The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

Choosing a major field of study can be a difficult decision, and today’s college students are encouraged to weigh several factors before choosing an area of focus for a four-year degree program. Important major considerations include overall program cost, salary expectations, employment rates for employees in the field and advanced degree opportunities. Ultimately, students must decide which field will offer the best return-on-investment, or ROI, for their postsecondary education.

This comprehensive guide uses measured student outcomes, job market statistics and other higher education data to explore the various benefits and drawbacks of the nation’s most popular undergraduate major subjects. Our goal is to provide a helpful resource for students who are unsure about which major is the best choice for them financially, professionally and personally.

d_choosing-major_overwhelmed

A View of Major Trends

Changing Majors

According to a recent report from the University of La Verne, roughly half of all college freshmen enter college undecided about their major. Additionally, as many as 70% will change their major at least once during the course of their four-year degree program; the majority of these students change their major at least three times.

Many students worry that changing their major will delay graduation and, as a result, significantly increase their overall tuition costs. However, a study at Western Kentucky University found that shifting major fields had a “minimal impact” on planned graduation times. Furthermore, the data showed that full-time students who changed majors at least once reported higher graduation rates than those who remained in the same field for their entire bachelor’s program.

Most Popular Majors

Students typically tend to their major based on career-related factors on job availability employment rates in their proposed field. The following table lists the most popular majors among today’s college graduates; the data was originally published in a report from Georgetown University titled, ‘The Economic Value of College Majors.’

Which Majors Have the Highest Employment Rate?

Employment rates will differ between professionals who enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree and those who go on to earn a master’s or other advanced credential. Studies have also found that employment rates varied between new graduates and bachelor’s degree-holders with multiple years of professional experience. The following table from Georgetown’s ‘Hard Times’ report shows unemployment rates for new bachelor’s graduates, experienced bachelor’s graduates and master’s degree-holders:

Happiest Majors

College alumni can be a helpful source of information for students who are exploring different areas of study or considering a change in their major focus. These individuals offer valuable insights about their major for both current students and job-seekers.

A recent poll by Payscale found that degree-holding alumni generally recommended majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; other areas with high approval ratings included business, accounting and finance, nursing and health care management. Alternatively, majors related to the arts, humanities and social sciences held low approval ratings among college alumni. A study from Pew Research Center found that 24% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field and 29% of business majors wish they had pursued a different area of study. In contrast, 33% of graduates with degrees in social science, liberal arts and education regretted their decision.

Additionally, the following table shows Payscale’s alumni recommendation ratings (%) for 25 of the most popular college majors:

Professional Goals

Every student uses a different set of criteria to determine their major field of study. The FAQ below will explore different major areas in terms of both long- and short-term career goals.

Each professional pathway will be unique as far as these three priorities are concerned. Students should first determine which of these priorities is most important, and then explore majors that reflect their objectives.

d_choosing-major_narrowing-writing

What’s your priority? Some students pursue certain majors based on financial earning and benefits potential. Others focus less on salaries and more on launching a fun, meaningful in a career that interests and engages them while some choose to earn an advanced degree after graduation.

Which Fields Have the Most Earning Power?

Georgetown’s ‘The Economic Value of College Majors’ report noted that roughly 80% of today’s incoming college freshmen ultimately choose a major based on potential salary and benefits. The study also found that the average median annual salary across bachelor’s graduates in all majors was $33,000 for employees 21-25; additionally, the median earnings for high school graduates with no college education was $22,000. For employees aged 25-59, the median annual salary was $60,000 for all bachelor’s degree-holders and $36,000 for those with a high school diploma and no college.

The following table shows the median annual salaries for college graduates aged 21-25 and 25-59 in the 15 major subgroups.

Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers By Major Group (2013)

Which Careers Pay the Highest/Lowest Salaries?

Generally speaking, careers in medicine, business administration and STEM-related fields offered the highest annual salaries; meanwhile, careers in social sciences, arts and humanities paid the lowest wages. A report from FiveThirtyEight found that the following 10 positions were the national leaders in median annual earnings among recent graduates. Please note that all but one of these positions is in a STEM field, and that eight of them are concentrated in engineering.

Highest Median Annual Earnings Ranked by Sub-Major (2014)

Petroleum Engineer

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 2,339
Median Annual Salary: $110,000

Mining and Mineral Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 756
Median Annual Salary: $110,000

Metallurgical Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 856
Median Annual Salary: $73,000

Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 1,258
Median Annual Salary: $70,000

Chemical Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 32,260
Median Annual Salary: $65,000

Nuclear Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 2,573
Median Annual Salary: $65,000

Actuarial Science

Major Subgroup: Business
Number of Majors: 3,777
Median Annual Salary: $62,000

Astronomy and Astrophysics

Major Subgroup: Physical Sciences
Number of Majors: 1,792
Median Annual Salary: $62,000

Mechanical Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 91,227
Median Annual Salary: $60,000

Electrical Engineering

Major Subgroup: Architecture and Engineering
Number of Majors: 81,527
Median Annual Salary: $60,000

Alternatively, the following table lists FiveThirtyEight’s 10 lowest paying professional roles in terms of median annual salary for newly graduated students. In contrast to the first table, only one of the following positions is related to STEM-related studies.

Lowest Median Annual Earnings Ranked by Sub-Major (2014)

Library Science

Major Subgroup: Education
Number of Majors: 1,098
Median Annual Salary: $22,000

Counseling Psychology

Major Subgroup: Psychology and Social Work
Number of Majors: 4,626
Median Annual Salary: $23,400

Clinical Psychology

Major Subgroup: Psychology and Social Work
Number of Majors: 2,838
Median Annual Salary: $25,000

Educational Psychology

Major Subgroup: Psychology and Social Work
Number of Majors: 2,854
Median Annual Salary: $25,000

Zoology

Major Subgroup: Biology and Life Sciences
Number of Majors: 8,409
Median Annual Salary: $26,000

Composition and Rhetoric

Major Subgroup: Humanities and Liberal Arts
Number of Majors: 18,953
Median Annual Salary: $27,000

Drama and Theater Arts

Major Subgroup: Arts
Number of Majors: 43,249
Median Annual Salary: $27,000

Foreign Languages

Major Subgroup: Humanities and Liberal Arts
Number of Majors: 11,204
Median Annual Salary: $27,500

Early Childhood Education

Major Subgroup: Education
Number of Majors: 37,589
Median Annual Salary: $28,000

Communication Disorders Science and Services

Major Subgroup: Health
Number of Majors: 38,279
Median Annual Salary: $28,000

Personality Counts: Myers-Briggs Test

Today’s students are encouraged to find a major and corresponding career that reflects their personality and work habits. A 2013 nationwide survey of outgoing high school seniors found that 36% planned on majoring in a field that was a “good fit” for their interests, while nearly one-third planned to choose a major that was a “poor fit”. However, many education experts believe that students perform better at the college level when they are passionate about their major subject(s).

d_choosing-major_making-sense

WHICH PROFESSION BEST MATCHES MY PERSONALITY? Self-assessment usually narrows your prospective choices considerably. Delving into the various majors still under consideration can help you further hone in on the right program.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test enables students to determine subjects that closely align with their personal interests. MBTI uses habits and attitudes to generate algorithmic individual profiles for men and women. This test plays an integral role in today’s corporate culture. According to a report from The Boston Globe, hiring managers at roughly 80% of Fortune 500 Companies use the Ariel-Briggs formula to study the personalities of job applicants and decide which candidate is the best fit for a given position.

Myers-Briggs categorizes individuals using eight distinct personal preferences that can be combined to create 16 different personality types. Each preference is assigned a unique letter of the alphabet. The eight preferences are as follows:

Interaction: Extroverts (E) prefer to interact with others in the outer world, while Introverts (I) tend to focus on their own inner worlds.

Information: Some individuals prefer to process information through Sensing (S), or basic analysis, while others lean toward Intuition (N) in order to interpret and define information they encounter.

Decisions: Some tend to make decisions based on logic and objectivity; this is known in Myers-Briggs as Thinking (T). Others make decisions on a case-by-case basis, also known as Feeling (F).

Structure: Some individuals prefer Judging (J), or using a set of rules to inform how they process information and experiences. Others lean toward Perceiving (P), or keeping an open mind when it comes to information and experiences.

Myers-Briggs

Source: Ball State University

Each of the 16 Myers-Briggs Personality Types includes one preference from each of the four groups listed above. For example, ENTJ types are typically extroverted individuals who lean on intuition, thinking and judging when it comes to everyday decisions and interactions. A study by the Ball State University Career Center named specific majors that are conducive to all 16 MBTI types. The table below lists all 16 types and a sampling of Ball State’s suggested major subgroups.

ENFP

Possible Majors

  • Arts
  • Education
  • Humanities and Liberal Arts
  • Psychology and Social Work
ENFJ

Possible Majors

  • Business
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Psychology and Social Work
  • Social Sciences
ENTJ

Possible Majors

  • Business
  • Education
  • Health
  • Law and Public Policy
ENTP

Possible Majors

  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Business
  • Computer, Statistics and Mathematics
  • Physical Sciences
ESFJ

Possible Majors

  • Education
  • Health
  • Psychology and Social Work
  • Social Sciences
ESFP

Possible Majors

  • Education
  • Health
  • Law and Public Policy
  • Social Sciences
ESTJ

Possible Majors

  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Computer, Statistics and Mathematics
  • Law and Public Policy
  • Physical Sciences
ESTP

Possible Majors

  • Arts
  • Business
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Industrial Arts, Consumer Services and Recreation
INFJ

Possible Majors

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Education
  • Psychology and Social Work
INFP

Possible Majors

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Social Sciences
INTJ

Possible Majors

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Computer, Statistics and Mathematics
  • Industrial Arts, Consumer Services and Recreation
INTP

Possible Majors

  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Business
  • Computer, Statistics and Mathematics
  • Physical Sciences
ISFJ

Possible Majors

  • Arts
  • Education
  • Health
  • Psychology and Social Work
ISFP

Possible Majors

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Arts
  • Education
  • Social Sciences
ISTJ

Possible Majors

  • Biology and Life Sciences
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Health
  • Psychology and Social Work
ISTP

Possible Majors

  • Architecture and Engineering
  • Business
  • Computer, Statistics and Mathematics
  • Health

Which Majors are Most Likely to Lead to Advanced Degree?

Roughly one-third of bachelor’s program graduates will go on to earn a graduate degree. However, advanced credentials are more common in certain academic fields than others. Some majors are encouraged to earn a master’s degree or ph.D. in order to fulfill the necessary educational requirements of their profession and compete with other qualified candidates in the job market. For others, post-bachelor’s education may prove to be an unnecessary investment that forces students to incur more tuition debt without improving their standing in the current workforce.

‘The Economic Value of College Majors’ includes a comprehensive list of more than 130 specific majors ranked by the percentage of students who go on to earn an advanced degree. We’ve categorized each of these majors using the 15 major subgroups above and calculated an overall average for each subgroup. These findings are listed in the table below. Please note: some specific majors were counted for more than one major subgroup. For instance, ‘Geological and Geophysical Engineering’ was counted in both the Architecture/Engineering and Physical Sciences subgroups.

Which Majors are Most in-Demand?

The demand for academic majors in different subjects will vary with hiring trends, industry growth and other employment factors. According to CareerBuilder, students who earn degrees in business and STEM-related fields are considered the most in-demand as far as employers are concerned. The table below lists the 10 most in-demand majors and the percentage of current employers who hire these graduates, according to CareerBuilder data:

Most Expensive Majors

Students can determine the overall expense of a bachelor’s program by calculating the degree’s return-on-investment, or ROI. This figure represents the total cost of a four-year program (tuition, fees, books and all other expenses) subtracted from the degree recipient’s career earnings.

Salary.com recently determined the college major subjects with the best and worst ROIs for professionals over 30-year careers. Their calculations factored in average tuition costs at public and private universities, median annual salaries and per-year increases in inflation and cost-of-living. Salary.com’s findings used three sample careers for each major. Their findings for majors with best (left) and worst ROI (right) are featured in the table below; ROIs for public and private college graduates are both included. Please note that ROIs in each major differ by specific careers; for this reason, the best and worst lists are not ranked.

Math

Sample Careers: Actuary II, Operations Research Analysis Manager, Accounts Payable/ Receivable Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 153.0%; Private: 46.3%

Information Technology (IT)

Sample Careers: Web Applications Developer, Business Intelligence Specialist, IT Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 155.7%; Private: 47%

Human Resources

Sample Careers: Compensation & Benefits Manager, Recruiting Manager, Human Resources Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 141.7%; Private: 42.7%

Economics

Sample Careers: Economist, Financial Associate II, Investment Operations Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 192.7%; Private: 58.3%

Biology

Sample Careers: Laboratory Manager, Clinical Research Associate II, Health & Safety Supervisor
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 120.7%; Private: 36%

Engineering

Sample Careers: Chemical Engineer II, Mechanical Engineer II, Electrical Engineering Supervisor II
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 124.7%; Private: 37.7%

Marketing

Sample Careers: Marketing Manager, Product/Brand Manager, Public Relations Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 138.7%; Private: 42%

English

Sample Careers: Speech Writer, Communications Manager, Web Content Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 128.7%; Private: 39%

Sociology

Sample Careers: Social Worker, Corrections Officer, Chemical Dependency Counselor
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 69%; Private: 20%

Fine Arts

Sample Careers: Museum Research Worker, Graphic Designer, Painter/ Illustrator
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 69%; Private: 20.3%

Education

Sample Careers: Daycare Center Teacher, Elementary School Teacher, High School Teacher
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 70%; Private: 20.7%

Religious Studies/Theology

Sample Careers: Religious Educator, Chaplain – Healthcare, Associate Pastor
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 83.7%; Private: 25%

Hospitality/Tourism

Sample Careers: Meeting/ Event Planner, Hotel Resident Manager, Catering Manager
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 85%; Private: 25.3%

Nutrition

Sample Careers: Dietician, Food Services Manager, Food Scientist
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 91%; Private: 27.3%

Psychology

Sample Careers: Human Services Worker, Career Counselor – Higher Education, Bereavement Coordinator
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 61.3%; Private: 18%

Communications

Sample Careers: Copywriter, News Reporter, Marketing Coordinator
Average ROI for Sample Careers (%): Public: 73%; Private: 21.3%

Workload and Majors

Before declaring a major, students should research their field of choice to determine how rigorous the workload will be for a four-year program. A study by the National Survey of Student Engagement recently calculated the weekly workload of some of the most popular major fields. The study looked at reading demands and course requirements (i.e. assignments and exam prep) on a weekly basis, as well as pages of assigned writing per year. The NSSE’s findings (ranked alphabetically by major group) are featured in the table below:

CREATE YOUR OWN MAJOR

According to USA Today, this interdisciplinary option typically requires the student to write a proposal, present their major to faculty members and curate advisors to provide academic assistance throughout the course of the program. The ‘Individualized Studies‘ option at the University of Washington is one prominent example of this alternative degree pathway.

Enrich Your Studies with a Minor

Students can supplement their bachelor’s credential by pursuing a minor in addition to their major program. Minor fields of study typically require four to eight courses in an area of study that is different from the student’s major. According to New York Times contributor Michelle Slatalla, most students choose a minor that will either “complement or counterbalance” their major. A creative writing major might minor in literature, while a business major may pursue a minor in finance or accounting. Students may also minor in a foreign language in order to boost their hireability on the global market.

d_choosing-major_juggling

Students today are not limited to one major field of study when it comes to choosing their degree pathway. Many learning institutions allow students to create hybrid or specialized degrees that incorporate multiple major fields.

Multiple Majors

Students are not necessarily limited to one major field of study. Most granting institutions allow students to ‘double-major’ in certain fields, and some even offer ‘triple-major’ options. A 2012 Vanderbilt University study found that many students who double-majored chose a foreign language as one of their major fields. Other popular combinations included business and economics; political science and philosophy; engineering and computer science; and biology and psychology.

Online Schooling

In recent years, online education has emerged as a hugely popular alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar learning. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 5.4 million U.S. college students — or one in four — enrolled in at least one web-based course in the Fall 2012 semester. As the demand has grown year-to-year, more degree-granting institutions have begun to offer web-based courses for students. These programs allow students to access course materials, watch/listen to lectures, complete assignments and take exams from the comfort of their home computer. This option is especially attractive to students with full-time jobs, childcare obligations or other commitments that prevent them from studying on a college campus. Online learning also tends to be more cost-effective, since students do not have to pay for room and board, meal plans and other fees associated with on-campus living.

Starting with an Associates of Arts Degree

An associate degree is given to undergraduate students who successfully complete two years of coursework. Earning an associate credential at an accredited community or technical college can be a cost-effective option, since most (if not all) course credits will be transferable to a bachelor’s program and the tuition at these institutions tend to be more affordable than public universities or private colleges. Certain schools offer specialized associate degrees in fields like computer science, nursing and education. However, the bulk of earners go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

College Credit for Life Experience

Some students earn credit through professional experience by sitting for exams that test subject-related competencies. More than 2,900 accredited colleges and universities offer the College Level Examination Program, which awards course credit for those who pass an experience-based exam. Five basic CLEP exams are available in English composition, college mathematics, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, with an additional 28 exams in specific subjects.

The DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) are another option for earning experienced-based credit. The DSST tests in 38 different areas related to business, humanities, math, physical sciences and social sciences; the cost is $80 per exam.

Additional Resources

This final section contains a list of professional websites, blogs, social media outlets and other links that will be useful to students who are currently exploring their major options.

Quizzes

  • What’s My Major?: This 35-part questionnaire features an interactive format that highlights suggested major fields for each answer.
  • Career Quiz: Each question in The Princeton Review’s 24-part quiz invites participants to choose their preference between two seemingly random occupations; the ideal major for the candidate will be derived from these choices.
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Personality Test: As mentioned above, this survey determines suitable career paths by assessing the candidate’s preferences when it comes to social interaction, information processing, decision-making and perception.

Ask the Experts

Social Media to Follow

Facebook:

  • Chronicle of Higher Education: The official Facebook page of the popular, college-oriented online magazine.
  • USA Today College: Follow the national newspaper’s higher education branch for links to news stories, financial aid opportunities and other resources for postsecondary students.
  • Payscale: Payscale’s Facebook page offers up-to-date information salary and hiring trends that can help students choose a suitable major field.

Twitter:

  • @College_Board: A helpful, all-encompassing resource for outgoing high school seniors and current college students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • @College_Experts: This Twitter handle administered by current college advisors offers academic and professional advice to postsecondary students at all levels.
  • @StephenRothberg: Get current news about academic trends from the president of College Recruiter, a comprehensive online job board specializing in niche positions.

Mid-Career Professionals

Parents

Transfer Students

International Students

  • InternationalStudent.com: This comprehensive website offers information on study abroad programs, scholarships, tax-filing procedures and other areas of interest for students who earn credit overseas.
  • ‘8 Campus Resources for International Students’: This list from U.S. News & World Report profiles academic advisors, career centers and other on-campus services for foreign learners.
  • International Student Insurance Blog: This helpful resource guides students through the ins and outs of obtaining insurance coverage while enrolled in overseas college and study abroad programs.