Whether entering college as a recent high school graduate or working professional, finding the right major can be difficult. For some students, just narrowing down the list of potential majors is a challenge. But even if you enroll with a major or career already in mind, the realities of the coursework, program length, and related requirements can discourage you from pursuing your intended path.
Regardless of how thoroughly you've mapped your future academic and professional journey, college is an opportunity to discover new interests and shape your career. We asked six successful recent graduates how their experience in school altered, reinforced, and otherwise influenced their pathway.
Below, they recount their experiences and offer advice on finding a major and what they wish they knew before choosing theirs.
“Be flexible and willing to learn. I think college is a great way to get the fundamentals of what you want to do, but being flexible is really how I got my job today. Being open to new experiences and being comfortable trying things even if it might not be the right fit.”
"I went to La Salle University in Philadelphia, where I planned to major in accounting or business because that's what my parents and family were interested in and I thought could make some money. However, right before I got there I actually switched to psychology because I was inspired by an AP psych class in high school. I eventually changed to digital art and multimedia design as my primary major with psychology as my secondary.
My junior year I got a job on campus as a graphic designer. I also had an internship at La Salle for the entrepreneurship center doing graphic design.
Out of college, I started last January as Slice's graphic design intern and then by March they offered me a freelance position for email marketing, which used a lot of graphic design. I ended up going full time by July and decided to stay with Slice because of how much I could learn.
A lot of what I learned in psychology applies toward the work I'm doing in marketing and that has helped me understand some of the clients we work with."
“Be open to different possibilities. Make sure to explore all your options and not just one that falls within your specialty.”
"I majored in criminal justice and minored in political science. I went to Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. I was, and still am, a huge "Law and Order" fan and I knew it wasn't going to be like TV but I started really looking into working in criminal justice. I initially started on the legal track and then around my junior year I switched to law enforcement.
At that time the economy was still down so I had very limited job prospects. I even traveled to all the major cities on the East Coast and I went to job fairs in New York and D.C. and couldn't find anything.
All the jobs I wanted that were related to my degree were very competitive, so I decided to enlist in the military. I had known about intelligence before because of one of internships in college; however, I had never really considered it until that point, so that ended up fitting into my enlistment contract.
I am actually changing careers again: I am now going to school for a master's in dance movement therapy — I really had to come a long way to get to that path. I had to go through my own cycle of mental health and well-being to realize that's the path I need to be on. I started my own dance company outside of the military. My goal is that when I retire I'll have my own dance practice."
“It is never selfish to follow a path that you are gifted in, even if you can’t see the practical way it will benefit the world at the time. The world needs people with confidence in their gifts who enjoy what they do. Do it for you rather than worrying about what others think.”
"I graduated from St. Ambrose University with a BA in psychology and a BS in biology. I attended graduate school for English at Western Illinois University, and rhetorics, communication, and information design at Clemson University. I started school primarily interested in art and considered applying to art institutions.
Progressing through psychology courses coalesced with my personal convictions regarding animal welfare, and I hoped to become involved in animal behavior. I was counseled that veterinary medicine was, perhaps, the more practical way to go regarding employment. So I decided to add a biology major and apply to veterinary medicine programs. But veterinary medicine was hard to get into, and it seemed to be more of a stretch for me from my initial creative interests in art and English.
After working for several years as a vet tech, I returned to my initial academic interests and completed an MA in English with the hope of teaching in academia. I was able to write a dissertation with faculty from English, biology, and art on my committee. It was really liberating, and made this varied and meandering journey through my education culminate in a really wonderful way."
“I tell [my students], 'start thinking about what you want to do.' In all my classes I give them career options. So hopefully by their junior year they're thinking about it, because I know I was privileged to be able to know from my junior year on that I wanted to be a professor. If I can get [my students] by junior year to at least have a decent idea of what kind of job they want then they'll be much better off.”
"I went to the University of Illinois at Springfield and I majored in criminal justice and continued to Southern Illinois University. I am now an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Southwestern Oklahoma State. I was originally a history major and then I looked at my grades one year and realized I wasn't very good at studying history, but I had all A's in my criminal justice classes.
I knew I wanted to be a professor, I wanted to teach and write. I went into an MA program and while I was finishing that they were developing a Ph.D. program, so I was in the first cohort of their Ph.D. program.
I'm lucky I picked something I was good at it. I love it, and I get to do what I love everyday. I can totally understand getting a degree that might get you a good paying job, but just not having your heart in it. So I really encourage students to think about what do they like to study, what are they good at studying, and then also the types of jobs their degree will lead to, do they think they'll enjoy it."
Dr. Alyssa Gilston
“What I think is really important is whether you're a young adult or an older adult, is everyone needs to understand there is more than one way to your goal. You don't need to keep going straight through, it's okay to take a break, it's okay to take time off. It can help you figure out if you're on the right path or, more importantly, if you're not on the right path. It's okay if your plans change, sometimes you need to change plans because it's necessary. There doesn't have to be one linear way.”
"My doctorate is in clinical psychology, but that was not my plan at all. I went to George Washington University because I thought that I wanted to go to law school, so I majored in political science . But, I took a political science class in an enormous auditorium with like 250 kids, and then I hated political science. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Then I took a psychology course, also in one of those really big auditoriums, and I really liked it.
I ended up transferring back to New Jersey. I graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and I switched my major to psychology. It just goes to show how you think you have a plan, you can know what you're going to do and be sure of it, and that's not always what happens. I have a bachelor's in psychology, I have a master's in clinical psychology, I have a master's in clinical counseling, and I have a doctorate in psychology. It took me quite a while to complete my doctoral goal and that wasn't even a goal in the beginning.
Now I teach 99% online. I write courses and chapters in textbooks, I teach, I review other courses, I chair dissertations, and I also sit on many academic boards. I do so many different things, but nothing that I had planned to do."
“You have to have passion and you have to have ability. I tell students 'your life is going to work out.' I was very stressed about doing the wrong thing, and given all the different schooling and career changes I made I would tell myself 'just relax and tell yourself that things are going to work out.' You have to go for what you're passionate about.”
"I went to Providence College and I initially majored in education and minored in business. I became more interested in business classes, though, so I switched my major to business sophomore year. Soon after, I came to the realization that if I did decide to go back to teaching I couldn't do it unless I had a teaching certification. So I changed my major back to teaching and continued minoring in business.
After that I went into business for eight years, working for several small companies. The plan was to make my money and get back into teaching someday. Eight years in, I was making a decent amount of money and I thought, 'if I don't leave now I'll never be able to leave the money.'
So I went back to school and I decided to major in counseling so that I could get a guidance degree. I was very fortunate and I went to Harvard for that degree. I got my degree in risk and prevention counseling.
My original plan when I went to Harvard was to go for a year and then move to California. When I moved to California, I spent two years preparing to start my own business in test prep and admissions. I now have a company in California called Total Student Support."