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Kyle Bures, Neosho County Community College

KyleBures-150Making the decision to attend college is no small task for many of our students. Yet, advisors often forget to remind students -- and especially adult learners and first-generation students -- that they should take a moment to applaud themselves for making it this far. Today’s college student population is increasingly diverse; students from all generations and backgrounds enter college after work lay-offs, career changes, and family pressure to earn a degree and get a good job. Often lost in the transition to becoming a student is the student’s decision to take control and improve his or her life.

Unfortunately, some students do not get the chance to appreciate their journey to becoming a student. Well-meaning individuals often burden students with questions surrounding their major:  “Why are you going to college?” -- “What is your major?” --  “What job are you going to get with that?” These common questions can create stress and anxiety for students. Especially in today’s economy, there is a spike in this line of questioning. Students may seek majors that will lead to well-paid careers rather than those that fit students’ interests and abilities, a point illustrated beautifully in an article by Keyes (2010). As advisors we should be cautious, as we may be guilty of asking some of these questions ourselves.

Perhaps one of the biggest student misconceptions is that choosing a major locks students into one career for the rest of their lives. Students fear that if they make the wrong decision now they will waste thousands of dollars and be stuck in a career they hate. This misconception is often fueled by parents and family who pressure students into “following the money.” Obviously if a student wants to be a nurse, then a nursing degree is needed—but a nursing degree (or any degree, for that matter) also equips graduates with a set of skills and abilities that can be applied to any number of employment opportunities.

Rather than picturing the selection of a major as locking them into one career, students should be encouraged to see it as unlocking a number of career opportunities. A career can include several jobs over the course of many years with each new job influenced by a variety of factors (e.g., previous jobs and experiences, increased education, life changes). Being new to advising (less than two years), I would not have predicted as an undergraduate that I would pursue advising as a job and possibly as a career. Thus, it is an unnecessary burden when students think that choosing a major is locking themselves into something for the rest of their lives.   However, selecting a major should still be a well-researched decision.

Suggesting that students do not need to stress over choosing a lifelong career as an undergraduate does not mean that they should ignore career exploration. Career exploration is an important part of the undergraduate experience and should be presented to students as part of the developmental process.  Advisors can reference O’Banion’s (1972) model of developmental advising. Later additions by Habley (1994) posit that students should explore life, career, and educational goals before selecting and scheduling courses. When doing this, students will be able to work with advisors to select courses more relevant to their developing goals, which in turn should increase attendance and improve students’ GPA.

Our lives are full of unplanned events and opportunities that impact our career paths. Knowing this, advisors should encourage the transformation of these “unplanned events into opportunities for learning,” and suggest that students “generate, recognize, and incorporate chance events into their career development,” ideas proposed by planned happenstance theorists Mitchell, Levin, & Krumboltz (1999, p. 117). Students should take a moment to consider what led them to this particular point and appreciate the events that got them here. When students recognize these events and “spin” them in a positive way, they make a profound impact on how their careers play out.

What can advisors do now to help students prepare to make the most of their education? Advisors should work with students to complete appropriate career assessments and assist in interpreting the results of these assessments. When we use developmental advising theory, we equip students with an awareness of their skills, abilities, and values – and how each of these relates to their education, career, and life goals.

Advisors should help students choose activities that accentuate their coursework and individualize their education. Students who choose biology as their major should be encouraged to apply to become a Biology department student worker, to get involved in the Science Club, or to find a business where they can job shadow. The information gained from such experiences can be extremely valuable in ultimately deciding their career path.  Plus, combined with a degree, these experiences will help students’ build a resume to land that first (or next) job.

When advisors embrace student development theory, students are better prepared to answer the difficult questions from family and friends; they are able to discuss with more confidence why they are taking their chosen path. Advisors should remind students (and themselves) to take a deep breath and appreciate where they are and what they have done to get to this point. Then we should challenge students to get involved and take control of their career path. Advisors should not let the stress of choosing a lifelong career rob students of their creativity. We should remind students that their major does not determine the rest of their lives—they do!

Kyle Bures
Student Support Services
Neosho County Community College
[email protected]


Habley, W.R. (1994). Administrative approaches to advising undecided students. In V. Gordon (Ed.), Issues in advising the undecided college student (Monograph No. 15) (pp. 17-23). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience.

Keyes, S. (2010, January 10). Stop asking me my major. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Stop-Asking-Me-My-Major/63453/

Mitchell, K.E., Levin, A.S., & Krumboltz, J.D. (1999).  Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77, 115-124.

O’Banion, T. (1972). An academic advising model. Junior College Journal, 42(6), 62-69.

Cite this article using APA style as: Bures, K. (2011, September). Why choosing a major is not choosing a career (...and not the end of the world). Academic Advising Today, 34(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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