How to Pick a Major
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Below are some time tips on how to pick the best major for you.
The Most Important Thing
The most important thing is deciding on your own priorities and goals. Too much of the advice out there on how to pick a major assumes you have particular goals or tells you what your priorities should be. Even your own parents may be focused on particular priorities and goals that don't match up with yours. Family conflict around major choices is a common issue. This may be particularly tough for you if your parents are paying for part (or all) of your education.
It is reasonable to listen to your parents' concerns and advice. However, it's important to remember that it's ultimately your major. You will have to do the work and ultimately leverage that major as you transition into the workforce. If you are studying something you are not really interested in, you may not be very motivated to succeed (or maybe even to attend class). So you need to ask, "Which major is right for me?"
To be able to choose a major, you first have to decide what you want out of a college education. For some people, knowing they will almost always be able to find a job throughout their lives is most important. For others, pursuing intellectual interest drives them. Most people are motivated by some combination of factors that they weigh. These factors will guide you towards the answer to the question "What college major is right for me?"
Here are some factors you will probably want to consider when you go about choosing a major:
#1: Your Interests
Your interests are a crucial part of picking a major. Obviously, you won’t be happy studying something that doesn’t interest you. It leads to decreased motivation and works ethic. So it is essential that you like what you are studying. As part of that, you should be able to envision yourself using at least some of the skills you are learning in your major in the workforce.
With that said, people place different premiums on how interested they need to be in their major. For some people, only studying their one true passion—be it Greek and Roman military history or tropical horticulture—will do. However, most people have a range of different interests without a single consuming passion. So your interests will likely guide you in choosing a major, but they may not be a deciding factor.
#2: Your Abilities
You should also consider what you're good at when you think about how to choose your major. This doesn't mean that you should definitely major in whatever you are best at in high school. For one thing, you’ll probably find talents you never knew you had with all the new opportunities college brings. For another thing, the thing that you're "best" at is not necessarily what aligns best with all your other priorities and goals. The main principle here is that it's probably not a great idea to major in something that you know you are pretty weak in. If you were a C student in math all throughout high school, being a math major (or a similarly math-heavy major like engineering or physics) is probably not the move. The bottom line is that you should be confident that you will be able to do well in most of your coursework in your area of study.
#3: Future Employability
When figuring out a major, you should always take into account what kind of jobs will come after it. Will you be able to find a job? How hard will it be? Will you have to move to where the jobs are or are there jobs everywhere? There are a few ways to approach these questions. You can research professions facing shortages to get an idea of where you would likely be able to find employment. Professions facing shortages include nursing, engineering, computer science, accounting and finance, and teaching.
In addition to looking at shortages, you can look at growth industries. (Of course, there's overlap here; if there aren't enough skilled workers available to fill these growth industries, there will be a shortage! But it's a slightly different angle). Some industries currently experiencing growth include nursing, finance, and data science. Within those groups, there are loads of jobs available, and a variety of potential majors could lead you into those areas.
In some cases, a major doesn’t necessarily directly lead to a certain job. For some majors, it's pretty clear what sort of jobs the degree will bring about. A degree in teaching will lead to teaching, a degree in nursing to nursing, and so on. For others, it's less clear. A degree in communications or sociology or public policy could lead to a number of jobs. You shouldn't really think about what job title you might find, as those are ever-changing. Think about the skills you will learn in your major, and how much those skills are in demand. For example, as data becomes pervasive in the economy, skills related to data and data analysis are extremely useful. This includes skills in statistical analysis and database construction and architecture. Majors in statistics and computer science are solid choices if you are hoping to meet that demand.
Also, remember that employability and salary aren't one and the same. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, but if you do become a teacher, it’s fairly easy to find a job.
#4: Future Income Potential
Another factor in choosing a major will probably be future income. This is far from an exact science but still a useful exercise. If making money important to you, you need to be realistic about your interests; professions like teaching and social work typically pay very poorly, so you could count them out. By contrast, majors like computer science and engineering tend to have a bright salary outlook.
You can find lots of data on the median salary of graduates with particular majors. This is a valuable starting place. As you can see from the PayScale data, engineering, computer science, mathematics and finance-focused degrees dominate the list of best-paying majors. But it also includes physician assistant studies and government. The lowest-paid majors tend to be concentrated in education, service industries, pastoral and religious studies, as well as social work and counseling.
#5: Particular Career Interests
You might also have a very specific goal, like becoming an astrophysicist, doctor, or lawyer. Some (but not all) very specific career goals require specific majors, or at least specific courses and activities. For example, if you want to be an engineer, you have to get an engineering degree. If you want to be a doctor, you need to fulfill your med school prerequisites, or else you might have to complete an expensive post-baccalaureate pre-med program later. On the other hand, if you want to be a journalist, there are lots of majors that you can choose from. And if you think you might want to go to business or law school, you have plenty of leeway in your choice of undergraduate major. If you have a specific goal you want to pursue, then you should take that into account and see whether you need a specific major.