What To Do When Your Major & Your Career Don't Match Up

At some point in your college career, you are required to declare a major. Maybe you decided to major in biology because you’ve dreamed of being a doctor since you were in grade school or maybe you majored in accounting because you’re a natural born number cruncher. For news reporters and aspiring Katie Courics, a major in journalism is the obvious route. We’re taught that if you want to be a psychologist you major in psychology and if you want to be a politician, you major in political science. Easy, right? But for some collegiettes—especially those who are not 100 percent sure what they want to do post-graduation—picking a major can be stressful because it feels like you are picking your career. So what’s the real deal? Does your major automatically dictate what your job is going to be for the rest of your life? We found out.

It depends 

With some majors, you are expected to learn a specific set of skills for the profession you’d like to pursue. For example, if you want to be a nurse, majoring in English isn’t going to get you there. You’ll need to major in something such as pre-medicine, pre-nursing studies, public health, gerontology or health services administration. But not only does your major have to be closely related to the field, you’ll also be required to take a slew of pre-requisite courses before actually being admitted into your school’s nursing program in addition to gaining hands-on experience at hospitals and other health care settings. All of this is in preparation for the NCLEX-RN—the national exam that all students need to pass in order to be considered a registered nurse.

Other specific trades include accounting and engineering. Pick out an accountant on Wall St. and chances are, they probably majored in economics, finance or even international business. In trades like accounting, you’ll need to learn to use GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), how to prepare tax filings and how to use accounting information systems. Having this kind of educational background prepares you for various jobs in the accounting realm be it becoming a budget analyst or even a financial manager.

Likewise, in order to be an engineer, specific courses are needed as well. For instance, chemical engineers typically are required to take rigorous science courses like biochemistry and organic chemistry. In addition to the course work, you’ll likely take on an internship at some point or leave campus to take on a co-op to get that hands-on experience whether it’s at a plant or environmental firm.

The good news

Okay, so yes, if you’re dead set on becoming a nurse, we’ve established that it’s probably in your best interest to take some nursing classes. But what about everyone else? Here comes the good news: choosing a major doesn’t have to be a life-changing decision. This is because most majors prepare you for a wide range of careers that you can be trained to do once you graduate. According to CollegeBoard, “picking a college major is not the same as picking a career. It will be up to you to pursue what you like.”

“A major is not a life-changing decision, especially not to the extent that many students build it up to be,” says University of Connecticut Career Consultant Rachel Larson. “With a few exceptions, college graduates can secure most entry-level professional jobs with a bachelor’s degree in any major. This is because bachelor’s degree requirements help students build strong skills, such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, that can be transferred to various fields and industries.”

Take Julie Tibbetts, a soon-to-be University of Connecticut graduate, whose major is in fact political science—and she has no plans on using it (at least immediately, anyway).

“I think any liberal arts degree is helpful for anyone unsure of what they want to do after college,” says Julie. “It gives a broad education of many different subjects and what many employers look for in a possible employee that has the capability to learn and succeed.”

In the meantime, Julie has been applying to jobs outside of the political science field.

“I'm not sure of where I will end up as my major career, but I have been applying to corporate event planning companies that plan and organize business meetings stateside and abroad,” she says. “I never felt locked into a career in my major because there are many people that get jobs in fields that have nothing to do with their undergrad degree. My ultimate plan is to become more immersed in the field that I choose and then get a further education, like a masters degree in that field.”

As SallieMae’s CollegeAnswer.com says, “One of the myths behind choosing a major is that it locks you into a specific career path. Your college major is merely one of many factors that can shape your career path.”

“English majors have gone on to medical school; philosophy majors are at the helms of some major corporations; and math majors have gone into careers as varied as sports, entertainment, and politics.”

Larson agrees. “I have seen engineering and science students become lawyers, business majors become doctors, education students become financial analysts, and philosophy majors go into business fields. You can pursue a variety of career paths regardless of your undergraduate major.”

So how should you choose your major?

  • Pick a subject you are passionate about

“Knowing yourself is a critical component in choosing a major,” says Larson. “To do this, it is important to consider your interests (what you like to do), skills (what you are good at), and values (what is important to you).”

  • Ask yourself the right questions

“Once you identify these elements, prioritize your top items in each area, the things you definitely want your major to incorporate, and compare them to questions you are probably already asking yourself, like ‘Have I taken any classes that I enjoy and done well in?’” says Larson. “Examining your personal, academic, and professional priorities will give you a deeper understanding of self and will allow you to select a major that you are passionate about. This passion and enthusiasm in turn will lead to success and satisfaction.”

  • Think about what your abilities are and how you like to learn

Do you like learning in hands-on labs or are 10-person seminars more your style? Knowing how you like to learn will help determine what kinds of classes you might want to take as well as which classes you don’t.

So breathe easy, collegiettes  and know that choosing a major doesn’t have to be stressful. Tell us: what’s your major? Have you ever changed it? Let us know in the Comments section below!


Julie Tibbetts, UConn ’11 student
CollegeBoard, www.collegeboard.com
Rachel Larson, University of Connecticut career consultant