Struggling to pick a major?

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Choosing a college major is a big decision that—if made hastily—can land you in an unemployment line, back in school, or working in a career you chose for the wrong reasons. You may understand these consequences and feel stuck from fear, or simple indecision, but there are some things you can do to choose a major you feel more secure and happy about.

Explore Three Majors Your Freshman and Sophomore Year (Instead of Just One)

Your first choice of major probably won’t be your last. It takes experimenting and exploring to figure out what will suit you best in the end, so don’t rush into college for the first time convinced you’ve got it all figured out. Take your time deciding. Prevent yourself from switching majors again and again by declaring “Undecided” and exploring three (or so) different majors early on. In fact, some colleges have made “Exploratory” an official preliminary declaration for students to explore different majors before deciding. Cecilia Capuzzi Simon of The New York Times explains:

“Some schools have made exploration official. At the University of Florida, where 61 percent of students change their majors by the end of their second year, there are three exploratory tracks — engineering and science, humanities and letters, and social and behavioral — that students can declare for three semesters before choosing a specialized major. At the University of Cincinnati, undecided students can enroll in an exploratory studies program.”

Check to see if your school offers a similar program. Otherwise, take it into your own hands and explore introductory classes to some different studies you’re considering. Wait until your junior year to make your final choice, and by then you’ll already have some major credits out of the way from the first couple of years exploring.

Avoid the Easy Route

Don’t hastily settle for letting the skills that come easiest to you determine your choice of major. It might seem like it makes perfect sense in the beginning, but you could quickly get bored studying a topic that you already know inside and out. For example: if you’ve played piano since you were a kid and really enjoy it, being a piano major may be tempting. However, when you start to study it full-time, you may change your mind. After all, turning a fun pastime into required work makes it just that—work. Instead of choosing the major that comes easiest to you, keep it in your pool of options while checking out other majors that are interesting, but less familiar and more challenging. Those might be the ones that result in a more fulfilling experience in the long run.

Consider How You Will Repay Student Loan Debt

Be practical if you have to take out loans for school. You don’t want to be in a position where you can’t pay back loans because you chose a major that didn’t land you a financially suitable career and have no other options. In fact, Forbes says high monthly student loan payments are a primary complaint of new graduated, and gives you a solution should you ever fall into the same situation:

” The program is called income-based repayment (IBR), and it works if you have federal student loans. The IBR plan adjusts your monthly payments so that you will pay no more than 15% of your current income toward your student loans. Yep, you read that right! This can be a blessing for people who desperately need a little more flexibility in their monthly budget. With IBR, you’ll also have a different timeline for repayment – 25 years instead of 10 years. Of course, that means you will pay more interest in the long-run, but it might be worth it if you absolutely can’t afford your student loan payments right now. And if you aren’t able to pay off the loans after 25 years of making payments under the IBR plan, the government will forgive any remaining debt. “

Of course you want to try to avoid this. Best case scenario: you choose a major that pays well enough to keep this problem at bay. Use a Financial Aid Loan Calculator and PayScale.com to run the figures against one another and see if the jobs you might get will cover the loans you take out. Of course there are other ways to manage student loan debt when you’re in over your head but the goal is to not put yourself in that position in the first place. Instead, stick with majors that will land you a job that covers the debt you graduate with.

Your Desired Lifestyle Matters a Lot

Too often do students choose a major because they love the topic without really considering if it will fit in with their life plan or not. The career you choose should fit into your lifestyle, not the other way around. Think about the lifestyle you want to live and the career you’re considering, find people in that career, and compare their lifestyles to the one you’ve dreamed up. The career doesn’t always permit your desired lifestyle.

For example: If you want guaranteed financial security, travel, and vacation time, art wouldn’t be the best fit for you as a major. An artist’s financial security isn’t guaranteed, and you could very well end up working around the clock year-round with no vacation to make ends meet. On the other hand, if you find a good teaching job that has a year-round salary plan, you’ll have the vacation time and a steady income you’re looking for. You can still make room for your passion, but be careful to choose a career that permits the lifestyle you want in addition to being fulfilling.

Consider Job Prospects in a Given Field

Make sure there’s an active job market for whichever major you choose. LinkedIn’s Field of Study Explorer is a great first stop for gathering some real-world data. You can enter a search query for the major in question, and using data from LinkedIn members, it will return the most popular jobs and places of employment for that major. This will give you a good, realistic idea of where you could possibly end up, and you can pit the stats from each major you search against one another to see which ones are in demand. Glassdoor’s Job Explorer is another handy tool that finds you jobs you didn’t know you qualified for. This is handy in broadening the scope—your major might be good for more positions than you think.

Shadow Someone Doing The Job You Want for a Day

You won’t know what you’re in for until you’re on the job or fulfilling your internship requirement. However, you can contact someone in the field and request to shadow them whenever you want. Shadowing is simply following someone who’s already doing the job you hope to do one day. This way you can observe, ask questions, and get a feel for the job to decide if it’s what you want.

Use your school’s resources to find a shadow opportunity. Look into the companies that partner with your school for internships and contact them. Since they’re already involved with education, they might be open to your request to shadow an employee. If that doesn’t work, you could also talk to your school’s professors of your major courses, or your career center, to see if they have any contacts to introduce you to.

Treat it Like a Full-Time Job for (at Least) a Week

While turning your passion into a job isn’t always the best answer, it’s still important to make sure you like what you spend so much time doing. Eventually you’ll spend 40 hours per week or more on your major focus, first in school, then in a career for (presumably) years. Dedicate 40 hours per week (or as much time as possible) over a summer or winter break to studying and “practicing” your major. This will give you a good idea of if you’ll happily dedicate that kind of time to it on a regular basis. If you hate it after one 40-hour week, it’s safe to say you won’t love it after years of practice. However, if you love it after one week or more of full-time dedication, then it’s a safe bet for you to continue to explore it as an option.

By Tony Reid/Lifehacker

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