenging environment, but it’s not really job training.

      As a hiring manager, I generally don’t really care what you studied; whether you’re a business major or an anthropology major (though I did study anthropology myself!) doesn’t tell me a lot about what you’re actually able to do. Maybe a little about what you’re supposed to know, but I’m looking much more at what you have proven you DO know and CAN do. I’d focus instead on finding opportunities (in coursework or in other activities) to be able to concretely develop and demonstrate skills that interest employers – strong writing, organization, entrepreneurship, getting-stuff-done-ness, and others.

      For my part, I am SO passionate about my liberal arts education and feel really grateful to have had as broad and expansive exposure to different topics as I did. I feel that it set me up really well for my job. I can’t think of anything I’d change about what I studied.

      1. TL17*

        I’m a criminal defense lawyer with an undergrad forestry degree.

        I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a lot of very important critical thinking skills, I had to research and write, I had to use logic, and best of all, i got to go outside for my classes All The Time. My classmates were stuck inside while I got to go muck around in bogs and forests. I liked what I learned, I enjoyed the process of learning it, and because I was interested I excelled. The good grades, I’m sure, didn’t hurt when I decided to go to law school. I think the thinking processes I learned in college ended up being more valuable in the long run, than the subject matter. I do still appreciate a good oak tree, though.

      2. TL17*

        Oops, I didn’t mean to reply, but I think my comment ended up fitting with what you said!

      3. Jill of All Trades*

        I too was an anthropology major. I loved it, and life got in the way of pursuing it as a career. I ended up in finance and got an MBA to support growth in that career. I don’t regret my non-linear path to where I am now, and I think I’m a much more developed person for it.

  9. Robin*

    Look, what you major in isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all. I work in a completely different field than what I majored in, but at the time it definitely felt like a lot of pressure to pick something! This isn’t true in all industries, of course. I think, the best advice I can give at this point, is if you think there is a chance that you might want to work in field where a relevant degree is important (say, engineering), then do it, but make sure you are really taking the opportunity to get a well rounded education and learning more than just that one area.

  10. Anoners*

    I wish I had taken the time to more thoroughly research what I wanted to major in. I just ended up taking whatever (in the end it didn’t matter because I ended up going to grad school).

    I’d say really look at what courses interest you, but balance it out by how practical they are in the long run. Taking a few philosophy classes is fine, but doing a philosphy major might not be the best move (not that there is anything wrong with majoring in philosoply, but you need a good plan on what you plan to do with it).

    I did an arts degree. If I could do it over I’d have done an engineering degree. It’s a big decision for a 17 – 19 year old to make.

    1. Nutcase*

      I completely second the taking time thing. I just picked some things that I was good at at school, not even considering a career afterwards. I wish I’d had a career advisor or ANYONE just take me aside and question why I was just going for a random discipline.

      1. Anoners*

        YES! Why didn’t anyone try to counsel us to make better uni decisions? Granted it’s our own life, but there was literally noone to guide me in any way (although I’m sure 17 year old me would have whatever I wanted to do regardless).

  11. Reader*

    Have 3 children
    Son, 29, structural engineer (Civil Engineering)
    Daughter, 25, sports reporter (English with Journalism emphasis)
    Daughter, 19, college freshman will be majoring in Athletic Training in preparation for degree in Physical Therapy
    In all their cases they were interested in areas related to what they majored in. Son was interested in designing houses. Daughter 1 liking writing more then any other subject. Daughter 2 is an athlete who decided early she didn’t want to work at a desk and had good trainers and therapists who got her interested.
    That said one of my best teachers ever was a high school math teacher who was a former high school drop out who decided to major in the subject that was not his strongest when he finally got to college.
    So find out where their interests lie and how open they are to challenges.

  12. AnonymousOne*

    For me, the most valuable advice I could give someone who’s in college is that the #1 most important thing is WORK EXPERIENCE! No matter how “practical” or “impractical” your major seems to be, the thing all degrees have in common is that they’re almost useless without relevant and consistent work experience. Get internships in your work field (though it doesn’t have to be an exact match), and keep in contact with those people you meet. Believe me, if I could change anything, it would be that. I was one of those people who thought my focus should be 100% on school, not realizing that I was about to graduate with an empty resume. Employers don’t care about grades, they care about your ability to do a job.

    So whether you’re gonna be an art major or a computer science major, make sure you get experience in your field and show employers that you have academic AND applied knowledge.

    1. Robin*

      +1. I am so, so glad I did internships in college. It really helped to clarify what I wanted to do.

      1. Felicia*

        I am so glad I did internships in university! I wish I had done more. There are so many volunteer opportunities that a student can take advantage of. Your degree may give you a general direction, but work experience while you’re doing it was the most valuable thing.

    2. Diet Coke Addict*

      This is basically what I said below. My biggest regret, and I desperately wish I had taken advantage of WHATEVER those opportunities were.

    3. Cam*

      Yeah, this is really the best advice. No matter what you major in, get internships and learn how to network. If you leave college with no work experience (even an internship), it doesn’t matter if you’ve majored in STEM or basket weaving, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding a job.

      The only thing I can add is that you should try to get a variety of skills. If you major in science, take some communications and writing classes too. If you major in English, take a few computer classes. It’s best to have a wide skillset.

    4. Anoncat*

      +1! I was a political science major at a co-op school, and I didn’t realize until too late that an unpaid internship early on would’ve made a huge difference down the road (better chances of paid co-op on school -> better chance at a job in the field after graduation). Even if you’re an engineer, most employers want recent grads who’ve picked up some relevant, hands-on experience while in school – beyond mere homework and classes. I’m not saying what you learn in college doesn’t matter, but what you can do is almost always much more important than what you know.

    5. Midge*

      My biggest regret from college is probably not getting more work experience.

      Also, if you have a job or internship and you feel like you’re not getting much out of it, speak up! My first internship was pretty much a waste because I did tedious busy work for three months. But instead of asking my supervisor for something more interesting, I thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

      1. De Minimis*

        I mainly regret my choice of school, and then I regret not living on campus and getting more involved in things. And yes, I don’t think I would have majored in English if I could do it again. I did get a do-over when I went to grad school years later.

        Would have done better at a larger state school, I think.

        1. Kelly L.*

          My biggest regret is Not Asking People Things. There were all sorts of situations I could have made much easier on myself if I had just asked somebody instead of thinking I’d look stupid if I did, and that I had to do everything 100% on my own without even taking any advice. I could probably spend years in therapy figuring out how I got that thought process in the first place.

      2. Bwmn*

        To add to this – particularly for anyone (students, older adults, etc.) – if you’re volunteering at a nonprofit, and feel like you’re not being used well (or perhaps not at all), not only speak up but don’t be afraid to leave. LOTS of nonprofits are very poor with managing their volunteers (and lots are good at it) – and there’s only so much ‘managing up’ you can really do as a volunteer.

        This was a lesson I didn’t learn until grad school where I was volunteering with an organization that asked me to work on a grant application written in French (a language I have no professional proficiency in). No matter how much I loved the mission of the organization and would have wanted to work for an organization in that field – I wasn’t gaining a thing (either experience or a manager who was remotely invested in me). My next volunteer stint after I left not only gave me solid experience, but a relationship with a manager who gave me a sterling recommendation for a job interview. If the organization isn’t one that uses volunteers well – leave!

    6. themmases*

      I was coming down here to say the same thing. I loved my major (history), learned a lot from it– some of which I still use– and will probably have it as a hobby forever, but today I actually work in the field my undergrad jobs were in: health research. Those part time research assistantships qualified me for my first real job, and are still on my resume today. Thanks to them, I can say as a 27 year old that I’ve been doing bread and butter stuff in my field, like independently recruiting volunteers, for 7 years. Even if you don’t end up in the field you work in, many university jobs are paid, in an at least quasi-professional setting, and will expose you to the kinds of work people actually need done and how they split it up.

      Also, the job searching process is really instructive. As an undergrad, your competition is other undergrads from your same school. They don’t have anything you couldn’t get, if you look at a bunch of job postings and see that a certain skill or major is desired.

    7. E.R*

      Also, just regular work experience in retail, food service, whatever you can find to help you figure out what you can and can’t handle, improve your ability to work with people & will help you think about your long-term career goals. It’s still a big transition to your first “professional” job, but it’s amazing how many college and university grad resumes I see for entry level positions with NO work experience of any sort during those years. On a personal level, I’m jealous that they got to travel every summer (when that’s the case) but seriously, NO jobs?

    8. Not So NewReader*

      Echoing, AnonymousOne, get those internships. I had trouble finding meaningful internships. Paint the walls? Seriously? Then some of the internships were way over the top: “Drum up 500 new donors. The duration of the internship is however long it takes you to do that.” Really? After reading down through the list it became apparent to me that some folks were looking for free labor under the guise of providing an internship.

      Try to partner up, formally or informally, with a positive person that will help you through this sorting process with internships. Allow more time than you think you will need to locate these internships. Be strategic, when you apply for an internship have an idea of what you would like to learn/gain from that experience.

      Sadly, the people around me at my school just laughed at the internships available through the school. This made the process so much harder and I never did do any internships. Don’t make my mistake and stop. Instead keep going until you find what you need.

      1. majigail*

        I’d really recommend students look at smaller places for internships. I think people tend to look at the big employers or name nonprofits when looking for an internship. I have a really small organization that we could really provide solid hands on work, but we have to work really hard to get just one applicant for our open positions.

    9. Anonylicious*

      Yes, this. My major (international studies) is only sort of relevant to my two jobs I’ve had since college. What mattered more was that I had several years of relevant job experience from the military. That I had a degree probably made me a more appealing job candidate, but in my particular case, underwater basket-weaving + work experience would have been more valuable than any degree without the experience.

    10. LabTech*

      Yes, this would be my advice as well. Whatever you major in, get work experience. I didn’t do any internships, but did work part-time for the duration of my undergrad.

      I tried to find steadily more relevant jobs to my major with each new position – though that’s not a very practical way to job search, since so much of it comes down to chance. At the very least I did get an idea of what I did and didn’t want to do with my career, and inadvertently gave me experience with job hunting and some familiarity with the working work.

    11. NoStraightShotHere*

      I think people overly limit themselves by trying too hard to make their career path match their college degree. In reality, I don’t know many people (doctors and lawyers excepted) who’ve had a straight shot from high school to college to career to retirement. God forbid that I would be confined to pursuing the same thing at 58 that I was at 22. I’ve changed professions several times as new interests/opportunities developed, and can probably expect to change at least once more before I retire.
      College degree: English. Because I liked to read/write and figured I could do pretty much anything with a liberal arts degree. My career progression since graduation has been sales representative > bank account representative > job trainer > computer applications instructor > IT professional. All of my jobs have built on my liberal arts foundation, but I never made an intentional attempt to align (or limit) my career path to my degree field.
      OP, your college advising department should already have a variety of career research resources available to students. Career planning is a huge industry, and resources abound for those who would use them.

      At best, your students should
      1) Know themselves. Many reliable, normed assessments exist to measure interests, aptitudes, skills, knowledge, abilities, temperament, etc., and correlate them to job and career fields. If your college doesn’t provide these resources to students (and they should), then get in touch with your local Workforce Investment office (Google “workforce investment” + your state) to find local resources at no cost.

      2) Know the labor market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes an Occupational Outlook Handbook with information about jobs, demand, wages, training and vocational preparation, etc.., sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Labor, also has a wealth of career exploration information. Other resources include job shadowing, information interviews, and internships.

      Good luck!

    12. Anx*

      I wish I had done the opposite.

      I got caught up in my extracurriculars and my jobs, and didn’t focus enough on my grades. I had mediocre grades and now I can’t apply to most of the graduate programs I’ve been interested in, nor can I get a job because nobody cares about my jobs in college.

  13. Carrie in Scotland*

    I’m trying university for the third time having dropped out twice – the first degree I chose was international relations and French. The second, publishing with journalism (I wanted to do something in publishing – I am a big reader and love books) and on my third and most successful degree (in that I will complete this one!) is in Humanities. I don’t think, at this stage (I will be in my early 30s when I graduate) that it matters what I’ve chosen as my degree, or “major” because at the moment I’m in administration. My brother, however, did something like IT and software engineering, and he has a job in programming/software, so that obviously works for him.

    1. Chinook*

      “I’m trying university for the third time having dropped out twice – the first degree I chose was international relations and French”

      Ironically, majoring in French in Canada is not something I would recommend (I am not picking on you, Carrie, just rolling off of what you said). You would have been better to get your degree from a francophone universite (they do exist outside of Quebec – University of Alberta College St. Jean has had french degrees for decades) as proof of your linguistic skills and so that you would be better able to pass any linguistic exams. To me, majoring in French is like majoring in English – you get the literature but not necessarily the spoken and written fluency.

      1. Carrie in Scotland*

        The French was just one module per year and I chose it because if I remember rightly, and I might not, because it was 10 years ago! I think the other options were philosophy, politics, German, French and maybe something else. Going back I would most likely pick Politics! I chose the French because I’d liked it at school but it was much more difficult than I’d expected. And also, if I hadn’t dropped out before completing my 1st year (for various reasons) I would have failed as I wouldn’t have passed the French part of it…

  14. Mephyle*

    What I only realized consciously decades later: I had a mental block in picking my major, in that I had a subconscious idea that had to be one of the ‘standard’ subjects; i.e., something I studied in high school; biology, chemistry, English, history, etc. Somehow I didn’t realize that you could major in something that fascinated you, but wasn’t a ‘real subject’ in pre-college education; linguistics, archeology (my dream as a 5-year-old), etc.

    1. Mike C.*

      I knew a guy in college who went into archeological engineering after getting his engineering degree. He basically gets to study how ancient civilizations build things, do recreations and so on.

      How’s that for a badass, non-‘real-subject’? :D

      1. Mephyle*

        Sounds great. What I can never figure out is why I didn’t consider that as a possibility – at major-choosing it just didn’t even occur to me.

  15. Diet Coke Addict*

    My impressions haven’t been as much what exactly your major is, but how you take advantage of opportunities.

    I was a history major and went on to get my Master’s as well. I studied hard and got a full ride for both undergrad and grad schools on academics–and taking advantage of those scholarships and leaving me debt-free has been a HUGE boon. Huge. I think I’m better off now, with an arts degree and no debt, than I would be with an accounting degree that I would have hated and struggled with and ended up in debt with.

    But as for how I screwed up: I didn’t take advantage of any internships. I didn’t know internships were even a thing to do. I didn’t take advantage of the resources the school had for students and just applied to grad school because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I desperately wish I had taken internships and taken advantage of student opportunities in my undergrad–that would have made such a difference for me.

  16. littlemoose*

    I agree with the idea of taking general education classes first, to see what interests you, before committing to a major. Most colleges will let you be undeclared for a little while, and will require these as prerequisites anyway. Once you’ve got some exposure to various subjects, it should be easier to pick out what interests and suits you. I started out nominally as a history major, and changed to business/economics in part because I liked Econ in high school an in part because I thought it would be more marketable than history. I finished my business degree, but made the decision to go to law school primarily because I liked the business law classes I took much more than anything else I was doing. I think it’s okay to not make a decision immediately, especially since you may just wind up changing it anyway.

    Oh, and see if your university offers any low-commitment ways to check something out. When I was still a history major, I took a one credit hour class on Intro to Education. After three weeks of that class, I knew teaching was NOT for me. Thankfully I found that out well before I considered changing my major or jumping into a bunch of education classes. Your university may have similar classes or programs.

    And if there is a field in which you’re interested, ask around and see if anyone you know works in that field and can give you some insight. Maybe your fried’s parent is an engineer or whatever, and you can get a better idea of what the daily job duties are like, and what classes or projects in school will be most useful to you. I imagine they would be happy to help. I’ve always been glad to answer questions about law school and practicing law (though my experience in the latter field is rather limited).

    1. littlemoose*

      And +1 on the internships. Huge help in establishing a resume an gaining professional work experience. My university was only half an hour away from the state capitol, and since it’s a state university they offere a summer “class” for course credit that consisted of working 12 hours per week for a state agency, and then writing up a short paper or two. So your university’s summer course catalog could be a good place to start looking for opportunities.

    2. Mimmy*

      Oh, and see if your university offers any low-commitment ways to check something out. When I was still a history major, I took a one credit hour class on Intro to Education. After three weeks of that class, I knew teaching was NOT for me. Thankfully I found that out well before I considered changing my major or jumping into a bunch of education classes. Your university may have similar classes or programs.

      Ooooh I like that! Sounds like an awesome way to explore a particular field. Another good strategy I’ve seen is the use of career panels–my university used to hold “Careers in X” (examples: criminal justice, finance, education), and would bring in a small handful of people actually in the field who talk about what they do.

  17. Felicia*

    In my province there’s a mandatory careers course in highschool that’s called careers where you explore different career options, take aptitude tests, speak to people in those careers, and I found it supremely helpful. I wish everyone had that.

    I think it’s important to pick something you’ll enjoy studying for 4 years, because thats a long time to study something you hate. And consider what you want to do when you graduate. You dont need to know exactly but it’s important to have a general idea and also learn what career possibilities there are with that degree. And don’t worry about choosing the wrong thing, other than for a few specific professions. I am in a job that requires a degree, but not one in particular, and I don’t even think there is a degree for this, though it uses aspects of things I’ve done in my internships and I like it. Also take as many practical experiences as possible, volunteer, intern. et. That will matter a lot more than what you majored in . Also do something you think you’ll be good at, but don’t worry too much about grades, because if you graduate, other than certain professions,, no one will care what grades you got (which annoys me, because I had an 85% average over 4 years, which I worked hard for but employers don’t care about!). Basically do something you’ll like and don’t worry about it so much because although your major somewhat decides a general direction for your career it’s not as important in most fields as some think. And if you’re in Ontario or other provinces where this is increasingly common, joint programs where you get both a degree and diploma are amazing. And in a lot of careers it’s really a one year post grad diploma that’s most useful, and so you can major in something you like in undergrad and 3 years later explore post grad diplomas you might like, if you decide on a career that might need one. (don’t know if this applies to the US, and in a joint program you don’t need to do this).

    1. E.R*

      I’m in Ontario and that’s what I did – 4 -year degree in a double major that interested me, and educated me well for the long-term and then an affordable one-year post-graduate certificate in my field that gave me a strong network, work experience via a supervised internship, and skills to put on a resume and use in my first job. Unfortunately, as tuition rates continue to rise without salaries doing the same, the practicality of this arrangement diminishes each year.

      I didn’t have the career class you were talking about when I was in high school, though. It definitely sounds interesting, but I imagine the value depends a lot on the teacher, and how well versed they are in career options in the province and the country. One of the biggest eye-openers for me was learning about just how many interesting jobs are out there outside of teacher, lawyer, doctor, police officer, etc.

      1. Felicia*

        That’s where the joint programs I’m talking about come in! They’re relative recent in Ontario, but gaining popularity. It’s a partnership between a university and a college, where you get the more theoretical stuff and the practical diploma stuff simultaneously . Then at the end of 4 years you graduate with both a degree and diploma, for the same price as a regular 4 year degree. Plus most of those programs have mandatory internships. Like I said, it’s relatively knew (the program I graduated from just had its 10th anniversary, and it was only just starting to get popular when I started university 6 years ago) but that’s what I’d recommend to anyone. Since you weren’t required to take Careers in highschool, you must be at least a few years older than me, so the joint program thing probably wasn’t an option for you. I think Careers does to an extent depend on the teacher (mine gave pretty bad cover letter/resume advice), but part of the curriculum is to use career cruising, which is a fairly comprehensive test that gives you a list of careers that you’d be most interested in, and then tells you how much aptitude you’d have for each. So that course (particularly that test) gave me a really good knowledge of all the careers that were out there, and it’s a grade 10 course so you still have 2 years to make decisions. Then we had to do a project on one of the careers that were in our top 10, which included finding someone from that profession to talk to. That test and project is how I learned that public relations is a thing – I ended up going in a different direction job wise, but it really influenced the major I chose.

  18. sam*

    In part it really depends on what you want to do as a career post-college, which a lot of people entering college haven’t figured out yet. If you do have an idea, pick a major that aligns at least somewhat with that goal. Obviously a hard-science/engineering career is going to require a hard-science/engineering degree.

    I went into college knowing I wanted to be a lawyer (which as I’ve discussed in other threads is a really bad idea these days with the state of the legal market. This was over 20 years ago!). So I picked Political Science, which was the closest thing to “pre-law” that my school offered. but polisci is one of those majors that doesn’t have enough requirements to fill a schedule, so I started thinking to do a double major in polisci/psychology. then after taking sociology, I switched the second major to sociology. Then, after taking a women’s studies course, I ended up with a joint degree in polisci/women’s studies with a minor in sociology.

    My friends in law school had a pretty varied background though – business, liberal arts, sciences, all over the map. One classmate had been a doctor for 20 years and decided to get a law degree.

    In the other direction, I had friends in undergrad who were English majors who started successful tech companies (it was the 90s – everyone and their brother started a tech company at some point). and my roommate was a chemical engineering major who now has a sideline designing jewelry.

    Now I’m a corporate lawyer who drafts contracts and reviews financial disclosure for a living so…

    Overall, much better to find something that piques your interest in terms of a subject you find interesting to study and figure what careers those studies can lead to. I know that’s somewhat verboten in today’s culture where we’re supposed to encourage everyone to only study things that will result in specific available careers (healthcare, STEM fields), but if you hate studying those things for four years of school, there’s no way you’re going to be able to spend 40+ years working in that same area.

    1. sam*

      Another case study in irrelevant college majors and taking some time to figure out what you actually want to do – my brother. Got an undergrad degree in human resources management. Spent some time working at a hotel post-college. Liked it fine, but wanted to do something “more”. Joined the Peace Corps. Started out working in the small business office in the country he was in, hated it. Switched to teaching. Loved it. Came back to the US, was accepted into the NYC teaching fellows program, got a Master’s in Education and taught in NYC for a few years. Then got a second master’s degree in international development with a focus on post-conflict educational development. He’s currently living in Beirut working for a major NGO designing and implementing educational programs for the Syrian refugee population living in Lebanon. Would anyone even think of that as a “job” to get into when thinking about going to college?

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yeah, really. But it shows the importance of putting yourself out there with your best foot forward and having a willingness to make changes as you go along.

          1. sam*

            Exactly. I wouldn’t call his career path particularly stable or remunerative (aid workers typically work on 10 month to 1 year contracts rather than as full time employees, and he’s on his third organization and in his third country in three years (the year before this he was in Afghanistan!)), but it’s more emotionally and psychologically fulfilling than what most of us probably do on a day-to-day basis.

            But he’s also someone who really didn’t figure out what he wanted to do until well after he had graduated from college, unlike myself. Between the two of us, he was certainly considered the unfocused slacker in the family back then, because I was always laser-focused on going to law school and becoming a lawyer. but these days, I’m the one who would rather go to my boring, stable corporate office job while my brother is literally trying to save the world.

  19. Mary*

    I’m a parent of adult kids. If I had it to do over again, we’d pay for aptitude testing from an organization like Johnson O’Connor for all of them. We used them for the last kid and it was amazing. It was two days of intense testing where they did things to him – not just ask questions. They honed right in on his strengths identifying something we totally missed because he was so good at art. (Who knew our artist was a manager? – He most definitely is.)

    I’d also insist that my kids have some skin in the game (in other words, they have to have some of their own money saved up for college) before we ante up even for college applications.

    I’d also make them demonstrate their seriousness of purpose by going to a community college first. I think most would benefit from having a year of being in college while living at home especially if the parents will recognize that their kid needs a much longer lease during that first year to prepare them for living away at a major university.

    I realize not all kids are the same and you’ve got to do what’s right for you and your child. My comments are also based on a budget perspective and the fact that we had four kids. If I had one who did nothing but science research from junior high on, I’d have a different opinion. But I think the parents of that child know exactly what to do because she is probably already taking college classes in high school anyway.

    1. Elysian*

      “I’d also make them demonstrate their seriousness of purpose by going to a community college first.”

      People frequently suggest this, but the reality of it just doesn’t work out for most people. Tons of people start in cc and then can’t transfer because their credits don’t transfer, or some will and some won’t, and then they end up spending 1-2 years at the cc and another full 4 years at another school. Or they do make the transfer but never end up getting the full benefit of the 4 year school because they missed out on opportunities (for leadership in student clubs, networking opportunities, etc).

      This idea isn’t a bad one entirely, but I wouldn’t suggest it as generally applicable advice.

      1. Mike C.*

        Yeah, I’ve read a lot of accounts where credits weren’t transferring at all. It really all depends on the particular schools and what you’re interested in rather than forcing it as a hard rule.

      2. Fabulously Anonymous*

        Agreed. I attended cc and while I had a very positive experience, I also went into it knowing what to expect. I lost about 20 credits when I transferred and took 5 years total to graduate instead of 4. I also had difficulty meeting peers and networking with other students as those bonds were formed during freshmen year and I missed out on that. I realize it’s easy to dismiss those social aspects as being irrelevant, but there’s huge networking potential, not just for the first job, but for subsequent jobs and throughout your career.

        1. TL*

          Yeah. I think community college can be a great option for some, but I hate it being offered as a great solution for the traditional incoming student (around 18, nothing that would impede an average transition into college, no dire financial straits) because you really do miss out on a lot of the important social/maturing aspects of college. One of the great things about going away to college is that it gives you a chance to really screw up on your own without it impacting the rest of your life, and you learn really important social skills, as well as how you function best.

        2. Mike C.*

          Networking in college is so important, I just wish someone had told me about this earlier on!

      3. Cucumber*

        It depends on some factors. I work in a major city where many, many students transfer from CC (there are multiple CC systems in town) to local state and city universities. It’s not even considered remarkable. Check ahead to see what kind of agreements already exist between the CC and various schools.

        Advising is really important in handling this; most schools have personnel whose job is specifically to help transfers take place. Having worked in student affairs, and also having been a flaky kid myself once up a time, I know that many students don’t even use the resources that are available – especially first in college kids whose parents don’t tell them the ropes.

        Check to see whether the community college in question is Aspen Prize-nominated, on the Washington Monthly list, or part of the Achieving the Dream initiative. Those schools generally have great advising.

      4. Astor*

        I think it’s really important to know your community as well and do your research. I didn’t do community college in the city I grew up in, and that was the right idea, because the transfer programs wouldn’t have given me what I want. However, the city I live in now has a great community college, and for a number of first year courses you end up with the exact same instructors as you do at the university, but with more contact hours. Even then, though, it depends on what program you’re looking at. If I was re-doing school while living here, I’d start at the community college, but wouldn’t recommend it for my sister.

      5. Mints*

        Huh this is unusual to me. I transfered from CC, and graduated in four years. While I do know people who founder at the CC and are still there (I graduated high school six years ago), I think they probably would have been floundering at the local public university either way (I also know people who are still at the local public university)

        While CC students do have to keep track of what classes transfer or not, it doesn’t seem different from the university in the sense that you have to keep track of graduation requirements. You have to keep track of classes and checklists, but I didn’t feel a huge difference in the administration

      6. Xay*

        I think it depends on the location. Florida’s university system was set up for a long time to encourage students to go to community college. The community colleges there tend to be large, have multiple campuses and include residential options and athletic programs. The idea was that you would go to community college near the 4 year college you wanted to attend and upon graduation transfer directly into the 4 year college. This has changed over time and now more of the community colleges award 4 year degrees as well.

    2. jennie*

      This is a really great thing to do and I wish is was a widely available resource for all kids. Late teens is probably the worst time of life to make decisions on what you want to do for the rest of your life, but maybe you’ll at least have some idea of what you like and value and where your comfort zone is. I think aptitude and other testing can help with this.

      Some people are always going to be drawn to challenges and high-pressure/reward work, but others are more interested in comfort and stability. I wish I’d known 20 years ago that I prefer stable, repetitive work that allows me to have time and money to travel in my leisure time. If I’d realized that was my life goal, I could have planned my education and career differently.

    3. looloo*

      I wish it was more acceptable here in the states to take a gap year or something similar. In college, I had a few study abroad roommates from Sweden for a year and they were about 25 and in their senior years. They (and all their friends from Sweden/Norway) were much more focused and much more certain about their majors and careers and the things they wanted to do that their younger counterparts, even though they were only 3 years older than their American counterparts. .

      The way they explained it, it was acceptable and expected for them to take few years off after high school to travel, work or intern, and then go into college. My roommates took the time off and traveled, and gained a lot of intern/volunteer and work experience. This helped them to mature and be more certain about what they wanted when they started college.

      For instance, one just knew for certain that she wanted to study public health/medical economics, and even knew specifically the organizations she wanted to work for.

      I think there is just so much pressure to go directly from high school into a 4 year college when really, a lot can go wrong and it doesn’t work for a lot of people. You are 18, living away from home for the first time maybe, and tons of kids just party and don’t really know what they want, but they’re expected to pick a major and career path by the time they are 18/19.

  20. wanderlust*

    As much as it’s great advice to consider your career prior to your major (and it is great advice to do that), I think it’s also important to add… DON’T major in something just because your parents/siblings/person who pays the bills/others wants you to. A lot of people get pressured into pre-med, pre-law, engineering, etc. because of outside pressure, and they end up in a career that they hate. Paying the bills with a lucrative career is nice, but not if it makes you completely miserable. Find a way to take the things that you love doing and are good at doing and turn that into a career (note: NOT “follow your passion”, just “identify your talents and put them to work”) .

    1. littlemoose*

      Law is also not as lucrative as a lot of people think, at least here in the States. It is not a guaranteed six-figure income, I promise you. So definitely don’t be pre-law or go to law school unless you’re sure that’s what YOU want, not your parents.

      1. sam*

        there have been some other posts on this, but the legal market right now is a bit of a clusterf*ck.

    2. S*

      Great point. I’d like to add that if you’re pushed into pre-med, pre-law etc. and you don’t like it, you probably won’t be very good at it. And being paid well in those professions, like in any profession, requires actually being good at your job.

      1. Felicia*

        I think going into a degree that seems more “practical” just because you think it’s practical, when you get pressure to go that way (or even when you don’t) is a bad idea when you don’t like it and/or are not good at it. Not everyone is going to have the inclination or aptitude to go into engineering, or accounting, or medicine (which I see a lot of people pushed into)

    3. Not So NewReader*

      This is important, too. Go with your natural abilities. If you hate numbers don’t force yourself into accounting. On the other hand, if you find yourself fascinated by plants and animals keep following that. By the time we get through high school we have already developed patterns, for example if you routinely are interested in the computer, your friends think you are a go-to person for their questions, then this might be a pattern to pay attention to.
      Put yourself in areas that surround your natural talents.
      I know I can feel pretty bored when I am doing something that I am naturally good at. But there are ways to expand on almost any talent. I should have taken a closer look at those talents and asked myself what types of jobs use those talents?

      1. wanderlust*

        Exactly… it doesn’t even have to be “I like animals, I’m going to vet school” either… it could be, “I am really good at thinking critically and solving problems. My friends always ask me to help them with their issue/time management/planning for a party.” And that could be a great reason to explore a field where thinking critically and problem solving are key elements for success. There’s a great book called “The Person Called You” that recently was released that speaks to people’s individual wiring and how that plays out as a professional.

      2. Mints*

        This was hard for me when I was trying to pick a major my first two years, because I had a history of being pretty equally good at everything. And not to humble-brag, but I could have probably done well in most majors. I ended up choosing based on which classes I found most interesting (political science). I also minored in Spanish, which funnily enough, I had decided almost immediately and never changed.

        I only graduated two years ago, so the jury is still out on whether I’ll end up regretting it

        1. Nichole*

          In my experience (and I’ve seen literature that supports it as well), students that are strong across the board are some of the hardest to advise just because they *are* good at so many things. It’s hard to pick a lane when you feel like you could do just about anything. When a student has only one or two “spark” areas, they have an easier time because only a few areas really excite them. The big issue is that having a goal keeps students on track, so students who are trapped in that pattern are prone to give up or run even out of aid without finishing anything.

  21. Noah*

    I started college as a bio-chem major, transitioned to biology, and ended up with a business admin degree. Long story, but I will say that even changing majors and changing divisions within the university, I still never had any wasted classes. 100% were used towards my degree in some form or another, even as general electives.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t let students be afraid to switch gears. I loved and still love science but when I decided that I was no longer pre-med it didn’t make sense to continue on that path. I spoke with my advisor and we adjusted the plan so I would have a career I enjoyed post-college. My advisor did suggest I finish out a few more science classes, just in case I changed my mind about med school, so I did.

    1. Astor*

      Oh, man, this is another thing! Some schools have really great advisors who understand how different courses and career paths can play out, and some schools only have advisors who have time to check the boxes. And the size of the school doesn’t necessarily matter – I received much better help at my large school than I did at the smaller school that boasted that they didn’t have ‘anonymous sized’ classes. (Unfortunately for me, neither school would answer any questions about this kind of planning unless you were already enrolled.)

      How important your major is can really depend on your field and electives and your career path. Sometimes the breadth (variety of courses) of your education matters, and sometimes the depth (specific topics) matters, and a good advisor (including a good faculty contact) can help you figure out what is best for you.

      1. Intrepid Intern*

        Yes! And figuring out who to ask– one department’s advisors were pretty uninterested: one just sat you down with a checklist of major requirements, and you’d be in and out of her office in five minutes. But others were really helpful, so I got really good at walking into the office and saying “I need an appointment with Professor S., please” rather than “I’d like to schedule an advising appointment.”

  22. NylaW*

    I originally wanted to be a history professor, but I always loved math and science and somehow ended up a math major for a short time before landing in computer science, which it turned out I was really good at. At that point I decided I want to be a software developer so I focused on that. But my degree didn’t prepare me for the real world and what I’m actually doing in my job and what I want to do in the future. In hindsight I wish I had focused more on the business aspects, maybe something in the MIS world. I realized I had the ability to teach myself very technical stuff and to learn programming languages on my own. So I wish I had thought more about the long term, and what skills and knowledge I might want and need in my middle age instead of what 20-something me thought she wanted.

  23. Lucy*

    I SO wish I had chosen a different major. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone to a small liberal arts school! I think as important as your major is, access to internships and jobs throughout school is just as important. Programs that offer a joint bachelors/masters are also really worth considering.

  24. Steve G*

    Pick your major purely based on your potential to get a good job. The major coursework is only a fraction of what you are doing at college, so you can take a course or two or three in your hobbies as electives.

    1. Mike C.*

      Sure, assuming you’re able to predict the job market 4-6 years out and have an aptitude for that particular major.

    2. Mints*

      This is how we’ve ended up with so many unemployed lawyers, and hospitals that can’t find experienced nurses even though new grad nurses are flooding the market

      I mean, it’s good to look at potential earnings and predictions, but it’s oversimplified to act as if there’s one correct choice and everyone else is choosing wrong

      1. Clerica*

        Thank you for this. So-called “shortages” like the nurse “shortage” and teacher “shortage” never quite tell you that the shortage is in experienced workers in that field. They’re never short of new grads.

        Also for your last paragraph. The whole comment, really.

    3. S*

      +a bunch to Mike C. and Mints. Also, how do you even begin to define “a good job”?? Something that will make a lot of money? That’s a) hard to predict, as was pointed out above, and b) something that matters more to some people than others. There is no such thing as one definition or example of a “good job” – it’s all about fit, as AAM is always saying, which is extremely individual.

    4. Brett*

      My sister loved architecture, and in 1999 when she entered school, it was a high demand high paying area.

      She went into an elite BArch program that basically took 6 years to complete. You know what happened after that… 3 years into her career, the bottom fell out of the field. She has never worked full time since then.

      Meanwhile, I choose what was considered a dead ivory tower field when I entered it, geography. Two years after I graduated, when I was struggling to find a job, Google Earth came out. Almost overnight geography became a high demand area with no where close to enough geographers to meet the needs of government, tech, and private sector consulting. By the time I finished grad school, recruiters were cold calling me as a new grad.

  25. en pointe*

    I’m studying a dual degree in social work and law (undergrad in Aus), and I picked by going straight to all the possible outcomes, because that was the point of me going to uni; to eventually have a career.

    I went on lots of job boards online to look at all the jobs I could possibly have one day, looked through job descriptions, duties, interesting-looking organisations, researched everything I didn’t know much about etc. Basically looked for any jobs I thought might be for me. Then I looked at what qualifications they were looking for. Not all of them listed specific majors (probably because most degrees end up being somewhat flexible anyway).

    But this definitely gave me loads of information on what sort of backgrounds different jobs and fields look for, including lots of jobs I didn’t know existed. It allowed me to choose the path that looked like it would give me the most options / best start toward the types of jobs that got me the most excited. Would definitely recommend it!

  26. Snargulfuss*

    There are many, many people who have fulfilling, successful careers not at all related to their college major. While choosing a major is important, it’s not a set-in-stone, determine the rest of your life decision. I’d advise college students to study whatever interests them during undergrad but to make sure and get some good internship, research, work experience while doing it. And do tons of informational interviews. Our possibilities are limited by what we know and are aware of. The whole purpose of college is to expand your awareness.

    I would, however, advise against the “study what I love and figure out a career later” approach to grad school. Far, far too many people are going tens of thousands of dollars into debt to get graduate degrees that they really have no business getting. If you don’t know how to use your English or philosophy or even engineering undergraduate degree, instead of jumping into grad school because school is what you know and feel comfortable with, find whatever job you can get and obtain some real world experience before continuing your education.

    1. Anx*

      I think another reason people are jumping into grad school is that some tracks pay your tuition and give you a small stipend. It can be really attractive to get a semester by semester contract when the alternatives are in the service industry.

      I’m not saying it’s wise, but I can certainly understand the appeal of not having to wonder how many shifts you’ll be able to pick up.

  27. Katie the Fed*

    I always felt like college was supposed to be about the life of the mind, and learning how to think, and yadda yadda. So obviously I pursued the liberal arts (sociology and political science, specifically).

    Unfortunately, I don’t think many students have that luxury anymore. College is just too damned expensive and the job market is too rough to spend four years in the liberal arts. And I say that with a VERY heavy heart, because I am all about learning for the sake of learning.

    So what I would say is this: pick somethign that inspires you. If that’s theology or philosophy, awesome! But then double major in something practical like business administration or economics or education or something that will help your job prospects.

    Oh, and learn a language. At least in my field knowing a language is REALLY important. I would study Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, and/or Chinese.

    1. Mallorie, the recruiter*

      I like this advice – while I agree that college SHOULD be about the things you talked about, today it’s just not. Use college to learn about cool things but also use it to learn about useful things. AND FOR GOD’S SAKE, work work work. The work experience is going to be what sets people apart from the thousands of other graduates. I literally want to cry for the grads I see who have NO WORK EXPERIENCE… who let them do that???

      1. The IT Manager*

        This is interesting. Not that I gave it much thought, but I always believed that college was preparation for my future career. I say that as someone who loves learning, but I thought college had a purpose (more than delay my entry into the real world) and that was to prepare me for my career in engineering. (I changed my major to computer science after freshman year.)

        I grew up middle class. My parents also have college degrees and used them for their careers. My parents definately grew up working class; my mother on a family farm. They weren’t the only of their siblings do go to college, but very near it.

        I wonder if this background infuenced me because going to college without thinking about the tangible/monitary benefits seems odd to me. But I was lucky that I wanted to be an engineer. and still sort of do. The “dream job” of the engineer and not the reality.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I think, with me…my dad had a college degree, got a job in the field it was in, hated the job, and ended up doing something completely different. My mom dropped out of college, only worked sporadically while we were kids, and eventually would get her bachelor’s in middle age. So I think I always assumed I’d be going to college (deciding otherwise was never even permitted to me as an option), but that my job wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with what I majored in.

          Add to that, my dad pushed law school hard, and when I was first applying to college, I was advised that law schools don’t really care what you major in as long as you know how to think. And so I think I thought the money would come from the law degree, while the undergrad degree would be to expand my horizons and such.

          Of course, you know what they say about best laid plans and I never did go to law school. But that was the thought process, I think.

          1. en pointe*

            This is really interesting to me. You say that deciding not to go to college was not permitted to you as an option, but don’t you have to get in first? I think this might be a cultural difference, but it seems like in America, college is more common and necessary for white collar jobs, and more about the college experience, moving away from home, etc.?

            In Australia, the majority of people don’t go to university, as it’s hard to get in (admission is purely academic, lots of schools have minimum entry requirements of 80th percentile, and I don’t think there are any schools that take students below the 60th), and uni isn’t necessary for lots of things. If you don’t get in and you’re committed to that path, it’s okay because you can always go back to study when you’re 21, as a mature age student, but lots of people are on other paths by then.

            For those who do go, almost nobody moves out of home unless they’re rural, and we’re all about the link between your degree and the career you’re going to have afterwards. Just like tradies do apprenticeships, cops go to the police academy, etc., uni is our path to particular jobs. We don’t really go for the ‘life of the mind’ stuff, that’s just a nice bonus.

            1. Kelly L.*

              By “not permitted,” I don’t mean it was against the law or anything–it was more that I would have been in immense trouble with my dad. And I was still 17 at the time, so I couldn’t just tell him to eff off. ;) My whole high school education had been geared toward college, too, and so I had gotten the grades and taken all the tests that would get me in.

              In any case, I wanted to go, so I wasn’t really tempted to rebel on that front. It was in part for the experience/moving out thing, yes. I also wanted the education.

              I also think it’s true that college education is kind of used as a gatekeeper for white-collar jobs, even ones where the work itself doesn’t really draw on anything you learned in college.

            2. Fabulously Anonymous*

              That is interesting! Here in the US, there are many colleges and universities. Some are highly competitive, but others will work with students to help them meet the entrance requirements and allow multiple admission attempts.

              The community colleges in my area have no academic requirements – anyone who wants to attend and can pay the tuition can attend. There are placement exams that determine where the student should start in math, science, English, etc. and the cc’s have rudimentary courses in all subjects.

    2. Kelly L.*

      I wish it were more “life of the mind” stuff. I think that’s largely what I wanted out of it, and it makes me sad that it’s turning more into a tightly focused vocational school. That may just be the way of things now, though. :(

      1. Katie the Fed*


        But I do think historically, the people who could afford to get a PhD in philosophy or other “life of the mind” were ones who had the means to do so. So, yeah, if mom and dad want to pony up for that, that’s cool. But otherwise you should probably come out employable.

        The rest of us unwashed masses can just read library books.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I agree with you, 100% Katie. I cannot believe the number of people around me who feel it is so important to have a well-rounded education. Maybe long ago, but now that is something for people who are well-off to begin with.
          I think when colleges figure out that they need their loans paid back, the dots will connect that they need to make sure their “customers” are employable. The same issue will become noticeable again, when graduates are not making donations like they used to do.

          I have a friend that talks about working and going to school. She could actually earn enough money to pay for her law degree as she went along. (Yeah, she watched every penny, but she did manage to pay as she went through school.) Now people are paying on student loans and unable to start building a retirement fund or college fund for their kids, etc. It’s a huge set-back.

        2. Kelly L.*

          And I think that may have been where I was fed a line of BS–the idea was definitely out there that I could do the life-of-the-mind thing at college even though I had no money, if I just studied hard in high school and got the grades and test scores and such. And that then there’d be some career I could do later, even if my schooling wasn’t laser beam focused toward that specific thing. And the high school stuff did get me into the college, but it was different from what I’d expected.

          And this was all ~20 years ago now and I did end up getting a career that was irrelevant to my education, but kind of by dumb luck.

    3. Sunflower*

      I agree with trying to double major. At my university, a few majors(primarily comm. and liberal arts) were set up so you could double major and graduate on time without extra credits/costs. Even minoring can help- my roommate graduated in 4 years with a Journalism degree and 2 minors in poly sci and sociology.

      1. De Minimis*

        That’s where I really got annoyed by my school’s large amount of general ed requirements…if you wanted to double major or minor you were probably looking at more than 4 years, since the general ed classes took up just over two years.

        Definitely something students should look at when choosing a school….how much flexibility they have as far as changing majors, double majoring, and so on…

      2. Mike C.*

        I had what my school called a “joint” major. You basically had half of one major, half of the other, with a few special courses that were unique to the major in question. Lots of flexibility.

      3. annie*

        Absolutely agree with this, or at minimum, have a minor. This is one way to study what you love that may not be realistic (modern dance?) and something that will look better to a larger swath of potential employers (business). I think also, as someone working in the arts, people underestimate the amount of business in show business, and most artsy types would benefit from some basic classes in business 101, marketing 101, etc.

  28. Amanda*

    I agree with what a lot of others are saying–that it’s hard to know exactly what you want, career-wise, when you’re in college. If it’s financially feasible, I’d recommend double-majoring, or at least minoring in something not closely aligned with your major. That way, you can feed what you love and still get some variety in, which I think would help later on with job-hunting.
    For instance, I majored in English with a minor in “Professional Writing.” Scare quotes used because only one course was truly geared toward professional writing; the rest were creative writing. Mind, I enjoyed them a lot and had every intention of taking them from the moment I stepped on campus. However, in hindsidght, it would have been wise of me to take more science courses. A minor, at the very least, might have allowed me to dovetail into a technical writing career, for which there are at least more opportunities than my current career in academic publishing.

    1. Elsajeni*

      I like this advice! I majored in English and minored in math, and I think it’s really helped me to be able to spin my academic background in either direction — you’re looking for someone who can write? Hey, I can write! Check out my English degree! Oh, you’d prefer someone who can crunch numbers? I’m great at that! Check out my math coursework! Basically, you’re achieving the traditional idea of a liberal-arts education — that you will graduate as a well-rounded person with skills that can be applied in many different fields — within the framework of today’s more specialized higher-ed system.

      (It was also very entertaining to introduce myself in senior-level math courses as “Hello, I’m Elsajeni, and I’m majoring in English” and watch everyone’s faces, but that’s somewhat beside the point.)

  29. Adam*

    Mine was a B.S. in Psychology. Not a bad major on its own, but if that’s all you get it’s not a huge boon when it comes to job hunting. I do sometimes wish I’d had the wherewithal at the time to pick something a bit more marketable and involved as an undergrad (for various reasons at the time it wasn’t really possible).

    I will say that high school does a terrible, and I mean TERRIBLE, job prepping students for college. When they finally get to it usually only the super motivated ambitious types know exactly what they want to do and the rest are too busy enjoying their first step into adulthood freedom to even think about it.

    If I can snap my fingers and make something happen I would have every new freshmen meet with an academic adviser within their first six months of college. And then strongly encourage them to figure out what major speaks to them and why they want to pursue it. If they’re primary motivation is job/earning potential, we’d look at what they’re considering and get an honest take on how well that’s likely to work out for them.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I finally got my BS about ten years ago. I was amazed at the number of students that had never touched a computer before they came to the college.
      I remember one poor woman, saying to me “How do I use Excel?” This was on the night before a big Excel project was due. Oh man.
      I went to a school that felt there was no need to teach computers to students, they would just learn as they go. Sure, once they figure out where the power button is.

      I couldn’t help that woman with the Excel question. I still feel bad about that.

      1. Cucumber*

        Yeah, a lot of evil has been done because folks assume kids are all “digital natives”. The spate of young people sexting photos of themselves, posting drunken pictures on Facebook should prove that younger people don’t necessarily think about the implications or proper use of a lot of technology.

        But to be fair, why would your fellow student ask you, rather than the professor, about Excel, the night before a project was due? That’s really on her, even if the school didn’t provide training – she needed to approach the professor.

        Very curious about your alma mater, of course…

        1. Adam*

          Young people generally are more tech savvy, but it’s usually in ‘pop technology’. They can text, tweet, Facebook, Xbox, and Blu-Ray with little hassle, but excel and word, which are programs that require repeated use and skill to actually use they often seem just in the dark as any adult who’s never had to use it before.

          And agreed that it wasn’t Reader’s fault she didn’t know excel. Surely her campus had resources to address that if needed or perhaps a TA could have helped her out. Would you have felt the same if she came up and said “I didn’t do the reading?”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Uh, actually, no, there were no resources. No classes in how to use MS products. The reason why my fellow student asked me was because the professor would have just said to “figure it out as you go along”.

            Personally, after getting this answer a few times myself, I gave up asking. So I understood why she was asking me.

            I went down to the office and told TPTB that they needed to offer something to help students to get up to speed. Their response would make you cringe. For myself, I went to another college closer to me and took an intro course. If I had not insisted I was going, my own advisers would not have let me. Finally, I said that I did not care if the college transferred my credits from the computer class or not. I was going, period. I was verrrry glad I did.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I figured that people will just be people. Sometimes as a student you have to let one project go to the last minute in order to get another project done. So maybe that is what happened to her, can’t be sure.

          I explained a bit better below here that it was pretty pointless to tell the prof. I knew she was in an unfair spot, with no resources and no help coming from the professor or the school. (There weren’t any TAs.) It took me 3 days at 8 hours a day just to gather the numbers I needed for the project. Getting it into a spreadsheet was very interesting. It was not the type of calculations you would use a spread sheet for.

          The whole situation was just not good.

    2. anonness*

      +1 Job/earning potential discussion: What I really wish to see happening is an honest discussion of how the job market is currently looking — I had no idea going into my major that they only pay around minimum wage. Even going into the recession and coming back out, it still pays around the same.

      I was lucky to roll into another area after college that is well-paying, but not all of my classmates had the same luck.

      1. Anx*

        Recent graduate job statistics and entry level statistics would be helpful, instead of listing averages including people who entered that field years ago or before any recent changes in that field.

  30. Nutcase*

    I wish I had taken the time to really decide what I wanted to study at university. It hadn’t even occurred to me at 17 when I was making my choices that one of my choices could have been to take a break, get some work experience and actually formulate a plan. (At my fancy private school anyone not going straight to university after sixth form was definitely looked down upon with great disdain and confusion.) I started off studying two of my school subjects that I was good at and combined them into a weird joint honours degree. I absolutely hated it! Being around people who were passionate about what they were doing made me think again about what I actually wanted to do and I restarted on a completely different degree course at the same university which looked like the closest match to what I then thought I wanted to do. While that worked out OK for me, I know that if I had actually grown up a bit before making my decision and gained some experience of the real world I would have chosen something entirely different, or perhaps got a degree through an apprenticeship.

    In short I wish I had looked through ALL of the courses available, the sorts of jobs that they may lead to and taken a breath before rushing into massive student debt on a whim!

  31. Sascha*

    So thinking back on my younger years, I was always interested in computers – design websites, learning how to program, etc. I also liked writing. Both were my hobbies, but I found myself more naturally working on computer projects than writing. I usually got frustrated with writing after a while, whereas there was always something new to excite me about computers.

    Now at 30, I’m an applications developer/system admin, and I graduated with an English degree. I really wish I had paid attention to those tendencies I had that drew me to computers and problem solving. I majored in English because it was easy – writing was easy for me. I grew up with a loving mother who unfortunately took the mindset that if you struggle at all, then you’re not meant to do it. So I had a lot of that mentality and ended up in English, because it was easy, and so many people told me I was “such a great writer,” and “you just have to use that gift.” Not necessarily bad things, but it’s not really want I wanted to do.

    If I had majored in computer science or information systems, I certainly would have had some struggle – I’m pretty bad at math – but I would have engaged my love of problem solving and development. I think I would have had much better career options. My job now is okay, but I feel like I’m about 10 years behind where I want to be as a developer, because I got that English degree and mucked around in some random jobs until coming into a more technically focused position at a university.

    So my advice is, not only look at a student’s hobbies and interests, but try to understand WHY they have those hobbies and interests, what about those things excites? Or frustrates them? Are they constantly drawn to something, even after disappointment? Or do they tire of something after a while and drop it because it gets boring? Seek to understand the underlying why of it all.

    1. Nutcase*

      All of this! Oh goodness you sound so much like me. I started studying some foreign languages at university. I always loved learning languages and I really was great at it but like you I was always tinkering with computers and dabbling in making my own games. I was a computer person. It had never even occurred to me that I could choose to do the computer thing full time until I met a computer science student at university who described to me what he was doing. I had assumed that my maths wouldn’t be good enough for a computer science degree – turns out it was! I switched after a year of languages and my biggest regret is wasting that year and all of that money on my first year. The first few weeks on my new cs course I couldn’t quite believe that the stuff I was doing actually was work. If I hadn’t met that computer science guy (he probably thought I was a stalker after I switched my degree – oh well) I’d have ended up with my languages degree and would have regretted so much more. Hindsight is brilliant though. All of the experiences that you go through and mistakes that you make are what make you who you are. 30 is still young to retrain and completely change career if you wanted to, or even take some more courses to get better at what you love.

      1. Sascha*

        Good for you! Yeah I just didn’t think I could even do anything remotely science-y, because I was bad at math. Which was actually due to a learning disability, which I didn’t discover until college. I wish I had met someone who had explained CS to me, but I was surrounded by a lot of people who, though they meant well, they impressed upon me that math and science were hard and not really for “creative” types like me.

        I love foreign languages too – I started out in Spanish and wish I had stuck with that, at least. I live in Texas so it would be very beneficial in many jobs around here. But it was haaaard and I thought I couldn’t do it so I switched. :)

    2. Kelly L.*

      Ah yes, the gift thing. I got both “you have to use your English gift” and a beloved chemistry teacher who told me she was sad I wasn’t going to use my “chemistry gift.” I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d gone into chemistry–I might be making a ton more money now, or I might have been driven out by the math, which was never my forte. It’s hard to say.

      1. Sascha*

        I think it’s really important for young people to learn that even if something is your “gift,” it doesn’t have to necessarily be your career. It’s okay for it to be a hobby. You can get so much fulfillment from something as a hobby, sometimes it’s better than trying to make it a career. Like some commenters have mentioned how they love baking but would hate to be a baker. I like casual writing and studying languages, but that’s just suited for me as a career.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Yup! I figured out much later that I’d rather not do my passions for money. It’d ruin them. I want to do something semi-dull that I’m good at for money, and my passions for fun.

          1. Sascha*

            Whenever anyone asks me what my passion is, I answer honestly…I’m passionate about doing nothing. I’m a homebody who likes binging on Netflix and drinking beer. Haven’t yet figured out how to make that profitable.

    3. The IT Manager*

      This plays into this article I saw recently which reports something I’d heard before. People who grow being told they are smart (an inherent trait) often believe that if they struggle with something that they can’t do it and its not for them.

      Apparently praising someone for their effort and hard work, leads them to believe the effort and hard work can yeild more results.

  32. TotesMaGoats*

    Gosh, there is so much to say. I’ve been advising students for years now. Here’s the best advice I’ve come up with.

    1. Major in what you are good at….not what you love. You may love computer science/engineering but if you suck at math, success will be hard won. For example, I wanted to help people and looked into nursing but I can’t do math in my head to save my live. So, I went into counseling. (Much better for me.)

    2. Pick a field with good career prospects, if that’s important to you. Do your research. East Asian studies might sound exciting but jobs in that field are going to be slim. Doing your research is even more important if your parents are paying for your education. Don’t waste their money people.

    3. Pick a flipping major. Yes, you at 19 can pick a major and career path. There is no reason at 19 that you can’t know what you want to be when you grow up. It might change but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick a path. Changing majors multiple times can lead to lost credits and a longer time to graduate. Most universities will limit the number of major changes at some point or only let you be “undecided” for so long.

    1. R the Manager*

      In my case, I was actually interested in East Asian studies when I entered college but realized it might not be that marketable a degree on the job market. So I got a minor in it.

      If there’s an esoteric field you’re interested in or passionate about, I recommend seeing if you can minor in it.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        I picked east asian studies at of the hat to for an example but your point is right on. I usually say underwater basketweaving but needed a better example.

        1. R the Manager*

          It is a good example though. I always thought most majors that ended in “studies” should be minors any way.

        2. Mints*

          Heh, tangent:
          I had to take an art history class or something for general ed requirements, and the teacher had us do a couple art projects to try out. One day was basket weaving, and it is RIDICULOUS. Seriously so hard. I actually really like arts and crafts, but I totally failed at basket weaving. I made a coaster. And I was one of the more successful ones. One guy asked me for help, and I was like “I don’t know dude. I’m not really doing well” and he said (dead serious) “This is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done”

          So, underwater basket weaving I think would be worse than chemistry or engineering or whatever difficult major you can think of

    2. Anon.*

      Re: #1, isn’t education supposed to help us be better at things, not just affirm what we already know? I do see your point, but it’s a bit sad to think we are constrained by our existing abilities at 18.

      1. Zillah*

        Sure, but I do think that there’s a difference between what you’re talking about and knowing what your strengths are. For example, I’d hope that someone who majors in physics will know much more when they graduate from college than they did when they came in… but hopefully they did know that they had an aptitude for it.

        Conversely, I had a friend who majored in a subject that she was pretty bad at it. And by pretty bad, I mean she failed several classes (I think she failed one twice), required a huge amount of help from professors to get through the assignments, and routinely got failing or almost-failing grades on tests. She liked math, but it was clear from the start that it wasn’t a strength.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      #3 Pick a flipping major. Yes. Don’t take yourself and your life so seriously that you cannot make a decision. Many people start out in a field and then change and then change again.
      It’s not a life sentence, it’s a life launch.
      You are simply trying to fortify yourself with something that looks reasonable to launch your life.

      Ask Alison if she ever thought she would be running a wildly popular blog on the internet. She launched her life with one thing and then grabbed other opportunities as the opportunities appeared. Now here she is.

    4. smilingswan*

      I was 17 when I started my freshman year of college. I had no concept of what most of my options for majors and careers were, let alone what my aptitude might be for them.

  33. Nichole*

    I’m a CC academic advisor as well, and I think this is excellent advice, very much in line with what I recommend. There’s a line between ‘do what you love’ and ‘do something you won’t hate’ that students don’t always know how to navigate. My go-to trick is to tell students to find a posting for job they’d love to retire from, then look at what kind of experience it requires. From there, they can work backwards to the next level down, then the next, until they get to the first level of education they haven’t yet completed, and we start with how to get there. Sometimes, for really tough cases, I print out the list of programs we offer and we cross out the ones the student knows they don’t want, then we talk about the others one at a time. It’s not as time consuming as it sounds for my institution, but YMMV.

    I also recommend NACADA and your state academic advising organizations as resources for all new advisors. Join, then soak up everything you can. Advising =/= registration! It’s a profession that has the potential to change lives, so be really good at it. /*endsoapbox

    1. C Average*

      I love the “pick a job you’d like to retire from and work from there” idea! I’m 40 years old, and I think I might learn some things by doing that exercise myself. Thank you.

  34. sophiabrooks*

    I have no advice for people because I was an English and Theatre major who got a well rounded education on a full scholarship at a small liberal arts/education school. I became an admin assistant because I wasn’t cut out for marketing myself like you do when you are in theatre. When I went to school, I thought I wanted to be an English teachers, and I actually took all the education courses. I would have had to stay another semester to student teach but I didn’t know how I would pay for it because my scholarship was only 8 semesters, so I decided to work for a year and go to grad school and be a theatre professor. Except I didn’t. So that I regret, although I am not sure I would have made a good teacher at that age.

    I also regret no one counselled me to become a librarian because I think that would have been the perfect career, but now I am older and there is a librarian glut! I was a first in my family to get a college education, and I didn’t really understand how it related to jobs, or what jobs were that weren’t factory or teaching or nursing, and my guidance counselors were pushing me to become an engineer because I was smart (although I was clearly a much better humanities student). I do not regret refusing to apply to engineering school because I would have been miserable.

  35. Seal*

    My advice when choosing a major is to never, ever listen to your parents. Based on my interests, talents and career goals I planned to major in music. My parents, who were paying for me to go to college, forbid me to do so and threatened to cut me off completely. Being young and dumb and thinking I had no other options, I gave in and proceeded to drift through college, taking 7 years to finally graduate with a degree in psychology and sociology. At one point I considered law school, but my parents quickly quashed that notion as well. After college I settled for a dead end job and for a time continued doing and teaching music on the side, watching far less talented people with music degrees move on to successful careers in teaching and performing. After almost 20 years of frustration and barely scraping by, I finally went to graduate school and have now embarked on an actual career – one I am quite good at, but one I will never be passionate about. Despite my recent successes, I will always be deeply resentful of my parents for their lack of respect for my talent and passion, and disappointed in myself for not having had the wherewithal to stand up for myself.

    A friend who majored in art, as did her brother, told me that her father’s advice was that if they were indeed serious about pursuing their passion, they should also make sure they also had other skills to that would allow them support their passion. So my friend majored in art and minored in accounting; her brother did something similar. Both are now making good livings in the arts. I only wish my parents had been as enlightened.

    1. asasda*

      In college I learned to not give strong general advice based on a limited of examples. And certainly not just one example.

  36. C Average*

    I took the path of least resistance. I had a full-ride and had aced the verbal section of the SAT. I wanted to finish college in four years without accruing any debt. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. The only academic subjects I was passionate about were reading and writing. So I majored in English.

    I can’t say I regret it. I had an undiagnosed learning disability that would’ve held me back in any area, and English was probably the major I had the best odds of faking my way through. My grades weren’t stellar, but I achieved my four-years-debt-free goal while working part-time.

    I always–ALWAYS–enjoyed work more than school, even when work was a craptastic part-time gig for minimum wage. Workplaces fascinate me. The interpersonal relationships, the logistics of getting things done, the jillion tiny little financial calculations that go into so many decisions, the constant analysis of whether what you’re doing works or needs to be tweaked. No matter what job I had, I got there early and stayed late and talked shop with anyone who would listen.

    Looking back, I maybe should have paid more attention to that interest and explored something like business.

    I try to expose my stepdaughters to as many careers as I can. If I meet someone with an interesting job, I tell the family about it and we sometimes discuss what a person would need to study to get on that career path. I want them to know there are many paths that lead to many places, and that by the time they go to college, people will be doing jobs we haven’t even heard of right now. I want them to have a sense of possibility beyond what’s spelled out for them at their school’s career day or in college course catalogs.

    I’d also advise students to honestly contemplate worst-case scenarios when contemplating their “dream” major. Let’s say you want to go into a major in which, statistically, 72% of last year’s graduating class is currently employed. Think about how it would be to belong to the 18% who aren’t employed. Do you love the subject enough that you’d find this tolerable? Or do you have a quid pro quo view of education, believing that earning the degree should equal a job? How will you feel if things don’t work out the way the career office tells you they should? Because, statistically, SOMEONE has to be in the 18% sleeping on their friend’s couch, eating ramen, submitting applications and Starbucks, asking for yet another deferment on their student loans. Pick a major that holds enough intrinsic appeal that if it doesn’t yield the career path you expect, you’ll still feel that you got something worthwhile from your time at college.

    Finally, as others have said, network, network, network.

  37. Anon Accountant*

    Do high schools or even universities offer job shadowing? A student follows an engineer for a day of work to observe a typical workday for that job. In some cases the students even were able to job shadow several people in the same field but at different companies.

    It was great because they got to see what a typical day in the life was like and some decided their chosen major really wasn’t right for them. Our high school did this starting with juniors and it was a great experience for students.

    1. Felicia*

      In Ontario , high schools offer co op, where high school students get to actually work at a job that interests them for a semester (or half days all semester). I wish I had taken advantage of that. It’s optional but would have been beneficial

  38. Anonathon*

    1. Don’t over-analyze your choice, or assume that it will dictate all future job prospects. My major has nothing to do with my current job, and the same holds true for nearly all my co-workers.

    2. Pick something that you love. Don’t suffer through coursework that you despise for four years if you could be more successful (and happier) in another department.

    3. Your major isn’t the deciding factor in your job search. I loved my major, but knew that it wouldn’t be my career. I used extracurriculars, volunteering, summer jobs, etc. to set myself up for post-graduation employment, and employers were more interested in those than in my major choice anyway.

    4. That said, consider whether you want to go into a field like medicine or software engineering where a degree (or extensive courswork) in that field is non-negotiable. At the same time, try and get some real world experience in that field (shadowing, interning) to make sure that you actually do like it.

    5. If you’re not sure, keep it broad and flexible. Pick a field where you will learn to write, research, think critically, etc. I was hiring college-age interns earlier this year, and I didn’t much care about their major as long as they were doing well overall. But a really narrow field of study would give me pause.

    1. Xay*

      This is great advice, especially #3. I was a psychology major who never had any interest in practicing psychology or going into research. But the skills I learned in that major – reading and critiquing research, data analysis, and understanding how people think and make decisions has been extremely helpful in my current career.

  39. Puddin*

    I have maintained that you should pick something that interests you now – not necessarily what you think you will like in four-five years. If you get bored or frustrated with your major your chances of getting good grades and graduating can be greatly diminished. No point in going if you don’t finish.

    Of course you have to balance that with your aptitude, the calculated risk of investing in higher ed versus the job market needs, and salary/intrinsic rewards of jobs in that field.

  40. Chinook*

    Remind students too that job markets change, even in industries that seem like they are surefire. I live in a province full of trained teachers who can’t find a job despite an increasing population and new schools being built. I was part of the generation who was told by everyone that I should have no problem finding a job because all the boomers will be retiring in the next 5-10 years and then pensions and savings took a nose dive, mandatory retirement became illegal and all those boomers, some fo whom told me I would have no problem fidning work in my field, looked at life in retirement and went “not for me” and kept on working while living longer than their predeccessors, thus holding on to the jobs us newbies were trained for while costing twice our price (thus actually taking up 2 jobs on the budget line).

    Now, I am not saying thigns should go back to where they were or that people should be forced to retire, but things changed in ways no one could have predicted and many of my fellow educators had to take our degrees and training and become flexible in what we had to do (even if it meant giving up something that we are passionate about and damn good at doing).

    I am a firm believer that any type of training on accounting basics and showing students a variety of fields that use their skills, not just the one they are currently focused on. This also enable them to see possibilities that they never knew existed (and I say this as someone who thought engineers were the ones who drove trains and didn’t realize that computer programming is just learning hot to speak another, non-verbal, language)

    1. Elsajeni*

      This is one reason that I don’t trust the “major in something marketable” advice. What’s marketable changes, and it changes fast — especially when everyone else is trying to major in the most marketable field, too. You can easily go from “There’s a shortage of qualified [field] graduates! Everyone major in [field]!” to “Yeah, everyone’s been majoring in [field] for the last three years and there are no more openings. Sorry,” in the four years it takes you to finish your [field] degree.

  41. Kasia*

    The best advice I can give incoming college freshmen is something I don’t think they realize: You don’t have to declare your major your first year (save a few majors who require major-specific courses from the start). In most colleges you have to complete at least a years worth of general credits that usually don’t have to do with the major you select anyways. I took the first year of college to take these courses as well as a few introductory courses of majors I thought I might be interested in. When I first got to college I thought I might want to be a journalist. After taking intro to Journalism my freshman year I knew it wasn’t for me. Take the time to experience a few new courses your freshman year and see what you like/hate.

    My other piece of advice is to choose a major that is not specific to one field. I ended up with a Communications degree which can be used in a multitude of fields. You can also use these degrees as a base if you decide what you really want to do after your four years is up. As my mother always says, education is never wasted (but really, your credits will stick with you for a while). Don’t be afraid of taking more than four years to finish your degree either, the real world is way over rated ;)

  42. Vanilla*

    When I graduated from college nearly 10 years ago, the message to students at my school was “Major in something that interests you – it doesn’t matter what it is. All you need is a degree and you will be fine.”

    I majored in journalism with an emphasis on PR/advertising because I really enjoyed writing/reporting. I worked for my school newspaper too. However, if I had it to do over again, I would have tried to get in my school’s business program because that’s where my interests were and it was at the time one of the top 5 programs in the country. (FWIW, our journalism program was top 5 in the country, too.)

    Yes, absolutely find a major you’re interested in – BUT do your research on what types of jobs you can get with a degree in the field and find out the starting salaries for the area of the country/part of the world you want to live in. During my junior year, I found out that entry-level newspaper/magazine reporters made less than $20,000/annually in my area. I ended up switching to PR/advertising because I simply couldn’t afford to live on $20,000. I would advise any high school/college student (and their parents/guardians) to do a ton of research ahead of time. Oh, and find a way to pay for college without taking out student loans.

  43. Manders*

    This might be hard for an undergraduate to figure out, but I would advise students to ask around and figure out whether the department they want to work with has a reputation for treating its students and faculty well. I originally tried to major in English with a focus in creative writing, but I ended up in the middle of a departmental battle; the requirements of the major kept changing, some advisors didn’t even know what the new requirements were, and my favorite professors were adjuncts who were let go and rehired at random. It got so bad that some of the creative writing teachers refused to be part of the English department. I ended up in a major I liked, but it had a similar problem with adjuncts disappearing unexpectedly. My partner is in a similar situation: he’s getting a history PhD, but the history department at his school is biased against his field. Almost all of his funding this year actually came from the international studies department, and all of his professors are also members of that department. He has trouble filling certain requirements, like attending colloquia, because they’re never in his field.

    There’s probably less choice in the sciences, but in humanities, the difference between majoring in History with a focus on British literature and majoring in English with a focus on British literature is which department’s rules you’ll be following. Most of your classes will be cross-listed.

  44. Jubilance*

    My advice is – start early and figure out what interests you. By early I mean in middle/high school. I was in a gifted program in middle school, and got exposed to engineering to 8th grade. I followed that up with 4 engineering summer camps and 2 years in a school year program where we visited companies, shadowed in labs, did experiments, etc. By the time I got to college, I was pretty confident in what I wanted to do. I wound up making a slight adjustment based on my experiences from internships, but overall what I was interested in didn’t change from the time I was 14.

  45. Anoncat*

    Whatever you pick, your major and how much you pay for college are interrelated. If you study engineering or business, student loans probably aren’t a huge risk because you’re likely to get a job and actually be able to pay off those loans after college. If you must major in the humanities, English, or any other “impractical” subject that probably won’t get you a high-paying job out of college, be realistic about your finances and study within your means; stay away from the ultra-expensive school if it’ll cost $200,000 in student loans. People go around saying “major in what you love, money can’t buy happiness,” many college kids are willing to live in crappy apartments and live off ramen as long as they’re doing what they love, but debt isn’t fun when you’re up to your eyeballs in it and can’t find a job to pay it off.

    1. Chaucer*

      While I agree with not accumulating crippling amounts of debt, please don’t turn this into a “STEM and Business vs Liberal Arts” debate. Majoring and obtaining a degree in s STEM field isn’t a golden ticket to high salaries, and obtaining a degree in the humanities and Liberal Arts isn’t a condemnation to poverty. It’s what you do with those degrees that make all the difference.

  46. B*

    I wish I could go back and change my degree or do a double major/possible minor in something completely different. I listened to others about what profession not to go in and that really limited me, for which I kick myself.

    My advice, try to have them look outside of others advice and think about what is out there. Even the nontraditional route. But I would also advise not doing a major that really and truly pigeon holes you in one direction. Much harder to change careers.

  47. Carolum*

    Generally it doesn’t really matter what your degree is in, as long as you *have* a degree.

    Exception: If you’re into something that requires something specialized training (accounting, engineering, etc.), then go for that kind of degree. But make sure you know what you’re getting into – make sure you really like it!

    1. De Minimis*

      With accounting you generally know right away, because everything continues to build on what you learn in the early courses. There are a few exceptions….tax is kind of its own universe, but most of your courses are just variation and expansion on the material you learn in those beginning courses.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      If you can hack it, an engineering degree isn’t a bad way to go for entry into many fields for the undecided students. A BS is all you need for many engineering jobs, and it’s a good stepping stone into medicine, law, business, or entrepreneurship. Some of the engineers I knew became lawyers, politicians, pharmacists, doctors, librarians, teachers, software sales, equipment sales, and pharmaceutical sales reps. I know people within my company who were civil engineers and moved into IT or data analytics, as well as some who went into executive management, recruiting, and finance.

      The problem is it takes a lot of work if you’re ultimately doing something totally different. . .

      1. AnotherAlison*

        (Just one more thing on that topic. . .the advantage of an engineering degree is that people generally assume you’re smart. Hmmm, could this person do medical school? Sure, they survived engineering school, didn’t they. I’ve made a couple left turns during my career that I’ve been able to do simply because people took me at my word to be able to learn something new easily.

  48. Anon*

    Some kids know from a young age what interests them and they should pursue that. But most people should not go to university when they are 18 and fresh out of high school. They are young, immature, and don’t know anything about themselves or the world.

    I tell any younger person who wants to go to university to take open studies for a year to explore. Take a class from every faculty that you can. Take a humanity, social science, hard science, calculus, etc. For most degrees, they need the option credits anyway.

    Overall, any degree that teaches them creative problem solving and critical thinking will be flexible enough for them to adapt to any career (except maybe something like engineering where you need a specific skill set).

  49. Crow T. Robot*

    I also majored in English and I feel the same way about it. I think I decided on that major because it was the only thing I thought I was good at, but college shouldn’t only be about doing what you’re good at. I wish I had stretched my abilities a little bit more in college and given at least some thought to my future. Basically, my view of the future had a four year limit – all I was concerned with was getting done with college.

  50. Ellie H*

    I majored in a very small area studies field that I fell into and became crazy about (Slavic Languages & Literatures) and am now entering a Ph.D. program with the aim of becoming an academic in the field, so my obscure major did turn out to be directly relevant to my career path. Since graduating college, I’ve worked at my high school/summer job at a bookstore, done a couple short-term non-degree-requiring jobs, and have been working in academic administration for the past several years. I got these jobs via connections.

    As I get further from college, I somewhat regret not studying more non-degree related (i.e. science) subjects in college, not because of STEM career advantage but because of my interest in them. I almost did a math minor (I applied to colleges as a prospective Physics major, but became really interested in history/culture of the Balkans right before starting school, and never did physics at all) but pulled out of it because I was struggling so much with it and it was bringing down my GPA. I hesitate to say this was a terrible idea because I am really happy with where I got into grad school and I wonder if a lower “overall” GPA would have hindered that even with my in-major GPA, but I do have regrets about giving up just because it was hard & time-consuming. Since leaving college I’ve got really interested in things like economics and statistics and sort of wish I had taken some of these classes as electives in college. I really wasn’t interested enough to do it at the time, though. I don’t think looking at these things with hindsight is so useful because we become interested by different things, and are motivated to pursue learning and career development for different reasons, at different times in our lives.

  51. Red Librarian*

    I majored in Creative Writing which, as far as job prospects go, is probably worse than plain ol’ English. But I also had the advantage of having very supportive parents who allowed me to major in that and put me through school.

    I had an internship at a literary magazine while there and my plan was originally to go to graduate school for publishing, with plans to be an editor, but I eventually chose the MLIS route and while in grad school got a graduate assistantship that covered tuition and gave me a stipend.

    I don’t regret majoring in creative writing as that experience has led me to be a much better writer and while I don’t *work* as a writer, I love my job and the skills I have work in a professional environment as well and I do continue to write and publish so the BFA wasn’t a total waste.

  52. WorkingAsDesigned*

    My 20-year BA is in Theatre Arts – I’m not actively pursuing that field now, but am glad I did it. (Also glad that for once I had taken my mother’s advice and took some business classes!)

    With that being said, if I knew then what I know now, I would have figured out what kind of lifestyle I wanted, and which of my skills and abilities would indicate the degree/career I should have to support that lifestyle. Thankfully I now have a part-time business that will eventually replace my job income so I can still achieve the lifestyle I want.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      My father advised me to get an accounting course under my belt. He said it would be helpful in understanding why the boss makes the decisions she does.

      That was one piece of advice that helped me so much in the working world. I only took two semesters- the intro level stuff- but I took to the material instantly and I learned so much. (Bonus: It was a hundred times easier than calculus.)

      1. Chinook*

        “My father advised me to get an accounting course under my belt. He said it would be helpful in understanding why the boss makes the decisions she does.”

        This 100%. Once you understand budget lines, you can understand the difference between an employee hire vs. contract/temp agency hire and not take it (as) personally when you are on contract for year after year. I was drawn in to give a mini-lecture on how payroll and agency contracts work which morphed into how company wide budgets work to a couple of our engineers-in-training when one asked the other why he was getting paid for more hours than he worked (I gave them the short answer the boss gave me when I asked the same question and then they asked follow up questions, invited me to sit down and *poof* there went an hour). One of these guys was already in charge of a project with a budget but had never been taught any of the hows and whys of how budgeting works, which is just wrong (and also hard to understand in the abstract).

      2. doreen*

        And a statistics course. I work in a field related to my major, but the accounting and statistics courses have probably been the most helpful to me. Accounting because money and budgets are important everywhere and statistics because that’s how you know if what you’re doing is working. I work in criminal justice and most of my coworkers don’t understand what a “statistically significant difference in recidivism rate” means except that it has something to do with “the bean counters”. I know that it means the pilot project is about to be expanded.

  53. Powerpuff*

    The advice that I got was to major in something that you were interested in, and the rest would fall into place. I ended up studying politics, really enjoyed the course, but hate, hate, hated the jobs I was qualified for once I graduated.

    As an introvert who finds talking to others all day tiring and some days even panic inducing, my first jobs made me miserable. I bounced around working for a couple of NGOS, trying lobbying, journalism, and finally doing some media and policy work. Eventually I had to go back to school to entirely change careers.

    I really wish someone had encouraged me to think through whether an academic aptitude for and interest in a subject would translate well to the sorts of jobs I was setting myself up for.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Really good point. I considered med school briefly. Then I decided “What if I never do adjust my reaction to seeing blood???”

      If making a major adjustment in yourself is required for a particular career, think that through carefully. Some shortcomings can be worked through or, as in my case, other shortcomings might still be a hurdle years later.

  54. HeyNonnyNonny*

    I’d add that there is a big difference between learning a skill and learning a field– I majored in English, which isn’t all about teachers and writers. I ended up using those skills in transportation, which I love!

    So if you have a skill like writing or art that you enjoy, keep in mind that a lot of non-liberal fields need people with these skills, too. Just make sure, as others have said, that you do your research and know how to make that transition.

  55. Elysian*

    I picked my major in college at the end of my sophomore year by printing out all the majors my school offered, crossing out the ones I thought sounded horrible, and then picking from the ones that were left that I had already taken the most classes in.

    I do not suggest my method to others. Though the printing out part was actually useful, to see all what was offered.

  56. Sunflower*

    I would tell them to find what they’re interested in and what they’re good at then have realistic expectations from that. First off, just because you’re interested in something doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it. And just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it. When I was in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do and I picked a major my parents said I would be good at. I was good at it but I was also miserable. I was really interested in psychology but I really didn’t want to put in the grad school years to do anything with the degree.

    Unless they are focused on a very technical degree with a clear path, I would tell them to not sweat their major too much and focus more on internships. Stress how internships and work experience will outweigh your major in the long run and will much more help you determine what you want to do with your life than your classes will. If your college doesn’t already have one set-up, try to set up a mentor/shadow program. My university had a large alumni database and counselors would set up phone calls/email chats/meetings between alumni and interested students. Counselors would help students form questions to ask and it was probably the best service they provided.

    I would also encourage you to tell students there is nothing wrong with not majoring in their passion. There are LOTS of people in the world who have regular jobs(some people would even call the boring) who are very happy and wouldn’t change a thing. Also, like everything at age 18, your ‘passion’ may not be your passion in a couple years. I’m still young so my career path can go any which way but I often wonder if I would be just as happy being an accountant- there is nothing wrong with wanting a career that can give you moderate job stability with generous perks either!

  57. Ms. Anonymity*

    If I had it to do all over again, I would take a year and travel. I would take every opportunity to do things, and speak with people, outside of my own experience. You learn so much about yourself when you travel and when you speak to other people doing things you know nothing about. I think it should also be a requirement that you take a Myers Briggs personality test to see where you fall. Those tests offer a welath of information about yourself that you might not realize until it’s pointed out to you.

  58. Eden*

    I’m going to agree with everyone who says, unless you already know you’re headed towards something engineering-related and highly technical, it does not matter so much what you choose as your major.

    I’m going to disagree with everyone who says that you should definitely already know at 18 or 19 what you want to do with your life and career path. I truly envy folks who do, but I think they’re the minority. Take a wide survey of classes. I think it’s important to remember that at 18 or 19, no one really knows what’s even out there to do, careerwise–or it might not exist yet–or have discovered every single thing in life they might have a passion or talent for. My best advice would be to expose yourself to all kinds of things. This is the time to do it.

    My BA and MA are in Russian. I have worked as a: legal assistant, book editor, graphic artist, vocational school instructor, veterinary technician, and university administrative assistant. I have not had trouble getting jobs that clearly have nothing to do with my major. It’s harder now to get any job, I’ll concede that; but I truly think that most of the reason it took me months to land this last job was that my resume and cover letters needed work.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      When I was a senior in HS, I couldn’t understand how my classmates “knew” what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. I barely knew how to be a grown up. About 50% of those classmates came home and didn’t go back to school and another 25% changed their program/schools.

      I’d suggest accepting that you mind will change dramatically they first year out of HS when you are exposed to new people and experiences.

      And don’t forget, college isn’t for everyone, or isn’t right at the moment. There is so much pressure to go to college that I’ve had friends get Engineering degrees when all they wanted to do was be a mechanic.

  59. GigglyPuff*

    Honestly I think I was really lucky. I probably should have gotten a History major, but didn’t particularly want to take some of the classes, and I had this idea of wanting to own my own bookstore one day. So I ended up in the Econ/Mgmt. major, which was much more Econ, and helped tank my GPA. But I also went to a small liberal arts school, so I really enjoyed the other classes I took (Classics & History). So I felt like I got the practical with, what I liked studying.

    I definitely don’t regret it, because I ended up taking an entire year of finance classes, which I found I enjoyed. But until my junior year I basically had no idea what I wanted to do, and I was always one of those people who basically do things themselves, so my conversations with my adviser were usually less than ten minutes and just to get a signature on the required paperwork.

    I have no idea when I started thinking about becoming a librarian, but I ended up begging the school library to let me volunteer, since I didn’t qualify for work study, and they did. So I ended up going to get my Master’s, and even then, it still look a year into the program to have any idea of what kind of career I wanted.

    What I wish had been different or would have helped. Having options on-campus (at least at a small liberal arts college), for students who don’t have work study, and I didn’t have enough initiative to ask about internships, thinking they were only for the really driven students. My sketchy back-up plan had been to do something with an art institution and web design, and my friend who had work study, ended up being put in charge of a dept.’s website and knew nothing about web programming, and I had to help a few times.

    Also there were quite a few graduates from our school that ended up in library school, but the library didn’t start getting involved until about two years after I left. Having programs, and informational sessions, something I definitely wished had been there when I was there, because the library program I ended up in, wasn’t stellar and didn’t offer classes in what I turned out to be really interested in.

    So if there is a pattern of graduates going on to specific jobs, make sure the department’s on-campus (even non-educational dept.’s) are offering information for those fields. Try to get internships/volunteer programs set up for on-campus, it makes it much less intimidating, and mine at the library was only a few hours a week, so I didn’t take work away from the work study students, and the librarians made sure that I got a complete picture of all the different dept.’s in the library.

    I’d also encourage students to study multiple fields if their schedule permits. I ended up with two minors and my major, and needing the credit for those minors was almost nothing, but still gave me the knowledge I need to keep up with all the English/History majors in the library program/library world. For example my friend got a Philosophy degree (which I have absolutely nothing against, that is who she is all the way), but she certainly took enough foreign language courses to earn another degree, which (and yes, I know education is not everything on a resume), might have put her in a better light job search wise.

    So encourage students to have a back-up plan, to know what options are out there for what their major is preparing them for, and what other areas of studies might go well together, or offer some kind of other education that would help with a back-up plan. And make sure to look at the unusual to, and what might fit the student. For example, many people probably don’t think Business degree, “oh, they could be a Business librarian” (which is not what I actually do, but everyone thought I would be).

    Lucky for me, I ended up in the career with a mixture of exactly what I’m interested in, technology and history, working in digital preservation, and I didn’t have to give up anything I was interested in. I get to work with various software, programming, coding, all while handling historic items.

    I’d say a job like academic adviser, it would help to just let the students talk, to open up, and not try to be limiting or judging, or based on what their prior experience/education was. I think it took me a while to figure out what I wanted, because it sounded so weird, and I didn’t want to tell anyone “oh, I love working with technology and new programs, and coding, but at the same time, I love history and learning about specific events in the past, old books, and old handwriting”.

  60. Noelle*

    I majored in music, but I wish I’d studied mathematics or econ. Honestly, it’s a little sad to say but I was told I wasn’t good at math so I believed it (even though I did fine on the SAT and actually liked algebra). If I’d had more confidence in my abilities I would have picked a different major but I was obsessed with doing well in college and music was something I knew I could do. So the advice I would give is don’t listen to people who say you aren’t capable of doing something. I still wish I’d tried and failed at a “risky” major than gotten a great GPA playing it safe.

  61. ggg*

    I had NO idea what I wanted to do. I was interested in a lot of different subjects. The sheer number of choices was paralyzing.

    I decided to start in engineering. The deciding factor was that it was easier to start there and decamp to the liberal arts college if I hated engineering, than to go the other way. Turns out I liked it and stuck with it. I have a Ph.D., am gainfully employed, and have never regretted not pursuing that French literature major.

    I would say the moral of the story is: pick something. Anything. You might like it. You might change your mind. Just pick SOMETHING.

  62. Variation*

    For the love of anything good, research the industry before you enter it. I have a lot of friends who entered law school in 2009/2010, right as the American Bar Association was releasing statements urging people not to go.

    If I had it to do over again, I would’ve stuck with my strengths: Investigative studies, or maybe urban planning. While the program I chose suited my emotional needs, I’m not sure if it was worth the ~$60 grand in debt.

  63. tango*

    My kid hated college. Shoot, has never really liked school – in regards to reading, writing and math. She liked school for the social activities and is smart and motivated in other areas but learning (at least in an educational system) was not for her. She went to college because she was told “that’s what you have to do to get a good job”. She suffered through 2 years of college before saying “not for me”, dropped out and now is working her way up with a company and has been recently promoted to a manager position in a job that has the things she likes: she’s on her feet, fast paced, lots of different tasks every day, she can learn while actively doing and she can manage others while only 22 years old. She still wonders/worries that not having a degree will bite her in the butt. I told her there’s always time to go back later if she feels she’s more ready. College is too expensive nowadays to just drop class after class or do badly because you’re just not interested.

    While my friends daughter is starting her senior year at a private college where her parents have racked up significant debt so far and the kid has absolutely no ambition to do much now or when she graduates. I think her degree will be in environmental studies and she talks how she wants to drop off the grid and live off the land, etc, when she graduates. Or make $10 a hour doing something she loves. Her parents keep paying though thinking just the degree from that school, no matter what the degree is in, or the GPA, will get their child a job. And the kid is not doing internships either. She’s working under the table at some restaurant during her summer months. It seems like a waste of the $150,000 plus in loans these parents/kid are going to have to repay back.

  64. AnotherAlison*

    I was an engineering major, but I changed several times in school (mechanical, engineering management, civil, and ultimately graduated with a mechanical engineering degree). I also have a kid who’s a junior in high school, so this is a real discussion we’re having right now. (The bad part at my house is that he wants to play baseball, and this is a realistic possibility for him to pursue. . .as realistic as it is for anybody, that is.)

    For academic majors, my advice is to pick something reasonable based on what has always interested you and your standardized test results, and stick with it. You’ll really “find your passion” once you’re out in the work world. Until then, what you think you’ll enjoy is mostly theoretical. What’s reasonable – people act like it’s an impossible question, but the clues are there. I was good at math, science, English, and foreign language. I stressed a lot about my major at the time, but in hindsight, I think I would have been happy in any of those fields, and my choice as an engineer makes quite a bit of sense based on me being on the math team in junior high, and other things I did as a teenager. Now, if you had only ever loved writing and chose engineering, that’s not “reasonable.”

    If someone is good at math, and they major in math, I don’t see the point in stressing out about whether they should change to engineering or physics or applied statistics. Just finish up the path you’re on, and as you get out in the world, you’ll work your way into your best fit and industry.

    Part two of my advice is that if you have some outstanding talent to offer the world, don’t worry about the long term for a while, just go do it. You can spend 3-4 years of 80 yrs on the planet pursuing baseball, hiphop dance, country music, whatever. Then if it doesn’t work out, go get that accounting degree. : )

    1. Chinook*

      “If someone is good at math, and they major in math, I don’t see the point in stressing out about whether they should change to engineering or physics or applied statistics. Just finish up the path you’re on, and as you get out in the world, you’ll work your way into your best fit and industry. ”

      I laugh at this because it is very true. The onlly guy I knew who majored in Math (he got his Master’s by working on imaginary numbers (numbers that would exist if you could divide by zero – I am still boggled that this is a thing)). He then became a Catholic priest(because if you can believe in imaginary numbers, then an all knowing God is a piece of cake) who gives the most amazing sermons and is very personable. I doubt any high school guidance teacher of his woudl have seen that oen coming.

  65. Rayner*

    Do not allow yourself to be talked out of the thing you really want to do – I did and bombed because of it. I like reading; I don’t like ripping apart novels by old white men who died a hundred years ago, plus.

    And choose something that’s vocational if possible. A degree that’s academic creates problems the other side. I’m considering going back for a masters in OT.

  66. Fabulously Anonymous*

    1. Read job ads. Lots of them. Get a feel for the opportunities that are out there. What interests you? What do you think you might like to do? What are the requirements? Do all of those ads require experience, or are there entry level opportunities? Likewise, are there only entry level opportunities and no opportunities for experience? What’s the turnover like?

    2. Once you have identified what you might like to do, identify the major required. Does that interest you? Can you afford it? How many colleges offer it? How competitive is it to get into the program? What is the placement rate for graduates of the program?

    3. Identify those that work in the field and request an informational interview. Use whatever means you can to find those people – your parents, friends, teachers, co-workers and bosses if you have a job, the school’s alumni center, community centers, church/temple/mosque if you belong to one, customers if you have a job and you are allowed to have those types of conversations, etc.

    4. Conduct as many informational interviews as you can. Let the other person start by talking, but bring a list of questions with you (I’ll post some good ones below). Make it a conversation, but refer to the questions if there’s a lull or at the very least, be familiar with the questions so you know what to listen for and follow up.

    5. Once you decide on a major and begin studying, do whatever you can to get relevant work experience. Relevant is key. That is where you will meet people in your field – networking! – but it is also where you can see the types of work you might actually do upon graduation. Do you like it? Is it interesting? Can you see yourself doing that work for the next 30 years? Talk to your co-workers. Where do they see the field the going? Refer to the list of questions if need be.

    If after all this, you think you chose the wrong major, consider if you need to change majors. Can you afford it? What would you do if you could change? What would you do if you couldn’t? If you know in your heart you are in the wrong major, change while you are still in school if you can.

    1. Chriama*

      While I like your recommendation, I think it requires a level of self-awareness that a lot of high school seniors aren’t capable of. If they pick a major based on career options, they’ll be limiting themselves right out of the boat. What careers do high school students know about? Doctor, lawyer, engineer, nurse, psychologist, teacher. 1-word careers, or whatever their parents do. I didn’t even know MIS was a major until I went to university, and now I’m working as a business analyst. Lots of jobs don’t even have a degree pipeline.

      I think for some teens this will give them structure to start exploring themselves. And I would definitely recommend talking to friends’ parents, relatives and the like to hear about all the different jobs out there.

      1. Fabulously Anonymous*

        “What careers do high school students know about?”
        Actually, I agree with you. Most high school students don’t know about many careers. That’s why I recommend reading job ads.

      2. Fabulously Anonymous*

        I wanted to add: I also agree that most students are not that self-aware. My advice is actually to the OP, who is an adult guiding students, but in retrospect I realize it was written as if I was giving advice directly to a student. If I could edit it I would!

  67. Kate*

    If there’s a way for a person to get meaningful work experience pre-college, that’s what I’d recommend. There’s an important distinction between what you want to study and what you want to spend 8 hours a day doing. I majored in philosophy, and I don’t regret it at all, for several reasons; I loved it, it drastically improved my writing skills, and it made me a better thinker, which positively impacts all aspects of my life. But looking back, I wish I’d double majored in accounting. Because who knew I’d grow up and realize that I’m an introvert who’d rather do quiet things all day and save my energy for friends and family? Not that accounting is all silence, of course, but I work in direct client services now, and it’s tiring. I also didn’t know how much I liked solving math and logic problems. Oh well.

    1. Kate*

      As for the OP’s original question, I’d just really stress that there is life after college and they have to have a job, and go from there. I was definitely in the fog Alison was talking about. Like other commenters have said, focus on career paths.

    2. Anonylicious*

      I agree with this. Working first and starting college at twenty-four instead of eighteen is probably the best thing I could have done. I knew more about what I wanted to do with my life, and I was also a much more focused student than I would have been when I was fresh out of high school.

  68. Dan*

    As the OP writes, most kids aren’t aware of the careers that are out there, let alone how to pick one.

    I utilize my undergraduate degree at my job, but to truly get here, I have some non-college work experience plus a Masters degree.

    I don’t regret my academic major choices — I get paid well, enjoy what I do, and have a great work/life balance.

    To some extent, I do regret attending one of the most expensive schools in the nation as an undergrad. But I fell into my career by accident, and even if I picked the same major at a different school, I have no idea where my career would have gone.

    Truth is, school is expensive and kids aren’t prepared to know what they want to do when they graduate in four years, let alone how to establish a trajectory on how to get there.

    1. Anon.*

      I fell into my career on accident too. I think that college gives you all sorts of opportunities (including work-relevant ones) that you would not have otherwise. These opportunities are much easier to access when you’re a grad student though.

      Unless you get a degree that correlates directly with a profession, like engineering, computer science, etc., I think that companies like to hire grads with different backgrounds and college degrees anyway. Nothing wrong with a business degree, but I believe that they want to mix it up, and want someone who is smart, capable, mature and dedicated.

  69. Jerry Vandesic*

    Choose something that taps into a passion that you have. Then select your college so that the cost of getting that degree can be paid for by the expected job that you can reasonably obtain following graduation.

    If you want to be a chemical engineer, go to the best college you can get into. If you want to study comparative religion, you probably should pick a state school unless you come from a wealthy family or are getting a lot of scholarships.

  70. Cucumber*

    Pick a solid degree, not just one that’s hot, but in a field that you like, if not love. If you have a passion for something that isn’t known for immediately paying the bills (e.g. liberal, performing, or fine arts; philosophy, etc.) get it as a minor or do a double major. It’s fantastic that you’re getting well-rounded at your school, but the employer’s market we’re living in doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.

    I graduated with an interdisciplinary arts degree, and I had a hell of a time explaining that to potential employers. After ten years or so, if you build a solid career, it won’t matter; but kids graduating today have a much harder time starting their career than Gen-Xers did, even though most of us graduated into a recession, too.

    Don’t pick a career just because it’s hot. It might not be hot when you finish. Or in five or ten years when a bottleneck causes you and the other “bandwagon” jumpers to compete for the scraps. Pick something that you like and can excel at.

    Don’t believe the guff about there not being enough STEM graduates, either, and that all you need is a hot degree in one of those fields. There’s a really great article in a recent IEEE Spectrum magazine that cites real data, is written by an engineer who crunched numbers (rather than a journalist who is rewriting a press release from a major Silicon Valley company).

    There are four things driving this: one, the greed of some companies who would prefer to import foreign workers cheaply on H1-B visas and dangle the spectre of deportation in their face. I have seen this happen with my own eyes, to one of my coworkers. Two, incredibly crappy hiring systems that look for perfect candidates that don’t exist, and automatically reject resumes and apps from people who don’t have the 7 years of HotNew Programming Language invented two years ago. Three, companies who are too cheap to pay for training, and think that because someone with a solid degree and background has never used HotNew Software, they can’t be taught it. Four, age discrimination.

  71. Not an IT Guy*

    Here’s my advice:

    -Never let your parents discourage you from following your dreams. If you do then you’ll eventually lose the ability to dream.
    -Don’t pick a school simply because it’s convenient or they offer you the most money. Go where you think you can get the most out of your experience.
    -NEVER pick a major just to suck up to the boss, thinking it will net you more responsibility. Trust me, it doesn’t work.

  72. Lora*

    The best advice I can give that hasn’t already been given: College is a LOT different from high school. Try everything, because you never know–something you hated might turn out to be pretty cool when it’s not being taught by Mr. Monotone or Ms. Disciplinarian. College professors, even TAs, are there because they are, by and large, enthusiastic about their fields and love it SO much.

    I was HORRIBLE at math in high school. Dreadful. The only math I really understood was geometry, and even then…meh. Did not like. In college, took a summer class to catch up (this was when I thought I wanted to be pre-med, I didn’t know I hated sick people yet), and it was taught by a wonderful woman who genuinely loved number theory and saw teaching as a mission to do good unto the innumerate masses. Calculus was taught by the head of the math department, who had Einstein hair and taught it with examples from physics. And a lightbulb went on in my head and all of a sudden I GOT IT. Once someone explained the original proofs to the algebra algorithms, and I could visualize the problems as they related to real life, it all made sense.

    Now I’m a scientist/engineer and I use multidimensional matrices and a lot of stats to create and validate various types of theoretical computer models. Go figure. The stuff I was actually good at in high school were all liberal and fine arts: foreign languages, literature, social studies, theater. I do some rockin’ presentations, so, I guess there’s that.

  73. Pepper Pot*

    In my experience, my choice of major (English) was nearly irrelevant to my career. I did go right from college to get my MA in Education, but I pretty quickly turned that into a career of more than a decade in corporate training. I taught software classes and soft skills, first full-time with an organization and then for several years on my own as a consultant. One of my clients eventually offered me a full-time job, not in training but in banking. I’ve been doing that for four years now, and while it is nothing I set out thinking I’d do, it was an opportunity to bring in my experience in a wider range of business and technology to my department, and it’s worked out better than I could have imagined.

    All that to say, while some careers do require a very specific degree to even get in the door, for me, on-the-job experience and networking were far more important to my current position than a degree. I think even today there are lots of jobs where “a” degree is often more important than any particular degree to a prospective employer, but that said, I’m strongly in favor of programs beginning in high school that let students job shadow, co-op, or in any other possible way get actual workplace experience before they dive in after 4 or more years in an academic bubble. I chose my degree out of frustration my sophomore year because I was running out of general ed classes to take, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and finally decided to go with what I liked: reading. I’m very happy with the way things have gone, but I think it would have benefited me to know more practical information about particular careers, even if just helped me eliminate them from my list.

  74. Ann Furthermore*

    Random thoughts, in no particular order:

    Don’t automatically disregard or discount anything. All through elementary, middle, and high school, I was truly the math poster-child. Struggled terrible with algebra, geometry, trig, and all the rest of it. I just couldn’t do math at all. I always did pretty well in English and History, so I always figured I’d major in one of those fields. Well, then I got to college, started taking the required classes for a liberal arts major, and was bored out of my mind and got terrible grades. I dropped out of school and started working. Registered with a temp agency that sent me to a company to do accounts payable work, and found that I had a knack for it. They hired me full-time, and then went back to school. And guess what? The mathematical halfwit ended up with a degree in Accounting! And it has served me well. I am now an IT geek that does implementations/support for Oracle Financials applications.

    Choose a field that will complement your strengths rather than something you’re already good at. When I started thinking about doing an MBA program I was going to choose the program with the Financial/Accounting emphasis. My brother, who has his PhD and works in academia, encouraged me to pick another area of emphasis, and told me, “You already know you’re good at the financial stuff! Pick something else.” So I chose the general MBA program and I’m glad I did. I was able to learn about things I’d never been exposed to during the course of my career, and I came out of the program with a better understanding for those things and much more well-rounded in general.

  75. Ruthan*

    WRT directing the directionless, I hear the RIASEC can be helpful:

    +1 on experience, not just for hireability purposes but because it sucks to spend 4 years on a degree and THEN figure out that you don’t like any of the jobs you can get with it (even more relevant when the job market is slim.)

    In general, I’d encourage every student to really think through what they want their life to be like after college. At 18 I’m not sure I could have done this even with assistance, but really considering what I wanted out of a career, my skills and abilities, and the likelihood of getting a job doing something I’d enjoy would have been super useful. I think there’s a strong tendency to (a) underestimate the competition/overestimate the availability of good jobs; (b) underestimate the importance of a good paycheck/overestimate how rewarding your “rewarding career” will really be in the long term, taking things like burnout rates into account and not assuming you are an exception to the statistics.

  76. Medesha*

    I did exactly what you wanted to do, Allison. When I returned to school at 32 everyone expected me to take English or Journalism or a related major because I’m an established writer. I decided, though, that since I was already a writer I should get a complementary degree. I graduated last year with a Bachelor of Commerce with a Management major.

    The courses were so helpful to my career. I know more about how to market myself, charge fairly for my work, and negotiate. I’ve become more of a professional writer than I was before.

    I took as many English electives as I could because I love reading and writing and talking about reading and writing, and I also took some unusual electives (project management, economics) to generally broaden my mind. Every course I took was useful in its own way. I’m glad I decided to go for an unexpected degree instead of the obvious one.

    My writing has never been enough to support my family and so I expected to get another retail job after I graduated but in a management/corporate role. I did, for about eight months, before a friend put me in touch with a local video game studio looking for writers. I was the perfect fit for the role and I showed them what I could do in my interview, but I also showed that I understood the business and how to generate profit for the company. The boss talked about project management needed at the company and I was able to talk about my courses and my eventual PMP certification that I received. That impressed him a lot. I got the job and now I’m a full time writer, something I never thought possible when I started my management degree.

    (And I also negotiated up from their initial offer. :D )

  77. Traveler*

    Instead of telling students to do what the love, find out what things they are good at. From the things they are good at, find the one that they enjoy, and has good income security. Follow that path.

  78. Mimmy*

    Love this topic! Oh man, you have no. idea. how much I wished I’d given more thought to my choice of studies, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. For my Bachelors, I chose Psychology. It seemed to be a popular major, and was the most interesting to me. I held off as long as I could to declare because I just wasn’t really sure. My school had (and I think still does, 20+ years later) a “graduate” track for those intending to continue to study psychology post-grad, and a “general” track for those going in other directions. However, most others in the latter track had a second major, usually education or business. Me? No…I just had the one major (plus a music minor–I was very passionate about music & singing back then). A couple other students warned me that this was not the best avenue–I completely poo-poo’ed their advice, but in hindsight, I really wish the department chair had advised me as such.

    Even with my MSW, I’ve talked here before about how I wished I’d really taken the time to understand the field, what the curriculum was going to be like, and what career paths were realistic for me given my disability. I honestly thought I was going to learn concrete skills, such as intakes or finding and connecting people with resources. Now I realize those skills are probably taught at the undergraduate level; graduate coursework is very focused on theories and clinical interventions. I loved it, don’t get me wrong, and I’ve met some great people, but I don’t think it quite fits with my interests and skills.

    TL;DR – In choosing a major, do your research!! Talk to other students and graduates and ask smart questions about whether a major will be worth your while and how it fits into your skills and current career goals. If you’re considering a specific profession, contact that profession’s member association for information; I think many even have student membership rates.

  79. Rebecca*

    It’s a tall order to ask an 18 year old to pick a career and I agree with some of the other comments that it generally works to pick a major that interests you and find your passions once you’re working. My advice would be to get as much volunteer/work experience as possible during school. That’s how I figured out I wanted to work in libraries!

    I took a wide array of classes in first-year and then chose the major that interested and challenged me the most, while also getting work experience. After graduating at 22, I felt more prepared to seriously reflect on what I wanted to do, and luckily, any subject background works for an MLIS!

    Sure, if I could go back in time, I would’ve taken policy classes during my library degree, but that’s also an area I can develop through my job.

    At some point, I would also really think about what kinds of things you want to do, subject areas aside. Do you like research? Are you good under pressure? Etc. Then look into careers based on those interests and skills.

    1. Anonsie*

      Agreed completely.

      And when you do take stock in yourself, believe it! I figured out what I wanted to do well before college, but I didn’t think it was a good idea and continued to try to balance that interest versus “safer, simpler, more responsible” options into adulthood. Then later I changed careers and went right back to the same dream I had as a kid, because it turns out I knew what I really needed.

  80. Erin*

    I went in knowing that I wanted to focus is mass communications but since I wasn’t 100% I went into school undecided and never got any good advising (since I was ‘undecided’ my advisor was just someone from the housing department). I switched after the 1st semester to advertising, then realized I liked public relations better, then realized I wanted to study film/television (it became my minor). I was lucky that all the things I wanted to study fell into the same/adjoining departments.

    I guess having to take very general classes at first also helps because you can weed out pretty quickly what you like and don’t like.

  81. BadPlanning*

    I majored in two disparate fields so no classes overlapped (one I really loved and one I enjoyed and had good job prospects). It was tricky to do both — but it gave me a good balance, I think. And reduced burnout for me. Oddly, the major I planned to get a career in was booming while in high school and half of college and then crashed my senior year. Several of my classmates in that major did not leave school with a job lined up when in the years previous they were snapping up people left and right.

    Both of my majors came from things I studied in high school — but they were pretty obvious to line up with majors.

    I had friends who did a “career” major and a language major (like biology and French, with a plan to go do med school) and I think that helped them out a lot too.

  82. LAI*

    I am a college academic adviser, so my job is basically to help students choose a major. I don’t think that there’s any one right way to do it – each student brings different values, priorities and constraints to the decision. So what I usually do is start a conversation with the student about what they are looking for in a major, what their interests and aptitudes are, what their goals are for after college, etc. Basically, I try to provide relevant information/context, and help them reflect on and clarify what is important to them in making the decision. But some students are going to have different values than what you think they “should”, and our job is still to help them make the best decision for themselves. What is the right decision for one student may not be the same for another student based on income-level, family support or cultural background, international status, etc.

    I do work in a liberal arts college, so none of our degree programs are designed to prepare students for any one career path; it’s usually the out-of-classroom experiences combined with the degree that prepares students for careers/graduate school. I’ve seen students who know they want to apply to medical school, so they are taking all of the science prerequisite courses while majoring in something they love, like Philosophy. What I advise AGAINST though, is picking a major just because you think it’s going to get you to a certain end-point but not really taking the time to research what that major is about. I see students all the time who want to major in business just because they want to work in A business, not realizing that most business classes focus on finance and accounting. Or students who think they want to be doctors and are so focused on that goal that they don’t stop to think about the fact that they don’t really like science classes very much.

    In my personal experience, I was a History major and I have never regretted that decision at all. Obviously I don’t use the content knowledge from my major classes on a day-to-day basis, but I got to study the subject I was passionate about and having a History degree has never held me back from any opportunities I wanted to pursue. And I do use the critical thinking, analysis and written communication skills that I gained from my major classes all the time.

  83. Chriama*

    The advice here is so personal. Some people say “pick anything, as long as you get a degree”. Some people say “pick anything as long as it’s not liberal arts”. Some people say “work experience and internships are what matter”. Some people say “see if it’s worth your while to even go to college”. Since the OP is going into academic advising rather than personally deciding on a major, this is my advice for helping your students:
    1) Ask them what they really want. Do they want to study something interesting? Do they want to start earning money asap? Do they have a specific career in mind? Once they have a context for making a decision, it can help narrow down their options.
    2) encourage them to take as many electives as they can. Electives are a great way of opening your idea to courses and fields of study you never thought about. Universities have Facebook groups and sub-reddits and forums where they can ask people about specific classes or for recommendations.
    3) depending on your specific school and their circumstances, major may or may not be important. If everyone’s degree is a B.S. or B.A., the specific major probably doesn’t matter as much as projects they’ve done (either in a specific class or personally undertaken), volunteering, etc. If they aren’t pursuing a professional designation that requires certain courses, the major is less important than credit requirements for graduating. In that case I would recommend choosing a major that has either:
    a) the fewest required courses, or
    b) the largest amount of required courses you would have taken anyway.
    4) extracurriculars matter. Not just for employment, but because there are a lot of things you won’t get a chance to do in class. Start a small business, or a social activist movement! University is a time for exploring, and those life experiences will grow you just as much as the degree.

  84. Levois*

    I have no regret about majoring in political science. Before I finally got a BA I also attended a community college and I should’ve taken some business classes although it likely would’ve affected what I’d have majored in before I transferred to a university. I didn’t entirely plan at all what I would do when I graduate, but sometimes I wish I had hit the ground running as far as jobs before I crossed that stage. Perhaps I’d be in a better position today.

    Also the classes I took were great, but as far as my political science curriculum I wished there were more “governing” classes. Perhaps classes that would translate into a job in the real world and not more or less academic courses.

  85. mel*

    Post-secondary education was designed only to enhance a person’s character/knowledge, not career. There’s no surprise why there is so much conflicting advice when trying to connect these two vastly separate things!

    Do what interests you.
    Forget what interests you.
    STEM is required!
    STEM is overrated.
    Be pressured into law school.
    Law school doesn’t pay.
    Trades are guaranteed!
    I did a trade, but I’m earning minimum wage (lots of industries are considered “trades”).

    I would be extremely surprised if the actual answer to all of this wasn’t simply “Luck and circumstance” at this point.

  86. Jayem Griffin*

    Do something you know you can do for four years. I’ve noticed this applies a lot to the hard sciences, but I know some humanities people who fell victim to it as well. Burnout sucks; know what you’re getting into. Probably the best way to do this is to talk to seniors or grad students about the expected commitments of the programs you’re looking at.

  87. Zillah*

    1) Get some exposure to a foreign language – by which I mean, take at least several semesters of it and try to keep up with it (even it’s just doing something like watching movies or reading books in that language). If you have one you’ve studied from HS and want to continue with it, great. If you don’t or would like to try something new, that’s great, too. But I think that learning a language can be super valuable, and it can definitely make you a more attractive employee.

    2) Try to get some practical experience in the field you think you want to go into. I’ve known people who wanted to be teachers who didn’t step foot in the classroom until they were three years into their program, only to find that they really didn’t want to teach after all. That sucks. There’s a limit to how much practical experience you can get, in many cases, but try to seek something out.

    3) Figure out how to market whatever you do major in. Even majors that people often look down on (e.g., English or Philosophy) can lead to a decent job if you develop a skill set independent from them and learn how to market what you do get from them. Part of my problem when I first graduated was that I was really, really bad at marketing myself. It’s no wonder no one wanted to hire me.

  88. CH*

    I am a big proponent of the double major if you can swing it–one for what you love and one for practicality. Son came to us when he was about 16 and said “I just want to focus on my music in college.” Three things: son was/is a very good, not Mozart-level musician, he did not want to teach, and he was/is exceptionally gifted in many academic areas. His dad said, “We support your love of music, but we won’t be supporting any starving artists–so it will be music and something else.” So he decided to major in music and computer science and now at 23 has been working as a software engineer for 2 years (graduated from college in 3 years) and makes enough to live well and pay for his own advanced music lessons.

    1. CH*

      I should mention though that since he knew he wanted this double major going in, it dropped some schools from his consideration quickly. Schools offering the bachelor of music degree don’t always allow time for an unrelated double major; similarly if computer science is housed in the engineering school, it may not work. So he chose a school that would allow him to do both majors (and he went into that school with many requirements already met through AP and community college classes taken in his last year of high school).

  89. Vicki*

    My story:

    I loved science as a kid; I took every possible science class in High School. I started College in a double major of Biochemistry and Computer Science.

    In my third year, I realized that
    a) the double major was going to take 5 years and I Did Not Want to spend 5 years getting a degree.
    b) Biochem was more Chem than Bio and once I got into my first “real” Biochem lab, I hated it

    I switched to Microbiology (which I enjoyed and would get me the degree in 4 years)

    But I didn’t want to be a lab bench Microbiologist.

    So I tried a Forensic Science program in Grad school (and realized that real F.S> isn’t at all like the movies and the books)

    So I entered a Microbiology grad school program (because I had the background to get in) and took more Cmp. Sci classes…

    met my spouse. Found a good advisor (after a failed first attempt). Got a good thesis project.

    Got out of school and found a job as a programmer.

    I’ve been a programmer, a QA lead, and a technical writer. I’ve been a scientific programmer at three pharmaceutical companies (that wouldn’t have been possible without the Micrb. degree). I’ve never worked in a science lab. I’ve worked at companies like Apple and Yahoo!

    Get a BS degree because many jobs want one. Take classes in a number of areas. If you want to do programming, take classes in biology and math and chemistry. If you want to write, take classes in science and engineering. Take psychology classes. Broaden your scope.

    Use College to determine what you like to do and what you don’t like to do. (I loved Science but hated lab work. I learned that Computer Science is wonderful but doesn’t really teach programming. Science papers teach technical writing better than English and Journ classes.)

    And then realize that within 5 years after College…or less… life will throw you a curve ball.

  90. A Jane*

    Choosing your major doesn’t mean you’re limited to the experiences recommended in your field. I was a science major with an interest in international politics and an administrative internship at the county office.

    I had no idea how those three things would impact my future career when I was doing it — I just knew I was getting work experience, cash, and drive outside of the day-to-day class experience.

  91. inigo montoya*

    I think that when choosing a major it is important to look at:
    1. The types of jobs that major will lead to.
    2. The type of living those jobs will provide.
    3. The credentialing/licensure requirements for those jobs.

    Most states have an agency that provide labor market information including trends in number of openings for 5-10 years, wages, and if the job will see future demand growth or decline. ONET online is sponsored by the US Dept of Labor and provides much of the info including links to many state LMI divisions.

    There would be a lot fewer unemployed typewriter repairman if they had done some labor market research before enrolling in typewriter repair school.

    1. C Average*

      I love this answer.

      I wish education in general provided young people with better information about all the peripherals around various occupations–the tasks and responsibilities that aren’t integral to the job, but that inevitably come with it.

      Writers don’t just write. Engineers don’t just build stuff. Architects don’t just design buildings. Teachers don’t just teach. All these jobs include learning programs; maintaining awareness of certain external realities (markets, trends, laws, requirements, etc.); dressing a certain way; maintaining certain credentials; dealing with certain other professionals in different roles from yours; negotiating hierarchies; and on and on.

      The focus of education on the core tasks related to any given profession give new grads the inaccurate idea that the other peripheral tasks are obstacles to the job or inconveniences. They’re not. They’re the job, too.

      1. inigo montoya*

        I think every college students first class should be a “this is what you have to look forward to as a ______________ major”.

        My daughter is an english/lit. major and wants to teach at the college level. I sat down with her and we looked at the educational requirements, the salary, and we even looked at some current job announcements for english professors to see what the requirements, duties and responsibilities would be. She looked at all of it and that was still what she wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to persuade her either way but I did want her to make an informed decision. College is a huge inve$tment much like buying a house. Who would buy a house without an appraisal and an inspection?

  92. Mike B.*

    I’d argue that one’s choice of a major is not usually as important as one’s academic performance, internships, side jobs, and (some) extracurricular activities. If you pack your college years full of experiences that prepare you for the real world AND still exceed expectations as a student, employers generally aren’t going to care much that you chose an arguably impractical major. If your performance is mediocre and you didn’t do much outside of class, your major isn’t going to be the reason you can’t find a job.

    Honestly, I think most people who end up working in a field related to their major (I have no data here, but I’m inclined to believe they’re a minority) have a strong idea going in that it’s what they want to do, either because they love it or because they see a career path that’s practical for them. People who have no idea what they want to do might as well follow their interests, because everything’s a gamble. Ask all those people who got “marketable” BAs in computer science, only to discover that lots of others had had the same idea, and the ones who actually enjoyed the subject were usually better at it.

  93. Astor*

    How should a student go about choosing a college major?

    I think an important part of choosing a college major that is often missed is to look at the courses that are required for that major. I know this seems obvious, but a lot of the time I see people saying something like “I loved first year biology, I should do biology” without looking at what courses they’d need to take to graduate and without realizing that they actually need to pick a couple of discipline streams and take specific courses. So it’s really important to actually look at the specific courses for that degree and to read the calendar summaries of all those courses. Not just the requirements, but the “choose one of” electives and their prerequisites. A lot of your students are going to have a much better idea once it starts getting into that level of detail.

    The second part is thinking about what you can do with that degree. Talk about some of the usual things that people do with that degree, and ensure that the student is realistic about what that degree won’t enable them to do (and whether they’d need an additional credential or a graduate degree).

    Some of this is going to be time consuming, but you should also have good resources already available to you from your school that you just have to put into a format that you’re comfortable working with. It’s about finding a way to break it down into understandable pieces.

  94. Academic Advisor*

    Welcome to the advising side of things! I am an Academic Advisor and there are a few things that I encourage students to do…

    1. Attend events on campus such as major fairs, exploration events held by depts., etc.

    2. If their schedule permits and it’s a course that might fit multiple requirements, I will encourage them to sign up for it.

    3. Learn more about career prospects in the major

    4. Get involved in research or internships

  95. LibrarianJ*

    I would first and foremost second those who’ve said how important it is to actually research possible careers with your major, because I went in with some pretty off-base assumptions about what I’d be able to do (if not how much I’d be making doing it), and that really threw me off track.

    I was one of those “do what you love” liberal arts students. I was 100% convinced I wanted to major in Classics. My teachers and friends tried to talk me out of it, but my parents were supportive, so I went ahead with it. I had no illusions that I’d ever make much money, and I was fine with that, but I was pretty naive about what I’d be able to do careerwise. High school teaching was obvious, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do that, but academia was an option and hey, there’s lots of ancient stuff in museums so I figured I could go into museum work or maybe be an archaeologist. Well around my junior year it became apparent that the academic job market was awful particularly in Classics, and that’s also when I found out that museums want Museum Studies or Art History majors usually and archaeologists usually major in Anthropology if not straight-up Archaeology. Big oops.

    The other big oops probably was lack of work experience. I didn’t put the effort in to find an internship; my college’s internship program was geared more towards students who wanted to go into careers like accounting or marketing or government, and I had a summer retail job I liked, so I didn’t bother trying to figure out what would make sense for me. Which was fine until I graduated and it turned out that, while I’m actually pretty good with MS Office and typing, I couldn’t get an admin job without office experience.

    What I don’t regret is choosing Classics for my major. It worked out really well for me in the end, because I loved it. I was lost at first after graduation, but after a career test suggested for the fourth time in my life that I should become a librarian, I ended up going the MLIS route, got an assistantship in part because of my unique Classics expertise, and went on to get a job as a college librarian where I get to work with the subjects I love and with great students. This is not the kind of job I could have aspired to at 18 because I was way too introverted to do as much teaching and presenting as I do, but it has worked out very well for me now.

    However, Classics was a calculated decision, and I guess that’s the final thing I’d say for students thinking about majors: I considered lots of different schools where I could have combine Classics with my other interests (mainly Computer Science) in different ways, I researched specific programs, I chose a program that gave me a full scholarship on the basis of my Classics major, and I had frank conversations with my parents about how we’d handle it if I didn’t get a job right away (and yes, I was fortunate enough to have their support, which I know isn’t a given). Most of my Classics major friends are gainfully employed, but I do have friends who accrued a lot of debt and had no career Plan B when they didn’t get grad school funding, so — I think it’s a decision that has to be made carefully.

  96. Golden Yeti*

    I said this the other day, and I think it bears repeating: don’t limit yourself only to what you think you’re good at. I majored in English because I was good at it. It never even crossed my mind to research something completely different and see if it sounded at all interesting or worthwhile. If I could go back, I would have tried to gain at least a cursory knowledge of every major offered–even if I thought I’d never pursue it. I would not have let my own fear of failing keep me from branching out into something new.

  97. Ali*

    I am way late here, but I picked my original major (communications/journalism) because I liked to write and I couldn’t handle any complicated math/science courses enough to take something like healthcare or engineering. I also thought something more general like English or history wouldn’t lead me to any kind of specific path, or at least not one that I could plan college preparing for. Of course, that proved to be a not-good decision when newspapers started struggling and I found out that everyone who is anyone thought they could write. I did end up finding a media job about two years after graduation, but I would like to leave that behind now since there’s just not a lot of jobs in it.

    If I had college to do again, I don’t think I would’ve picked this major. I would recommend now that students do something they’re good at, not necessarily something they’re “passionate” about. Because let’s face it, if you have no math or science aptitude and pick engineering, you’ll struggle in college anyway. I’d also look at what kind of classes you could take, what internships/work opportunities are available on campus (and/or off) and career prospects after you graduate.

  98. aebhel*

    Don’t get a BA in English. :P

    More seriously–go for what’s interesting and/or what would lead to a career path you actually want to do, not what would be easiest. I find chemistry a lot more interesting than early 20th century British literature, but since I can get A’s on the latter in my sleep, I got my degree in English. It worked out okay eventually, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a general path unless you plan to go into one of a few specific fields.

  99. summercamper*

    I don’t have a lot of advice on picking a major, but I’m stopping by to offer my gratitude to you, OP, for the work that you are preparing to do.

    I’m a first-generation college graduate. My parents had NO CLUE what I was doing in college or how it all fit together – and I didn’t have any other adults in my life who knew either. So I relied on my academic advisor to help me navigate the challenges of college. I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for her.

    Here are a couple of specific things she did to help me:

    1. “I am your ADVISOR. I give you advise, but the choice is yours.” – by repeating this phrase often, my advisor encouraged me to think critically about my college experience and take responsibility for my choices.

    2. Offered out-of-the-box solutions when I ran out of money. From taking correspondence courses from BYU (they’re dirt cheap!) to transferring out to a tuition-free school and then back to my original school, my advisor was supportive and helped me reach my end goal. Her primary interest was in helping ME, not in selling credit hours.

    3. Advocated for me with financial aid and different departments at the school. When I found a little-known sentence in the course catalog that would have allowed me to demonstrate mastery in a certain course area and forgo having to take a class, she went to bat for me to make it happen.

    Thanks to my advisor, I’m a proud college graduate with a promising career. I’m indebted to her kindness and wisdom. The work that people like you do makes a real difference in the lives of people like me – thank you!

  100. Mary (in PA)*

    Another English major here…I liked it so much, I earned two English degrees! Like many in this thread, I started with one thing and then switched to English. But while a lot of people can hear, “English major” and think only of the possible jobs of Novel Writer, Starving Poet, or Absent-Minded Professor, an English degree prepares you for a lot of different jobs. For example, we all know that software documentation is a necessary thing. I didn’t realize how necessary it was until my MA program, where there was a whole class on it. There is always a need for people who can understand complex information and communicate it, simply and succinctly, to those who don’t understand. This holds for many fields – healthcare, science, and technology among them. “Professional writing” covers so many things.

    I went back to my grad school as part of a professional seminar, and while I was there, one of the students asked, “I have a creative writing degree. How does that help me in my job search?” And I said, “Well, if you have a creative writing degree, that tells me that you are a skilled writer. You probably also like to read, and that you probably read a lot, on a lot of different topics. As a result, you’re able to look at something written and both interpret and analyze it; and when you’re done with that, and you’ve reached some kind of conclusion about what the thing means, you’ll probably be able to communicate that conclusion to me in a good way. And you may be able to write persuasively and skillfully in a way that considers the needs of your audience — which not everyone can do.”

  101. smilingswan*

    My dad was a blue collar union man. My mom worked part-time (once we were all in school full-time), at first cleaning houses, and then at an office. She never had a “career”. None of my relatives had “careers”; although they (mostly) did work, it was blue collar and entry-level white collar. By the time I graduated high school, none had gone to college, except one cousin who was studying to be a teacher. My parents were also loners, as was I. A result of that is I didn’t have anyone to emulate, and knew next to nothing about college and the working world. It was implied (by everyone, including school councilors) that a bachelor’s degree would guarantee me a good job, leading to a career.

    I went to college with the intention of majoring in photography, but my parents didn’t want me to declare a major until my Sophomore year. By the time I got ready to select my Sophomore classes, I discovered that I would, at that point, need 4 full years to complete that degree. My advisor encouraged me to try art history, because it involved the arts and also involved a lot of research and writing. She said it would be the equivalent of majoring in English, and I’d have no problem finding a job. I had a very vague idea of what kind of job I might end up in, but I knew it would be a good one. That’s what college is for, right?

    I graduated magna cum laude with a BA in art history, and a minor in anthropology. There were no jobs where I grew up (it’s very rural), so after working retail for several years, I relocated to a small city which was a financial boom-town at the time. I got a job at a health insurance customer care call center, which later closed. I moved on to a paper-pushing position at a durable medical equipment company, where I was again laid off. I worked briefly in HR for the census. Then I went back to school, this time with a career plan in view.

    I went to a well-known for-profit school and got a diploma in medical billing and coding. I obtained my CPC-A credentials. I have worked a few temp jobs since then, but am unable to find a job which doesn’t require at least two years experience for entry-level.

    If I could go back again, I’d major in something like accounting. I like numbers, and it pretty much guarantees a career-path which will always be in demand.

    TL;DR: Do not major in any liberal art. A BA is so useless I might has well have skipped getting it altogether.

    1. Anonsie*

      Not to disparage your point at all, because I partially agree, but I want to give a different perspective because I did start with your end advice here as a young college freshman, and I came out the other side thinking that’s a similarly dangerous mindset to the “follow your dreams” advice because not everyone is suited for it.

      I don’t think either of these are one size fits all. Some people will be happiest with security over everything else– my partner is one of those types. We both started in computer science but I had no personal interest in it and my passions were elsewhere so I left, whereas his lack of personal interest is a massive non-issue. He has a great work environment with great perks and that’s what he wants most of all. I wasn’t happy until I was working on projects that were personally compelling and interesting to me, even though the jobs themselves can have a lot of problems and the industry is neither comfy nor well funded.

      The one thing that I think really is universal, though, is that it’s dangerous to make placement soon after college your measure of overall success. My partner had a bad job first that paid poorly and had a terrible environment, and he was miserable thinking he’d made a mistake. It took me a few years to get a job in my field (and many months of unemployment) and I was so disappointed with myself that I hated everything. It wasn’t until recently that I heard the advice that we all should have gotten way before then, which is to treat all that as the steps and enjoy them as you can. Few people get to jump into anything they like right away, and it’s normal to struggle and have a long period of paying dues or whathaveyou. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong or made a mistake, and avoiding that initial period shouldn’t be your only motivation to pick a certain path.

  102. bearing*

    “Want to do” sounds like a good idea, but I admit it surprises me to see it stressed so much.

    This is an employment website. Allison is very adept at advising job applicants to sell themselves in their resumes and cover letters: to make the case that the applicant has something of value to offer a prospective employer. Except insofar as employers want employees who are excited and happy to do the work, the applicant is not trying to make the case that *the applicant* would enjoy having the job.

    I would say: Consider how you could spend the four+ years of college making yourself valuable to prospective employers. Find out what skill-sets and attributes prospective employers want, and look hard at yourself to consider which skill-sets and attributes you have or can develop. Eschew a major that will not develop skills and attributes that someone is actually looking to pay you for.

    This doesn’t ignore considerations of enjoyment of the work; “valuable” includes being able to come to work every day with energy and a good attitude.

    For many of us, work is the thing we tolerate doing so we can afford to do what we love in our leisure time (including, perhaps, creative writing or performance art or studying history). And that is perfectly fine.

  103. Anonsie*

    Unless what you want requires major academic training, major in something that’s interesting and fun to you and get your job training outside of that. For the most part, the major on your diploma isn’t going to get you a job by itself, it’s the specialized coursework or internships or jobs you have to get specific training that will end up on your resume.

    My college roommate majored in sculpture but also had a job in sales in college and stayed in sales after she graduated. A surgeon I know majored in classics and studied more Attic Greek than anything else, as a lot of student bound for medical school do.

  104. H. Rawr*

    Don’t entirely ignore aptitude in favor of interests. I got an insanely high mechanical reasoning score on a high school aptitude test. I was also not too bad at math, but my brain skews more toward the English/History side of things, so that’s where I focused. I ruled out half the options in the coursebook because “I’m not a math/science/outdoors person”, and I wish I would have given other options more thought.

    Also, while you’re in school, dabble! Go after those unpaid internships for one semester if you think it would give you valuable experience. If you’re getting work experience in something you realize isn’t for you, go somewhere else. Don’t wait! It’s a unique time where people only expect your commitment in months-long chunks, so use that to your advantage. I’m not doing anything related to either of my majors because of a trajectory a college job put me on, and it’s worked out pretty well :)

  105. holly*

    i wish there had been listings of types of jobs and what majors were required to get those jobs. i loved math, but could not think up what a person would do with a math degree (hahahahaha.) seriously, i couldn’t. other than teach math. also a person should def. focus on things they are interested in/good at. getting a math degree if you are really bad in that area probably isn’t the best idea.

    1. SherryD*

      I have a math degree, and even *I* don’t know what to do with it. Math is like the science version of philosophy — you study interesting ideas, but it’s not practical. I’d recommend studying computer science, engineering, physics, statistics or accounting if you want to do math-y things that could get you a job. I suppose there could be more options with an advanced degree, but certainly not with a Bachelor’s.

      Fun fact! In a purely academic sense, math is considered by many *not* to be part of the sciences, since mathematicians don’t use the scientific method (hypothesis, observation, methodology, blah blah blah).

  106. ChiTown Lurker*

    I think that you should do what you love but make a plan for how you will support yourself. Supplement it with something you can stand that will make you money. I am a huge advocate of double majors. For me, it was computer science and English. I love both subjects. I make my living as a programmer but the literature major has been a boon. The ability to read and comprehend complex, difficult material has simplified the learning process for everything I’ve done in my professional career. In addition, the writing I do about my work situation acts as a stress relief.

  107. Joey*

    1. Decide what is important to you, money, loving what you do, or some balance of the two.

    2. Look at the job forecast and more importantly the trends of the last few years of available jobs for the area(s) of the country you want to live in.

    3. Look at what the jobs advertisements require and determine how long it will take you to get to your goal, how much you’ll make, how happy that job will make you and decide if its worth it.

    Or you can look at education trends of successful people on linked in and copy them.

  108. Janis*

    What you’re interested in today you may not be interested in 20 years from now. I was an English major which prepared me for…well, the rest of my life. Knowing how to write well is always a good skill to have, but I had few illusions about making a living from it. It’s merely a stepping stone (and I sure stepped over a lot of stone in my journey).

    If I could go back in time I’d study like hell and get a degree in seismology. DREAM JOB. But I’d probably need a brain transplant before attempting the required math.

  109. HR Manager*

    Is the person concerned about picking a major in college, or is the question really ‘ how do I know what I want to be when I grow up so that I can align my education to suit that?’.

    For the former, I say follow your passion with a area that you want to go very deep into. Advanced study into topics that barely interest you will be tedious and painful. That’s what electives are for – to try out various subjects to broaden your horizon.

    For the latter, -as a recruiter, I didn’t always care about the major on the resume, unless it was a highly specialized position. I’ve hired techies with no computer science degree, and I’ve hired many savvy business reps without a degree in business. But no one could be a scientist in my pharma co without the right degree.

    Managing college life will teach a number of good skills, unrelated to the major (how to prioritize, meet multiple deadlines, research a problem to find a solution) that if taken seriously and mastered will drive success in a lot of fields. Every company I’ve worked for espouses the same thing – technical knowledge gets you in the door. It’s soft skills and other competencies that gets you promoted.

  110. JMegan*

    *Disclaimer – I’m in Canada, so my comments may not reflect the way the US (or other) system works.

    My advice would be to go as broad as possible at first, then specialize later on. My undergrad was a double major in English and French, then in grad school I studied library and information management. So now, 14 years after grad school, I realize I know a whole lot about how to manage information, but nothing at all about how to manage people, money, or projects in a business context. And thanks to my double major in undergrad, I didn’t have a lot of room for optional classes in my schedule. So I got to read Candide in both French and English, but I missed out on a lot of fun courses that I would have liked to take otherwise.

    The big thing I learned – after the fact – was that in undergrad, your marks are more important than your actual course of study. I would have gotten into grad school just as easily with a single major in either French or English and a whole slew of Basketweaving 101 courses, as long as my marks were good enough.

    Grad school is a bit different of course, and the course of study does matter in the context of what comes next. But still, I think if I had it to do over again, I would have done an MPA and found some way to specialize in information management, rather than going so deep into IM first.

    TL;DR – I would go for breadth first, then depth. Learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can. You have your whole career to specialize in something, but it’s really hard to go back and take the Sociology of Witchcraft just for fun, when you’re already out there in the working world.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Oh, man, I want to take Sociology of Witchcraft.

      I also wish somebody would give me a degree in All the Random Stuff I’ve Read Up On Since College.

      1. Felicia*

        I took the Philosophy of Love and Sex as a random elective which was so fascinating, and very popular.

  111. Wren*

    What the LW observes and you advise tracks perfectly with my own experience. I didn’t know myself well enough, didn’t know what jobs existed or what those jobs were really about. I was full of preconceived notions about “healthcare,” which is where I have ended up after a detour through engineering, and rejected it at the time even though a self directed assessment tool suggested healthcare.

    Anyway, I wish someone had challenged my assumtion that healthcare, or my narrow view of it, was really not for me.

    When I meet teens of a certain age these days, I encourage them to seek out information interviews, with the warning that it’s hard to know what it’s really like in a given field without talking to someone in it. I also reassure them that changing course at a later date is possible and even common, though student debt can be a major barrier. However, if you you at least pursued something you thought interested you, as opposed to, say, something based on family pressure, most likely it will still serve you in some way. I love my current career, but engineering definitely honed my way of thinking, and people regularly how I approach problems or explain concepts and say, “you’re an engineer, aren’t you?”

    Successfully changing careers has also taught me about my own resilience. It’s a small field, and opportunities in it may dry up at some point in my particular location. I’m opposed to moving for a bunch of personal reasons, but I feel like I can parlay my skills into something a little different if it comes to that.

    1. Wren*

      dropped the word “see” by mistake.

      “people regularly see how I approach problems or explain concepts and say, “you’re an engineer, aren’t you?””

  112. Julie M.*

    Recent college grad with a BA in TV/Film production (ugh) weighing in. Since graduating and hunting for full time jobs I have realized how little I actually know about hunting for jobs. I wish I had thought to do some hypothetical job hunting during my college career to get a feel for not only the local job market, but for what skills and experience companies were looking for. For example, many job postings within my industry are looking for Photoshop and graphic design experience. Had I realized how valuable those skills could be while I was still in school, I would have taken advantage of classes teaching the basics so I would have a solid base that I could include on my resume by the time I graduated. I obviously can’t speak for all industries, but I’m sure this could be helpful across many fields.

  113. Kate*

    All majors will have some courses that the student won’t like. So I chose based on what interests me so much that I would be able to endure the not-so-interesting classes and pass them.
    Because that’s how I am; I learn easier if something interests me and for reaching my goal, I am willing to endure some less than thrilling experience, if I can see how it helps me reach my goal.
    So first, know thyself, second, choose something that interests you – at least that’s what I’d tell those students.

    There was a time I regretted not chosing something more in-demand for a major, when I had a really hard time finding work after university, but… I probably wouldn’t have finished university, because the subject wouldn’t have been interesting for me. So, I am happy with what I chose, it wasn’t wasted time (and money!), even if I could rarely use it in my first job after uni. But now I’ll be able to in my second job! :)

  114. Annie*

    I was a Fine Arts: Theatre major… and I love it and honestly can defend that it helps me think creatively and also gives me a great handle on project/event management – I was only one of 7 in the department so we were given a LOT of responsibility (the joys and pains of being in a small department in a small school).
    Do I wish I had majored in something else? Never. Do I wish I had minored in business/history/something more accepted? Every day. I think doing that would have people taking my resume more seriously out of the gate- both right out of college and now that I’ve been unemployed.
    TL/DR: Major in what you love- minor in something more realistic.

  115. FD*

    Personally, if I were doing it again, I wouldn’t go to college–or at least not right away. I don’t feel it’s helped me. I was very, very lucky in that I got good enough scholarships, earned enough from my job, and had enough help from my parents so that I didn’t end up in debt.

    However, my career path now has basically nothing to do with my major, and experience counts over education in my field (and in many of them, I think).

    If I were advising my younger self, I’d tell her to focus on my job first, work on figuring out who I was, and then start taking classes based on what would actually be useful.

  116. Kathy*

    I’m currently an academic advisor at a university and this is one of the hardest parts of the job in my opinion. Helping 18/19 year olds decide what they’re going to do after college and how to get there is no easy task.

    There are many reasons a student chooses a specific major (good and bad). What they should do is think about their strengths/interests and how they can fit them into a career and the current job market. Then make sure they take the appropriate classes and get experience outside of the classroom related to that career. For example: a student who is a good writer will probably be better off focusing on learning how to write for the internet vs a novel. Then they better start actually writing and getting things published while in college.

    This of course is the ideal answer to what they should do. In reality students change majors a lot and go to college without a lot of focus or self awareness. Many of them would benefit from a trip to the Career Services Office if their school offers one.

    As far as my own experience, I don’t regret my major (Public Relations). I picked it because I enjoyed writing, interacting with people and managing projects so it seemed like a good fit and it was. What I do regret is not understanding the importance of getting experience outside of the classroom through internships, volunteering and becoming involved in my department’s student organizations.

  117. StateRegulator*

    In my regulatory role, I supervise licensing of several professions. Here are my suggestions that high school and college students should consider:

    1. Before you choose your college, make sure the specific professional program is accredited for that profession. This has nothing to do with the overall university’s accreditation. For example, if you want to be an engineer, you want to find a BS in engineering that is accredited by ABET. In some states, you could be disqualified for licensure if your degree isn’t accredited.

    2. Contact the licensing board for that profession in your state to find out what you will be required to do prior to licensure. For example, you will need to have the right degree type, specific types of training, internships or experience. You will need to take one or more exams at specific points in time. You will have to submit applications and fees. Much of this information will be online. Read the state board’s law, its rules and regulations, and any published policies that are specific to students. Keep informed about upcoming changes that could affect your future chances at licensure. Laws can be changed each year or two.

    3. Contact the national-level board that administers the testing and internship programs for the states, if applicable. For example, engineering students should contact NCEES. Architectural students can contact NCARB or your state’s AIA for info.

    4. If you are looking at a profession that requires a license, degree matters. The difficult thing is that different types of degrees mean different things to different states. There are several licensed professions that are typically licensed in multiple states. While the states may have one of these national umbrella groups, they can each have laws and rules that are not the same. Just because you can get licensed in one state does not guarantee you can get licensed in every state. While your home state may allow, for example, a “technology” degree and let you pursue licensure as a professional engineer, other states will not find that degree acceptable. Transferring courses from community colleges to an accredited college professional program is difficult. Check with the likely university to see if the CC courses will transfer in to that professional program.

    5. If you are going to pursue a licensed profession, keep exceptional records of your education, all work experience, and everyone you’ve worked with who knows your work and you personally. Many licensure applications ask for references and a complete work history.

    On a personal note, both my undergraduate degree and master’s are in policy. It was a lot of work and expensive even with the graduate teaching job. State jobs like mine are competitive and having the graduate degree made a difference in making me a top candidate. But, at this point in my career and considering my ability to move to senior management of a larger portion of the agency, an MBA would have been a better investment.

  118. jesicka309*

    As a media grad who got ito the field because they were ‘good at writing’ and ‘loved English’ as a subject at school, I have this advice for any writer students out there:


    Every man and his dog in those degrees goes in there with an aptitude for writing, and comes out with a greater aptitude for writing. And that’s it. It’s nice, but it’s not enough to get you a job.

    Do a business degree, or a science, or engineering, and save your writing passion for your electives and spare time. An engineer that can write a report or an analyst that can write coherent recommendations based on findings is worth their weight in gold, whereas an English major who can deconstruct poetry is worthless to most companies.

    Hence why I went back to school and got a business degree in marketing. I write every day (and bonus, I have other transferrable skills), and I didn’t have to enroll in a ‘writing’ degree to do that, which is a common mistake high schoolers make.

  119. Cassie*

    I majored in a “humanities” type arts/culture major, primarily because it was the closest thing to a dance major the university had at the time and because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My major would be somewhat useful for people in the arts (think museums or arts organizations) or maybe anthropologists. Not very practical (like most English or psychology majors).

    If I could go back and do it all over again, I’d pick a STEM major – the biggest problem is, though, that although I was good at math, I was not good at science. I find it interesting but also very intimidating – I would never have picked it as a major because it seemed so far beyond my abilities.

    In the real world, not everyone needs to have a degree in a STEM field – if you are doing administrative work, it may be helpful (e.g. problem-solving?), but it’s not crucial. I would just make sure that students understand that while they may enjoy majoring in classics or Latin or whatever, it may not be easy for them to get a job after graduation. I’d encourage them to work part-time or intern while in college – either as part of work-study, or during the summer, or whatever. That can definitely help in finding a job.

  120. Contessa*

    I’m a bit late to the game, but students definitely need to research the academic backgrounds of people who have the jobs they want and see what worked. I majored in political science because I enjoyed it, and I wanted to go to law school. If I had done my research properly, I would have learned that outside of specific markets, “intellectual property attorney” is a synonym for “patent attorney,” and if I actually wanted to be a copyright lawyer, I needed to get a degree in a hard science so I could be a mostly-patent-but-sometimes-copyright lawyer. I can’t even go in-house, because the local companies want some kind of subject matter experience.

    It’s ridiculous (the science degree is a requirement for the patent bar specifically, not to be a copyright or trademark lawyer, which you can do without a science degree in places like NYC, D.C., and L.A.), but that’s how it works in my current city. Had I known this, I would have majored in computer science or electrical engineering. Political science is useless–it qualifies you to do exactly nothing but teach political science.

  121. Matt Henderson*

    Career Counselor in higher ed here. I’m a big fan of this blog and love that this topic was brought up, because at the foundation of careers (and problems therein), lies the choice of major. In our office, we encourage students to gain a better sense of self awareness (interests, values, skills, personality, background, and more) and combine that with knowledge of their options. After discussing these areas and setting some goals, we then move forward to discussing decision making.

    Personally, I began my college career as an architecture major and had to spend a few months in studio to realize that I didn’t enjoy that area — it took all the fun out of drawing and design! I encourage students to test drive their major from day one through informational interviews, volunteer opps, PT jobs, internships, etc.

  122. Carin*

    I need to defend the liberal arts! DO major in English. I hate to disagree with Alison but she did do the right thing. A liberal arts field teaches you how to think. You need that as your basis. Then you can get an MBA. A liberal arts degree can be harder to work with for the first few years, but in the long rub it pays off. Look at the background of the Fortune 500 CEOs and you’ll see almost none of them have a BA in business. You can get all kinds of professional training after you finish your BA.

  123. kf*

    I say the students need to know what the best job options are for their choice of majors.
    I love math and was a math major in college before I realized that I did not want to be a teacher or an actuary.

  124. JaneM*

    I am thinking of switching careers after many years. I also happen to have a senior in high school who will be choosing a major soon. While looking at job postings on various employment sites, I realized I should have my son look at actual job descriptions to get an idea of what certain fields require and what the responsibilities come with said position.

  125. JCC*

    Don’t encourage students to ask themselves, “What do I want to learn?” Encourage them to ask themselves, “Who do I want to work for?” and then ask those companies what skills they need.

    A lot of skills companies want are useless to individuals, and a student would never choose them on their own. There’s no personal value in logistics or database maintenance, for instance, because individuals don’t deal with huge quantities of goods or data. No individual has ever attempted to Six Sigma their breakfast. Those types of skills will fall into the students’ blind-spot, and remain there unless steps are taken to prevent it.

  126. Bubba*

    I am urging my children to study a lot of different things and then major in the thing that turns them on the most. College kids should do what they love (unless what they love is drinking, sleeping, playing video games — in that case, perhaps a gap year or two!) I think we should all do what we love. As far as advice for you, I would just say that I’ve noticed some high school and college kids have no idea of the range of majors available. My nephew said, “Wait, film studies is a thing?!” And he was in college at the time.

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