Not sure what to major in? Here’s one way to make that decision
In a perfect world, each of us would have a calling.
Let’s say our calling is medical mycology, the study of fungi that cause disease. We don’t just perform medical mycology work; we identify ourselves as a medical mycologist. We read mycology journals at home because we want to. We go to work not because we need cash to pay the bills but because our research gives our life meaning. We love performing the activities that medical mycologist’s perform in the environment that they work in, we have the respect of our fellow humans, we have a challenging but not overly large workload, we have control over what we study, we’re not getting rich but we make good money, we work with like-minded people that we like, and a strong sense that what we do will make a positive impact on people’s lives.
Maybe choosing a career is as simple as deciding what our calling is. Let’s say you dig deep into your preferences and desires and you figure out what your calling is and you decide to major in tea tasting. Now you’re a senior in college and starting to look for a job and you discover the following minor issues:
- You live in Oregon and want to stay in Oregon or Washington, but most of the jobs are in Arkansas.
- The majority of the tasters surveyed report that they are overworked and underpaid. Many report being forced to do unsavory things to further their organizations goals.
- The unemployment rate within tea tasting is 20% and the salaries are low and headed lower.
- Tea tasting can be done far cheaper if outsourced to China and some organizations are doing this already.
- There’s no career path beyond tasting supervisor.
- Starting jobs require an advanced degree and a 3.8/4.0 GPA just to interview.
And there could be more issues, but you get the point. Not to mention that if you can’t determine what your calling is, you are basically nowhere. Perhaps this method of choosing a career is the reason why over 60% of college seniors seriously doubt that they picked the right major? 
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I advocate a pragmatic approach. This will rub some people the wrong way if they feel you should “follow your passion”. To some extent, I feel the same way. If you know you are absolutely passionate about nursing or art history or whatever, then just do it.  You don’t need to read any further. My experience, though, is that most people didn’t have a clue about what they were passionate about when they entered college or they weren’t passionate about anything and they picked their major on a whim. The other observation I have is that (and there is very limited research on this so I can’t back it up) for careers with similar autonomy, social status, pay, etc, your particular career is probably less of a predicting factor of your job satisfaction than who your employer is and whether you have a good friend where you work. On the other hand, to get good at something, you need to at least like what you are doing, so don’t choose a career in something you are neutral or negative about.
If you want to be an actor or musician, the basic framework might apply, but my approach is probably more business, science and technology career centric. It’s based on your preferences, which can be codified, on data from surveys of employees about their jobs and about their employers, on what jobs are actually available , and on occupational outlook data from the government.
What are your strengths and preferences?
You need to understand what your preferences are so you aren’t swimming against the current and burning yourself out needlessly. For example, if you tend toward being introverted, a job where you have to interact with people all day may be exhausting and you may feel that you can’t get anything done because of all the dang interruptions. On the other hand, if you tend toward extraversion, the same situation would be stimulating. Similarly, if you feel the right way to make decisions is by collecting and analyzing a lot of information, then a job where you have to make a lot of quick decisions based on very limited data may be exasperating to you. You might feel that you’re always operating by the seat of your pants, but someone else with different preferences might find it “exciting”. What I’m leading up to is getting you to assess your personality type. I’m thinking of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® in particular , but there are other alternatives; many are free on the web or you can find a book in the library to help you. Once you acknowledge your preferences, you can steer clear of positions that would rub you the wrong way. I should make it clear that preferences can and do change over time. You might be an introvert who loves swimming in data now, but later on you might find technical sales or management more stimulating.
What are the most satisfying jobs?
In thinking about what types of jobs are the most satisfying, many people think in terms of job motivation and, hence, the self-determination theory of motivation (i.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness). I’m not sure how useful this model is. For example, it predicts that highly competent individuals should be relatively happy, yet in the corporate world, these people tend to be promoted into more challenging positions until they reach a level where they aren’t highly competent. Should they avoid promotions to increase their happiness?
In my experience, the negative of the burnout factors (from the Maslach Burnout Inventory ) are a better predictor of job satisfaction:
- Your workload is reasonable and you have the tools and skills necessary to perform the work.
- You have control or autonomy over what you do. For example, you aren’t accountable for something that you don’t have control over and you aren’t inappropriately managed.
- You get adequate pay, recognition, performance feedback, and access to development opportunities.
- You work in an environment where you aren’t isolated, treated disrespectfully or in frequent conflict.
- You are treated fairly along with the other employees.
- The work is consistent with your values and ethics and you don’t feel it’s meaningless.
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If you look at a survey of the most satisfying jobs (here’s an example), the most satisfying jobs appear to be held by singers, firefighters, professors, teachers, therapists, and clergy. The common thread in these jobs, when I think about it, is that they intrinsically have the ingredients necessary for a satisfying job. For example, how many professors are micromanaged and have no control over their research? At the other end of the spectrum are clerks, fast food employees, maids and telemarketers. These jobs can lack two or more ingredients. Clerks, for example, may have little control over their workload, little autonomy, low pay, low performance feedback, are isolated, etc. Most jobs, however, appear to be in the middle: to a large extent your immediate supervisor and your organization’s culture determine your workload, pay, feedback, degree of autonomy, etc., rather than the particular position you hold.
Who are the best employers?
In my experience, organizations are on a continuum between mostly healthy down to mostly unhealthy as a whole, probably because of organization wide factors such as pay level versus industry average, job security guarantees, paid time off policies, internal job markets, union status, hiring practices (do they hire people who are fun to work with or are hiring decisions based solely on technical skills?), etc.  So, how can you tell if an organization is healthy? If you know or can find someone on the inside that you trust, I would ask them. Otherwise, you can try, for example, glassdoor.com, careerbliss.com and jobatorial.com, to see what employees say about their companies. I would make up a list of 10 or so organizations that I would consider working at which have good reviews, which interview at your college or which you know hire graduates of your school, and which are in desirable locations to you.
Why the focus on organizations that interview at your college? Because many organizations target certain schools, and if you’re not from one of these, it’s possible that you may have little chance of being hired by them. Hiring managers tend to look for employees who are like themselves. If they went to Jimmy’s College for Average Students, they are more likely to hire students from that school (and therefore have interview slots there), and perhaps even scoff at candidates from more selective schools for having an education that was too “abstract” or “theoretical”. Likewise, hiring managers who graduated from elite schools tend to consider admission to an elite school as a screen for the most intelligent employees.  This doesn’t mean you can’t consider organizations that don’t visit your school, but I wouldn’t weigh them too heavily on my short list.
If you are willing to move anywhere, you may have to consider the cost of living at the different locations depending on your starting salary. You could be buying a nice condo in Las Vegas for the cost of renting a depressing apartment in some other places. You should also look at which organizations will pay you to further your education if that’s a priority, what they contribute to your retirement fund, and how many vacation days you get, and anything else that’s important to you.
Putting it all together
Now look at what jobs these 10 or so organizations are hiring for and what majors they will consider. What are the starting salaries? Are there minimum GPA cutoffs? Make a list of the various jobs that seem acceptable and look them up in the occupational outlook handbook.  Look for any red flags. Is the employment outlook worsening? Does the typical person in this occupation work 60 hours per week? Does it fit your personal preferences? Can you see yourself being happy in this job?
At this point, you probably have enough information to narrow things down and at least you know that any of your shortlist choices is very likely to be a good one. Let’s say your list looks like this: accounting, physics, mathematics, and geology. Personal preferences take over now, but be careful not to romanticize. Geology might involve travel to exotic locales to sample for natural resources, but these locales might be hot and full of biting flies. Mathematics might mean a job in a really fun company in San Diego but the commute to reasonably priced housing is long. It might be reasonable to stall: you could pursue a degree in physics because there are a wide variety of jobs available to physics majors, you want to have enough free elective units to complete pre-med school classes, and you could easily switch to electrical engineering as a junior if you wanted to. Whatever. If you’re still undecided, make a plan to get the information you need, and have a deadline for when you will commit.
 C. Rampell (2010), Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling
 Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E, & Leiter, M.P., The Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual, Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996
 A. Bryson, L. Cappellari & C. Lucifora, Job Satisfaction and Employer Behaviour, Policy Studies Institute, Research Discussion Paper 22
 B. Caplan, How Elite Firms Hire: The Inside Story
 United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook