How to Choose a Field of
Study for College Navigating Countless Options to Make A Confident Decision

Meet the Experts

Terri Carroll Executive Director of Academic Advising, University of North Georgia Read bio
Julie Higbee Academic Adviser, University of North Georgia Read bio

Written By

Katy McWhirter Read bio

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only 27 percent of college graduates work in fields related to their majors. With so many bachelor’s degrees available to students, finding the perfect fit can feel extremely overwhelming — especially if you don’t already possess a clear idea of what you want to do professionally. Whether you’re currently enrolled in college or still making plans to attend, the following guide exists to help answer some of the common questions about choosing a major, calm anxieties about making the “right” choice and provide concrete resources for finding information and support along the way.

Top 7 Tips to Help You Choose Your Field

With so many options available, it can be tough to narrow down what academic field you want to study. We’ve rounded up expert tips to help give you the confidence to make an educated and informed decision.

  • Eliminate options slowly. “Students can begin a productive mindset by choosing a general major area such as social sciences, health professions, humanities, STEM, education or business that contains narrower major options within it,” says Terri Carroll, the executive director of academic advising at the University of North Georgia (UNG). “By doing so, students can feel somewhat focused while keeping their options open, which will reduce stress.”

  • Cross out options. “A helpful exercise is to pull up a list of the university’s majors and cross out the ones that you don’t want,” says UNG academic adviser Julie Higbee. “For the ones that remain, look them up on the college’s website and search the internet for ‘Careers with a major in (the one you are considering).’”

  • Find the right academic adviser. “Another way students can reduce stress is to speak with a professional adviser who specializes in advising undeclared students,” says Carroll. “Just expressing yourself to someone who is there to help can be calming and help you move forward.”

  • Ask for advice. “Don’t forget to talk to people about all the possibilities,” Higbee says. “Ask family, friends, classmates, professors, and advisers about the majors you’re considering — especially if they majored in one of those subjects. Higbee stresses that whether or not you agree with their assessments, having these conversations can help generate ideas.

  • Gain experience in different fields. “One of the best experiences a student can have is an internship to provide real-world experience in a profession the student is interested in pursuing,” encourages Carroll. “Shadowing people in the field is another option.”

  • Find creative ways of learning about different majors/paths. “Learners may want to join student clubs or organizations for particular careers or majors they are considering,” Higbee suggests. “When they are around other students who are making similar choices, they may feel more confident in their own choices and will have opportunities to talk with other students who share their interests.”

  • Consider your emotions throughout the process. Higbee is quick to point out that the process of selecting one major over another can feel overwhelming — especially when no one knows the future. “Students experiencing severe anxiety and paralysis in a decision about a major and initial career will probably find it useful to talk to a professional counselor, or another trusted person, who may help them work with decision-making and fear of failure,” she says.

Expert Q&A on College Majors

Terri Carroll Executive Director of Academic Advising, University of North Georgia
Julie Higbee Academic Adviser, University of North Georgia

Q: What should college students know about researching and choosing fields of study for their college careers?

Carroll: Students need to ask for help in assessing their interests and abilities in relation to various majors and careers. If professional advisers who specialize in advising undeclared students are available, as they are at UNG, students should meet with these advisers to express their goals and dreams, talk about options and learn about the many resources available to find out more about themselves and their options.

Higbee: Colleges usually provide students access to a career, values, and interests assessment, and students should complete those assessments early and read through the career ideas provided. The general education curriculum is also a good way to help students learn more about possible majors. Students’ experiences in these classes may give them a sense of what they find interesting and what they dislike. If a student is in a class he or she enjoys, that student should go to the professor’s office hours to talk about that major and the types of internships and jobs possible with that major.

Q: What factors should they consider when making their decisions?

Carroll: Students need to self-assess not only their interests, but also their abilities. For example, a career in medicine may interest a student, but if science is something the student continually struggles with, a biology major may not be a good fit. In that case, a student may realize that a medical career was appealing because he or she was interested in helping people, and there are other careers out there that have that quality without requiring a major that involves years and years of science coursework.

Higbee: A student may also be very strong in an academic subject but may struggle in some of the day-to-day aspects of the working environment for the related career fields. For example, students may earn straight-A grades in history, but if he or she is painfully shy, the day-to-day social requirements of being a high school or college history teacher may make those jobs unenjoyable. In those cases, students may still major in those subjects but will need to expand their knowledge of possible internships and pathways for students with those majors. Students may also need to consider logistical issues, such as the types of jobs available in the areas where they plan to live, whether they are willing to move and how far they are willing to commute.

Q: How big of a decision is it, really? What if they feel like they made the wrong decision years later?

Carroll: Many people are very content in careers that have indirect ties to their actual college majors, because many employers look for soft skills like creativity, excellent communication, and leadership qualities, and not specific college majors. You learn something from every experience you have, and if the profession you are in is not fulfilling, there are always skills you can transfer to another career path. Also, there is always the option of returning to school to earn a certificate in another field, or taking prerequisite courses to enter graduate school for a different profession.

Q: On campus, who is available to help students make this decision?

Carroll: Professional advisers and career services centers. Faculty are another great resource, as they are experts in their fields and knowledgeable about graduate schools and possible careers.

The 10 Most Common College Majors

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 1.92 million degrees were conferred in the U.S. throughout the 2015-2016 academic year. The most popular degrees from the NCES study are highlighted below to give students who select them a sense of what to expect.

  • Business:

    An undergraduate degree in business provides graduates with a broad base of knowledge in fields such as finance, accounting, marketing, ethics, operations and human resources. Some learners elect to complete a concentration in one of these topics to further build their skills, while others opt for a general overview of the field. Graduates of business programs compete for a wide spectrum of jobs as marketing coordinators, accounts payable professionals, business development managers, sales directors and financial analysts.

  • Health professions and related programs:

    As jobs for those working in health professions continue to grow each year, degrees in this field tend to offer stability and reasonable salaries. While some individuals opt to pursue roles as nurses, nurse educators, physician assistants or even medical doctors, others decide to pursue administrative roles in areas of health care management, medical records technology or health care information technology. Those on the medical side can expect to take classes in topics such as human physiology, pharmacology, biology and anatomy, while those in the administrative side take classes such as medical terminology, ethics of health care and understanding the billing procedure with insurance companies.

  • Biological and biomedical sciences:

    A popular option for individuals planning to go into medicine or research, this field includes studies in areas of biological chemistry, cell biology, developmental and regenerative biology, molecular pharmacology, genetics and genomics, and immunology. As with other undergraduate degrees, programs at this level tend to provide an all-encompassing view of the field without going into great detail in any topic. Those hoping to move into work upon graduation find positions as biotechnologists, lab technicians, research assistants, educators, health directors or environmental professionals.

  • Visual and performing arts:

    This wide-ranging field encompasses many different creative expressions. Visual arts include things like drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, photography and videography. Performing arts, meanwhile, include disciplines such as music, dance, theater, puppetry and performance pieces. Visual and performing arts degree classes tend to offer little overlap outside of general education requirements. Upon completing their degrees, graduates go on to work as artists, business owners, traveling performers, musicians, educators and technicians.

  • Education:

    A perfect degree for individuals who enjoy helping others to learn, education degrees prepare students for roles at the elementary and secondary levels in both public and private schools. In addition to learning about education theories, serving diverse populations and working with gifted and exceptional students, degree seekers also hone their knowledge in particular school subjects such as math, science, English and history. In addition to taking on teaching roles, education majors may work as consultants, curriculum coordinators, school counselors or principals.

  • Social sciences and history:

    The social sciences cover topics such as anthropology, economics, geography, history and sociology and provide graduates a plethora of positions to consider after gaining their degrees. While many find work as educators or continue into advanced study, others use their bachelor’s degrees to work as researchers, writers, museum professionals, archivists, consultants, travel managers or sales professionals. Some of the classes one might encounter in these programs include U.S. history – 1865 to present, intro to sociology, the history of economic theory and anthropological methodologies.

  • Psychology:

    Bachelor’s programs in psychology provide degree seekers with an overarching understanding of the many different branches and subdisciplines of the field. While programs at this level do not typically allow for specialization, students get a good sense of different methodologies and frameworks. Common courses may include cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, psychology of women, social psychology and industrial/organizational psychology. To practice psychology, individuals must at minimum possess master’s degrees, although most call for a doctoral diploma. Individuals who want to use their four-year degrees typically find roles as researchers, case managers, sales directors, training managers, psychiatric technicians or school counselors.

  • Engineering:

    Individuals pursuing degrees in this arena typically focus on aeronautical, civil, chemical, electrical or mechanical engineering while in school. Each of these programs provides the baseline knowledge needed to take on entry-level roles upon graduation — some of which provide six-figure salaries. Other types of engineering include environmental, electrical, biomedical, industrial and nuclear, although some of these may require advanced study. While some students plan to use their engineering knowledge directly in the field, others decide to work towards managerial and/or leadership roles that require administrative skills.

  • Communication, journalism and related programs:

    For individuals who enjoy communicating information to others, bachelor’s degrees in journalism or communication offer many options when it comes to professional paths. While in school, learners cover topics such as communication strategies, public relations, journalistic ethics, communication theories and different styles of writing. After graduating, they qualify for roles as newspaper and digital media writers, investigative journalists, communication coordinators and press secretaries. They can find work in the for-profit, nonprofit and governmental worlds.

  • Computer and information sciences:

    Computer and information sciences provides a perennially popular path for individuals who enjoy working with hardware and software and who want to earn higher-than-average salaries. Roles for graduates of bachelor’s programs include computer network architects, computer programmers, computer systems analysts, database administrators, information security analysts and software developers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all of these positions are set to grow in the coming years. Depending on their chosen areas of focus, students cover topics such as network security, coding languages, IT ethics, app development and the user experience.

Additional Resources

Business Insider offers some ways students can figure out if they’re studying the wrong topics — including signs that you might not otherwise consider.

Vista College reviews some of the ways students can assess their courses of study to know whether they fit with students’ goals and lifestyles.

Huffington Post shares this insightful article from Gianna Sen-Gupta about the steps students can take when trying to ensure they study the right subject areas.

The New York Times offers a few unique points of consideration for students who are struggling to define their interests and find majors that align with their wants and needs.

PrepScholar offers this step-by-step article that helps undecided students take concrete steps to narrow their options and find suitable degrees.

Monster answers this question with advice that can help soon-to-graduate students make the most of their educations and transfer what they have learned into other careers.

This CNBC article features wisdom from the Shark Tank host about what students should consider before declaring their majors.

Taking a unique approach, Forbes highlights some of the ways students can use any degree they have gained to find meaningful careers — provided they do some important legwork along the way.

Inside Higher Ed takes a look at some of the places students can go if they’re unsure how to choose their majors and want some advice.