We’ve all made decisions we regret. Whether it was dating that crazy person in high-school everyone warned us about, putting off working on that essay until the last hour, or eating that seventh eighth ninth slice of pizza, we all have those choices we wish we could undo. A common regret that university students experience is which degree they chose to pursue. High-school seniors have to make a choice that could impact the rest of their lives. As a teenager, that’s a lot of pressure to handle. Luckily, if you’re one of the many who chose a program—only to discover it’s a total snooze-fest—it’s not too late to switch it up.
“English was like that bad relationship I knew I had to end,” says Kathleen Cornthwaite, 23, a fine arts graduate from Nipissing University. “I thought English would be a good choice out of high school because it was safe, and I wasn’t sure what path I wanted to take. After taking English and visual arts classes in first-year, I realized I wouldn’t have the motivation to finish my degree if I continued in the English stream. I didn’t enjoy the course content or how the professors tore it apart.”
Julie Green, manager of the Academic Advising Centre at Memorial University, sees students in this situation all the time. She says, “Students put this intense pressure on themselves to know exactly what they want to do coming straight into university. If you talk to lots of people further on in their degrees, most people recognize that they didn’t know [what they wanted to do] early on, and that there was a process of exploration and learning about their own interests, strengths, and aptitudes.”
Luckily, choosing your program isn’t like getting that tribal tattoo you got in tenth grade when you thought it was cool. You don’t have to live with this decision for the rest of your academic life. Colleges and universities have made switching programs accessible enough that students—regardless of how far along they are—should look into it they are feeling out of place in their course.
Should I consider switching?
Generation Y has become accustomed to the idea of change. We’ve all but alienated the idea that you should commit to one career for the rest of your life, so it’s no surprise students have taken to switching their degrees when they feel unsatisfied with their education. As tempting as it might be to jump ship when things get rough, changing programs should be a well-thought out decision, not just an escape plan.
Green discourages students from changing programs based on one bad semester. “You don’t want to make that kind of decision based on one course …. Sometimes students have really bad terms, right? There are other things going on in their lives, and whatever is happening academically and outside of university is causing them to have a really bad term. You might not want to generalize that term to mean the program is terrible for you.”
On the other hand, if—during your lectures—you realize that you’re more interested in the origins of pocket lint than you are the course material, or if your grades just aren’t up to snuff, it might be that your strengths lie elsewhere. Thomas George, 22, a business technology management student at Ryerson University, switched out of his computer science course after he found out it wasn’t exactly what he had imagined it would be. “Like most of my peers, I found computer science to be very difficult, and the expectations to be completely different from what high-school had led me to believe. I also realized that I could not imagine sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, figuring out how to fix programming errors.”
“If you hate doing it in university, what’s magically going to happen that’s going to make you like doing that job in real life?” says Green. “I think sometimes there’s such a focus on getting out [of university] and getting a job that people forget to think about what I’m going to do if I actually get it and hate it. What’s my life going to look like then? A large part of [students] coming to university is getting on a good career path, but it needs to be a reflection of what they want to do, not a reflection of what other people think they should do. And, chances are, it’s going to be really hard to do well in your area if your heart’s not in it.”
Jennifer Browne, the director of Career Development and Experiential Learning at Memorial, says “It’s much better to switch and study what you love than to continue down a path that may lead to uncertainty and possible dissatisfaction with your education.
“I had a student work for me a few years ago that was in her third year of biology. She was struggling, maintaining a C average, and not really happy with her education. When I asked her why she was studying biology, she said she thought she would be more employable with a science degree than another. That semester, she took an anthropology course as an elective and I witnessed her ‘come alive.’ She couldn't stop talking about what she was learning. Her marks rose, and she got her first A since first-year. She decided to make the switch, though it added an extra semester to her schooling. But her marks and GPA had improved significantly, and two years after graduating she was successfully accepted into a completive graduate program and is enjoying a satisfying career.”
Test drive your future
Before you rush into making a program switch, you’re going to have to do your homework. You’ll want to make sure the program you’re transferring to is one you’ll really be interested in. On top of that, you’ll want to know what careers this new program might lead to, and whether or not you’d enjoy working in that field. “There are a variety of ways students can test their area of study and potential career path, while pursuing their education,” says Browne. “There are part-time jobs both on and off campus, summer employment, volunteering on campus or in the community, study and work abroad opportunities, job shadowing, co-ops, and internships. All of these opportunities provide valuable experiences that allow students to see what they like and may not like about a variety of positions.”
You don’t want to have to change programs more than is necessary. Yvonne Collins and Nathanial Jewitt, career counselors at Carlton University, encourage students to think about their interests and what they want their future to look like. “Clarify your careers goals and work backwards to find a program that will support your future career vision. Think about your interests. Which electives did you like? What did you like to study in high school? Audit a lecture and get a taste of what the program might be like,” says Collins and Jewitt.
Ultimately, the course you choose to switch to should compliment your strengths, or help you develop strengths you’d like to have. “Sometimes I think there’s this pervasive thought that if it’s hard for you, somehow it’s more valuable, and I don’t know where that comes from,” says Green. “But I think that working to your strengths is going to make the whole university experience a lot more enjoyable, successful, and hopefully help you make a good decision about whether to proceed in that program.”
Keep in mind
Once you’ve found the course you’re best suited to, you’ll have to find out what steps you need to take to transfer over (that’s right, more homework). These steps are particular to every program and university, so you’ll have to talk to an academic advisor or someone in your faculty about what’s going on. “Find out if you have the grades and meet the requirements for the new program, and find out about deadlines,” says Collins and Jewitt.
It’s important to know not only what the deadlines for applying are, but the deadlines for dropping your current courses as well. “Students need to be aware of the different academic deadlines in terms of dropping courses, because whatever goes on your transcript is going to stay there,” says Green. “Whatever grades remain on the transcript will be relevant, and many programs will look at your average and your past academics to decide your admissibility.
“You really need to talk to people and get some academic advice in terms of how long it would take to complete the program you want to go into, how much of what you’ve done is relevant to the goal, and what are the time consequences. The time it will take to complete the new program is certainly important, but if you’re confident in your new goals, then it can certainly make sense to make those changes,” says Green.
Deadlines make the timing of your switch very important. If you do your research early, you can save yourself a lot of stress when you finally decide to apply to a new program. “My decision to switch into business tech management was made much later in the summer than most students, and as a result, I wouldn't know if I could switch until almost a week before school began again. I also had to wait until results from my summer course were released before I could be certain if my application would be considered. Ryerson made it easy in that the BTM office became my one-stop to get all my questions answers. But it was nerve-wracking having to wait in suspense and having to wait for the application to make its way down the process.”
It’s going to take a bit of soul searching and research to truly find out where you’ll excel the most in school and in the workforce. But it’s a small price to pay in the long run if it means you’ll end up in a career you love. Collins and Jewitt give students three pieces of advice to help them along their journey of discovering their perfect fit. “Remind yourself that switching your major is not a sign of failure; trust your curiosity and interests to guide you. Do your own research to help clarify your interests, strengths and where you hope your degree will lead you. Finally, seek assistance from on campus supports—like your college or university’s career centre—to give you information, so you can be supported and make a well-informed decision,” says the counselors.
There are career centers at every school in Canada that exist for the sole purpose of helping you navigate these kinds of life transitions. Beyond that, the best thing you can do is to talk to people about your choices. Friends, academic advisors, career counselors, faculty members, and even your great-grandma can help give insight into the program you’d most thrive in.
But if you’re not happy in your course, making the switch can change your entire university experience. It definitely did for Cornthwaite. “Even if you’re halfway through a degree, it’s better to switch and do something you enjoy than be stuck doing something you hate for the rest of your life. I don't regret my choice for a minute. It was the difference between spending my Saturdays crammed into a library cubicle trying to stay awake while reading a dreadful novel, and spending my Saturdays barefoot in the studio listening to Bon Iver while I paint.”
How to decide on a new area of study
Find out what is out there—what programs are available to you –look at university program calendar
Clarify career goals and work backwards to help find a program that will support your future career vision
Think about your interests—which electives do you like? What did you like to study in high school?
Visit the campus books store- which books would you actually want to read in your spare time?
Take an interest inventory like the Self Directed Search at your career centre to help identify interests
Audit a lecture to get a taste of what the program might be like
Visit a departmental website—speak to departmental advisors and/or to find out about the program
Information provided by Yvonne Collins and Nathanial Jewitt, career counselors from the career centre at Carleton University
1. Make a Pros and Cons list to help you better decide whether or not switching it up is the right choice
-Potentially better grades
-More engagement and interest in university studies
-May be better aligned with career goals sooner
-May have to justify to parents and friends why you have decided to make the switch
-Could add time to your degree which may cost more money
-Could add to pressure to stick with new program choice
2. Signs that a student is probably in the wrong program
-Has sought academic support (study skills, essay writing, exam preparation help etc) but is still not performing well academically in courses in their program
-Is excelling academically in elective courses more so than courses in their program
-Is not motivated to attend courses in their program
-Is not relating as well with other students (have different interests) in their program as those in their elective courses—feel like a fish out of water