Guide to Choosing or Changing Majors

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill
20 August 2017

If you’re in, or have been in college/university, this has probably ran through your head at least once or twice: “Maybe I picked the wrong major…”.

If you haven’t, be sure to turn yourself in to the nearest zoology might be a new species. Cold feet and doubts are VERY normal and VERY common.

So! Whether you’re choosing your major for the first time, having doubts, or have already committed to the change, you’ve come to the right place.

Choosing your major:

A few suggestions when it comes to choosing your major:

1.) Don’t just pick what you’re good at.

By this I mean, don’t just pick your best subject without considering other factors. If you got 98% in pottery, you might want to look at the career outlook for that field before investing thousands of dollars on a degree… Or maybe you don’t enjoy physics all that much, even though you nailed every exam last semester…

Conversely, don’t discount a course you didn’t do well in. If you got a C+ in a computer class, but it was your favorite course ever, don’t think “I don’t have the talent”, because interest is far more valuable to your success and fulfillment than a grade.


2.) Distinguish between bad teachers and bad majors.

Before tossing aside a degree in math because your last professor made you want to commit several felonies, try to separate the teacher from the course, and the course from the subject.


3.) Be realistic about jobs.

Seriously, do a job search and see if anyone would even want to hire you. If not, is it a field you can be self-employed with? (See number 6).



I can’t stress this point enough. This isn’t an arranged marriage. Date your field before you marry it. Take a few classes, research it on your own, talk to people in the field about their experiences.

Ignoring this point is a big reason I ended up changing majors.


5.) How much schooling are you willing to do?

In the end, the major reason I switched (cringey pun), is that I just wasn’t interested in grad school..

Look 5 or 6 years ahead, what do you want to be doing by then?


6.) Do you want to work for yourself?

If you’re planning on freelancing, starting a business or just be self-employed, it’s worth taking a gander at how easy it would be in your given major. Example: Particle physics- not great for freelancing.

How do I know if I should change majors?

Take it from someone who’s been there, changing majors is nightmare-inducing. Hopefully with these tips, you’ll feel more confident in your decision. But how do you know when is the right time, if at all?

Maybe it turns out you’re tired of looking at rocks all day. Should you drop your geology major?

Before even thinking about dropping your major ask yourself a few questions:

-Have I given my major a fair shot?

-Do I have another major in mind?

-Did I research the new one more than when I chose my current major?

-Am I happier studying something else?

-How serious am I about doing this?

-Have I spoken to a career counsellor?

-Have I slept on it?

If you answered no, or not really, to ANY of these questions, maybe you shouldn’t make the switch quite yet..


Here’s how I knew I was ready:

-I struggled to see a future in my current major.

-I spoke to my current program advisor.

-I spoke to my new program’s advisor.

-I spent over 2 weeks studying the major I was considering.

-I felt much happier in the new field.

-I assessed the job market for both my old and new major.

-I made sure I could afford staying in university an extra year.

Now, if you think this is really what you want, congratulations! You’re on your way! Lot’s of people fall victim to the “sunk-cost fallacy”, and don’t change their path because they’re too caught up on the time they’ve invested already.

Changing your major can feel like choosing paths in the fog..

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy

How to graduate on time after changing majors:

Sadly, this isn’t always possible. Depending on what your transfer is, sometimes it means starting from scratch… But, if you’re fortunate enough to be switching to a similar or related field, you might have lots of overlap, making the switch much much smoother.

It may seem obvious..but… PLAN IT OUT. Its amazing how many people I know that are just planning one semester at a time, thinking that their program requirements will just fall into place. They might, if you have a 100% “normal” trajectory through your program… but this is almost never the case, especially if you’ve just changed majors.

The best thing to do here is to make a spreadsheet. If you’re not good with excel (like me) Thomas Frank from CollegeInfoGeek has a great template you can download. Make a list of all the courses you need, which ones are optional, and then fill them by semester, tallying up the credits.

Now, if you’ve just changed majors, depending on how much time you have left, and how many courses of overlap you have, you won’t have much room for electives or optional courses (or a minor for that matter). Prioritize your core courses, and worry about the rest later.

Take your time on this. Be sure to check if the course you’re planning to take in the Fall of two years from now is offered at that time (sometimes courses are only offered on odd years, winter only, etc) Once it’s done, you can do what I did, and take it to your new department’s advisor. They’ll be impressed by your preparation and be more willing to spend time to help you meet your timeline for graduation. Together you can make tweaks, discuss options, and make sure you graduate as soon as possible.

Summer courses are a great option for cranking out 1-4 courses (depending on your school’s rules) and getting back on track. Careful though, some courses aren’t offered in the summer, so be sure to check before banking on a bunch of summer classes.

Final Words of Encouragement

Don’t worry, it’s not too late. Just think of all the people that go through their whole lives in careers they never liked, tied down by finances and family, wishing they could start over.. Luckily you’re probably still young, and only have a few years invested in your current path. What’s one or two years, a few thousand bucks? Remember what’s important… ENJOYING LIFE. There are 24 hours in the day. You work 8. You sleep 8. You eat 2. You commute 1. What’s left to live? 5 hours? A few extra on the weekend?  Plus you’ve still got chores to do, appointments to make etc…  This is why you MUST enjoy your work. At the very least if you don’t love it, make sure it’s worth it.

It’s normal to feel scared. My hands were shaking every time I went to see my advisors. While registering for my new major, my heartrate must’ve gotten close to 160BPM.

Deep breaths, you’ve got this.

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