Choosing a major field of study in college can be a daunting task that starts during a student’s first year in high school. At this point, the student should have an idea about his/her interests and relevant skills that could become a career path. At the very least, exploring potential career options, including a college major, should be explored with the parents and advisers.
Students are encouraged to consider various factors when choosing a college degree, such as current trends in the industry, employment rate, salary potential, and the possibility of getting an advanced degree. Additionally, the student should also consider his/her interests, skills, economic capabilities, and the general workload of different degrees. Most, if not all, of these factors, will determine the student’s future educational and career path. At the end of the day, the student should weigh various factors and determine which degree could provide the best return-on-investment financially or otherwise.
This article examines these factors and how they fit into the decision-making process of choosing a degree. Furthermore, it includes trends that affect various majors, degrees, and fields that may help students decide whether it is right for them. With this article serving as their resource, readers should be able to answer the question, “what degree should I do?”.
What Degree Should I Do? Table of Contents
- Current Trends in Degrees of College Majors
- Choosing a Degree Based on Economic Factors
- Choosing a Degree Based on Skills and Interests
- Other Factors to Consider When Choosing a Degree
Current Trends in Degrees of College Majors
Trends are great indicators of various factors that may help students decide whether a degree is right for them. While it should not be the sole reason for choosing a degree, they can be great tools for exploring which major provides various advantages.
Most Popular Majors Among Students
Students typically choose majors based on career potential, job availability, salary rates, and more. Their interest, skills, and personality also play a significant role in the popularity of these degrees. As such, high school students who have the same goals, personalities, and skills can explore these popular options.
Degree popularity and interest depend on the country’s economy, existing industries, while other cultures also influence how incoming college students choose their degrees. For example, in the United States, business is the most popular major due to the potential that it provides in most industries (Carnevale, Cheah, & Hanson, 2015). Interestingly, aside from engineering, the rest of the top five show interest in human studies such as education, humanities, and health.
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom shows similar trends. Business and management are still quite popular with 333,425 students enrolled in 2017, while the rest are composed of topics that study humans (or something adjacent) such as nursing, psychology, and biology (Mantle, 2018).
Interestingly, the aging general population in Australia are driving students to consider health-related degrees (Good Education Group, 2018). While enrollments in society and culture major still registered the largest in 2018 at more than 66,000 students, the population of health majors follows at a close second with 52,000 students. The statistics show a 159% increase in enrollment in health-related degrees from 2001 to 2018.
In China, students who can score well in its rigorous exam system choose business-related majors (Liu, 2019). The top two degrees are economics (19.39%) and business management (19.06%). These are followed by computer science (6.87%), which reflects the country’s growing IT sector. Moreover, aside from law, the most popular majors are in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Degrees with Highest Employment Potential
Employment rates vary significantly between graduates who enter the workforce. Getting one’s foot in the door is very challenging, especially for new graduates. In the U.S., physical therapy is expected to have a 33% employment growth rate in 2020 (Best College Reviews, 2019). It is followed by nursing (26%), pharmacology (25%), computer information systems (18%), and construction management (17%).
Source: Best College Reviews
Based on the top careers with the most employability, those studying in allied health degrees, computer, and engineering can expect job offers after graduation. At the very least, they can look forward to an industry where they can find entry-level positions.
However, it is also important to note that there are industries currently experiencing high unemployment rates. For example, petroleum engineers have a relatively high median income at $87,600 annually but they also have some of the highest unemployment rates at 7.5% (De Luce, 2019). Aside from these, those in the fields of cognitive science and biopsychology (6.7%), materials engineering and materials science (6.6%), film video and photographic arts (6.5%), and mass media (6.0%) are also experiencing unemployment.
Most Satisfying Majors According to Its Alumni
Aside from experts and career advisers, alumni are the students’ best resource in terms of advice in choosing a degree. After all, they have the experience of studying these majors and are currently pursuing their respective careers.
According to a survey by Payscale, many degree-holding alumni recommend careers in STEM, health, and business. 91% of those working in cytotechnology (cancer studies) and early childhood special education believe that their careers are making the world a better place (PayScale, 2019). These are followed by music therapy (90%), radiation therapy (90%), occupational therapy (89%), and physical therapy (89%).
Salaries may influence the overall satisfaction of the alumni, especially those working in medicine-related careers, as their mid-career pay average is about $99,000. However, many of those satisfied with their careers earn only slightly above the average ($61,000), which means interest, advocacy, and other factors play more important roles.
Choosing a Degree Based on Economic Factors
Financial and economic factors are some of the most popular motivations for choosing a degree. High earning potential and starting salaries are definitely attractive to many students. In fact, around 80% of incoming college students choose their majors based on potential benefits and salaries (Carnevale, Cheah, & Hanson, 2015).
Careers with the Highest Salaries
Students are often anxious about the longevity of their future careers due to the ever-changing job market. A mid-career salary is a good indicator of the potential growth in the discipline. Unsurprisingly, those in STEM are well-paid, with engineers earning an average of $114,000 per year in the middle of their careers (PayScale, 2019).
Here are the highest-paid mid-career salaries in STEM:
On the other hand, business majors are paid about 13% less than STEM degree holders with some exceptions. However, they still enjoy high-paying mid-career salaries:
Those in the humanities have lower average salaries, with only one profession breaking $100,000 annually as their mid-career salary. Unsurprisingly, Japanese language majors have the highest median starting salary at around $106,400 per year, which is only slightly higher than the 9th-highest median salary in STEM. The rest of the majors with high starting-salaries are as follows:
Disciplines with the Highest Starting Salaries
Students are also attracted to majors with high starting-salaries. Aside from job opportunities, above-average starting salaries mean new graduates can focus on other aspects of their careers, such as growth, exploring other skills, or even early promotions.
Choosing a Degree Based on Skills and Interests
When students ask themselves, “what university course should I do?” the answer is usually based on their personalities and abilities. The skills and interests of the student are two of the most significant factors in choosing potential degrees.
Employability and high salary are influential; however, students (and professionals) thrive in career options that they consider meaningful. Experts highlight that students perform better and finish their degrees in a timely manner if they are genuinely interested in their studies (Allen & Robbins, 2010).
Degrees Based on Personality and Values
Certain personality types and skills usually have the potential to thrive in specific majors. For example, a student who can express himself/herself well would enjoy a degree in communication or journalism.
However, as students are continuously evolving, interests may change over time. As such, future career interests should be considered as well. However, listing all personality, skills, and suitable degrees are beyond the scope of this article.
Interestingly, according to John L. Holland’s Theory of Career Choice, people prefer environments where they can use their skills and abilities. Furthermore, they gravitate towards careers where they can be around people with similar values and attitudes. The theory centers on six major personality types (Holland, 1973):
- Realistic – They love working with things that they can touch or see. Also, they may excel with machines, tools, plants, and animals. Potential careers are in agriculture, biological sciences, engineering, nursing, and teaching.
- Artistic – They possess creativity, such as in dance, writing, music, performance, and other craft. They prefer the freedom of expression and do not prefer repetitive tasks. Potential careers are in performing arts, creative writing, fine arts, literature, and film arts.
- Investigative – They enjoy solving problems such as in science and mathematics. However, they do not prefer leading, persuading, or influencing other people. Potential careers are in STEM, research, theoretical studies, philosophy, and other intellectual pursuits.
- Enterprising – They love pursuing and discovering opportunities to change their environment. They are often ambitious, gregarious, and energetic. Potential careers are in law, business, management, and communications.
- Social – They love working and helping people, including solving community and social issues. They do not prefer working with tools or machines. Potential careers are in teaching, psychology, counseling, and nursing.
- Conventional – They like working in a structured and orderly manner. As such, they are effective planners. They also like working with statistics, records, and numbers. Potential careers are in STEM, engineering, and other majors that require analytical and logical skills.
Of course, one must also consider that a person can be a mix of various personality types with one likely dominant trait. For example, a realistic person may possess investigative and/or conventional characteristics.
While the described method is not the only tool that could help students choose potential majors, it presents an interesting process of narrowing down choices based on personality and skills.
Careers That Require Advanced Studies
All degrees provide opportunities for higher or more specific studies, such as graduate degrees or Ph.D. However, advanced credentials are common in other disciplines as part of their qualification or professional requirements (Carnevale, Cheah, & Hanson, 2015). Some fields are also cutthroat, and candidates may need advanced studies to compete with others.
For example, those studying computer science can expect to enter various industries after earning their bachelor’s degree as long as they have the skills and relevant experience. Some companies do not even require a degree as long as the applicant can demonstrate the desired skills. On the other hand, becoming a lawyer requires a pre-law degree. Then, graduates are required to attend a law school and obtain a Juris Doctor before they can take the bar exam.
Students in biology and life sciences are more likely to attain a graduate degree (57.7%), as many of them are preparing for medical school (Carnevale, Cheah, & Hanson, 2015). They are followed by physical sciences (50%) and psychology and social work (45.3%).
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education
Other Factors to Consider When Choosing a Degree
Aside from economic factors, interests, and skills, there are other factors that may help students decide on a major. The most in-demand majors, tuition and other fees, top universities, and overall student workload should be taken into consideration. After all, the student will be spending at least four years in their chosen degrees.
Apart from the employment growth in their respective fields, some majors are currently in-demand across different industries due to their skills and experience. Unsurprisingly, most, if not all, industries are in need of IT experts (31%) due to the rising changes in technology and business processes (Lorenz, 2018). There’s also an increasing need for professionals in customer service (26%), business development (20%), and sales (18%) industries. Here are some of the most in-demand jobs in the market:
Tuition and Other Expenses
The cost of tuition and other fees significantly limits the students’ options. Some majors may only be available at expensive colleges and universities. While student loans are available, it can be a barrier to college access, especially for students with limited financial capabilities (Burdman, 2005).
For example, the average cost of tuition and other fees in the United States has been steadily increasing in the last few decades. It includes other fees such as on-campus accommodation, books, and other relevant expenses.
Top Universities in Specific Fields
Students often aspire to study in their dream colleges and universities. While such rankings exist, like the QS World University Rankings, top universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology often have limited slots for incoming freshmen (OCallaghan, 2020). Instead, students should take a look into top universities based on subjects or majors. Here are the leading colleges and universities based on various subjects along with their overall scores:
Arts & Humanities
The Arts and Humanities domain includes subjects such as art and design, architecture, archaeology, classics, ancient history, linguistics, modern languages, theology, and more. The rest of the top is dominated by US colleges.
Source: QS World University Rankings
Engineering & Technology
The Engineering and Technology domain includes computer science and information systems, civil engineering, petroleum engineering, mineral and mining engineering, and more. For the fifth year in a row, MIT topped the computer science ranking.
Source: QS World University Rankings
Life Sciences & Medicine
The Life Sciences and Medicine includes agriculture, forestry, anatomy, physiology, biological sciences, medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, psychology, and veterinary science. Harvard University is the top school in medicine and psychology. On the other hand, King’s College London (not on the list below) is the best school of dentistry in 2020.
Source: QS World University Rankings
The Natural Sciences domain includes Earth science, marine science, chemistry, environmental sciences, geology, geography, geophysics, mathematics, materials sciences, physics, and astronomy.
Source: QS World University Rankings
Social Sciences & Management
The Social Science and Management domain includes subjects such as accounting, finance, business, management studies, anthropology, communication and media studies, economics, education, law, library and information management, politics, and more. Harvard University tops several subjects in this area namely law, politics, business and management, and economics.
Source: QS World University Rankings
It is also important to research the workload associated with the student’s desired degree. Most majors are four-year programs when taken full-time. Aside from class hours, students are also expected to study and accomplish course requirements (preparing for exams, assignments, etc.) outside these hours.
For example, a full-time architecture student in the U.S. would take about 15 credit hours per semester. That means the student will have to attend 15 hours of classes per week. On average, architecture students study around 24 hours outside classes. That means they are expected to spend around 39 hours per week on academics alone. This does not include extracurricular activities, socialization, extra credits, part-time work, and internships.
Source: Indiana University (National Survey of Student Engagement)
Other Types of Study Options
Students may consider other programs or study options that can help them enrich their education. Furthermore, traditional schooling set-up may not be suitable for certain students. As such, they can pursue other avenues of learning aside from a degree.
- Enriching with a minor – A minor is usually earned after attending between four to eight courses in that area of study. Students often choose minors that will complement or enhance their majors. For example, business majors may take accounting or finance as their minor.
- Multiple majors – Educational institutions often offer double-major options to extend the student’s learning opportunities. For example, literature majors can consider a foreign language as their double-major.
- Online degree programs – Online education has been gaining popularity and acceptance in the last few years due to various improvements in technology. In fact, one in four students is enrolled in at least one web-based course (Ginder, 2014). Online education is also more affordable and more flexible in terms of schedule.
- Associates degree – Students who want to keep their options open can take an associate’s degree, which is granted after completing two years of coursework in an accredited technical or community college. These are often more affordable than attending a university. Then, they can enter the workforce or transfer the credits to a bachelor’s program.
What Degree is Right For You?
Answering the question, “what should I study at university?” can take students years to achieve. After all, their chosen major will serve as a stepping stone to a lifetime career. That means it is important to take note of trends in higher education. Popular majors, degrees with high employment potential, and the most satisfying degrees are worth looking into as they can provide insights on why these majors are valuable.
Furthermore, economic factors, such as career salaries, are also great indicators of viable degrees. Students should also ensure that their skills and interests align with their planned major. Those who are genuinely interested in what they are learning often succeed in their majors. Aside from those factors, students and parents should carefully research current industry demands, tuition and other fees, top universities, expected academic workload, and study options. Doing so will ensure that all avenues are explored, and the student can find a degree worth taking.
- Allen, J., & Robbins, S. (2010). Effects of interest–major congruence, motivation, and academic performance on timely degree attainment. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 57 (1), 23-35. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017267
- Best College Reviews (2019). The 10 best college majors for the future. BestCollegeReviews.com.
- Burdman, P. (2005). The Student Debt Dilemma: Debt Aversion as a Barrier to College Access. Los Angeles, CA: Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6sp9787j
- Carnevale, A. P., Cheah, B., & Hanson, A. R. (2015). The Economic Value of College Majors (pp. 16-17, Rep.). Georgetown, DC: Georgetown University.
- De Luce, I. (2019, September 10). What not to study: The 20 college majors with the highest unemployment rates. Businesss Insider.
- Ginder, S. (2014). Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State: Fall 2012 (Rep.). Washington, DC: NCES.
- Good Education Group. (2018, May 10). The most popular and least popular Australian bachelor’s degrees. Good Education.
- Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices; a theory of careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. PsycNet
- Liu, X. K. (2019, January 10). What are the most popular college majors in the world and why? The answers may surprise you! Youth-Time.eu.
- Lorenz, M. (2018, May 17). Job prospects for new college grads abound, according to a new survey. Career Builder.
- Mantle, R. (2018). Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17 – Summary (Rep.). England: Higher Education Statistics Agency.
- OCallaghan, C. (2020, March 4). Out now: QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020. QS World University Rankings.
- PayScale (2019). PayScale’s 2019-20 College Salary Report (Rep.). PayScale.