BY ALEX HASLAM
Whether you’re new to college or struggling with the decision in your junior year, the process of choosing a major is one that everyone wrestles with. Most people are unsure about what they want to do for a living when they’re at the beginning of their careers. But choosing a major doesn’t have to feel like the “wrong” decision will doom you to a life of poverty or unhappiness—even if family, friends, or mentors are pushing you toward the path they think is best.
Your interests, your preferred location, your financial goals, and your desired lifestyle can all help you decide what to study. And no matter what major you choose, the process of learning new skills and forming new areas of expertise will stick with you, giving you the flexibility to shift your focus as you move forward in your career. Here are some tips and considerations to help you make a the right decision for you and find your path to success.
Step 1: Stay Open-Minded
When you’re first choosing a major, it’s important to stay open-minded. Many people start their college journey with a hasty decision, often based on careers with higher pay. That may partially account for why studies have shown that 33% of students seeking a bachelor’s degree ended up switching majors.
In the early stages of your college career, it’s important to keep your options open. Most colleges have an “exploratory” track that lets you try out courses from different majors. By experiencing more courses, you can eliminate majors that aren’t a good fit for your interests.
Step 2: Ask Questions
It’s hard to get an accurate picture of a career path without experience. Talking with people in a given field can yield valuable insight into aspects of that career that aren’t obvious from the outside.
Ask your professors and your peers about their interest in their chosen subject and see if their reasons for focusing on that field match your own aspirations, interests, values, and life goals. Talking with people that you admire can give you some insight into how you might replicate their career decisions in your own life.
Step 3: Consider Your Financial Goals
If you’re like most people, you’ll be taking on debt while you’re in college. Your financial ambitions don’t have to dictate every aspect of your choice of major, but it’s important to be realistic. Choosing a major that matches your lifestyle ambitions and your expected debt can make it easier to achieve your long-term goals once you graduate.
Some majors lend themselves to careers with financial freedom, while others may be a little more challenging. Feelings of personal fulfillment might outweigh the draw of a high salary, depending on the work you develop a passion for. In other words, deciding on a major should include some consideration of salary, but it isn’t the only factor that matters.
Step 4: Focus on Your Interests
Passions take time to develop. An interest is a better lead to follow when choosing your major, according to Nathan Gebhard, coauthor of Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do With Your Life. “There’s no epiphany; it’s a collection of small decisions that move you step by tiny step,” says Gebhard.
Pursuing a major to appease a family member or reach a certain salary goal won’t give you the drive and motivation to thrive. It takes curiosity, interest, and a personal connection to keep you engaged enough to succeed. If you want to find the career you’re truly passionate about, start with your interests and let them grow naturally over time.
Step 5: (Possibly) Change Your Mind
Ask almost anyone—the place most people end up is far different from where they started. Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of Youtube, holds majors in history, literature, business, and economics. Choosing a major that doesn’t match your eventual career isn’t time wasted; the collection of your experiences makes you unique, and every meander in the path you take adds another aspect to your life that forms your identity.
The Final Decision
No matter what major you settle on, the course of your life will be determined by the things you create, the people you influence, and the contributions you make to the world. Follow these steps, and you’ll be ready to choose a major and start down the path toward the career you want.
Alex Haslam graduated from the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah in 2017. Today she is a freelance writer who focuses on consumer technology, entertainment, and higher education.