What Should I Major In?

Understanding the Basics of Post-Secondary Education

~ 8 minute read

Making a decision that affects the next few years of your life, and likely your entire life in general, is never easy. There are so many options when considering post secondary education and choosing a career path, and the seemingly endless possibilities can be paralyzing.

Even basic college terminology — major, minor, concentration, and double major — can be confusing. Let’s clear up the basics. Decisions are easier when you understand the fundamentals.

Career Choice and Grades

Choosing a career

Before enrolling in any type of post secondary education, it’s good to have an idea of what sort of career, or field, you’d like to be in. If you happen to be one of the lucky few who already knows exactly what you want to do, you can look at job postings for that specific career and see what educational requirements potential employers are looking for. It might be a specific degree, or you may find that you have some freedom in what you can study.

What if you’re not clear on what you want to do? Start by asking yourself a few questions: What did I excel at in school? What do I lose track of time reading about? What do I like doing in my spare time? What do people tell me I’m good at? Write these things down. There will be clues in your answers that will point you in the right direction. You don’t need to know an exact answer, just a direction.

Also keep in mind the amount of education some careers require, and ask yourself if that’s something you are willing, or able, to do. For example, medical doctors require a substantial amount of study (eight to thirteen years), depending on their area of specialization.

If you are still struggling with choosing a direction, give our What Career is Right For Me? blog post a read. And if you are interested in discovering your top career and degree matches, take our career assessment here.

Are my grades good enough?

Getting into college has never been so competitive. While in high school, get any help you need to maintain good grades. Research careers you may be interested in, and shadow professionals in that particular field if possible. Participate in volunteering opportunities, research financial aid and scholarships, and practice the SAT if you’re planning on taking it.

The standards that colleges are looking for are very different from a decade or two ago, and can be overwhelming — especially when it comes to prestigious schools. Applying to nine or ten schools is the norm now. And if you have parents with high expectations, the process can be even more intimidating.

A prestigious school or academically demanding degree may be your dream, but if you don’t have perfect SAT/ACT scores, a 4.0 GPA, and leadership experience under your belt, you may have to look at alternatives. Going to a prestigious school is a great goal, but you have to ask yourself what your incentives are. Is it because they have the best program in your field of interest, or is it because you just want to say you went there?

Keep in mind that there are hundreds of excellent schools that offer what you want to pursue. Aim to go to a school where you can learn what you want and be happy learning it. Your happiness is more important than anything else.

Understanding College Terms

What is a major?

A major is the academic discipline you’ve chosen to pursue, or the focus of your degree. The words ‘major’, ‘major concentration’, and ‘program’ are often used interchangeably. Core courses have to be taken no matter what the chosen major is, such as math, science, history, etc., however, most of the courses will be determined by your chosen major.

You don’t have to declare your major right away — it can generally be decided on as late as the end of sophomore year (second year). It is possible to change majors as well; many students change their major at least once, and some even more than once.

By graduating with a degree in the major you have chosen, you will give graduate programs, or employers, a good idea of what your knowledge level is in a specific field, and what skills you bring to the table. You can take a look at various degrees right here on CareerExplorer.

What is a minor?

Every student going to university has to declare a major. However, unlike a major, it is not necessary to declare a minor.

A minor is a student’s preferred secondary academic discipline. There are a certain number of mandatory classes that have to be taken in order to earn enough credits for a minor. Usually, the required credits are much less than that of a major.

A minor can be related to the major and selected specifically based on career goals, or can be unrelated and based on personal interests. For example, if a student has many interests, they can minor in a completely different field, even though the two subjects don’t correlate with each other.

If you are interested in declaring a minor, it is advisable to speak with your college academic advisor. The advisor can help with class scheduling, so that the minor won’t interfere with getting your major’s requirements.

When choosing both a major and a minor, it’s important that you are interested in and motivated to learn both subjects. In the end, it is about your future and what career path you see yourself going on.

What is a concentration?

A concentration (or emphasis) is a narrower focus of study within your chosen major. For example, if you are majoring in political science, you can choose to pursue a concentration in public policy by taking a cluster of courses that focus on that subfield of study. Another example would be majoring in art with a concentration in photography.

Doing this can let potential employers know about your specific area of interest and skill set. It can also present you with opportunities if you are interested in pursuing higher education or if you want to explore new career choices that you may not have considered before.

What is a double major?

It used to be that having a degree was enough for employers to consider someone for employment. However, things have changed — the job market is competitive and students have to stand out from their peers.

Getting a double major (two college majors within one college degree) can be an effective way of competing in the job marketplace. It looks good on a resume and employers may take note of your strong work ethic. Additional positives are an increased level of learning, and more opportunities to meet people and make new connections.

The downside of doing a double major is that it’s a lot more work (more courses than a minor), it can make college more expensive, and you’ll have less time for extracurricular activities. It’s also good to keep in mind that a double major can delay graduation by a semester, a year, or even longer due to a heavier course load.

One of the best things to do if you are considering doing a double major is to talk to your academic advisor. They can help you with your schedule and keep you on track in completing both majors. There are even colleges that have major-matching programs.

College Alternatives

How many times have you heard “Get an education! If you want a good job, you need to go to school and get a college degree”. This statement is absolutely true if you want to become a lawyer, an accountant, or a doctor, for example.

However, for less specific career paths, it’s hard to ignore the high tuition costs associated with getting a degree — the cost of getting a degree outstrips both inflation and wage growth. Therefore, the return on your investment may not be the best, depending on what degree you graduate with. You may find yourself in a very competitive job market that pays less than $40,000 per year, while your student debt totals well over that amount.

Many careers don’t require a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. For example, US News and World Report looked at careers you can get with an associate degree that also had salaries above $50k and have skills that are in high demand. Some careers mentioned included dental hygienist, radiation therapist, and respiratory therapist.

Also, if you’re interested in skilled trades, which are often in high demand, a vocational school that offers technical and hands-on education might be an excellent option.

There are plenty of great-paying jobs that can be done with a certification or a vocational degree. For example, the BLS reports that the national average plumber’s salary is approximately $50,000, and master plumbers can earn well in excess of $85,000. An apprenticeship and certification is required, but no college degree.

Making a Final Decision

Making the decision to get a college degree, or to get an industry-specific certification, is a huge commitment, both in time and money. Think about what you’d like to do, be clear on your options and what it will take to get there, and what type of education is right for you.

We think a big part of career success is being able to connect, ask questions, and share our experiences with others.

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