Dear Mentor:

What should I choose for my undergraduate major?

I am a freshman in a good liberal arts university. I don't exactly know what to major in. I really like psychology and was thinking of majoring in that and education, but I don't know if being a teacher is a good lifelong career because there are few benefits or opportunities for raises. I am also thinking of law school, but don't know if I'd be a good lawyer. If I major in psychology and education, can I still get into law school? What other jobs besides being a teacher would I be able to do? Or, what should I major in that will guarantee me a good job, while I enjoy helping people? (Even in business, or do I need to have a major in something in business?) Please help me, I'm really confused! I know that I want to help people (health-related or not) and that I like psychology and writing. Thanks!

Soul Searcher, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Dear Soul Searcher:

First of all, we would say that you are not the only one struggling with choices that seem life altering. Most people at your stage in life go through this struggle. While this may not alleviate your anxiety, it might help you to know that you are not facing a uniquely difficult challenge. Many people who have gone on to great success felt the same way you do when they were in their first year of college.

The challenge is not that you have too few choices; it is that you have too many. The world is open to you, and seemingly foreclosing some avenue for the future by making decisions is challenging. But you must. And, bear in mind that you are not foreclosing options by making decisions now; given enough dedication, motivation, tenacity, and effort, you can still pursue your updated or newly discovered passions and interests. Life is a journey, always attempting to reach a destination, but not always in a straight line, as we search and grope for the right outcome. There are many destinations for success, and many paths to each destination. Yours will be your very own, unique path.

Life is a balance between what you like versus what you can get by doing what you like. It is an on-going iterative process. Many people would love to sit on a tropical beach, with a cool drink in their hand, for half of the day and spend the other half of the day doing good works: teaching, counseling, saving lives, whatever. Unless one is independently wealthy, such a choice is simply not viable, although it is fun to daydream about. Thus most of us must deal with the decisions about employment and careers: finding a personally acceptable balance between what we like and what we can get by doing what we like.

This long preamble is intended to merely say that you have to strike a balance between your desire to pursue studies in psychology and education with a desire to help others and the resulting level of rewards and remuneration. Your education in a chosen field has considerable impact on the outcome, at least early on in your life. If the outcome is not acceptable to you, you might have to reconsider the input (that is, your major). Many people do choose the education major and become teachers; they must find the balance between what they are doing and associated rewards and remuneration as acceptable, despite limited raises as you put it.

We also wish to address the concept of "helping others." The generally accepted view is that of working in certain professions or performing volunteer work. Is that the only way, or even the best way to "help others?" How about Bill Gates of Microsoft or Ted Turner of CNN, who have donated billions of dollars through charitable foundations and the United Nations? Might have they "helped" millions through being hard-charging entrepreneurs who created enormous wealth? How about a successful CEO in the US giving up her profession to build brick houses in a developing nation to help others? Is that the best way she can "help others?" While choosing certain "qualified" professions or volunteer work may be personally gratifying, is it really the optimal way to "help others," if indeed that is the motivation? We shall let you ponder on this subject.

There are no guarantees in life. No particluar major will guarantee you a job. You can obviously choose to be a teacher. You can pursue graduate studies in psychology. You can also pursue graduate studies in Law or an MBA, with a Bachelor's degree in any field. Excelling in any field would create opportunities for success. The balance is yours to strike between what you like to do and whether if offers acceptable rewards and remuneration.

One final comment: the most important thing you can do now to help your future has very little to do with your major, but has everything to do with your performance (your grades) in your major. The best jobs out of college go to the best students. The best chances of admissions in law, business, or medicine go to those with the best grades, almost independent of undergraduate major. And the best way to assure that you perform well now is to pursue the major that really interests you and to put your every effort into the schoolwork. Yes, of course this will please mom and dad (it's their money, blah, blah, blah), but if you think about it carefully, you will come to the conclusion that it is actually the best thing you can do to open the best doors to a successful future.

We are not sure if we have helped you much. But we can not make decisions or pretend to offer answers to such personal issues. What we do hope to offer is a framework for thinking and decision-making, along with some relevant information. We wish you continued success.

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