Maybe you want to major in art history but worry about getting a job after graduating college. Or maybe you're passionate about writing but skeptical that it will pay the bills. You've probably heard that oft-repeated adage to "do what you love" echoing in your ears when you think about how to choose a major, but you worry about ending up with an expensive degree and a low-paying job.
Valerie Streif, a senior adviser at the job search firm The Mentat, frequently talks to students who struggled with their choice of major. For some lucky students — like those who want to be engineers or doctors — their passions are likely to lead to high-paying jobs. But for others, it's not so straightforward. Streif suggests the best way to avoid regretting your choice is to find a balance.
"It can feel like a mistake to spend four years studying something that won't lead to employment," she said, "but it can also feel like a mistake spending four years studying something that will lead to a career of misery."
While choosing a major might feel like a confusing decision, there are a few things that Streif believes will help you make the right call.
Knowledge is Power
Streif suggests students work with their campus career center staff to research the average salaries of different majors and growth potential in the industries in which they might be working. This will allow you to better understand the return on investment of your degree-or how much you'll be making versus how much you're spending on your degree.
"Being realistic, understanding the market and what positions are available," she said, "is crucial to avoid being blindsided come graduation."
Streif also recommends that students add up how much debt they're likely to have when they graduate to make sure that their choice of major — and subsequent job opportunities — won't affect their ability to repay it.
"They should figure out how long it would take them to realistically pay off their debt," she said.
Since repayment lengths for student loans can range from 5 to 30 years, students should choose repayment plans that work with their budget and allow them adequate time to repay their loans.
Doing What You Love Is Necessary
Carlota Zimmerman, a career success strategist who coaches people making professional changes, often hears of students abandoning the fields they love for majors that they think will bring them financial success. But, in her experience, passion is critical.
Zimmerman always excelled in writing, but ended up majoring in history with a focus on Russian studies because she was more interested in those fields. Despite the fact that her degree might not seem marketable, she got a great journalism job in Russia right out of school. Zimmerman believes this was partly because she thrived in class and got good grades, which led to professors recommending her for awards and opportunities she wouldn't have gotten if she had majored in something she didn't love.
When considering the return on investment of your degree, Zimmerman believes that you shouldn't just focus on financial returns but also on the happiness the degree brings. "When you love your major, you'll excel," she said. "When you excel in college, your professors will recognize it, and may be able to give you opportunities for grants, scholarships, to write and deliver papers, to network".
Streif agrees that doing what you love is necessary, but believes that there are ways you can incorporate your passion into your life without necessarily majoring in that field.
"Pursue what you love in your free time," she said. "Maybe eventually it will grow into your full-time career, or maybe having it as a side-hustle will be sufficient to keep you happy."
Streif suggests you consider majoring in a more marketable field that you still enjoy. You can also hedge your bets by majoring in a different field and minoring in your area of interest or vice versa. If you're interested in working in the art world, for example, you could do a business degree with a minor in art history and intern at art galleries.
Prepare If You Don't Want to Compromise
Not everyone wants to compromise. If you decide to go into a field with few jobs or low pay, it's important to plan ahead and not borrow more debt than you can afford to repay. Zimmerman suggests that you find ways to reduce how much debt you take on while in college by living frugally and working while going to school.
You'll also want to take action to increase your likelihood of getting a job upon graduation. Zimmerman suggests that you go to your campus career center for advice and distinguish yourself by attending conferences, doing internships, networking, starting your own business and getting involved in extracurricular activities related to your field.
"Think about your candidacy for jobs from an employer's point of view," she said. "How are you going to differentiate and demonstrate yourself as an ideal candidate?"
Once you graduate, you might have to hustle a little to get ahead or work multiple jobs until you get a foothold in the industry.
Building a Career You Love Can Be a Lifelong Process
Zimmerman believes that building a career that integrates your interests and pays the bills is a lifelong process for many people and picking your major is really only the beginning. Many people end up in jobs they love that they never imagined themselves doing.
"When you're in college, you feel such pressure to pick the right degree," said Zimmerman. "In reality, for most of us, our majors had very little immediate effect upon our lives. We made many mistakes, we tried again, and eventually, after enough tries, we got it right."