If you’re feeling a bit stuck as you think about what to study in college, here are 9 questions you can ask to help you make this important choice.
1. How much money will I need to be happy?
They say money can’t buy happiness, but that’s not exactly right. If you want to live a happy life, you need to have enough money to support yourself and do the things that bring you joy.
Different people have different financial needs in life. So to figure out how much you need, you’ll need to ask questions like:
What kind of home do I want to live in in the future?
What kind of place (city, rural, suburbs) do I want to live in?
Do I want to raise a family in the future?
How much do I want to travel as I grow older?
How important is it for me to have new material objects?
It can be hard to picture a life that feels so far away. But considering these questions should help you determine whether you’ll need a lot of expendable income in the future or if you can go after a degree that may not yield as big of paychecks.
One of the best ways to get a grip on how much you’ll need in the future is to build a budget. Even if your parents are covering some of your expenses, it’s a good idea to figure out how much you’re likely to spend month to month when you’re on your own and how much you’ll need in income to cover that.
As you get a better picture of your current financial situation, try forecasting it into the future. You should anticipate that things will be more expensive than you project—that’s a better method than underestimating and coming up short later on.
Once you have a rough figure of how much you’ll need, research the average salaries for the different majors.
2. How long do I want to be in school?
As a freshman in college, I was so thrilled to be there—I couldn’t wait to go to class, meet new people, and live the campus life.
Flash-forward to my senior year, and I was happily living off campus, dreaded going in for class, and couldn’t wait to graduate.
I have other friends, however, who loved school so much that they became career academics. And still, other friends dropped out or graduated early to get it over with faster.
Where do you fit on this spectrum? It’s impossible to know for sure but consider how long you may want to be in the academic world.
Do you want it over and done with so you can graduate and get a job? Then go for a major you can finish in two to four years.
If you enjoy time in the classroom, you may want to choose a path that requires a postgraduate degree.
If you aren’t sure how long your degree will take, a quick Google search should give you some good metrics. Try something like “Average time it takes to earn a degree in ________.”
3. How comfortable am I paying loans for an extended time?
Average debt for students with a bachelor’s degree: $34,800
Average debt for students with a graduate degree: $90,170
Those numbers may be hard to grasp, especially if you’ve lived debt-free most of your life. Think of it this way. If it wasn’t spent on loans, $34,800 could buy you a new Macbook every year for nearly 30 years. For the average debt from a graduate degree, you could buy two Teslas.
I took out a significant amount in loans for college—just about midway between those two averages above.
I’m now 36 and have one more year of paying my loans. I’ve been giving about $500 a month since I graduated in 2008. I often think about what I could have done with that money. Would I already own a home? Would I have more set aside for retirement?
How I wish I could go back in time and stop myself from taking out all those loans. But, alas, I didn’t think it through. So I encourage you to follow these steps before you make a decision:
Research the average cost of your degree at a few different institutions you’re considering.
Reach out to the financial aid offices at the schools you’re applying to, and inquire about grants and scholarships that could reduce that cost.
Figure out how much you will need to take out in loans to cover the cost.
Take a look at your projected budget (see the first question in this article) and see how big of an impact regular loan payments would have on your ability to live the life you want.
An expensive degree that requires you to take out loans doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow your dream career path. But it may mean you need to work during college, and you’ll need to be ok with making regular payments once you’ve graduated.
4. How likely am I to get a job in this field after I graduate?
If you’re going to dedicate time and money to studying something, then make sure you’ll get a good return on that investment.
In other words, you need to be certain that your degree will open up post-grad job opportunities for you. And it’s a hard but simple truth that some degrees will have more career prospects than others.
You may want to study something for pure pleasure or personal growth rather than future financial gain. That’s fine, but it wouldn’t be wise if you’ll graduate with a big pile of loans and few job prospects.
Remember, there are ways to pursue your passions that don’t require going to college and racking up debt. Private classes, self-taught courses, and mentorships are all viable options for learning new skills and growing your knowledge without putting yourself into debt.
5. Is this major likely to be relevant for a long time?
It’s impossible to predict the future, but I’m going to ask you to try. Because when answering the question, “What should I major in?” you need to consider how valuable your degree will be in the years to come.
There was a time when “Library Sciences” was a relatively popular college major. Now, very few schools offer this because we don’t need as many librarians as we did before the internet and smartphones. (Don’t get me wrong, librarians are still vital and wonderful! But the degree isn’t as useful as it once was.)
As you’re deciding what to study in college, think about the future of your chosen career path. Is it likely to still be needed as much in ten or 15 years as it is now? Or is there a chance it will be less relevant as technology and trends change?
You can’t know for sure what will happen in the future, but considering this question could help you rule out some of the less practical degrees from your list.
6. What options will this major give me in the future?
There are certain college degrees that will lock you into a very strict career path; others allow for more flexibility.
For example, a neuroscience degree will pretty much guarantee that you’ll be working in a hospital or laboratory, working with the human brain in some capacity.
On the other hand, a degree in sociology could lead to a job working in the government, in the non-profit sector, as a professor…
If you’re certain about the job you want in the future, then fewer job options after graduation may be fine. But if you’re more on the fence, opt for a major that provides more flexibility once you graduate.
7. Will working in this field allow me to live the life I want?
The first question in this list asked you to consider how much money you’ll need to live the life you want. Now, consider everything else but money. What else do you need out of your future career to live the life you want?
For example, if your ideal life means spending a lot of time outside in nature, a career that requires you to live in a bustling city may not be the best choice.
If you want a life that involves lots of travel and exploration, a career that means you’ll be stuck at a desk with minimal vacation time might not be the right choice.
Take money out of the picture, and think about how different majors will impact your quality of life. This can help you choose a college major that will bring you happiness in the long term.
8. What do the wise people in my life have to say about it?
If you’ve made it this far in this article and still aren’t sure what to major in, then it’s time to seek counsel from other people in your life.
First, consider whether you know anyone who has pursued a similar career path or major. If not, you may be able to find someone who has experience by speaking with the alumni association of the schools you’re considering. Or, you can look online for articles or social posts from people who have the same degree you’re interested in.
You can also ask your friends, family, and mentors for their input on your options. You may find they bring unique perspectives you haven’t considered.
But remember that this choice is ultimately yours alone to make. You can consider others’ thoughts and opinions, but you’ll still want to go with your gut on this decision (after doing all your research, of course).
9. What alternatives do I have if this doesn’t work out?
I hope the questions above have helped you get a bit closer to deciding what major to choose. But even if you’ve landed on the best option for you based on your research, it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan in case things don’t go as expected.
There are plenty of alternatives to college if you aren’t able to land on a major now; apprenticeships and online courses can help you earn skills that you can apply to a college degree later. Or you may end up skipping the whole college thing and carving a different path for yourself.
The choice is yours. And while that may feel overwhelming, you’re doing the right thing by asking questions before you make your final decision.