Your Path

Don’t Know What You Want?  There’s a Post for That!

JulieAnne Dietz

As I made my way through the early years of college I was still uncertain about what I wanted to do for a living. I was studying psychology because I found it fascinating and knew I wanted to somehow be of service to the world, but by the time the second half of junior year rolled around I was starting to panic and question everything; in particular, “Was I going to be able to turn my major into a career I would love?”

Fortunately (or so I thought) I had an “aha” moment. I came across an article on Industrial and Organizational psychology and signed up for a class. A few weeks into the class I’d heard enough to set my course.

So with just a handful of classroom sessions, a few articles, a bit of research, and some topical discussions with the professor under my belt I decided to kill a few birds with one stone. I’ve always had a bit of the travel bug so I applied to three or four schools that offered the program; all a long way from New York. Then, with limited additional research, I took a loan and set off for a highly specialized school in the Midwest.

“How can someone still dogged by uncertainty possibly make a decision that will position him or her for probable long-term success?”

In hindsight I can see that I allowed the relief of finding a possible direction to overpower my normal calm logic – but that wasn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that I had enrolled in a graduate program, with a relatively high degree of uncertainty still lingering in the back of my mind; that offered little flexibility.

Long story short, nine months after graduating debt free from my alma mater, I was a graduate school drop out, saddled with debt, rooted firmly back in square one, and stuck with an apartment lease a long, long way from home. My studies had gone well, but I knew very quickly that I/O psychology was not for me!

The reason I tell this story is that I am so often asked how someone who is still unsure about what they want to do or be can make a wise college decision. 

How can someone still dogged by uncertainty possibly make a decision that will position him or her for probable long-term success? 

The truth is, there is no way any of us, even the most certain, can know for sure where our life will lead or that we will meet with success. We can only put ourselves in positions where success and happiness are probable. And that is good news if you are an uncertain student; that means your aren’t really that far behind anyone else. Once we accept that, we can start to make some assumptions that help address the challenge.  The question becomes…

photo courtesy of Brooke Cagle via

So what would I want if I were an uncertain student? Well, drawing upon my personal experience I would want quality, options and support.

For example, my graduate school experience came up short because it lacked options. I chose to go to a small, specialized school that offered quality and support, but unfortunately once those attributes led me to the conclusion that I was in the wrong program, there weren’t many other options in near proximity. That was a major problem!

Given this, my high-level recommendation for uncertain students is to focus on finding a set of schools that provides all three.

But what does that advice look like in practice?

I would say some of the best school attributes for the uncertain student to look for are:

Program Alternatives: the ideal situation is that you are at least able to narrow things down to a few areas of potential study, even if you don’t know what you will do when you finish the degree. Then find schools that offer programs in those areas, but also solid programs in some of the more general/common subject areas (i.e. Business, Mathematics, the Sciences, Computer-based majors) – and make sure the university allows for program transfers. Basically, you need to think carefully before you choose to attend a school with limited degree options – even if they offer a really strong program in an area of surface interest. You probably want to be in a place where you can begin with one of your areas of interest, but have lots of options if you need/want to adjust down the line.

Personal Attention: this isn’t meant to be an assault on large schools, many provide a great level of personal attention, but as an uncertain student it’s probably wise to attend a school with an outstanding student support network. This can be via small class sizes, accessible professors, a robust career center, a good mentor program, and/or lively alumni network. Figuring out what you want is going to take a lot of independent analysis, but may also require a lot of conversations and guidance. So if you are an uncertain student it is advisable to spend as much time looking at schools’ support networks as the other factors.

Low Debt: I’m a huge fan of this for all students, but especially for those that are still uncertain about their direction. The reality is, there’s a chance you may come out of college still uncertain, and that wouldn’t make you an exception. This is where a low debt load can help afford you the opportunity to continue to explore the world and its many options. I cited an article in a previous post about excessive debt. The article suggested that as many as 20% of students report being forced to work outside their chosen field, or even work more than one job, due to their college debt loans. Obviously not an ideal situation. And don’t mistake low debt with low cost or quality. There are lots of ways to reduce the cost of college, and many schools that offer fantastic educations at a competitive price. It may take some work, but it is also likely worth it if you can start your adult life without crushing debt. Said another way, a high price cost prestigious degree isn’t necessarily better, and may be flat out unnecessary depending on what you ultimately decide to do. And there is always grad school to add prestige later if needed.

Alumni Network: this runs somewhat parallel with personal attention and program alternatives, but for an uncertain student a lively alumni network can be huge. Where there is a lively alumni network there is typically easy access to alumni sponsored events, speakers, mentors and general interaction. This can be invaluable in terms of learning about different careers and eventually landing a first job or internship. It can also be a major asset (and part of the college investment) down the line if you lose your job, are looking for a new job, or attempting to change professions.

Location: a friend’s father once told me, “A good person finds a good job no matter where they are.” To this day I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but there is also something to be said for probability. If you are an uncertain student, it may be a good idea to put yourself in proximity to a major city. That doesn’t mean you have to be in the city, or even the suburbs, but having access to a major hub should provide you with the opportunity to gain exposure to a wide range of ideas, professions and people.

Program of Study: As a general rule I don’t recommend courses of study for students I don’t know. This is a highly personal choice. But there are a few general areas of study that tend to be pretty well received on a broad basis – at least in the corporate world. I mentioned a few off the top of my head in the section on Program Alternatives.   By no means am I saying you should absolutely study one of these if you fall into the category of uncertain student, but it may not be a bad idea to attend a school that maintains a solid program in at least one of these areas as a safety.

The overarching message I want to make with this post is this. If you are an uncertain student:

1. You aren’t necessarily behind your more certain classmates.

2. You can still make a wise college investment that puts you in a position for future success.

3. A good starting place is to look for schools that offer quality education, lots of options and robust student support.

4. Investing time in finding the best bargain can really pay off if you need to continue your career search after college.

5. Don’t panic. The world can be fairly fluid in terms of courses of study. Your degree may make landing that first job in a given field more difficult, or even require you take a few evening classes or attend grad school, but with each passing day it becomes much more about your network and professional performance than your
undergraduate degree.

Alright, I hope you found this post useful.  I encourage you to pass it along to anyone you think may benefit using the share buttons on the left. Also, if you enjoyed this content please join my online community for exclusive content, tips and tools!

Until next post – keep smiling! You’ve got this!

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