Every college applicant will need to find the answer to a very important question, “What Should I Major In?” I’m writing this letter to my children to show a practical method that I used to go from minimum wage to over SIX figures in just 3 years. A degree with significant return on investment is one of the best ways to become Financial Independence relatively quickly.
The following is a letter to my children on choosing the right major.
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What Should I Major in?
Dear College Applicants,
The cost of attending College or University has never been more expensive. Making the wrong choice could potentially burden you with student debt and holding a degree that is not marketable. You may even discover that the field of study no longer interest you. The ability to change careers is always available, but please understand that the liabilities of earlier choices still follow you. As does the lost time pursuing the wrong path. TIME is the most precious resource in existence.
It is extremely difficult as a teenager to evaluate the numerous careers and college majors available to you. It is such a monumental decision for a young adult. Many are not ready to choose a lifelong profession and then pay tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate yourself for such a career. If you type in Google Search “What Should I Major In” you’ll get tons of Quiz type nonsense that provide no real guidance to avoid a very costly mistake. Many of the typical methods of deciding a Major is all wrong.Your career is the most important financial investment of your life and is worth millions.Click To Tweet
Many of us are destined for Corporate america whether we like it or not. If you have the brilliance of Jobs, Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg, Musk, and the like…you’ll find nothing of value here. Go chase massive dreams and make fortunes. What I will show you is how I went from minimum wage to a SIX Figure salary 3 years after graduating with the right degree. You can use this type of method to determine what you should major in.
What if I choose the wrong major?
Say you attended a 4 Year University for a degree that a personality quiz recommended. For demonstration purposes, let’s assume Accounting. You then rack up $80,000 of student debt and graduate. Spend the next year as an entry level Accountant, Payroll Clerk, or as an Assistant to a Controller bringing home $50,000 annual salary. This is a pretty typical starting career path for an accounting major. Not bad right?
What if you hate it and begin to loathe numbers, just can’t stand an office environment, discovered a hidden talent, or enjoy some other type of work? That $80,000 investment in your accounting degree needs to be paid back regardless. Have you considered the price of majoring in a new field? These costs can get out of control and greatly impact your ability to achieve Financial Independence and the freedom it provides.
The whole idea of Financial Independence is to accumulate enough wealth so that you never have to earn another cent. This frees you up to pursue your “passions”, regardless of income. Getting the choice of major right the first time is not easy, but will grant you many years of financial freedom. Don’t just get a degree for the sake of having a degree. You are probably wondering:
- Do I choose a career based on my passions?
- Should what I Major in be based on potential salary?
- Is my Degree employable?
- Will I still enjoy this profession for decades?
- Will I make enough money to get a return on my education investment?
- What are the careers you recommend to attain Financial Independence?
- What steps should I take to choose my College Major?
How I went from near Minimum Wage to Six Figures in 3 Years
I lost nearly a decade’s worth of savings and delayed financial freedom from making poor decisions early on. I think all parents wish for a time machine every now and then. Maybe Elon Musk will tackle that project next. Then I could send this letter through his TimeX contraption and educate my younger self.
Lost year of College
After graduating high school in the mid-1990s, I was not quite ready to put my “big boy” pants on. Choosing a Major and deciding what I wanted to do with the rest of my professional life was not something I was remotely prepared for, but I went off to college anyway. That is what was expected rather than what I wanted.
I spent the entire first year just enjoying the freedom away from home and did not apply myself in any capacity to the education. Skiing in the White Mountains everyday was much more my “passion” than studying for a degree I wasn’t even sure I wanted. The college terminated my enrollment the following year and sent me home with a worthless 0.48 GPA transcript and $10,000 in student loan debt. The best man at my wedding even wrote a poem about my GPA for his toast. How embarrassing.
Making a living without a Degree
In the years following, I joined the U.S. Army Reserve as a Military Police Officer and dabbled in minimum wage land. I worked as a Security Guard and for an Armored Truck Services Company. In that organization, I found myself being tasked with Information Technology projects rather than what I was hired to do. I had displayed an innate ability to problem solve and create IT solutions for the business. Building PCs was a youth hobby of mine and it came in handy. The Armored Truck Company tasked me with creating databases and managing their IT systems. Yet I was not being paid as if in a technical position.
Ok, I finally found something I enjoy doing and was somewhat skilled at. Too bad every high school senior doesn’t graduate with at least this level of personal insight. I used this new experience and my network of friends to find an entry level IT position with a company producing video teleconferencing equipment.
Military Deployment Benefits
The devastating attack of 9/11/2001 occurred just after starting employment.
I spent the next couple years either on deployment or in active readiness status. During this time, the teleconferencing company was bought out and 70% of the workforce was let go. Needless to say, there was no IT job waiting for me upon returning to the States. While deployment was difficult, it did open a few doors for me. I increased my network to include many from the local law enforcement community and quite a few federal officials from various intelligence agencies. These connections landed me in the local Police Department’s operations center when I got home. It wasn’t minimum wage, but damn close to it.
Going back to College and Choosing the RIGHT Major
At this point…I had no savings, thousands in credit card debt, and was still paying on that $10,000 student loan. Your Mom was finishing up her degree at the time so all the military pay went to help her continue on. I had enough of the paycheck to paycheck lifestyle and decided to get serious. I investigated what benefits serving the country had to offer and took advantage of the loan repayment and GI Bill to go back to college.
I worked for the local Police Department at night while attending school full time. I was able to complete a bachelor’s degree in Computer Forensics with an accelerated program in 3 years. This time with a GPA of 3.89. A much better showing than my first attempt. I had motivation and a much better understanding of my capabilities and interests.
My choice to pursue Computer Forensics was the perfect blend of both my prior experience and interests. Don’t ignore your minimum wage experiences, there is still value there.
- I had active duty Military service as a Police Officer.
- Veteran’s preference and contacts within the U.S. Government.
- Previously worked in the private sector in a Security function.
- Supported a local Police Department.
- Developed analytical and Information Technology skills.
Turning a Bachelors Degree into a “Big Break”
With degree in hand, I had to scrape together my smorgasbord of experience and create a decent resume from minimum wage jobs. After Military benefits, I owed $40,000 in student loan debt and would need this effort to pay off. I was still making near minimum wage at the Police Department when I started the search for my “big break.”
I began by researching which industry would more likely view my less than stellar prior experience favorably. The top three industries looking for security focused IT professionals were Finance, Healthcare, and Defense. I decided to pursue the Defense industry as it closely resembled my work history and I could take advantage of veteran’s preference. I also wanted to continue serving the country in some capacity without deploying overseas in the Armed Forces. You’re mom and I were starting a family after all and I’d rather not miss out on raising you kids.
The Defense industry also has a high barrier to entry that requires most employees to have DoD clearances, which my military service had already provided. This would effectively reduce the applicant pool and give me a better shot at an offer. I researched quite a few companies and decided to start my career with one of the most well respected organizations in the country. Should I decide to leave, this would at least be a great resume padder.
I went directly to their website and reviewed what they had to offer. Upon searching, I found a relatively small niche in the industry that required well qualified people. There was no such degree or career path that focused on this sector within Universities and thus even lower competition than I imaged.
I sent the resume directly through their hiring web portal and was offered an interview. I prepped hard for the interview and apparently nailed it! Just a few weeks later they offered me a starting salary of nearly $80,000. Choosing the right major, having experience in various low level security positions, serving in the military, and developing hobbyist technical IT skills landed me in a position making 4X more per year.
Building a reputation and network
Over the next 3 years, I worked 50+ hours a week and absorbed everything. I attended all social gatherings to make professional networking connections and established a reputation in every department as a problem solver. Some of my colleagues were of the “No” variety, but I took the position of “Yes, but…”.
This type of mentality and hustle really sets you apart. Make things happen and innovate. Find the path forward and problem solve. I did whatever it took to make progress within the confines of regulations and everyone took notice. Make a name for yourself and build a network.
I wish LinkedIn was around back then because a strong Linkedin Profile is probably your greatest asset in today’s competitive job seeking market.Networking with peers, coworker and other titans of industry is now more important than ever. Click To Tweet
I spent a few years at this company managing tens of millions worth of equipment. I also took the opportunity of the organization’s funded career progression initiatives and completed the requirements to obtain the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). I chose this certification after carefully reviewing the job requirements for senior positions in this career path. Just about every Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) had attained this credential.
Turning it into Six Figures
I left after three years and accepted a position with a smaller company much closer to home. This organization did not have the resources or bench strength of a larger company and needed someone intimately familiar with IT security controls. They also wanted a candidate with broad enough capabilities to manage other elements of a Security Compliance Program.
Relying on their urgent need for an Information Security Professional and my prior experience in non IT related security, I was able to negotiate a salary in excess of six figures. Just three years after attaining a bachelor’s degree.
Many years later… I achieved my goals professionally and enjoy risk management type work. I have since built up program management, leadership, and finance skills that opened various doors to senior level positions managing entire departments. I take pride in my accomplishments and even won the “Oscar” in my field vs 13,000 other potential candidates. I’m honored to be part of the important work the Defense Industry is doing. My Linkedin network is now full of valuable contacts and lucrative opportunities present themselves daily.
Phew! That was a long somewhat embarrassing story, but I found my way out of the gutter. It all started with choosing the right major and doing some homework on an optimal career path. My focus now is to cross that Financial Independence finish line and no longer rely on my career to maintain our family’s lifestyle.
I know what you’re thinking, “That’s great Dad, but what should I major in?”
Do I choose a career based on my passions?
Do you even know what your passions are? I remember a conversation we had on one long drive to your cousin’s house. I was asking you both what you wanted to be when you grew up. Your age at the time had typical responses… “an Olympic gymnast” and “a professional hockey player.” You both said I was the worst dad ever when I told you to “set your sights lower.” Sometimes dreams need to be busted. Many skills can be improved but others require a certain level of unusually elevated natural talent. For those with such a gift, thank the heavens and forget my advice.
I recommend you evaluate what your natural skill set is. Do you excel at Math, English, or Science? Take into account what high school classes you enjoy or at least can tolerate. Are you involved in any clubs or student government? Do you enjoy making the yearbooks or keeping records? There are all sorts of questions to ask yourself to narrow down at least a couple areas of interest. You can review some of the personality Quizzes to get ideas on what you should major in. For me it was Information Technology and Law Enforcement.
Is my Degree employable?
Let’s face it. Some degrees will do little for you or have fallen out of favor. In my particular case, I eliminated the option of majoring in Criminal Justice. Certain studies had show that employment growth for Police Officers were very low. The compensation for the work and hazards are below what they should be earning. There is also fierce competition and the degree itself doesn’t guarantee a job. You still need to do better than thousands of others on the civil service exam. I determined the CJ degree itself does not increase my chances of being employed or making substantial income.
You’ll want to steer clear of liberal arts and other generic degrees that employers are not listing in their job requisition. Another element to consider is the influx of automation making its way into the workforce. Some in demand majors of the past may see large reductions of career opportunities in the future. For example, Microelectronic Engineering Majors that became semiconductor processors will find lower demand and salaries for their skills. Robots and evolving technology are making some professions obsolete.
Should what I Major in be based on potential salary?
You have identified areas of interest and eliminated any unemployable fields of study. Salary shouldn’t be the sole purpose of determining your career, but it is a damn important one. You can only cut so many expenses. There is a floor there, but no ceiling on income potential. The greater the gap between your income and expenses will be the largest contributor to attaining Financial Independence.
After narrowing down your areas of interest and ruling out unemployable fields, I recommend checking out the Salary reports from BLS, Payscale, LinkedIn, or Glassdoor. All have compiled lists of lucrative majors based on the earning potential of various bachelor degrees. Make a list of the highest paying majors within your employable areas of interest.
Will I still enjoy this profession for decades?
This I cannot guarantee for anyone. People and interests change. If you’ve done what I recommended above, you’ll likely be content at least. You can often reinvigorate your interest by changing companies. Organizational cultures can be quite different and remotivate you.
You may be disappointed if you’ve discovered that your most treasured passion is not employable. This doesn’t mean that you have to remove this activity from your life entirely. Create a side hustle to try and monetize it or just enjoy what you love casually in your free time.
A career’s main purpose is to make money and support yourself and family until you are Financially Independent. Once FI, income doesn’t matter any longer and you can fill the entire day as you please. It doesn’t take long with the right major, progressing in your career, and optimizing your investments.
Will I make enough money to get a return on my education investment?
It depends on your choice of Major and from which higher educational institution. A Psychology or Sociology Major costs the same as an Engineering Degree, but with only half the salary. Psychologists even have to go on and pay for a Doctorate degree. The return on investment or ROI is substantially better for the Engineer.
The college or university of choice will also have an impact on ROI. Tuition and fees vary wildly between organizations. Unless the prestige of the school has a clear advantage in your field, stick with reputable in-state Universities for undergraduate degrees. It’s not a bad idea taking classes at a local community college first. Get the general studies out of the way and transfer credits later. Give yourself a couple years of low cost education and work through the process of choosing the right major.
What are the careers you recommend to attain Financial Independence?
As I mentioned already, not all Majors are equal when it comes to earning potential. A recent survey of 1,496 members of the Financial IndependenceRetire Early subreddit discovered that the top five professions are related to computers, finance, engineering, healthcare, and management. Click To Tweet
I’m very curious why legal or law degrees were so unpopular, but that’s another solid option. These high income earning professions made up 66% of all respondents with salaries well in excess of Six Figures.
What steps should I take to choose my College Major?
- Make sure you are ready for college to being with.
- Determine your areas of interest. Take a couple years at a community college if you still need time to evaluate what matters to you.
- Conduct research in your areas of interest and eliminate those that are unemployable, the demand is declining, or the return on investment is not profitable.
- Review the BLS, Payscale, LinkedIn, or Glassdoor salary data to find Majors in your field with the highest earning potential.
- Evaluate if you have any specialized experience in a particular industry that could put you ahead of the competition.
- Find leading companies in the industry and check their executive team’s credentials.
- Discover the senior level positions with the most popular degrees requested and ensure that the salary expectations are acceptable for your professional goals.
- Research job listings and see what educational degrees and certifications they are looking for in potential candidates.
- Work your way from top to bottom of a career path to find the entry level positions and verify the degree qualifications are similar.
Example walk through of an Engineering Major
Say you enjoy electronics and want to jump on board the growing AI and robots craze. Payscale estimates starting salaries of $68,600 for entry level and $119,100 for mid career electrical engineering professionals with a bachelor’s degree. That’s a great choice of Major if it interests you. I work with many Engineers and the median salary is well over Six figures.
High income potential and a growing field is what you’re looking for. There’s also quite a bit of industries within the space to find an edge against the competition…digital, computer, power, telecommunications, control systems, robotics, radio, signal processing, etc.
In this example, your area of interest is robotics…so let’s look at the current Executive Vice President of Engineering at iRobot. He holds BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering and found great professional success. Executives at similar companies in the same type of position were also Electrical Engineering Majors and the salary prospects are exceptional.
Look for companies with a large range and high median salary. This will ensure opportunities for growth and the company’s investment of employees within the field. Find an organization in your area and go directly to their job board. Filter and search for open entry level positions for Electrical Engineers and make note of everything listed in the requirement section of the requisition.
You’ve done your due diligence and:
- found an area of interest
- eliminated unemployable majors
- are satisfied with post graduation degree compensation
- mapped out a career path
- researched senior level salaries and credentials
- found an industry suited to your tastes
- researched qualifications needed for entry
What should I major in answered!
Your mother did something very similar when choosing to pursue a Doctorate in Medicine. The field of Pharmacy was very thin at the time and starting salaries were in the Six Figures already. She worked in a hospital during her early years and greatly enjoyed it. She’s a big fan of House and Grey’s Anatomy type shows. There was a lot of schooling involved, but the return on investment has been substantial. After 15 years in the field, she’s had enough of it and is onboard with getting to FI and seeing what else life has to offer.
When it comes to choosing a college, it is better to leverage networking opportunities as a student at the top of your class in a lesser college than just being the “norm” in an IVY league institution.Regarding college choice, it is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pondClick To Tweet
Plot your way to Financial Independence
Now it’s up to you to finished the degree and get to earning, saving, and investing. After working the first few years, you’ll want to evaluate again if a certification or post graduate degree will provide a return on investment. Show your employer ambition and perform above your peers. The company may even pay for your continuing education…that’s a no brainer.
Once you’ve established yourself and want to plan out your FI path, make sure you:
- Prioritize student loan repayment and investments
- Refinance student loans and get the best interest rates
- Plot your way to Financial Independence
Please share my story with your own college aged kids and comment below on how you chose your major. I also encourage readers to challenge any advice posted so high school graduates can learn from the collective rather than just one father. I’m sure my children and others are curious of varying points of view..
Kylven Ross is the owner and primary contributor of theFIway.com. He has been married for 17 years and is father to a son and daughter living in New England. Professional accomplishments include a bachelor’s degree and industry certifications in the cyber sector. He has spent the last 18 years working in the U.S. Defense Industry and as a Military Police Officer.
He discovered the concept of Financial Independence (FI) during a rather stressful year in the compliance space. After fully absorbing the benefits of FI, he has since committed to turning his household’s finances in the right direction. His experiences are documented as a series of letters that are used to educate his children and others about money. He does not want the next generation to make the same mistakes, but rather achieve financial freedom and find happiness.