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Diary of a made man

How to Choose a College Major That Doesn’t Make You Broke

by Ian Balina

2 years ago

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.”

It sounds a bit discouraging, especially when you are young and restless and you have so much energy that you could move mountains.

But, it’s the truth.

It’s tempting to believe that success can happen overnight when you hear someone’s “Cinderella” career story. That’s rarely the case. Most success stories are many years in the making. However, there’s one factor that can impact your future: your college major.

I know what you’re thinking: how can I decide on a college major now when I have trouble selecting what clothes to wear to school each morning?

But, think about it for a second.

Delaying this important decision could leave you needing more than four years to complete a degree. By the time you realize what you are interested in, you’re one or two years behind your peers that picked a major early. So now is the best time to explore your interests and pick a major that fits you. Not to mention the fact that you’ll have plenty of time to reevaluate your options until you become confident about what you want to do next.

With that in mind, let’s learn how to pick a college major you’ll love.

Why Should You Choose a College Major Early?



Studies show that about 80% of students in the United States will change their course of study at least once before graduation. It’s easy to understand why this happens. Most people pick a major without researching their option thoroughly. They have this flawed projection of how the ideal job looks like or they are steered by their parent’s will.

Here’s an example:

A friend of a friend decided to pursue his bachelor’s degree in theater arts, his parents weren’t very excited. They wanted him to be happy, but they also wanted him to earn a degree that will translate into a real job. But, he was already dreaming about Broadway roles, and it was impossible to change his mind. So, he gave acting a real shot. Unfortunately, by the end of the second year, he realized that his parents were right. Classes weren’t anything like he expected, auditioning was hard, and he barely landed a few small gigs at a local theater. He wanted more.

So, he made an 180-degree change. Instead of something aspirational, he chose to pursue a degree in engineering. Four years and $32,000 later, he earned a degree that paid off in the long term.

So, even if it’s true that you have to take the stairs to be successful, there is one thing you should also consider: being one step ahead. That could mean exploring your options to figure out what interests you have or simply get better at what you like. The longer you wait, the longer it will take you to get where you want to be.

The 10,000 Hour Rule When It Comes to Choosing a Career

Being good at something takes a lot of practice. How much practice, you ask?

Well, about 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell.


Apparently, this is the “magic” number of hours it takes to become great at something. Although talent is an important aspect, you will never become an expert without constant practice. Take Mozart, for example. He needed ten years to compose his first masterwork.

According to Gladwell, if you want to become an expert in your industry, you’d have to study 20 hours a week for ten years. You would have to be self-directed and a very curious learner to achieve this impressive goal. Not to mention, you’d need a lot of help to be able to support yourself while preparing for excellence.

Not very realistic, I know. However, here are some practical steps that might improve your chances:

  • Select a topic that you are passionate about and get yourself involved in actions related to it;
  • Gather input from people who have already done what you want to do and identify the skills you need to succeed. Improve those skills;
  • As you move forward, ask for feedback from those who know your goal and can help you become even better. Take that feedback into consideration and make adjustments;
  • Be patient – improvement takes time. It won’t happen overnight. In this case, time is of the essence. Just keep an open mind, look around you and ask questions. You never know where your answers might come from;

The main takeaway is that the earlier you decide on a career, the sooner you can put in your 10,000 hours and the faster you’ll become great in your chosen field.

Other Ways to Master a Skill

Don’t get your hopes down. While the 10,000 hours rule may work for some people, it might not work for you. In fact, it may take you much less to become an expert since it all depends on the quality of your efforts and not the quantity.

Given the fact that we live in a world where time goes by so fast, maybe you should work on developing new ways of learning so that the process doesn’t take so long. Once you understand how your brain learns, you can develop an efficient way of studying that might not take so much time.

There are seven major learning styles:

  1. Visual – some people learn faster if they use images and colors
  2. Physical – some people learn “by doing.” They use role-playing or objects to understand concepts better
  3. Aural – these people learn easily by using sounds, clever rhymes or recordings
  4. Verbal – some prefer using words to assist in their learning, so they usually read content aloud
  5. Logical – aim to understand the reasons behind some ideas. They use “systems” to explain or understand concepts
  6. Social – these are the people that enjoy learning in groups and aim to work with others as much as possible
  7. Solitary – they prefer learning alone and through self-study

Once you have identified the category you fit in, try to make the most of it. Not only will it improve your learning process, but it will also help you save time. Although it might seem like you have your entire life ahead of you, time flies by fast. That’s why it’s important to be methodical and find an approach that can help you maximize your efforts and get you one step closer to your goal: picking a college major that will translate into a successful career.

It’s a Tough Market for Those Without a College Major

You hear it from journalists on TV. You hear it from your friends, shouldering massive student debts while struggling to find a job. A college degree isn’t worth what it used to be.

In some way, the assertion is true. College grads have a difficult time finding a job in this overly competitive market. However, that doesn’t mean that the grass is greener on the other side.

Sure, no one can guarantee that you’ll find your dream job immediately after graduating, but you will have a significant advantage. No matter the economic or social context, having a college degree will improve your chances of getting a job.

Studies show that people with Bachelor’s degrees have about half the unemployment rate of high school graduates. So, no matter how complicated things may be now, the truth is you will be safer with a degree than without one.

Choosing your college major early will help you in the marketplace. You won’t be the only one who wants to be a doctor, or lawyer, or journalist, or whatever you want to be. But, the earlier you start, the better chance you have to separate yourself from others. Start planning now, focus on practicing and improving your skills, and by the time you’ll graduate, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an expert.

How to Choose a College Major?


The prospect of making a decision that has the potential to impact the rest of your life can be overwhelming. After all, it’s not easy to figure out what you want to pursue at such an early age. So, I’ve come up with a system that could help you choose a college major that fits you.

Should Your Major Be Your Passion?

I believe that you should be passionate about what you do. If you turn your passion into your career, it won’t feel like work. However, that’s not mandatory. Remember the earlier story of the friend who was passionate about theater but quickly realized that he can’t support a family as an artist. He is now a full-time engineer and an occasional actor. He found a way to combine his passion with a career that brings him financial satisfaction.

Ok, but what if I’m not passionate about anything in particular?” you might ask. Here are some exercises to help you figure out what you like.

  • List Your Strengths: Write down a list of your strengths. If you don’t know what they are or you fear you lack objectivity, ask your closest friends and family. However, if you ask me, introspection is the best way to figure out both your talents and purpose. At the end of the day, no one knows more about you as well as you do. Follow your gut, and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts.
  • Try New Things: Take classes, attend workshops, read books, and learn as much as you can. It worked for me.
  • Evaluate Your Past Performance: Ask yourself the following question: What classes do you enjoy the most? What do you like the least? What topics are the most challenging? What was your biggest accomplishment? When were you the happiest of the proudest?

Who Do You Want to Be?

Ideally, what you do should say something about who you are or who you want to become. For instance, if you want to help people stay healthy, you could become a doctor. If you want to help people stay informed, you could become a journalist.

So, think about your mission. What purpose do you want to achieve? What difference do you want to make in the world?

I know what you’re thinking. If discovering your passion, strengths and talent seem hard, finding your mission seems even more challenging. Nevertheless, here are some questions you should ask yourself to figure out what you want to do with your life:

  • What Do You Love Doing? Again, it comes down to passion. Think about what you enjoy doing, what fulfills you. Remember what I said before: choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
  • What Are Your Greatest Accomplishments in Life, so Far? Past experiences, especially those that made you the proudest, are an indicator of what you are good at and what makes you feel useful.
  • What Would You Choose to Do If You Had No Limits? Forget about responsibilities or just imagine you are completely free – what would you do? This is a question that will help you be honest with yourself and understand what you want;
  • What Are Your Goals in Life? Don’t focus just on your career goals, but also on your personal goals. Once you have an answer to this, you will have a clearer picture of what you should do with your life.
  • What Do You Dislike Doing? Knowing what you despise is as important as knowing what you love. Establish your working principles, so that you know what you are not willing to compromise. Why? That’s because it will help you stay loyal to your purpose.
  • How Hard Are You Willing to Work to Get What You Want? You need to understand that the road to success is never smooth. It’s up to you to decide how much time and effort you are willing to invest to reach your goals. Doing as much as you can to achieve as much as possible will strengthen your sense of fulfillment

Whom Do You Look Up to as a Role Model?

Once you know your goal, you can start thinking about who inspires you to achieve it. What holds most of us back is thinking that we are fundamentally different than successful people. Role models are just as flawed (and human,) as we are. So it’s not impossible to get where they are. Just study their background and see how they got there. It will help you in making a decision about your future career;

Let’s say that you want to become a successful entrepreneur like Bill Gates. Well, even he started preparing early. Bill Gates began to show an interest in computer programming at the age of 13 while he was in school. And guess what? He pursued his passion through college. Considering he spent a lot of his free time working on his skills in addition to what he was learning in school, we could safely assume that he spent at least 10,000 hours learning computers and technology. So, it should come as no surprise that by the age of 15 Bill Gates was already dipping his toes into entrepreneurship. The rest is history: he became a billionaire at age 31 and had remained at the top ever since. He managed that performance by constantly improving his skills and knowledge. Getting to the top is hard, but staying there is even harder.

When you know your role model’s background, and you learn that he/she too started from nothing, it’s easy to see yourself following in their footsteps. Your role model doesn’t necessarily have to be someone rich and famous. It can be your teacher, your parent, or someone you’ve only seen on TV. But what they all have in common is that they are positives examples that inspire you to do well. They are the people who show us the result of following our dreams through hard work and dedication. They are the people who make you think: “Hey, I can do this, I want to do this,” and they can teach you how to get where you want to be.

You can have multiple role models in different stages of your life. But I believe the most important ones shaped your behavior when we were young. It’s when you start figuring out the world that you need them the most.

How Much Money Do You Want to Make?

Recently someone pointed out that I sound very passionate when I talk about entrepreneurship. My first reaction was to be relieved. Being so passionate about what I do is a recipe for blinding myself to the financial potential of some of my projects. Don’t get me wrong; I have a passion for business, but I also love paying the rent, having food on my table, and being able to afford some luxuries, like a dinner at a nice restaurant or a vacation.

What I’m trying to say is that passion is not enough. Blessed are those who get turned on at the thought of computer science or tax accounting, for they will be well-compensated for their passions. If, however, the activities that drive your interest are not that practical, there’s a chance that you won’t be able to make a viable living from it. Sure, there is a finite number of photographers and bakers who make a decent living out of their hobbies, but you might not be one of them.

Try to determine your comfortable standard of living when thinking about what college major to choose. For instance, this level of wealth falls around $75,000 in the United States. What that means is that you can observe differences in behavior between those who earn less and those who earn $75,000. The latter are happier than those who earn less. But after reaching the $75,000 point, money stops influencing people’s happiness.

Just as with the number of hours you need to invest in becoming an expert, there is no precise rule here either. What works for others may not work for you. However, there are several criteria you should consider when calculating how much money you need:

Start with your basic needs, such as:

  • Living expenses: rent, utilities, food, etc.
  • Communication Expenses: cell phone, the internet, etc.
  • Debts: loans, credits,
  • Insurance: medical insurance, dental care,f etc.
  • Fun Money: travel, eating out, going to the movies, shopping,

Then, think about how much money you want to save monthly, and consider:

  • Emergency Savings: money you would use if something unexpected happens. As a rule of thumb, you should have six months’ worth of living in your savings.
  • Retirement: trust me, even if you’re young and think that you’ll never get old, it wouldn’t hurt to plan early. Deposit a small sum of money, such as five percent of your income, every month into a retirement account. You can thank me for this advice later.
  • Additional Savings: meaning money you need if you plan to buy a house or a car or if you decide to get married.

How Long Will It Take?

As I said before, time is of the essence. So you should know from the start how long your studies will take to complete. Be ready to face a long journey ahead of you if you decide to become a doctor. Understand that although some majors don’t take too long to complete, you’ll have to invest in additional classes and training courses if you want to become an authoritative voice in your industry.

How Hard Is It?

The amount of time you will be spending studying has a lot to do with the difficulty of your college major. For instance, taking science classes and then also having to take additional exams like the MCAT to get into medical school, requires extra work. If your dream is to be a doctor, then you should understand the time investment and challenging classes you will have to take.

So before you commit to a college major, make sure you understand what it takes to get to the end and determine if you are up for it.

How to Future Proof Your Major?


It is a known fact that only a few people get a job that is related to their college degree. In fact, studies show that about one-third of college-educated American workers never get a job within their field of expertise. If you want to avoid being part of that 31%, then you should pick a major in an industry that’s trending upwards, not downwards.

According to a recent report, some of the most in-demand jobs in 2016 were software developers, marketing managers, sales managers, medical and health services providers and nurses.

Do a bit of research on the market’s demand and the predictions for the next decades. Or, just use some good old-fashioned logic. For instance, considering that automation is on the rise, it’s safe to assume that engineering jobs will be in demand in the future while manufacturing ones will slowly disappear. The main point is that you should pick a major that maximizes your chances of graduating and reduces the risk of ending up jobless.

To understand even better how big of a financial difference your college major can make, think about this: most of the recent college graduates with a full-time job earn around $36,000 a year. On the other hand, a graduate with a degree in petroleum engineering, for instance, makes up to $110,000. That’s five times the median salary at the bottom end of the job spectrum.

Now, of course, you shouldn’t choose a major in petroleum engineering if you are passionate about something else, no matter the financial aspects. The point is you should try to mix pleasure with business.

How to Avoid Being Broke?


As mentioned earlier, passion is not enough when choosing a college major. You should also consider the financial aspects because let’s be honest, passion doesn’t always pay the bills.

In fact, nearly seven in ten people report that salary is among their leading considerations when picking a career or choosing a job.

With that in mind, let’s look at the highest paying jobs in America in 2016:

  • Physicians – the median base salary was $180,000, and there were over 2,000 job openings
  • Lawyers – the median base salary was $144,500, and there were 995 job openings
  • Research and development Managers – the median base salary was $142,120, and there were 112 job openings
  • Software development Managers – the median base salary was $132,000, and there were over 3,000 job openings
  • Pharmacy directors – the median base salary was $130,000, and there were over 1,000 job openings

How about the highest paying college majors? Here they are:

  • Petroleum engineering – Average annual income: $136,000
  • Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration – Average annual income: $113,000
  • Metallurgical engineering – Average annual income: $98,000
  • Mining and mineral engineering – Average annual income: $97,000
  • Chemical engineering – Average annual income: $96,000

As you can see, there is a difference between the highest paying jobs and the highest paying college majors. Most universities are yet to synchronize with job markets. You should also keep in mind that the economic environment is very dynamic, so theory and practice might not always be the same. However, this information will give you an overview of the entire picture.

So, we’ve seen the highest paying college majors, but what about the lowest paying ones? Here they are:

  • Animal Science – The average starting salary is $31,100 a year
  • Social work – The average starting salary is $32,200
  • Child development and psychology – The average starting salary is $32,300
  • Theological and Ministerial Studies – The average starting salary is $32,500
  • Human development, family studies, and related Services – The average starting salary is $32,700

All in all, if you want to avoid being broke, the best advice I can give you is to avoid picking a low paying major and only select majors that appear in lists of top-paying majors.

What If You Don’t Like Any of the High Paying Majors?


Well, don’t panic! For each situation, there is at least one solution. Remember I said you should be self-directed? If the prospect of working for someone else your entire life doesn’t excite you, then maybe you should start a business. It would be the perfect opportunity to do what you love for a living, and turn your passion into work. That means you will also be 100% focused and dedicated because it will be your project, your “baby.”

Of course, starting a business or even a small side project is not easy. In fact, is one of the hardest things you could do. Take it one step at a time:

  • Brainstorm: Find an idea you are passionate about and think it through. Try answering as many questions as possible and look for opportunities where others haven’t.
  • Create a Plan: Think about your marketing and sales strategies, succinctly establish the value it creates for others and why people will pay for it.
  • Gather Resources: Create a list of everything you’ll need and the approximate cost. Pitch your idea to an investor, apply for grants or use your network to build connections. You never know who will be interested in your idea.
  • Launch Awareness Campaigns: Create a Facebook page, Twitter profile, Google+ or LinkedIn page depending on the appropriate social media channels for your target audience. Then, create a website, a personalized e-mail address, a logo, business cards, and so on. That will convince people you are a professional business.

Start a Side-Hustle Before Committing to a Business

Starting a business requires much more than a perfect vision of what you can do or how things should be. You need to get your feet wet long before you commit full time to an idea.

But, becoming entirely dependent on one uncertain source of income may be a difficult step for some. So, when an old friend of mine asked me if it’s a good idea to start a side-hustle during college, my immediate reaction was “Hell yes!”

There are many advantages of starting a side business before going full blast. For starters, it gives you a sense of security and a crutch to lean on when things go wrong. Most important of all, it helps you to discover your inner entrepreneur, and it allows you to experiment and try new things.

That said, be prepared to work hard.

A side business takes a lot of time, especially in the early stages when you are trying to determine how to put your name on the map and understand what works for your customers. Most likely, you will be working after your classes, every weekend and anytime you find a spare moment. But, if it takes off, you can pursue it full time after graduating. If you fail, it will be a valuable lesson that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.

In the End, College Majors Don’t Matter


Well, isn’t that ironic? Here I am after trying so hard to convince you about the importance of picking a college major early now claiming that it isn’t that important.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying college majors are useless. As I explained before, having a Bachelor’s degree will give you a competitive edge in this rough market. But keep in mind that employers hire people for their skills, not their degrees. In other words, you should focus primarily on learning skills that are related to your major.

That’s not all. According to some interesting data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only 27% of college graduates work jobs that are related to their degrees. The reasons behind this number are not very clear, but it could mean that many jobs don’t require a particular field of study. In fact, in 2010, only 62% of U.S. college graduates had a job that required a Bachelor’s degree. That only proves my point: skills matter more than diplomas, and they could be acquired in different ways.

Blaze Your Own Path

Regardless of where or what you choose to do for a living, keep this in mind: be self-directed and proactive. Understand that no matter how hard you work at your current job, most of the profits go to your boss’s pockets, not yours. Remember, 66% of millionaires are self-employed.

You might think that it’s risky to start a business. Millionaires have a different perspective. They believe that it’s risky to work for someone else. The company could go bankrupt. You could get laid off, and so on. They want to be in control of their destiny, so they took the plunge.

You should do the same.

If you have a good idea, stop worrying and get in. You have everything you need at your fingertips. In this day and age, when information is so abundant, and you have access to an almost infinite stream of resources, building an idea is far easier than it was years ago.

But, how can you decide what path to follow?

  • Choose your industry strategically – focus on the financial part and look for areas of significant demand and small supply
  • Build a strong work ethic – be self-disciplined and stay loyal to yourself
  • Be disciplined with your money – be disciplined about your spending. Don’t throw money out the window just because you can afford it

These tips will prove useful no matter what your plans are. Being strategic about your choices also means preparing with your goals in mind. A strong work ethic will help you pursue those goals and taking care of your money is never a bad idea.


Let’s do a short recap of the things you need to consider when picking a college major:

  • Passion: It will be easier to turn your passions into a career. Remember, if you don’t know what you like yet, list your strengths, ask for feedback from people that know you, and try as many new things as possible
  • Your Life Goals: Ask yourself a few tough questions to get a clear understanding of your calling and the values you are not willing to compromise
  • Your Role Models: If they are close to you, ask them what they did to get where they are now. If they are celebrities, read about their background. The important thing is that you learn from the experience of those who inspire you
  • Money Expectations: Evaluate your comfortable standard of living, starting from your basic needs, such as rent and food and ending with additional savings, such as money for buying a car
  • Time: Make sure you know how long it will take you to complete your studies and be ready to take it to the end;
  • Complexity: Make sure you understand how hard your college major is and prepare accordingly

You should also ensure that whatever college major you choose proves useful for your future career. To do that, remember to do extensive research about the highest and lowest paying college degrees. Ideally, you should pick a major that you are passionate about and is in-demand. But, keep in mind that employers will hire you for your skills, not your diplomas.

However, if you don’t like any of the highest paying majors, don’t get discouraged. You can start a side hustle during your college years and pursue it full-time after graduating if it turns into a successful business.

In the end, don’t be afraid to get your feet wet and fail a little. Experiment, learn with passion and a lot of hard work, you will soon enough be able to build a better future for yourself.

Hopefully, with the help of this guide, you will pick a major in the next month.

Let me know what you decide.




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