CareerCollege & Education

Is My Major Stupid? 6 Questions to Ask When Choosing a College Degree

questions to ask when choosing a college majorIt’s that time of year again – high school graduates from across the country are eagerly anticipating life’s next adventure: College. It’s scary, overwhelming, and thrilling – all at once.

In addition to choosing a school (which has hopefully already been accomplished), a wide range of other decisions need to be made. Do I dump my high school sweetheart in hopes of finding someone better in college? Should I enjoy my summer with friends or work hard so I can buy a convertible? Who should I ask to be my roommate? What clothes should I buy to reinvent my personal brand?

SO MANY HARD QUESTIONS!

And of course, in addition to all of this other confusion, the ultimate question ominously lingers: What should I choose as my major?

It’s hard enough to decide what movie to watch on a Saturday night – how in the world are you supposed to choose a college degree that will shape the rest of your life?!

Hopefully, you already have an idea of what types of career paths you might enjoy. If not, a great place to start is by discovering what types of careers match your personality type. You can take a free, shortened version of the Myers-Briggs personality test on HumanMetrics.com – I would recommend this as a first step.

Once you have a solid idea of what types of degrees you may be interested in, it’s time to ask yourself the following questions. And I must be honest, my goal with these questions is to shatter your dreams and leave you back at square one – without a chosen academic field. Why? Because you’re better off realizing that you’ve made a mistake now than in four years with $100,000 of debt.

If, after asking yourself these questions, your desired college major still seems reasonable, by all means, pursue it! If not, you can leave hate mail in the comment section below and wisely choose another degree program.

And now, the moment of truth. Answer these questions to determine if your college degree is an intelligent choice or just plan-old stupid:

1. Does This Degree Actually Qualify Me for Anything?

unqualifiedYes, art and humanity lovers, I’m gunning for you. But I’m also questioning those Biology and Chemistry fanatics. In fact, a HUGE number of degrees don’t give you a tangible qualification, certification, or licensure required for a job.

When I say “does this degree qualify you for anything”, what I am essentially asking is, “is there an obvious job that you can get once you have this degree?”

I know people with degrees in English, Biology, and Business Management, who have worked minimum wage jobs at department stores and fast food restaurants – after college!

Why? Because an English degree doesn’t guarantee you a spot on the best-seller list; a Biology degree, without a teaching certification or MD to go with it, is nearly worthless; and a Management degree without any work experience barely qualifies you to manage your own time.

Meanwhile, friends with degrees in nursing, engineering, and accounting have found jobs well before finishing their last year of college.

I definitely don’t recommend choosing a degree you will hate because it’s easy to get a job. You will only succeed if you enjoy your work. However, I do recommend that you take some time to determine if this degree is actually needed for your dream job. Certifications and licenses are a good sign that a degree is required for a specific career.

2. What Can I Do With My Degree – Right After Graduation?

I completed a management undergraduate degree, and then went straight into an MBA. While I am glad that I got this schooling out of the way, I’ve discovered that no one is willing to make me the CEO of a Fortune 500 company yet! (Their mistake). Apparently I need “work experience” in addition to an MBA. Boy was I surprised!

It’s easy to look at the final goal of a career path and forget about the “next step” after receiving the degree.

Sure you might enjoy being a CEO. But first you will be an entry-level worker for a couple of years. Then, if you excel at that, you can look forward to a decade or two as a mid-level manager. Finally, if you do well in those positions, and put in long hours, being an executive may become a reality.

In a similar way, earning a Chemistry degree is a logical step towards becoming a medical doctor. However, what happens if, after four years of college you decide that medicine is not the career path for you? Now you’ve got a beautiful Chemistry degree. That’s great – but what can you do with it?

I believe that it is important to focus on “steps” more so than “goals”. Even if you know what your ultimate dream job is (which very few people do), what matters more is knowing what life’s next step is.

If you do work that you enjoy, you will inevitably move to the top. And even if you don’t, you will at least be enjoying life. However, if you choose a career in accounting because it seems to be the fastest route to becoming an executive (despite a distaste and disinterest in accounting), you will remain a mediocre performer – and no one will promote you to the top.

Therefore, think about what you can accomplish with a degree immediately after graduation. If there seems to be no good “next step” for you, then this degree is probably not where you want to spend your time.

3. Will I Enjoy What the MAJORITY of People Do with this Degree?

It always makes me laugh to walk into a university department and find the board with “career opportunities for _______ (our degree) graduates”. Many departments show the exact same careers!

Get a communication degree and you can become a CEO, writer, YouTube star, personal trainer, or Disney cast member.

Get an economics degree and you can become a CEO, writer, YouTube star, personal trainer, or Disney cast member.

Get a kinesiology degree and you can become a CEO, writer, YouTube star, personal trainer, or Disney cast member.

You get the idea. With a degree that doesn’t provide you with an obvious skill (see question 1), you can do anything – but that doesn’t mean that you can do anything. What this says more than anything is that this degree doesn’t actually have a clear career track – so you are responsible making up your own.

While some of us love the idea of having career flexibility, not having a clear “next step” for right after college means that you may end up stuck flipping burgers for a few years after graduation until you figure something out. And hopefully you figure something out eventually…

This is why I highly recommend discovering what the average graduate does after receiving this degree.   Yes, the occasional English graduate may become the lead editor for a book publishing company, but most seem to become teachers and librarians.

While you certainly can become the exception that becomes a YouTube star or Disney cast member, it’s important to recognize that the degree won’t guarantee you those roles – you will need to accomplish extracurricular activities to become fully qualified.

4. Can I Earn Enough to Support My Desired Lifestyle (and Pay Off My Student Debt)?

College was easy for meThis is a question that many people forget to ask until it’s way to late.

One of my friends dated a girl who wanted to become a music teacher. Unfortunately, after spending a year at an expensive music school she transferred into a “regular” college with $50,000 in debt! It turned out that being a stay at home wife and mom was more interesting to her than working. This girl was going to finish college with over $100k in debt and no desire to work. My buddy, who’s good at math, quickly decided that dating this girl further wasn’t a good idea for his own financial future. After all, paying off your own student loans is difficult enough. Who wants to be responsible for paying off someone elses?

Financial education is probably the most important skill not regularly taught in school. And sadly, many people neglect to think about their financial future when making big life decisions (such as choosing a college major or spouse). If you don’t want money to rule your life, NEVER become a slave to it in the first place.

Thus, think about the lifestyle you hope to live. Will your chosen major provide you with the financial stability to support that lifestyle?

5. Will I Enjoy the Academic Journey to Get the Degree?

If you’ve followed my journey at all, you know that I dropped out of a PhD program a while back. I love speaking and writing about business – and a PhD in management would have certainly given me that opportunity. However, I realized that I was not at all enjoying the experience. Yes, after four years I would be a doctor, but I wasn’t enjoying the journey at all.

Therefore, after much deliberation, I discovered that I could accomplish the same objective – teaching people about leadership and business – in other ways. Rather than earning a PhD, I could become a leader in the business world, write on this blog, and perhaps write a few books in the future.

Therefore, when making a decision to pursue a specific major – do something that you will enjoy. Life is too short to spend time doing something that zaps your energy.

If you are Christian remember what Christ stated, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” John 10:10. As Christians, we know that we have value regardless of what we accomplish. Our worth is being children of God. Ultimately, we will change the world, not by what we accomplish, but through our joy for life.

Don’t mistake “enjoyment” for “ease”. I am not saying that you should choose an easy major. But I am saying that you should never pursue something that will cost you time, money, or relationships that you don’t believe are worth losing.

And remember, you can always pursue additional degrees later on — such as a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law or a Fresno Pacific Business Management Degree online. Don’t feel trapped by your current limitations or need to get moving and try something out.

6. Can I Reach my Goal in Steps?

Now that I’ve ruined your dream of studying Chemistry to prepare for med school, or your interest in studying Communication to prepare for a career as an author, let me provide some insights on how you can make the most of university and still accomplish your dream career.

In order to make it into medical school, all you need is a college degree and 4 prerequisite courses. Therefore, why not complete a degree in nursing our accounting, in addition to the required courses? That way, if you decide that being a doctor is not for you, you will have a job to fall back on until you transition to something new. Additionally, if you do become a doctor, having an understanding of business, or the ability to relate to nurses, will give you a huge advantage in your career success.

If, on the other hand, you have an interest in writing techy novels, you really don’t need a college degree, you just need the ability to write well. Therefore, why not start with an associates degree in information systems? This will provide you with a thorough knowledge of your subject, and the ability to easily find a job in the field. Then, complete a bachelors degree in English or Journalism. Having this unique combination of skills and knowledge will make you a valuable employee and an insightful author.

My current career path is in healthcare management. Unfortunately, with an bachelors in Management, and an MBA, I have a bit of repetition in my education – and minimal work experience. I believe that the MBA is incredibly valuable – but it needs to be matched with experience.

Therefore, if I were to do my schooling over, I would have probably started with an associates degree to make me a physical therapy assistant. I would then work part time as a PTA for $20/hour while completing a bachelors in something I enjoy (like Journalism or Communication) – perhaps completing an internship in healthcare marketing. From here I would go ahead and complete my MBA – including a summer internship in hospital management. Thus, by the time I had finished my masters, I would have four years of work experience in healthcare, I would be in a much better financial position due to the $20/hour job, and I would have both a knowledge of writing (for my own interest) and a job to fall back on (as a PTA).

Ultimately, I believe that it is worth looking into creative paths to achieving your career goals that can 1) save you money, 2) provide you with additional options, and 3) give you a well-rounded education.

(Extra Credit). What Other Activities Will Prepare Me for My Dream Career?

scheduleEveryone loves extra credit! Although I may expand on this topic in a future post, I believe it is worthwhile to provide a few insights into extracurricular activities that may benefit your career just as much as a college degree. If you incorporate these three activities into your college experience, you will be miles ahead most graduates:

  1. Gain Work Experience: Through part-time jobs and summer internships, the more work experience you can gain in your desired field, the better off you will be. Not only will you learn about the industry, but you will make valuable contacts with people who may provide you with a job in the future.
  2. Network: It doesn’t matter how much you know, if you don’t know people, you will have a very hard time finding a job. People prefer to hire someone they know than someone who they have only seen on paper. Therefore, be seen as much as possible. Go to any conference, events, or career fairs you can find. Become a student of communication and discover how to build strong relationships with as many people as possible.
  3. Build an Online Brand (Start a Blog): One of the easiest ways you can set yourself apart from the competition is by starting a blog and writing about your industry. Not only do you learn about the industry while researching blog posts, but you also show that you are committed and passionate about your field. In addition to this website (where I write more as a hobby), I also write posts on leadership and healthcare at RobertErich.com – which I am building into my professional website.

It’s difficult to decide your career path at 18. It’s especially discouraging in today’s environment, where a college degree can still leave you unemployed – and in debt. However, with a bit of thought, you can choose a degree that will prepare you for your dream job, provide you with flexibility to change, and give you the lifestyle you desire.

What Are Your Thoughts?

My goal with this article is to help guide college students into their perfect career path. Whether you are a student, future student, graduate, or dropout, what additional advice would you include? Does this article seem reasonable, or am I way off?

Thanks for your input!

Photo credit: here, here, here, and here.

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Rob

Rob is enthusiastic about everything related to money and investing. A financial analyst and instructor, he enjoys using what he’s learned from 10 years of studying business and money to help others achieve financial stability. He founded Money Nomad in 2014!

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3 Comments

  1. I think these are great questions. I lucked into good answers to many of them, but I definitely could have taken a shortcut (no degree at all) had I been more of a creative thinker in high school.

    These are the exact questions that we asked when we decided for my husband to go back to school to get his PhD (Materials Science Engineering), and the questions that I will force all my kids to ask prior to entering college.

    1. We all learn as we stumble through life – and no path is necessarily better than another. But I agree with you Hannah, if you can ask yourself a few vital questions (and encourage your kids to do the same), you can save yourself a lot of time and money while pursuing your dream occupation. Thanks for commenting!

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