What Should I Major In?

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One of the biggest questions faced by many high school students this time of year concerns what they should take up as an academic major.  The answer to this question affects not only what college they choose and what their experience will be like, but also what the rest of their careers will look like.

Academic Development: Past and Present

For most of human history, it really didn’t matter much what people studied at college.  College itself is a relatively new institution; the first universities were founded during the Renaissance.  At first, relatively few people were able to attend these institutions; the student body mostly consisted of the sons of noblemen and a few members of the merchant class who aspired to something higher.

Back then, it really didn’t matter much what students studied at university.  The few who were there to learn the skills for a profession often just needed to show that they had completed some coursework in order to become an apprentice or a disciple to an older man in their chosen profession.  The question of “what should I major in?” was not even there at all; they were more concerned with whether or not they should go to college at all.

As this system faded away, universities became a place where students needed to learn the skills they would need for their chosen career. After World War II, a new wave of students entered the university system via the GI Bill.  Most believed that a college education would be the ticket to an upper middle class lifestyle.  Nonetheless, with less than ten percent of the American population attending college, many students took a year or two to decide on a major, and few worried about picking the wrong one.  Often, simply having a college degree of any type was enough to get a good career.

In the past few decades, however, a huge push for education has resulted in record numbers of people going to college.  This has given employers a much larger pool of applicants for entry-level jobs, allowing them to be pickier about who they select.  Now, it seems that most companies are looking for applicants with the right set of skills for the job; ideal candidates should come in and be familiar with the company and job requirements.

Selecting A Major Early On

The increased cost of college means that few students have the time or money to spend several years taking classes before deciding on a major.  In fact, many colleges and universities require students to declare a major on their applications, forcing many of them to ask themselves what their major should be while they’re still in high school.  While it’s not surprising that many students don’t know what to declare, it’s also important that they take this decision seriously.

When trying to decide what a person should major in, one of the first questions they are asked is, “What do you like to do?”  The intent is that by identifying a favorite hobby or school subject, it will be possible to pick out a similar major.  A woman who likes chemistry should major in chemical engineering, or a man who likes playing the guitar should major in music theory.

How to Select Your Major Wisely

One of the worst pieces of advice given to students is, “figure out what you love”.  The truth is that very few people know what they want to do for the rest of their lives when they pick out a college.  Even people who think they’ll stick with a particular subject or career field for the next 50 years of their lives often discover that their interests change.  Instead of fruitlessly searching for the one thing that will make you happy over the next five or six decades, pick something that will make you happy for the next several years.  Don’t try to predict what the 55 year old version of yourself will want to do, because odds are you’ll be wrong.  Instead, focus on making a smart, well-reasoned decision for the next five to ten years of your life.  After that, if your interests change, you’ll be in a better position to change or choose a new career or life path.

While this is a good place to start, the truth is that answering this question should not be the end of a person’s quest to find a major.  Instead, answer the following questions.

What do I hate?

If there is a field that you absolutely can’t stand, you won’t do well when you have to devote your life to it.  Even if it’s a field that offers great pay and benefits, if you hate going to work, you’re going to hate your life.

What am I good at?

Start by thinking about the subjects that you find easy at school.  You might also want to consider your hobbies, but have an honest discussion with your teachers about whether you really show talent in these areas.  Majoring in art, music, or sports can be very difficult if you don’t have enough talent to actually work int he field.

What kind of job do I want?

Really take time to think about this question.  Even if you really like a subject, you might not like the type of jobs it’s associated with.  For example, if you want to work outdoors but you love math, an Accounting major might not be a great choice.  While you’ll make good money and have good job prospects, you’ll probably get tired of working inside.  Instead, consider fields such as Environmental Engineering or Forest Management.

If I didn’t have to make money, what would I do with my life?

Odds are you do have to make money, but this question can help you to think of options that you otherwise wouldn’t consider.

Take the time to research what skills are really valued in the profession that you’re interested in.  Many people make the mistake of assuming that all jobs with a creative focus will require a liberal arts degree of some type, while all jobs that are focused on math and science will require a degree related to those fields.  The truth is that there is a lot of overlap.  For example, a person who wants to work in the fashion industry might do well to major in Business or Accounting because this industry needs a lot of people who are capable of estimating the cost of manufacturing clothing.

What Makes Money?

After narrowing down your choices to things that you could really see yourself studying and working in, it’s time to start thinking practically about your future.  College is one of the most expensive investments in your future that you’ll ever make, and chances are that you might have to take out student loans to pay for it.  While your passion might be straw crafting, you need to think about how you will pay back your loans and support yourself.

Recently, there has been a lot of focus on encouraging STEM majors.  It seems that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of promoting fields such as Engineering while disparaging fields in the Liberal Arts.  While it is true that STEM graduates will make more money over their careers than most Liberal Arts majors, it’s important to realize that these averages don’t hold true for everyone.

Another important point to consider is the availability of jobs in a particular field.  For example, the recent oil boom has created a great demand for Energy and Petroleum Engineering majors.  The gaining baby boomer population has created a huge demand for Nursing majors.  On the other hand, fields such as Library Science and History are shrinking, making it harder for students with these majors to find jobs.

Instead of trying to predict where the demand for a particular field will be in four or more years, look for a major that has a broad range of job possibilities.  A person with a degree in Recreational Management could work for a community center, local government, or professional sports team.  A degree in Sport Team Management, however, really could only apply to work for professional sports teams.

The most important thing to remember when picking a major is that you really aren’t choosing the rest of your life.  Plenty of people use their major to get their first job, then take steps to change their career field.  Choose something that will make you happy and that will help you pay back those student loans.

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