Deciding what to study at university isn’t easy, it can feel like this one decision will determine the rest of your life. With so many degree courses to choose from, answering the question ‘What degree should I do?’ isn’t always as simple as just picking something you’re interested in. You will be committing to study it for the next 3 to 4 years of your life.
When you’re at the difficult stage of choosing what and where to study, it can be tempting to make a decision based on either what your parents recommend or where your friends will be going, but it’s important that you fully think through your options.
Some people will make a decision based on their interests, and some people will choose based on their career aims. However you decide, you can read through this guide to help you make a well informed decision.
Determine your priorities
You’ve probably heard someone say follow your passion, or perhaps when you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life, and while these sayings may be helpful for some people, they are unfortunately not good advice when trying to choose a major or a future career. The reason for this is that whilst being passionate about a subject certainly makes the work more engaging, there’s no guarantee it will pay the bills.
When deciding what to study you should first consider what your priorities are when thinking about your future career.
Am I focused on making money?
Everyone wants a job with a high salary but choosing a major with the only goal being acquiring wealth may come with sacrifices. When choosing a role based on salary you should ask yourself:
- Am I willing to work long hours, and maybe weekends, in this profession?
- Am I willing to study or work at something that doesn’t interest me in order to get a higher salary?
- Is this something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life?
For some people the answer will be yes, but many others realise that you need to find a balance between something that interests you, and something that pays well.
Am I passionate about something?
On the other hand you may feel you want to pursue a career based on something you feel passionate about. This can be a great starting point for someone trying to choose their degree, but for this choice there are also things to consider:
- Will I be passionate about this subject in the future?
- Am I willing to accept a lower salary in pursuit of my passion?
- What is the job market like in this area? Will it be difficult to find work?
When we choose our degree we are still young and inexperienced. As students learn and grow at university their opinions can change, and the things they felt passionate about when they started university may not align with their opinions when they finish. If you do feel passionate about something it can be one of the best ways of deciding what to study, just try to bear in mind what the costs of pursuing that particular subject will be.
Am I choosing a degree based on pressure, prestige, or lifestyle?
For some families it can be very important that their son or daughter choose a degree based upon the reputation of that career. Your parents might want you to become a doctor or a lawyer because they believe these jobs are well respected, but there are plenty of people who chose to study medicine or law only to decide upon graduation that they are not suited to that kind of work.
When choosing what to study you might want to think about those things that are influencing your decision:
- Am I choosing a career because it’s glamorous?
- Am I choosing a career based on pressure from my family?
- I like the idea of being a doctor/lawyer/research scientist, but is the work and lifestyle right for me?
One thing both doctors and lawyers have in common is that juniors in those professions often work very long hours. If you find you are uncertain about choosing a career, do some research into what the lifestyle of that job is really like. Ask around to see if you already know someone in that occupation, then ask them what their job is like and determine if it’s right for you.
Identify your interests and abilities
Most students do not have a clear idea of what career they want to pursue after university, but fortunately this is not a problem. The majority of graduates end up in careers that have little or no relation to the subjects they studied. What’s important is that your degree demonstrates the skills and abilities that employers are looking for. For this reason many students first choose a degree they feel interested in, and decide later about which jobs to look for.
There are many graduate jobs which require only that someone is educated at the degree level, but don’t specify any particular type of degree. This means you can choose a subject you enjoy studying, and have fun while you develop those transferable skills employers will be looking for.
If you are uncertain about what to study it can be helpful to consider the kinds of things that you are interested in, and also the types of work you think you are good at. The first step is to look at which subjects in school you found the most interesting, or those subjects you scored well in.
If you have already chosen your A-levels, and feel that those subjects are right for you, you can try looking for degrees related to your current studies. TheUniGuide has a helpful quiz to find careers related to your current A-levels.
Otherwise ask yourself some questions relating to your studies and interests:
- What subjects do I enjoy studying at school?
- Which subjects am I good at?
- Do I have any hobbies or interests that are connected to a professional environment?
- Is there anything that I have always wanted to study but been unable to?
If you’re still unsure about what to study it can help to narrow down your choices by deciding which types of work you are not interested in. I like the sciences, but I know I don’t like lab work, so I don’t want to move into research. I’m interested in computers, but I don’t like coding, so i’ll avoid programming type roles.
For many roles it is possible to take the time now to experience what the work might be like. If you think you might be interested in Data Analysis, try some of the free courses Google has to offer. If you are interested in a profession (e.g. law), ask a local office if you can spend an afternoon shadowing of the employees there. Most people are only too happy to encourage young people to take an interest in their work.
Consider salary and employability
If you’ve followed your interests or passions you might now have a short list of subjects you want to study. The next step in helping you decide your degree is to consider the future.
You might be passionate about playing piano but making money as a concert pianist is notoriously difficult. If you’re having a hard time deciding between several subjects, taking a look at the job market for related careers can help you determine which one will be right for you.
Life might be easier if money wasn’t so important, but the reality is that at every level of employment money does matter. If you’re struggling to make ends meet you will find it harder to be satisfied in what you do, especially if you’re still trying to pay off your student loans!
For every career though, there can be a big difference between the bottom and the top of the pay scale. It’s important to keep in mind what the average salary is for a profession, rather than be tempted into pursuing a career because you heard they receive big bonuses.
The graph below can give you a rough estimate for graduate career earnings.
For a more detailed look at projected graduate earnings The Hamilton Project has a great article about lifetime income.
The more specific the field of study, the harder it can be to find a job. You might be passionate about astronomy but there’s a very limited number of observatories in the world, and the people who work there have usually studied to at least the PhD level.
We also live in a world of unprecedented technological innovation, and alongside the development of new technologies is the development of jobs that make use of them. Big Data, AI, and automation have opened up areas of massive potential that previously did not exist.
Of course, the flip side to this is a shrinking market for more traditional roles. That degree might be employable now, but will it stay so in the future? It might be impossible to predict the development of science and technology, but you should consider whether you are graduating into a growing or shrinking job market.
Pick the right school
Sometimes what you studied is often less important than where you studied. For UK higher education, places like Oxford and Cambridge carry a certain cachet. In fact, the reason these schools have more humanities students is because the name at the top of the certificate carries more weight than the degree itself. The strong network of contacts and alumni built up at these universities means students are freer to pursue subjects with less job applicability.
That doesn’t mean though that you have to attend a prestigious university to get a good degree. Just as MIT is known for the technological sciences each university has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, and the most highly regarded for any particular subject might surprise you. UK students can take advantage of guides such as this one by Complete University Guide to help them find which university is best for their degree.
Once you’ve determined which school has the best degree courses you will also need to think of the practicalities of being a student there. Some things to bear in mind when choosing a uni are:
- Where is the university located? What is the town or city like?
- Do I want to go to a campus or non-campus university?
- Costs of attendendance, including tuition fees, travel and accommodation.
- University culture and student unions.
To get a feel of what life at university might be like you can attend one of the many open days universities have throughout the year. You can also visit their website or ask a student representative about them.
Ask for help
If you’re still struggling to make up your mind don’t hesitate to ask for help. Many schools and most universities have advisors whose main job is to help students make informed decisions.
School counselors will be able to give academic and career advice, and a representative of a university can offer more specific advice, such as which onsite campus to choose.
You should also consider talking to your parents or peers. It might feel awkward to ask your parents directly what degree should I do, especially if they are the type to prioritise doing what you love. However, your parents will have your best interests at heart and likely have some university experience of their own, they might even have friends or colleagues with first hand experience of what and where you want to study.
Your friends might not have the experience or knowledge as a career counselor has, but they are going through the same experience you are. They might have done their own research relevant to your interests, or thought about universities you hadn’t considered.
Do more research
There are plenty of resources online to help students make informed decisions about what degree they should do, and where they should go to study it. Most information can be accessed easily via Google. Here’s a quick checklist of things to look for:
- Specific university websites
You should be able to find answers to most of your questions navigating from the university homepage. If not, they will have contact information so you can ask a university spokesperson directly.
- Personality and degree quizzes
Whilst you shouldn’t rely on an anonymous quiz to make your decision, they might provide a quick and fun answer to those really struggling to think of what to study.
- Career guides
If you know which career you’re interested in, but don’t know how to get there, try looking for a career guide to help you know what steps to take to make it happen.
The links below contain useful information whatever you choose to study, but don’t forget to do your own research before making up your mind.
Career Guides – Reed.co.uk
Six Myths About Choosing a College Major – The New York Times
Your Choice, Your Future – Complete University Guide
The Buzz Quiz – UCAS.com
Take your time
Choosing what you want to study, let alone what career you want to do, can be stressful. If you find yourself getting worked up over choosing a degree just remember you still have time to make a decision or change your mind.
If you are still in school you have plenty of time to do more research, talk to an advisor, or just sit back and think things through. Don’t feel rushed into making a decision.
Even if you’ve just started, or about to start university, you still have time to change your mind. Up to 1 in 5 students decide to change their major after their first year of study. If you are currently at university don’t hesitate to talk to your tutors or take advantage of the counseling services that are on offer.
What Degree Should I do? Summary
Bearing in mind everything that we’ve covered so far, let’s quickly cover a few DOs and DON’Ts when choosing your degree.
- DON’T make a decision based on what your friends are doing
It can be tempting to try and stay together with your friends as you move to university, but university is a place for experimenting and forming new friendships. You’ll likely find the friends you’ve made at school are less important once you start socialising in a new environment.
- DON’T pick a subject you’re not interested in
This might seem obvious but spending up to 4 years studying a subject you’re not interested in will only lead to more difficulties down the road. Coursework and exams will be many times more difficult if you don’t like the subject matter.
- DON’T be pressured into making a decision
You parents might have always dreamed that you would become an architect but at the end of the day what you study is your decision, don’t be pressured into choosing something you don’t like.
- DO think about life after graduation
Whatever you decide, studying at university is just the first step in preparing for a career. It’s never too early to be thinking about what you want to do after you graduate.
- DO change your mind
You might have told your parents that you want to be an astronaut when you grow up, but as we grow so do our opinions of what work we enjoy. If you think you won’t enjoy a subject then there’s nothing wrong with choosing a new one.
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