Good or Bad Advice: Major in Whatever Makes You Happy

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College Graduation

My parents often told me, “Major in whatever makes you happy.” They never pushed me to go towards any particular profession like many parents do, and I was pretty much left to my own devices to choose a major and a career.

I picked history, and I never changed my major all throughout college. I then went and got a master’s degree in history with the plan of working in museums someday. Museum professionals and historians don’t get paid that much, but my parents didn’t voice any opinions about the low salaries in the field either. I did exactly what they said, which was to pick the career I wanted, and I think they were just happy that I grew into a responsible adult.

I’m Not Using My Major Today, But I’m Happy

Fast forward a few years, and I find myself on a Caribbean island teaching English to college students and blogging my little heart out on the side. I’ve learned tons of new things in the past few years like wordpress and SEO and geek out at the thought of learning some programming. I figured out how to create and grow my online business, and suddenly I’m not really interested in working in museums anymore. I want to do something completely different. Now that I’ve been back in the States for a few days after living over 2 years abroad, I’m doing just that.

If I were to go back to school right now (which I’m not), I’d probably major in business, entrepreneurship, marketing, or programming. Instead, I have 6 years and $35,000 worth of history brain that I might not ever use. At the same time, I wonder if I would be successful if I hadn’t taken all of those writing courses. I do think that in many ways the discipline of graduate school and the rigor of my writing curriculum helped me get to where I am today. Sometimes, it just seems sad that I jumped completely off of one track and directly onto another, but I’m glad I let go and allowed the changes to happen.

Should We Let Kids Pick Whatever Major They Want?

Maybe it’s not the best idea to let kids pick whatever major they want. After all, 18 is pretty darn young to know what you want to do for the rest of your life. Maybe we should encourage kids to take a few years off to travel and work and figure things out first before they spend a lot of money on a major they won’t use. Or, maybe we should let them go ahead and pick and allow them to learn along the way.

It’s a tricky topic, but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to be independent and make my own decisions. I had many friends who felt forced into different fields, and my parents always made me feel like they’d be happy with whatever I picked. It’s been an interesting ride, and I’m looking forward to hear your thoughts on if you “majored in what made you happy” or if you went the practical parent-approved route.



Photo Credit: Jason Bache

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Catherine Alford is the go to personal finance expert for parents who want to better their finances and take on a more active financial role in their families. Check out her award winning blog,


  • Romona (@monasez) says:

    I definitely think kids should pick their own major. Right now I am doing something relatedto my major but iin the future I really want to do something else. But I think regardless of what major you are, you can really learn some valuable information just from going to college period.

  • I think parents should have little to no influence on what majors their children pick, unless they want advice from their parents. I hope my future children look to me for advice and are receptive to my opinions on stuff like this, bu ultimately – for better or for worse – they need to make up their mind. People also change majors throughout their college career. I was a double polysci-finance major, then thought maybe I’d do polysci-econ, then econ-finance, and finally back to polysci-finance. Now I work as an accountant but really would like to own web-based businesses full-time.

  • My experience has been similar to yours. My parents encouraged me to major in something I’d enjoy for four years, so I pursued a degree in history and minored in professional writing. I never did end up working in that field, but I do think the skills I developed earning that degree – being able to write, research, think both critically and creatively – have served me well so far. Even though I’m not working in a history-specific field, I’m glad I was able to pick that degree and learn how to make the most of it in a tough job market after graduation. In a way, I think struggling through a business-oriented world with a degree in humanities taught me way more than I could have learned had I gone with a more “practical” major. And I’m not entirely sure I would have even made it through college had my parents pushed me toward something like accounting!

  • Your title really makes me smile “Major in Whatever Makes You Happy”, you really had a point in there Cat! As a parent I would definitely let my daughter choose whatever major she will take in the future. I will support her with all of my heart.

  • Matt Becker says:

    I think those first 18 years as a parent should be spent helping your child learn who they are, what’s important to them, and what they want out of life. You can’t tell them the answers to those things, but you can help them figure them out for themselves. If you do that right, then you should be able to let them choose whatever major they want.

  • I think it all depends. Greg got his first bachelor’s degree in theatre arts and he truly regrets it. Sure, he’s doing fine now…but that’s only after he went back to college a second time to get a degree that he could actually use.
    The cost of the degree matters as well. If you’re paying a ton of money for a degree that won’t help you get a high-paying job then you may end up disappointed.

    • That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that. I’d be happy if my kids did theatre or dance or the arts but maybe the best advice would be to double major in business or something else so they can pursue what they love but have other options too if they need them.

  • Interesting topic…it is something I was recently discussing with others. My parents were the exact opposite…they “encouraged” me or rather told me to major in something practical where I can find a job. At the time, I was of the “major in what makes you happy” mindset and thought my parents were too rigid. While I do think their approach was probably wrong, I do see some reason behind it. College is very expensive and 18 year olds sometimes don’t know what is best. If you are interested in a major that is difficult to find a job, minor in it or perhaps double major (I do that). And have another major which is more practical so when you graduate it’ll be easier to find a job.

  • I think this is a difficult issue. On the one hand I know I would have been furious with my parents if they attempted to dictate what I majored in. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll be terribly pleased if my kids major in something that is unlikely to advance their careers in any manner.

    I’d rather take the $200,000 and help them build their own businesses, or just buy some existing websites/businesses with income streams. That seems like a better use of the money than an essentially worthless degree…

    • I agree completely with you Brad. I told my hubs that one thing I really want to tell them is to really think outside the box. I don’t want them to think the only careers are teacher/doctor/lawyer/etc. The world is wide open to them, and if they use their brains and their creativity, they can do whatever they want.

  • I started in a major that wouldn’t serve me very well in the future, and while my mom didn’t try to convince me to change it, she was so relieved when I did. I got my degree in a much more practical field. I think it’s okay to try to influence your children in what they major in, but not force anything on them.

  • My parents were supportive in what I picked too (television production) although I wish I’d researched the outcome a bit more. I was just enticed by the glamour of it at the time, but it’s so not glamorous! 🙂 I think I’d go into either some kind of preventative healthcare/wellness coaching or marketing. I know, very different.

  • My parents were the same. They never pressured me to pick a practical major. However, I was the complete opposite. I wanted to major in English but my head was telling me that was a dumb and useless idea and I would never be able to get anywhere. So I ended up double majoring in marketing and finance. I’m making a good income but not necessarily happy. Looking back, I should’ve majored in something I enjoyed.

  • I majored in what made me happy and received tons of support/encouragement from family and teachers to pursue what made me happy. I ended up with massive student loan debt that ultimately (temporarily) killed my passion. If I could go back and do it all over again, I definitely would have taken a few years off from school (until I was considered an independent student to maximize financial aid) to work, volunteer, travel, save money and truly gauge what it is I like doing. I probably would have gone into library science or business instead of animation if I had waited a few years. I also wish some of the adults in my life would have stepped up and educated me about student loans…they all thought college was worth any cost for success…even though it wasn’t guaranteed (but my for-profit school was great at making you think it was).

  • I too majored in History! I originally wanted to major in music production before I entered college but changed my mind once I got there. My parents encouraged me to follow my dreams and interests and to pick a major that I was excited about signing up for its classes each semester. I had a friend advise me to look for jobs on and see what I thought I could do for 40 hrs a week, then see what degree that job wanted. Luckily, my folks paid for college so I didn’t have loan debt and I picked a versatile degree that works for many career fields. I agree that most degrees are going to give you writing and critical thinking skills that are necessary for any job. I have friends that have degrees that don’t match their career choices at all (my friend who majored in anthropology then went to nursing school, or my friend who majored in poetry and now works in the film industry) but I think that is common with undergrad since many people change their minds about their career direction. Me, I waited a few years between undergrad and grad school to make sure that I went to grad school for something I really wanted to study that I could find a job with (Global Security Studies).

  • Dear Debt says:

    I majored in what I want (the arts) and my dad was furious with me. It actually worked out ok and I don’t really regret it. I am not using my degree the way I thought right now, but it’s been useful. Parents that push might face future resentment from their kids. I am totally for kids taking a few years off to figure out what they want to do!

  • This is a good one. While I do think you should let your children pick what they are interested in, with the exploding costs of a degree, why would you not tell them to pick something that they can use? I do understand that many people don’t use the degree that they earn, but it would be better to earn a widely acceptable degree instead of one that pigeon holes you into a space that you can’t earn a living.

  • I think kids should be able to chose but parents should educate their children on the implications of their major and what the REAL numbers are out there for people working in the field and how much they typically make.

  • I think it’s great that your parents told you to choose the major you wanted. Your pursuit of your degree was based on what you wanted to learn, and while that may change over time you are still pursuing the knowledge you want, not the knowledge that will get you the highest paying job. If your parents had actively encouraged you to be a doctor or lawyer and you went along with it, you probably would never have found the path you are on now.

  • I don’t think parents can choose for you. Likely, if they told you what to do, you’d do opposite at that age. I also think you should major in what you want as long as you aren’t taking out a ton of loans for a job that will be low paying. Even if you never use your degree, college is a great place to develop learning skills. Unless your going to be your own boss from day one, you have to learn to jump through the hoops, and college give you a place to do this without a job being on the line. My parents would have freaked if I’d said I wanted to major in art or music because they were incredibly practical people and stressed getting an education in something that could pay the bills. As I result my sister and I are pretty practical ourselves and went into medical professions. Our parents didn’t tell us what to do, but I don’t think either of us knew how to veer off course at that point.

  • Debt Blag says:

    You mentioned what I think is the toughest part about this toward the end — kids who think they know what’ll make them happy at 18 usually change their mind by the time they turn 22… let alone by the time they turn 60.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, unfortunately. A good start might be to frontload the experiences (gap year, internships, study abroad) and backload the expenses and decisions (do a couple years at a community college, bring in AP credits, etc.).

  • E.M. says:

    I was in the same boat as you, Cat. My parents were always very supportive of me with school – they were just glad I got good grades and took an interest in learning. Neither of them went to college, so it was a first time experience for all of us. I don’t think they would have really had any insight into what majors were valuable. I am not currently using my major either, but I really enjoyed my classes and I hope to use it in the future.

    I think parents can guide their children, or make suggestions to encourage them to do some research before attending college. I don’t think they can pick for them, though. My boyfriend’s mom was a cosigner on his loans. He wanted to change from graphic design to accounting mid-way, and she threatened to stop cosigning if he did that as it would extend his time in college. Unfortunately, he had a lot of regrets about that.

  • I think parents should be able to offer guidance and options but it is ultimately the child’s decision. Whenever I see someone undecided about college I encourage them to take some time to evaluate what they really want. You can always go to school after taking a year off. Try community college if you’re not sure. Then you can transfer to a University to obtain the bachelor’s degree. This can save them money too.

  • That’s a hard question. You want them to be happy. But you also know which fields are worth majoring in. I have a number of years until I am that age where my daughter will be making those types of decisions. A lot in the world can change in that time. I have being teaching her how to look at decisions objectively. I hope she will use these skills for that decision.

  • My Dad and I had a similar conversation just the other day. Now that I have an immense interest in business/economics, a lot of people ask why I didn’t major in either of those fields instead of journalism and theater. I truly believe if I had, I wouldn’t have the writing skills nor the communication tactics to be successful with Broke Millennial. I’m also quite certain Broke Millennial wouldn’t exist. I’d be less likely to want to come home and write about money if I dealt with it all day long.

    I did have to major in at least one “practical major.” Which was something that wouldn’t require a graduate degree to get a job. Journalism fulfilled that requirement, so I could still major in theater without upsetting my parents.

  • “’m looking forward to hear your thoughts on if you “majored in what made you happy” ” – I did…Sociology…and then when I allowed myself to follow my dream, my happy became guitar playing, both teaching and performing!

    My mother also let me follow my own path, but it took me a while before i fully walked it with both feet on the ground!

    Thanks for a wonderful post Cat and take care. All the best.


  • It is indeed a tricky topic, but I think it’s best to let kids choose what they want to do. Although my parents encouraged me to follow my dream and choose my own way, each of them wanted me to major in something well outside by interest area (my mother wanted me to graduate a law school like she did, while my father wanted me to become an architect, like him). The truth is that both professions are, here in Romania, a bad choice for now because there are so many graduates. So what is popular and a good choice now might actually be a poor choice when my kid gets older and graduates, and he risks not only having to do something that doesn’t make him happy, but also earn a lot less than anticipated. So yeah, I think it’s a good advice to major in whatever makes you happy.

  • Adam Kamerer says:

    Oh, this is a tough one. I also majored in History. I waver between being glad I picked something I was interested in and really regretting my choice — the latter mainly because of all my student loans and the fact that my major has done absolutely nothing to further my professional goals.

    I do think that if I’d waited and gone to college later in life, I’d have majored in something a little more in line with my long-term goals, like business. I picked History because I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in college, and it just seemed like a fun set of courses to take.

  • Kathy says:

    Parents need to guide their children during the selection process. Unfortunately you have to look at education as job training so kids need to select a major that is likely to benefit them in the employment search. I have friends whose daughter majored in African studies. She couldn’t get a job when she graduated so went on to get her master’s in geography. Guess what….she couldn’t get a job with a masters. Finally she went back to school to become a RN and instantly got a job after completing that degree. She could have saved 6 years and a ton of money if she’ chosen more wisely initially. Unless you are super wealthy, you have to consider employment opportunities when choosing a major.

  • I think you should major in whatever makes you happy, with a caveat. Make sure that what you’re majoring in will repay your student loans and sustain you. I’m not saying you have to own a McMansion, but you should at least be able to afford rent and food and whatever basic monthly expenses you may have. If you’re going to a school with low tuition, you have more options on what you can consider that makes you happy. If you’re paying $40k a year, you might have to go with something that you don’t like as much but will make you megabucks.

  • I started out majoring in Geology. It turned out that I liked rock hounding, but didn’t really like all of Geology. I went into the Air Force for 4 years to get my head on straight and to get the GI Bill. I got out and earned my degree in Mechanical Engineering. It has been a great career. My wife is also a mechanical engineer. We will be happy if our son picks a STEM subject for his major. We will still support him through college if he doesn’t, but we may not be so happy.

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