From firefighter to president, from teacher to trash truck driver, and from lawyer to rock star, we’re all somehow able to answer the question. At such a young age, we don’t know much of anything about work, life and career, so we pick the thing we like, the thing we think will be the most fun.
Then we grow up. Life happens and before we know it, we find ourselves doing something else or something close but not quite what we thought.
Now here you are some 20, 25, 30 or more years later and, once again, you get to make a choice. You get to choose your degree program.
This time, though, you’re keenly aware that answering the question, “What degree is right for me?” requires a more mature, thoughtful choice. And with choice comes responsibility and consequence.
Because choosing your degree wisely is paramount, we offer these insights to help you gain some clarity.
1. Start at the end.
Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People coined the phrase “Begin with the end in mind,” meaning to start with a clear vision of where you want to go and how you want to get there. Only then, says Covey, can you make things happen. Picture yourself on graduation day, degree in hand, starting your new job the very next day. Where do you see yourself? What are you doing? What kind of field are you in? Who are you working with? What is your role? What brings you satisfaction? Start narrowing your choice by making a list of industries you’d like to work in and job titles you’d like to have.
2. Think about what you love.
There’s an old adage that says, ““Choose a job you’ll love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Consider all the things that make you who you are, such as interests, hobbies, activities, experiences and desires. Use this career planning resource if you need a little help. The important thing in choosing the right degree for you is to first figure out where your passions lie. Once you do that, choose a degree program that correlates to your passions and leads to a satisfying, enjoyable career.
3. Recognize the significance of choice.
According to international mentoring consultant Sarah Fletcher in her book New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, “We are labeled and categorized from birth by ethnic group, size, intelligence, socioeconomic status and more. Such labels can be empowering and enable us to gain access to resources that assist our development. Or they can be straitjackets that condemn us to remain in a certain subset of the population, never actualizing our potential as learners. We need to be aware of our capacity to ‘be’ beyond constraining labels and take responsibility for who we are and who we want to become.” The choice—literally—is yours. Refuse to allow outside influences like the opinions of others, media reports on which degrees are “best,” or salary potential to be your sole factors in choosing which degree is right for you.
4. Explore your options.
Get the facts before you make a decision about your college degree. Talk to others who’ve gone before you, take an elective course, seek counsel from a trusted advisor, work with a mentor and/or take an assessment test. Do whatever it takes to make sure you fully understand the degree program or programs you’re leaning toward. Choosing the right degree is not an exact science, so take some time to “date around” before you pick “the one.”
5. Be a renegade.
Ignore the traditional advice of pursuing a degree based solely on potential job outlook. Economic changes notwithstanding, there may be opportunities within your chosen degree that you’re not yet aware of, or that have yet to be invented. The college graduates of 25 years ago, for example, had no idea there would even be such a job title as “internet marketer” or “social media advisor.” When choosing your degree, give job satisfaction precedence over job outlook. A 1987 survey by the global market research firm Conference Board, found that 61% of people were happy in their work. By 2008, that number dropped to 49%.
6. Consider your current position.
While the pursuit of happiness can be a good thing as you decide which degree is right for you, it also makes sense to consider the reality of where you are. Do you already have college credits in a specific degree program? Are you close to completing a particular degree? If so, talk to an academic advisor about what it will take to finish that degree program versus starting a new one. A degree in one field won’t necessarily preclude you from pursuing a career in another, and it might make sense to finish the one you started.