Maybe it’s time to start planning for your undergraduate degree, and you have to start asking the big questions about which degree programs and universities you should apply to. Or maybe you’re an undecided student already at university. If these sound like you, you are probably thinking, I don’t know what to study! What should my university major be?
Nobody but you can choose your path. Part of university is about learning more about yourself and your role in the world, and you can begin this self-discovery when you choose your major and degree at university!
What is a major?
This is the model I recommend for exploring your options and choosing the best major for you in university. The three things you should consider when choosing a major are your aptitudes, interests, and career options. Find something in that middle zone of your aptitudes (skills and strengths), interests (what you enjoy), that has career options (that appeal to you).
You may also find that one of these categories is more important than others for you. I focused on studying something I was very interested in, that I was moderately skilled at, but wasn’t sure what career options it would give me. Other students may prioritize a certain career above the other areas, but you should definitely be thinking about all three of these for success – I wish I had been more aware of the career options I would have before I graduated.
It takes some work to figure out what’s in that middle point, but it will help guide you when you’re planning your degree and choosing your major (and possibly a minor).
How to choose your major based on your Aptitudes
Spending your time as a student or a worker, slogging away at something you really struggle with will be a long, uphill journey. That’s not to say you won’t have to sometimes take courses or do work that you’re not the best at, but it shouldn’t be your main focus. Figuring out your strengths can help you focus and enhance those, rather than spending all your time challenging yourself.
If you don’t already know what you’re good at, it’s time to do some reflecting! What have others (teachers, parents, friends) told you that you are good at? What comes easily to you? Think about school and anything you are involved in outside of school: arts and crafts, hobbies, sports, clubs, volunteering…
And remember, you may develop new skills while you are a student, so giving yourself some space to change your studies may be helpful. If this is something you can see happening, you may wish to choose a university and program where there are more options to change programs.
If you’re having trouble determining your strengths, read this post: Understanding Your Skills and Interests.
How to choose your major based on your Interests
We have to work for a long time. If you graduate from university at 23, and retire at 65, that’s 42 years of working, so you should definitely do something that you like! You will also enjoy your classes more if you are interested in the content and not just trying to get through.
This isn’t the same old “find your passion!” advice. This is about finding where your interests, and hopefully one of your passions, can also align with a career outcome you are interested in. Unfortunately, some “passions” and interests can be more difficult to turn into successful careers, or may not be a good fit for you based on your skills, which is why we are trying to find where these meet.
You are probably still discovering your interests. Hopefully, you continue to discover new interests for the rest of your life! Think about the things that you get wrapped up in – what are the activities that stop time from passing when you’re doing them? What would you rather be doing when you’re bored?
If you’re having trouble narrowing down your interests, read this post: Understanding Your Skills and Interests.
How to choose your major based on your Career Options
This is important because it’s the main reason we go to university. And it’s challenging because there are so many careers out there that we don’t even know exist! We all know about doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers – but what about all those other people out there in fulfilling careers? Doing some research on the careers that are of interest to you before and throughout your time at university will help you make decisions about your own career.
And remember, this is career research, not choosing one specific job. The idea here is to remain open so you will have lots of options when you finish your degree. You want to make sure that there are career options waiting for you that you are interested in, and that you will be able to work towards and eventually qualify for.
You have a lot of time to explore your career options, but starting to do research early in your university degree will be helpful.
Here are the steps you can follow to start exploring career paths:
- Start with a really open search of job postings. You can go on LinkedIn or Indeed or any other job posting website, and just do some keyword searches based on careers you are aware of as well as your interests and aptitudes. You can also look at organizations you have heard of before to see what kinds of jobs are available.
- When you find a few postings that look interesting, look at the details. Start with the role description and the responsibilities. What appeals to you? What doesn’t sound very interesting? Does this role work independently or with others? Are they a leader who has to motivate and manage people? Notice which are transferable skills (which you can gain from any university degree) and technical skills (which may require specific training and certain university programs).
- Next, look at the qualifications (requirements) for that role. What kind of education and experience do you need? What skills do they want you to have? You can use this to guide some of your activities during university so that you can build your resume towards these jobs. You should try to find some entry-level positions that require less experience, as well as positions for later on in your career.
- Finally, use LinkedIn to look up some of the people who have these positions. You don’t need to contact them yet (we’ll talk about that later), but have a look at their education and past work experience to see how they ended up in those jobs. Career paths are not one-size-fits-all, but looking at the paths of others will give you some idea of how to advance in your career.
You may want to start saving some of these job postings so you can look at them later. These are just to provide guidance for you, and if you go through this process every semester or two as you go through your degree, you can continue to update your career goals. You can change your goals as you go through, but this activity will give you some basic knowledge of the kinds of roles that are out there, and what you need to access them.
If you aren’t finding any jobs that appeal to you, that’s still helpful. Early on, even knowing what you don’t want to do will be helpful. Hopefully, you will eventually find some roles that are of interest to you! Just keep searching and trying new things.
As you gain experience and build your network, you can start reaching out to people who are in positions that you would like to learn more about. But early on, just build your knowledge and understanding of what your career path could look like.
About the Salary
Salary may also be something you want to research, which you can do on sites like Glassdoor.ca. However, remember to keep your interests and skills in mind. Having a high salary is great, but having a slightly less high salary in a job you enjoy will probably make you happier. If you retire at 65, you still have to work for another 40+ or so years after you graduate, and you’ll likely be working around 40 hours a week. That’s a lot of time if you’re spending it in a job you dislike, even if you make a lot of money. Don’t make the salary the only reason you chose a particular career path.
If you picked your Career First
A lot of students already know what career they want to go into, and focus on that when they go to college. If this is you, I encourage you to still think about your interests and skills and how they align with that career. As I mentioned above, struggling to get into a particular field may indicate that you will also struggle at that career. Even if you’ve already picked a career, I encourage you to still do some exploration to confirm that it is indeed the best career for you.
Careers that require additional education
Some careers require additional education. For example: lawyers, doctors and professors all have to go beyond a bachelors degree. For other careers, it will depend on where you study (institution and/or province), for example: teachers and architects. If the career of interest to you requires additional education, it will be helpful to do that research early on so you can make sure you meet the requirements.
Connect Your Skills, Interests, and Career Goals with a Major
Your next step is connecting everything you’ve learned from the steps above with one or more majors so you can continue your research.
Not sure what your options are for majors? Everybody knows about majors like English, Biology, and Computer Science, but there are hundreds of other options! Get a list of over 400 examples of university programs available at Canadian universities – click here:
Choosing a University
Finally, once you’ve narrowed down to a few programs, look them up on the Universities Canada program search tool to see which universities offer the programs you are interested in.
You can also check out the Glossary: Canadian University Vocabulary to find definitions of any vocab you haven’t seen before.