Switching Subjects After Earning a Degree - Why It’s Not As Scary As You Think

Ah, to be 17 again. Fresh faced, bright eyed, and totally 100% sure about what you want to do with your life, right? Well, maybe not. If you’re anything like me, deciding on a subject for your first degree brought you more dread and doom than deciding whether or not to watch ahead on a Netflix show you started with a friend.

On the real though, deciding on your undergraduate degree subject can be intimidating, and deciding it’s not for you after you’ve done it can be even scarier. But if you have realized you want to switch subjects between your undergrad and postgrad career, rest easy knowing that you’re not alone. From personal experience, I can tell you it’s not as scary as you think. I took the plunge after finishing my undergrad degree in philosophy at University of California, Irvine to pursue a MSc in Mental Health Studies at King’s College London. Big change, but it’s been amazing.

Switching subjects definitely has its challenges, but if you’re determined, you can find a lot of success. So if you’re like me and feel like you want to study a new degree subject after completing your first degree, stick around for all the reasons why you can and should make the switch.


Reason To Switch 1: You Knew What You Wanted, Then You Changed Your Mind

When I wrote my first university entrance essay, I was determined to be the next Simone De Beauvoir. I lived, breathed, and bathed philosophy. Hyperbole aside, I had a clear passion. Maybe you felt the same way about history, or literature, or physics. Whatever the subject, you knew that’s what you wanted to study, so you went and got a degree in it.

Now if you’re lucky, your passion grew and your career goals fell in line with what you studied as an undergraduate. However, if you’re like me, things might have changed. While my passion for philosophy remained, I grew a new interest in psychology. The closer I got to graduating, the more I realized that I wanted to be a psychologist, not an academic.

I have no regrets about my bachelor’s degree, but I knew that I had to pursue something different in my master’s to become a psychologist. I decided to take a year off to gain experience as a behavioural therapist for children with autism for a company that was happy to hire me with my philosophy degree. While I was there, I fell more in love with the idea of studying the mind. I decided to take the jump and applied to every psychology course I could find that allowed students from a non-relevant degree to apply. I ended up at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience and happily am on my new chosen career path.


Why it’s not that scary: While I do sometimes have fears that I don’t know as much as my peers who studied psychology in their undergrad, I’ve found that a combination of being highly motivated for this chance to study something new along with the collaborative support I’ve been receiving from my professors and peers has allowed me to thrive. My background in philosophy gives me a unique perspective and I’m in an environment that allows me to learn from the varying perspectives around me as well.


My Advice: Be transparent about your educational background with your university network. Professors are likely to be accommodating and understanding if you need some extra clarification about topics that are new to you and will welcome questions that your peers may not think to ask. Conversely, your peers will help you succeed by sharing their joint knowledge; all you have to do is ask and chat. If you take the initiative to learn, no one will let you get left behind.


Reason To Switch 2: You Felt Expectations to Rush Into Your First Degree, Now You Want Something Different

You go to school, you pick GCSEs, you go to uni, you get a job. That’s how many young adults are told how life goes. This leads many students to feel like they have to immediately jump into a uni degree right after college or sixth form, even if they’re not sure that’s what they really want.

These sentiments were shared by Nilima Khan, who completed an English and French degree before deciding to go back to uni for a Counselling degree. After showing some interest in becoming a journalist in college, Nilima was advised to pick her English and French degree as a stepping stone towards her future career. Nilima spent five successful years as a journalist before realizing that the job wasn’t really for her. She moved on to find success as an assistant for a financial institution before deciding that what she wanted most of all was to give back to society. This lead Nilima to pursue work as a counsellor. She decided taking up a degree would be her best bet for a career in this field and has been working towards her new goal ever since, landing clinical placements in counselling along the way.


Why it’s not that scary: For Nilima, and perhaps many others, the pressure to rush into a degree can lead to not having enough time to really consider what career options are out there. Nilima says that getting the chance to explore different career experiences really helped her in deciding what she ultimately wanted to pursue. Now, she is grateful for her varied career path and all of the wonderful life experiences she got out of it. Everything she learned along the way has been a step that led her to the path she’s on today.


Her advice: Don’t feel the pressure to go to uni right at 18. Be confident in your ability to get a job, figure out what your skills are, and see where they can be best employed. After that, get the education you need for that career, if you need it. As for financial pressures, Nilima says waiting til you’re older to complete a second degree can be helpful. You’ll be more financially stable and have a wealth of experiences under your belt to help you make the most of your course.


Reason 3: You Changed Your Career Goals, Now You Need a New Degree

Some careers allow for a tremendous amount of flexibility in regards to your university degree. If you want to get into PR and marketing, for example, a marketing degree will be tremendously helpful, but any degree will be welcome to help break out companies from the norm. However, in fields like engineering, medicine, clinical psychology and other specialised work, you might be required to follow a certain educational path. If your first degree was in a humanities subject, but you’ve become inspired to take up chemical engineering, you’ll likely need to go back to uni to get the job.


Why It’s Not That Scary: Going back to uni because you have to for your new career path might feel daunting and can lead to a lot of pressure over whether it’s the right life and financial decision for you. After all, you’ll be investing your time, energy, and money into doing something totally new. However, if the only thing standing between you and your dream job is a degree, you’ll find that you have extra incentive to push yourself to success. If you stick it through, the endgame will result in you achieving your new dreams.



Some general advice: Rather than focusing on your degree subject, look at job listings for the career you’re interested. Explore the entire range of career options in your field and compare their salaries, education, and experience requirements what actual recruiters are looking for from applicants. Choose your educational path from there. You might find out that certain fields require certain non-degree related qualifications, conversion courses or membership to organisational bodies in order to be employed. You might also find some that require highly specialised postgrad degrees or even some that are actually quite flexible in their degree requirements. Either way, knowing exactly what the job market demands puts you at an advantage for getting the job you want.


The Pros and Cons of Switching Subjects After You’ve Earned Your First Degree

Changing your mind about what subject you want to study can be scary. You might be switching to a closely related field, or you might be jumping straight into the deep end of something totally new. However, if you find yourself inspired after your undergraduate career to do something different, it can be totally worth pursuing.

While there might be some cons like new educational expenses, feelings like you don’t have as much knowledge as your peers who studied a more relevant degree, and the self-doubt that might come with wondering if you’ve made the right choice, there will be plenty of pros.

For example, some great pros to switching your degree subject could be the chance to try your hand at something new, gain the required educational experience needed for a career path, and being able to bring a fresh dose of perspective into your new field.

Ultimately? It’s up to you to decide what course you want your life to take and what degree of study will help you achieve that. If you want to switch but it’s not the right decision for you right now, it’s okay to wait. But if you’re serious about starting a postgrad career in something new from your undergrad, know that you’re not alone. There’s no one path you have to take for success and it’s totally okay to change your mind along the way. If you want to be a musician turned doctor, engineer turned marine biologist, or even philosopher turned psychologist, take the plunge, work hard, and achieve your dreams.

It’s not as scary as you think.