So, you’re halfway through a four-year undergraduate program and you decide, for one reason or another, that you’ve made a mistake: you’re getting the wrong degree.
Maybe you keep flunking classes and you’re starting to suspect that you’re terrible at math and you’re going to be a lousy physicist. Maybe you realize that you’re scared of blood and embarrassed by naked people, so a career in medicine isn’t for you. Or maybe you’ve just found another subject that suits you better.
Whatever your reason, you’ve just put all of that time, energy and money into passing the prerequisites for a program you don’t want to complete and you’re halfway to getting a degree you don’t want to get.
What should you do?
Changing your mind about your major isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if it happens early in your degree. University, after all, is an opportunity to explore and to discover what you’re interested in.
The classic example, says Janet Sheppard, a counselor at the University of Victoria, is undergraduates who change their minds about going into medicine. “Science professors will joke sometimes that everybody in their biology 100 class is a pre-med student,” she chuckles. “But by the end of the year, things are starting to change.”
In your first few years of university, you’re exposed to a much broader world of learning than what you experienced in high school. There are whole fields of learning you probably never knew existed. Other subjects turn out to be very different than the little taste of them you had in high school — so it’s natural that your plans might change.
Sheppard advises students to keep an open mind, take a wide variety of courses and get involved in campus life. Exposing yourself to the broadest experience possible — both in class and through clubs, volunteer work and other activities — will help you discover what you are interested in.
“Students need to pay attention to the courses they actually look forward to going to, the ones where they actually enjoy the reading,” Sheppard says. You should also talk to people who have the degree you’re thinking about getting, and research the kind of career you’re setting yourself up for.
If you’re still uncertain about what to major in, then “decide not to decide,” says Sheppard. “Give yourself another semester or two to explore.” Staying in school for an extra couple of semesters is not the end of the world; loads of students are doing it. “The reality is most students take more than four years to do a four-year degree.”
The further you get into your studies and the more time you’ve invested in a program, the more difficult it can be to switch. Some changes can be relatively painless, because of the large amount of overlap in prerequisites — for example, changing from psychology to sociology. Transitioning from engineering to sociology, however, could add semesters to your degree and thousands of dollars to your student loan.
If you’re having a crisis in the middle of your degree, Sheppard is inclined to advise going ahead with the switch. “We’re talking about the quality of your life, here,” she says. “I see people making themselves physically ill by trying to stay in a program that’s not the right program.”
Getting bad grades or failing the same required course over and over again are often indicators that your aptitudes lay elsewhere. “That’s the universe telling you something: you’re in the wrong program,” according to Sheppard.
When you’re nearing the end of your degree, the choice to change programs can be much more difficult. With the finish line of graduation just a semester or two down the track, it can be tempting to just put your head down and finish the degree.
Sheppard says most changes of heart near the end of a degree are the result of students belatedly realizing that they don’t want the career they’re preparing for. There are ways of fixing up your degree, however, such as spending another year in school to add a business diploma to your science degree to broaden your choice of career activities. If you’re looking for ways to doctor up your degree, you might find it helpful to visit a career counselor at your school.
The other good news is that you don’t have to be looking for work in the field of your degree for your degree to help you land a job. “A lot of the time, employers look for people with a degree, not because the degree is going to be an exact fit for the job, but because it demonstrates commitment, capability and the completion of a large assignment,” says Andrew Deca, general manager of Angus One Professional Recruitment.
Most professional or technical careers, such as law or accounting, require an education specific to the career, but many other employers are more focussed on soft skills, such as leadership, organization, time management, and communication — skills that can be learned in any degree and, importantly, though extracurricular activities.
Both Deca and Sheppard agree that staying open to extracurricular or academic opportunities that can help you become more rounded—whether they provide soft skills or knowledge of another field—is valuable, whether or not that means extending your time in university. In fact, Sheppard argues that putting too much energy into one particular subject could actually be a drawback. “We live in a world where there is such constant, rapid, complex change all around us, that if you’re too focused, you’ll miss things, you’ll miss opportunities, because things are changing so fast.”
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