Choosing Your Major
How to find what excites you, will qualify you for a job, and uses your gifts and talents
If deciding on a college major feels huge, maybe it’d help to start by realizing that your choice of a major doesn’t have to bind you for life. If you’re one of the 70 percent of high school graduates who go on to college, the thing to do is to pick a major that excites you, that will qualify you for a job in which you can do the kinds of things you enjoy, and which you’re able to do with your gifts and talents.
Someone said that a vocation equals passions plus gifts. In other words, what you like and what you’re good at. I think that gets it basically right. With regard to your gifts, don’t just trust your own judgment. Ask your teachers, your parents, your mentors. Look at your past results: What successes have you had so far in life, even modest successes (particular classes, projects, club activities, music, theater, sports, etc.)? How do they jive or overlap with where your passions and interests lie? If certain types of full-time work are popping up in your mind, or are suggested to you based on your interests and gifts, ask yourself who you know that works in those areas (your parents, friends of your parents, older adults at church, etc.). Pick their brains. What do they actually do in a typical week? What do they like? Dislike? Would they let you shadow them for a day? Could you do an unpaid internship where they work?
After my freshman year, I wasn’t sure if I had wisely chosen my major. I was blessed to get a three-month internship working in a research lab environment with graduate students. I was able to further my academic learning and that made me excited to stay in my major. I was also able to secure additional major-related work after my sophomore year. After that, I never looked back.
A Major: Is There One Right Answer?
Some people think there’s only one right major for them, so they get “analysis paralysis” thinking about it. Those who get this way sometimes hold to a confusing perspective on “knowing” God’s will. They’re on the sidelines until God weighs in with the verdict. We all agree that God’s moral will is revealed in the Bible: flee sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7), maintain an attitude of thanksgiving and prayerful dependence on God (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), obey your parents (Ephesians 6:1), and so on. We also agree that God has a personal, specific will for our lives, a will that covers our nonmoral decisions (like where to go to college, what to major in, whether we’ll marry and who, what we’ll do after college, etc.) — see passages like Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28. God is orchestrating the events in and surrounding our lives for our good, and He holds our future in His hands.
But some Christians think we should discern God’s personal, specific will for our nonmoral decisions in advance so that we can make the “right” choices and stay in His will, experiencing God’s greatest blessings and living “in the center” of His will. One problem with this view is its subjectivism. It leads to second-guessing when things get tough. We end up thinking we may have missed God’s voice, that we didn’t pray enough or that our motives weren’t perfectly pure (they rarely are). Believing you can “know” God’s personal will in advance magnifies the stress it seeks to remove.
The truth is that we cannot know God’s personal, specific will for our nonmoral decisions in advance (Deuteronomy 29:29).Some will correctly observe that the Apostle Paul occasionally received extraordinary guidance about where to go next on a missionary journey — a nonmoral decision (Acts 16:6-10). However, we can make two observations here. The first is that Paul wrote more than half the New Testament, so we might not be surprised if he had more than a normal share of guidance. But the second observation is that Paul never sought extraordinary guidance. In fact, we have every indication that he generally made decisions not unlike the way we do (see Acts 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:5-8). A helpful book on this area, I believe, is Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach To Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung. We can experience peace when we’re obeying God’s moral will (Romans 8:6), and God chastises us when we don’t (Hebrews 13:6-7). But we’re not told the future, so even our planning should recognize that God may bring about another result (James 4:13-16). God’s will is that we live a holy life and become more like Jesus. On nonmoral decisions, we need to make wise, informed decisions and trust God to play out His story for our lives.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t pray about big decisions (like which major to choose). Nor am I suggesting that just because there is usually more than one good option that there are no bad options. Mistakes are painful, and it’s wise to avoid them (though God even works through these to ultimately bless us). We should pray for wisdom (James 1:5); God wants to help us make wise decisions with biblically informed motivations. We should seek the advice of wise, trusted counselors, particularly those older and more mature (Proverbs 11:14). And we should ask God to open our eyes to see things in His Word — things which may reveal sinful attitudes or motivations on our part (like wanting a particular major just because we can make a lot of money with it, 1 Timothy 6:10; or acting in fear for what others may think, Proverbs 29:25).
Beyond that, we’re free to choose a major that suits us. So don’t kill yourself too much mulling it over: Just pick something that makes sense and go for it. Some majors are particularly strategic for bringing the Christian witness to bear upon the culture, but every legitimate major (and profession) can be used as a platform to bring glory to God. In fact, if the statistics are right, you’ll probably change careers throughout your life. What you learn in college may not always directly apply to your job, but the skills you develop there can indirectly benefit you in any job. Solving physics problems can help you think sequentially and analytically, enabling you to spot weaknesses in your company’s sales plan. A history class can make you a better writer, able to understand ideas and present them clearly to others — as a journalist, a teacher or an editor.
Just as our desires are important in the choice of our major, so is our gift set (vocation equals passions plus gifts). However, the view that you can “accomplish whatever you set your mind on” is pervasive in our day. Is it true? Probably not. I’m still waiting for the L.A. Lakers to call me back about that spot on their team. But the truth is that if I dropped out of life and played basketball 24/7, I’d still never make the Lakers squad or any other squad.
We’ve been so “affirmed” in our day that we’ve lost the proper, objective basis for affirmation: a gift, a talent, a skill, as demonstrated by accomplishment. We got a trophy in Little League for showing up. Being regularly reminded how special and talented we are, it’s not surprising that like many contestants on American Idol, we’re shocked when a judge shuffles us off the stage. A recent study found that 39 percent of American eighth graders were confident of their math skills, compared to only 6 percent of Korean eighth graders.This study was cited in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and Keith Camp-bell. Guess who actually did better on math tests? Thinking you’re good and being good are two different things.
So develop “sober judgment” about yourself (Romans 12:3). Studies show it’s a quality in short supply among college students. Let professors and mentors honestly speak into your life without risk of offending you. Even if you’re excited about a major, be open to feedback that may suggest a better path for you. Doing your best for God’s glory with a humble, thankful attitude always pleases God, but it may not always get you a good grade. God grades your heart (your attitude, dedication, effort and perseverance); professors grade what’s on the paper (or computer screen).
Doing anything well requires a combination of God-given talent, a good attitude, hard work and smart work (using the best methods to learn a particular discipline). Others may be more talented than you, but don’t let that get you down. You can always change majors if you bomb out, but as long as you’re making it, hang in there. Fifty percent of the people in this world are below average. Just do your best for God, and trust that He’ll bless you and open doors after graduation. Comparing yourself to others will just mess you up.
Remember the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)? Jesus commends the five-talent person and the two-talent person in the exact same way: Both were faithful with “little,” He says. It wasn’t how much they received but what they did with what they were given. The guy with one talent got scolded, even though he still had the talent in the end. The Master expected him to have done something good with it.
I sometimes wonder if the one-talent guy was too busy worrying not just about the “hard” Master (vs. 24) but about the two-talent and five-talent guys being better than him. Maybe he figured, “I’ll never be as good as them. Better to not even try.” But it’s wrong to nurture self-pity; it’s a dangerous form of pride. Whatever you do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). If you’re working smart (and your professors and study partners can help with this), you’ll inevitably get better over time. You’ll fruitfully use your gifts, and your work ethic, positive attitude and ability to work with others (without jealousy or pride) will speak volumes for you upon graduation. In fact, even if one career path doesn’t work out, that kind of maturity can open doors for you elsewhere.
The Danger of Debt
If you have student loans, be realistic about when you’ll be able to pay them off. Find out what entry-level positions earn for your major, and with the help of your parents, make some calculations on a spreadsheet. Private college may not be best for you. In fact, depending on your goal, a vocational school may be a much better value. Lots of fields don’t even require college degrees.
You don’t want to be enslaved to years of massive debt after graduation, particularly if you anticipate or desire for personal plans (such as child-raising) to direct you out of the workforce at least for a season or if you think God is calling you into a lower paying profession (nothing wrong with that). Balance idealism with realism.
The more you know about yourself — your gifts, skills, interests, aspirations for work and life — the easier time you’ll have deciding on a major. You may have to make tradeoffs (e.g., med school would be too expensive and time-consuming, getting a physician’s assistant degree takes less time and leaves you with less debt). And even after you decide, keep seeking work and volunteer experiences within your discipline. These will expose you to the diverse opportunities within your chosen field. Regardless of what you do post-graduation, going deep within a specific area will help you become a lover of learning, which in turn will enable you to keep picking up the skills you’ll need to honor Christ in the workplace. May God greatly bless your journey.
Copyright 2011 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College, a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).