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College Majors 101: Choosing the Right Degree

Once students decide they want to pursue higher education, the next question is which degree they'll sign up for. With hundreds of options available, it's no wonder that this decision leaves many prospective students feeling lost. However, by staying organized, doing some research, and focusing on certain key factors, choosing the right degree can be a much easier feat than you might expect.

What is a Major?

A major is the subject that a student is choosing to study and pursue an official degree in. Whether it's a computer science degree, nursing degree, or English degree, students graduating with a particular major demonstrate a certain level of mastery over that subject. The major you choose will affect not only the classes you take, but also the jobs you'll be able to pursue.

  • What is a Minor?

    Minors are secondary degrees that students earning a bachelor's can choose to pursue in addition to their major. As a secondary degree, minors require fewer subject classes to be earned. Some students pursue a minor simply to study another of their interests, while others earn one with the aim of improving their future career potential. These degrees are not mandatory.

How to Choose Your Major

If you ask the people around you how they chose the degrees they did, you'll likely get a huge variety of answers in return. Your major is a very personal choice, one that typically comes down to several different factors. If you're struggling to make a decision when it comes to your degree, consider the following:

1. Career Potential and Stability

As degrees are generally viewed as a starting place for professional growth, it's no surprise that one of the main concerns of prospective students is how a particular degree will benefit their future career. While there is no way to know what exactly will make you successful in the future, here are key points to research:

  • Pay: Look into what careers have the highest median incomes for your area, and then research what degrees they typically require. Consider the following high-paying examples: physician assistants have a median income of $104,860, dental hygienists have a median income of $74,070, and sonographers have a median income of $71,410 annually(1).
  • Current job openings: Besides pay, current job opening rates for each career you look at can be another indicator of potential success -- a better rate now can indicate greater stability in the field as a whole.
  • Growth projections: Choosing a career with a high rate of growth makes it more likely that your job will remain stable for the foreseeable future. Between 2019 and 2029, nurse practitioners have a 52 percent growth rate, information security analysts have a 31 percent growth rate, and mental health counselors have a 25 percent growth rate -- these are just a few examples of jobs with incredibly high growth projections(2).

2. Your Interests, Talents, and Values

Do you have particular goals that you want to achieve? Topics you're passionate about or subjects you're notably adept at learning? As much as earning potential matters, there are many professionals who end up burned out in their career fairly quickly, whether it's because of high demand or personal disinterest. Your own passion for a specific field can have a huge impact on your ability to thrive in it, so choosing a degree you actively want to pursue just makes sense. To figure out what that might be, consider:

  • Your hobbies: If you already have a major in mind that matches up to the interests and hobbies you currently hold, keep it as a serious consideration. Whether it's music, literature, languages, or animal science, your interest in a subject can be a huge motivator that may lead you to great success down the line.
  • Subjects you've done well at in the past: Talent can be a great indicator of future success, which is why we suggest looking at the subjects you've exceeded at before and considering whether they might be worth pursuing professionally.
  • Your goals and values: if you've always envisioned yourself in a career that allows you to interact with people directly and make a huge difference in the lives of others, maybe consider teaching or social work. Likewise, if you want to be instrumental in inventing new technology, perhaps engineering is a good idea. Choose a path that matches your personal ambitions so you can accomplish your goals and avoid professional burnout.

3. The Advice of Others and Firsthand Experience

If you're still unsure about what degree to go for, actively seeking out new perspectives can help. There's no shame in asking for input from others or in giving new experiences a try. Here are some avenues that may bring inspiration:

  • Ask friends and family: The people around you can probably offer helpful insight into both where they see you in the future and how their own careers have turned out. Their viewpoints may reinforce the ideas you've already had or they might shine a light on points you haven't even considered yet -- in either case, their perspectives can be invaluable.
  • Try internships and related jobs: If possible, applying for internships or jobs related to a field you're considering majoring in is a fantastic way to see firsthand if it might suit you. You'll be getting direct experience in the field and gaining networking opportunities that may prove useful in the future.
  • Research online: Checking in on what other people from around the country or world are opting for degree-wise can be extremely informative. Along with differing opinions, the internet has a plethora of information and perspectives that can go a long way in helping you decide.
  • Attend career fairs: Whether you're currently looking for a job or not, attending career fairs can give you a clear picture of what kinds of jobs are currently available, and what paths might be most beneficial to you.

Stuck Between Two? Try a Double Major or Switch Completely

For students interested in two majors, it's possible to pursue a double major, or two majors at once. Whether the two majors are in related fields or not, students must complete the full course load that each major requires, which does mean that this path will likely take more work and time than a single major would. Despite the added effort, this can be a good option for anyone unable to decide between two majors or anyone hoping to diversify their future career options.

If you've chosen a major but you're concerned it might not be right for you, don't worry -- in most cases, you can always change your major. While doing so later in your college career can mean needing to stay in school longer to complete all of the courses necessary for your new subject, changing your major can still be well worth it if you believe your new major will better suit your future. Keep in mind that there are some majors you may not be eligible for switching into, which is why it's important to be aware of your school's specific policies on the matter. In most cases, changing majors is easily possible and can be hugely beneficial to your happiness and success if you feel it's the right move to make.

Your Major Isn't Everything

As much as we've spoken about majors and degrees so far, it's important to know that this one decision won't necessarily shape the rest of your life or career. Many professionals are currently working in careers that hold no relevance to the degrees they once earned, and this is entirely possible for you. Once you graduate with your degree and begin working, you'll quickly find that networking, experience, hard work, interest and luck all play a huge role in the career you end up working in. Eventually, your college major may play little to no part in where you are in life, and that's why we recommend not stressing about this one decision too much -- choose a degree that you're interested in and see where life goes from there.

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