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Choosing your major based on career goals

Woman standing in front of chalkboard with arrows, thinking about her next direction

You’ve decided to go back to college after taking a break. How do you decide on a major?

Traditional undergraduate students, just coming out of high school, may choose based on their interests, advice from parents or mentors or job outlook. For adult students returning to college, choosing a major will likely have a more direct tie to your career path. You have experience, you’ve already been in the work world, and you might be considering a change in your profession.

You want to maximize time and money by choosing the right major. But before you commit, consider these four steps that might help you focus on the big picture and realize there are multiple avenues to professional success.

headshot of Moira Kelley
Moira Kelley, educational counselor, UW–Madison Continuing Studies

Revisit career goals. Reflect on where you’ve been and where you want to go in your career. What are your interests, values and skills? What skill gaps do you see between your current job and the job you want — or a promotion? How satisfied are you with your current career path? If you’re considering a new career, research your options. Visit go.wisc.edu/career-planning for some do-it-yourself career planning steps.

Seek advice and information. Get career guidance from colleagues, people in professional organizations and others in your field. It’s also wise to review labor market projections. Visit bls.gov/ooh/ — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. You can search occupations by median pay, education, number of new jobs and projected growth rate. Or go to the U.S. Department of Labor’s mynextmove.org, where you can search careers by keyword or industry.

Pick your path. Once you’ve homed in on your career goal, determine the degree you’ll need to reach it. You might be surprised to learn that you don’t need a degree — maybe you just need a certification or short-term training. If you think a degree will help you advance, find out how many credits you need and whether you have credits to transfer.

Explore majors. You’re ready to dive deeper. To explore majors across all UW System campuses, visit the Major Mania website, uwhelp.wisconsin.edu/resources/major-mania, where you can search by career cluster or keywords. Talk with current students, advisors, instructors or alumni about areas of study that interest you and apply to your career goals. Check out syllabi, coursework and textbooks associated with these majors. If possible, take a class in certain majors via a free online course platform such as edX or Coursera to get an idea about the subject matter.

You may emerge from this process still questioning your direction. That’s okay! Don’t get too worried you’ll pick the “wrong” major. Many majors, especially in liberal arts, can launch you into a variety of different career paths. Focus on gaining experience, new skills and connections. If your education involves some form of critical thinking and creative problem-solving (skills strongly desired by many employers), you’re on the right track.

Finally, keep in mind this might not be your final destination. Many people change majors — and careers — several times throughout their life. Be open to possibilities.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Moira Kelley, an educational counselor with Adult Career and Special Student Services, can be reached at moira.kelley@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 14, 2022.