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Monday, December 29, 2014

Should I Switch Majors? - Reader Question

I was recently asked a question by a college student that I felt was well worth discussing. He told me about how much he regretted choosing his college major. He was looking for advice on whether or not to change college majors. I figured I could respond best using a full article. Hopefully it will help some of my readers too.

Hold on a second. You want to switch college majors? I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you put a whole lot of thought into selecting your first college major. Considering you put all that thought into selecting your first college major, why are you now changing your mind?

I know this can sound like I'm being a bit harsh but please stick with this. I switched majors in college too. It's not a horrible thing. I just want to make sure you can look at this honestly.

You made a mistake the first time you picked a major. If you can admit that then you're on the right track. That being said, since you made a mistake the first time you made this decision, what makes you think you're not making a mistake this time?

The Second Requires More Than The First


Selecting your college major in the first place can be difficult. No one wants to go down the wrong path and lose years of their life to a major that's not quite right. Some high school students spend years working on solving this problem. Eventually though, most of them come to some confidence in their selection of majors.

If you want to switch majors then deciding which major to switch to should require even more commitment than you had with your original major. What do I mean by that?

If you were 90% sure you wanted to go for your first major then to switch to new major you should be well more than 90% (I'd say 95% or more) sure you want to go to the second major.

Sadly, most students that switch majors aren't that confident. The fact that they screwed up their decision in the first place destroys their confidence. If you screw up a decision when you're 90% sure you're right then it should be really difficult to be 90% sure again. That's natural. (If it's not then I think you need to do some soul searching.)

Going to college is not cheap.

If you're taking out loans to go to college then you're losing tens of thousands of dollars a year. Even in the highest paying fields around, that's going to take a while to pay off. Every month that you spend in a major that doesn't increase your future income, you're making a mistake.

Even if your school is completely paid for. It's a big mistake to lose sight of the years you're wasting. If you're like most college students, you're under 25. These are some of the best potential years of your life. You can do more now then you'll ever be able to do in the future.

College is expensive in every sense of the word. If you're not using college like a real investment then you're making a mistake.

Consider The Hard Decision


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Before you think about switching majors, consider the possibility of leaving college. I know... everyone tells you that's one of the most stupid things you can do but consider it. Do it solely to prove you're not just staying in college to make everyone happy. Leave college out of the equation. What are you motivated to do right now if you're out of college?

Anything?

Some people have a very clear answer. Some want to start businesses. Some want to work at good trade jobs. Some want to travel. If you have an answer like this then know it before you decide to switch majors. Is switching majors really what you want to do? If you're driven enough to do crazy-awesome things then you can always go back to college later. (As long as you're smart enough not to make life trapping decisions.)

Of course, your clear answer might be, get into this particular career field. To get into that field you might need college. If you don't need college for a basic position in that field then consider getting into that field without college. (If you want to be a nurse, spend some time as a CNA. Sure, you won't get perfect experience but you'll learn to appreciate the environment. Or, of course, you might learn you hate it.) If you absolutely need college and want to get in that field more than all your other goals then college is likely the route you should be taking.

That being said, most people don't have any particular goals. Most people use college as a testing ground for potential futures.

I hate to break it to you but college is a really expensive place to be experimenting with futures. If you want to know what you want to do for a living then get a few crappy jobs in environments that you might want to be in. If you want to be a building project manager then get a crappy construction job. If you want to be a doctor, get a crappy hospital job. You get a paid chance to learn what the environment is really like. You'll get to watch people in the position you want to hold. Do you think you'd enjoy doing what they're doing? If not, don't. If so then you can be on your way to a new major.

That doesn't guarantee you'll like the job when you get it but it's a whole lot more effective than studying random things from a textbook about the career field.

Don't make the mistake of assuming you need college to become successful and happy. (It can certainly help if you're in the right field of study but until you know where you're going, you're going to be wasting a lot of time and money with it.)

Should You Switch?


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If you're damn sure then you should switch majors.

There are exceptions to needing that rule though.

If college is getting paid off as you go to school (no debt) then don't worry as much about it being perfect (as long as you're sure the money will keep coming.)

If you've gained knowledge about the major you're switching into outside of school (like from a job) and that caused you to be interested in that career field. You're probably more capable of making that decision than you think you are. Trust yourself if you've actually gained knowledge about the knew major.

If you're major switch barely changes any of your required courses then you don't have to be quite as sure while switching too. (If switching back would only require a couple other classes then it's hardly worth stressing about.) This works for switches between closely related majors.

If you're still struggling to decide whether or not to switch majors then try looking at yourself from an external perspective. If you saw a person like you planning to switch majors, would you bet on that person making a smart decision. Bear in mind, they screwed up once. Do you have any reason to believe this person is not screwing up again?

(If this person studied for hours about the new major in their free time, or if this person learned about the major from career experience, or if this person knows why they picked the wrong major in the first place, you can be sure they're more suited to make the decision now than they were before.)

Does that mean you should stay in a major you hate? Unless you're eerily close to getting the degree then I would still recommend getting out of your major. No... you don't have to quit school. Just take a leave of absence for a year or two. Get a few jobs. By playing around in the outside world you'll be much better suited to make the right major decision when you get back. As long as you make smart decisions you won't have any problem getting back into the school rhythm.

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