If you’re trying to choose between an academic major that you love and one that will help you get a good job, you’re not alone. This choice is one of the most common dilemmas that students face. There’s no clear-cut answer to the question of whether you should pursue something that fascinates you or something that will bring you a paycheck, but this article brings up several points that may help you during your academic soul-searching.
“What are you majoring in?”
If you’re a college student or are going to be one soon, this is probably the question you feel like you hear most often from friendly strangers and well-meaning older relatives. The question you hear second most often is its follow-up: “What are you going to do with that?” If you actually have an answer to that question while you’re still in college, count yourself as one of the lucky ones. If you’re like most students, you fumble for a reply, perhaps make something up, and later wonder, what am I going to do with this major?
For many students, choosing a major in college (not to mention defending your choice to others) can be a nerve-wracking prospect. It feels like you’re deciding your entire future at the age of 18 or 20. Your choice of major is not quite as life-altering as it seems few decisions are set in stone, and most courses of study lend themselves to a wider variety of jobs than you might realize. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the area of study you choose will have an hoped on your future, including how much money you’ll make. This can be a real sticking point for many students who feel their calling lies in one of the less profitable disciplines. They may also be feeling pressure — from themselves, their parents, or society at large — to pursue one of the fields of study that promises a good job and a big paycheck as a reward for a hard-earned degree.
If you’re one of the students who feels torn between a desire for financial security and a passion for something you find fascinating but that doesn’t pay well, know that there are no easy answers to this dilemma, and no academic advisor or online article can make the decision for you. There is no right answer to the question of whether you should pursue love or money. The path you choose to take will reflect your own ideas about the value of education and what you want most for your own future. Before you decide on a path, it might be helpful to first ponder several things.
What does education mean to you?
To get some insight into what major might be best for you, ask yourself why you’re going to college in the first place. Different people have different perspectives on what college is and what it should be. To some people, a college degree is a tool that you can use to pry open employers doors, a means of building a specialized drillset that is then applied toward a particular career. Given the astronomical cost of college tuition and fees, this is a practical standpoint. If you’re going to make such a substantial investment, you’d better make sure that what you get out of it is worth the money, time, and effort.
To other people, college is not so much a specialized instrument to unlock a particular career as it is a way to build an all-around drillset that can be applied in all areas of life. For them, higher education is, or should be, a way to become a better critical thinker and problem solver, as well as more informed about the world in general. These people tend to be less concerned about preparing themselves for a single career because their broad skill set and ability to learn allow them to adapt to any number of situations that may arise in the future.
Neither of these mentalities is better than the other. Both have their advantages and weaknesses. Those with a utilitarian mindset about college may miss out on opportunities to enrich their minds and become better thinkers in general; those who place more value on education for its own sake often pass over the specialized, practically oriented classes that open doors to lucrative careers. The point is not to glorify one or the other, but to consider which set of ideas you’re more aligned with. Figuring out what college means to you may shed some light on which major you’d be happiest with in the long term. If you want your degree to help you land a good job and maintain a comfortable lifestyle after you graduate, a major that’s practical and profitable might be a wise choice for you. If you’re more concerned with getting a well-rounded education, you certainly shouldn’t rule out practical majors but you might also find a lot of value in a less financially profitable field of study.
How much are you paying?
College can be incredibly expensive, especially if you’re attending a private school. The amount of student loan debt you will have to take on, unfortunately, probably will affect your choice of major. If you’re getting over your head in debt before you’ve even applied to any jobs, much less established yourself in a career, it only makes sense to learn skills that will give you a good chance at a career that will enable you to pay off your loans. An $80,000 degree in philosophy or English is a luxury that many students just don’t feel they can afford, no matter how much they love the subject.
How much debt are you incurring to go to college, and how does that alter the way you think about your current studies and your future career path? Bear in mind that it’s often possible to find cheaper ways to earn a degree. If you truly want to study anthropology, you can transfer to a state school, apply for scholarships or work your way through college. Whatever the case, don’t underestimate the impact that any student loan debt, even a lesser amount, will have on your future. You might be able to ignore your loans for now, but you won’t want a burden of debt hanging over your head for years after you’ve earned your degree.
What kind of fish do you want to be, and what kind of pond do you want to swim in?
Most majors that have a high earning potential are difficult. There’s no way around that. Engineering, the hard sciences, pre-med, and pre-law all involve a lot of specialized, technical knowledge that takes a lot of involvement and hard work to learn well. Students who are motivated solely by money, and who have little interest in these subjects for their own sake, often don’t thrive in these rigorous disciplines. While of course there are exceptions many students who chase a prestigious-sounding job primarily for the money end up doing poorly in their classes or dropping out.
If you have little interest in any of the fields of study that tend to lead to well-paying jobs, think long and hard before you commit to any of these majors. Consider the grades, internships level of class involvement, and letters of recommendation you’ll get out of studying something you love, and forming relationships with professionals in that field, compared to what you’ll get from studying a subject that doesn’t interest you much. It’s easier to be a standout student when you’re pursuing something you’re excited about, and if you are persistently excellent at what you do, chances are good that you will find employment in that field. There is always work for the best people in any discipline.
There’s also a good chance your college major won’t determine your future job at all. It’s common for people to end up with a job that’s unrelated or only tangentially related to their major, so unless you study something highly specialized, it’s likely that you’ll work outside of your field of study at some point. Many employers would rather hire an English major with stellar grades and exemplary recommendations than a business major who earned straight C’s and was uninvolved in the classroom. If you take on a practical major and then get a job that’s unrelated to what you studied, you might wonder why you forced yourself through a course of study you didn’t like.
How expensive are you?
Be honest with yourself here. What kind of standard of living do you need to be happy? Some people are perfectly content leading simpler lives, while others need some degree of luxury to feel satisfied. If you fall into the latter camp, you might be fine with the idea of taking a job just to pay the bills, even if it’s something you don’t particularly love doing. A well-paying job would enable you to lead the kind of life you want to live in your off hours. On the other hand, if you don’t need much in the way of material things to be happy, spending go hours a week or more at a job that gives you little personal fulfillment might be a drain on your happiness and energy. Having a modest standard of living often gives you more flexibility in choosing how you spend your time.
One last thing to bear in mind when you’re choosing your college major: you tend to enjoy doing things you’re good at. The best way to become good at something is by practicing and working at it — natural talent only plays a small part. So if you’re adventurous and interested in learning new things, don’t write off engineering or computer programming just because you don’t know much about them. If you’re a hard worker and like to learn, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds, you might build up proficiency in a practical subject and end up loving it.
Choosing your major is an important decision, but it probably isn’t going to make or break your entire future. The world is pretty forgiving on many different paths of study, and you’ll probably have opportunities to supplement your education later in life if you want to. Your future job might not even be in the same field as your major. Give serious consideration to your decision, but don’t stress about it too much. Put your energy into cultivating good relationships inside and outside the classroom and excelling in whatever you do choose to study.