When we make the decision to study a degree around the tender age of eighteen years, there are many factors that can influence whether that choice was right for us. Some are pressured by parents into following a course that they approve of, or will pay for. Others act on advice or inspiration from friends or teachers. Some make a choice based on their perception of future earning potential, and give too little weight to who they are and what they actually like to do. Others simply have no idea, can’t work out what is best at the time and just drift in a direction.
It’s not surprising then that finding oneself in the position of considering switching majors is very common. But despite how usual it is, and how relatively easy it is to do, the situation, more often than not, brings about strong, negative emotions in us, and sometimes in others too. Many feel that they have ‘failed’ miserably at their first important step into the adult world. Some feel terrible guilt that they might not meet the expectations of others and fear disappointing them. Others worry and dread that they have wasted time and money. For some, these feelings can be so strong that they don’t make a switch, and instead forge on with majors that they later deeply regret studying.
It’s for this reason that Kim Harris, Counselling Psychologist & Head of Work Integrated Learning at SACAP (The South African College of Applied Psychology) advises that students get their heads around the psychology of switching majors. “So often, our greatest learning and most vigorous personal growth come from realizing we’ve ‘made a mistake’. If you have recognized that you don’t like your majors or you are not good at them, you’ve just arrived at a very important step in learning about yourself. The next step is to act on that new knowledge, because not doing anything about it can derail your opportunities for finding fulfillment in your future working life.”
So, how do you know that it is time to switch majors?
Kim points out the common ‘red flags’:
- You’re not enjoying what you are learning – you’re bored, you’re not really engaged with the subjects you are studying, you are not inspired and motivated
- You’re struggling to achieve – because your interest isn’t there, you’re either getting poor grades or having to do an enormous amount of hard work to make little to moderate progress
- You can no longer imagine yourself happy in the career you thought you would pursue – you’ve changed your mind, and now the thought of committing decades of your life to work you no longer want to do is making you downhearted or depressed
- You’re inspired by other subjects – your current courses are uninspiring and you’ve turned your attention to other possibilities. You read about or research other subjects that seem much better suited to you
- You keep thinking that you should make a change – you’ve started or have been entertaining for quite some time, an inner conversation about this. And, the voice that advocates change keeps nagging at you even if you try to suppress it
How do you handle the emotions around switching Majors?
Kim offers this advice:
- Turn around feeling like a failure – “Reframe the situation. Instead of perceiving this as a ‘big mistake’ because you made a ‘wrong’ decision; see this as arriving at an important milestone on a lifelong journey of self-discovery.”
- Let go of the dread that you have wasted time and money – “Whatever time or money has been invested so far has not been ‘for nothing’. You have acquired new knowledge, skills and experience so far – perhaps study skills, self-management skills, leadership and time management skills.”
- Face your fears of disappointing or angering others – “The fact is that you don’t actually know how your parents or significant others are going to react, you only have a perception at this time, probably based on fearing the worst. Turn this around by expecting the best instead. Prepare yourself well, research facts and develop a solid case with a clear motivation and the solution. If you really believe it can only go badly, ask a counselor or advisor to facilitate the conversation.”
- Keep it all in perspective – “Switching majors happens a lot. Many higher educational institutions make it relatively easy to change so that students can explore study options. For instance, SACAP’s Honours programme is specially designed to enable students to switch to studying psychology. What’s important is to keep in mind that this is not ‘the end of the world’. It’s the start of something much better for you.”
While your majors don’t necessarily determine exactly which career path you will take, it is important to pick subjects that engage you and help prepare you for the ever-changing world of work up ahead. It’s worth taking the time to reflect on your reasons, or the lack of them, for taking the courses you’ve selected. If you have doubts about the study path you are on, get advice. If you know you need to make a change; then make it.