College? Career? Confused? Before You Decide Anything, Here Are 9 Things to Consider

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 20, 2015

If we just do this or don’t do that we’ll be happy and have the career of our dreams, right? That’s what experts and advice-givers say. Well, I’m sorry to say, there is no simple formula, no one-size-fits-all solution that’ll create the perfect career.

This topic has gotten very personal for me. Right now I have one son deciding on colleges and degree programs, and another who recently started a career in engineering. Now, I write, speak and consult on careers, talent and organizational change for a living, so when we talk about these big life decisions, I feel like the person who’ll tell you how to build the watch when you simply asked me the time. And of course my sons love this….

I’ve done my best to learn the realities of the college-to-career journey, combining my roles as a parent seeing it up close and personal, and as an expert in the working world.

Here I’ve compiled a shortlist of things to consider when  making college and career decisions—like where to go to school, and what to do when you get there, and then what to look for when you get to the real world. It’s not a here-are-all-the-answers, success-guaranteed formula, but in life, who really has that?

When you’re choosing a college and a major…

1. It’s OK not to know what you want to be when you grow up. Most 18-year-olds who say they do will probably change their mind multiple times as they learn more about themselves and the world. And that’s OK. There are plenty of 40-year-olds who will say they don’t know yet either.

But it is important to know at least a zone of interest or the general route you want to take. Find the major that keeps you in that lane and moving forward in the right direction. Keep refining and getting more specific as you learn more.

2. Beware of the passion major. This is where I see the most disappointment. A college freshman picks a major that sounds interesting but has no viable path to any job they’d actually want to do.

College is the first steppingstone to your career. Don’t just pick a major that sounds interesting—consider your marketability. Choose a degree that will give you the opportunity to be hired to do the kind of work that’s on your wish list.

3. Pick a school that increases the chances of finding your first job. What things should you look for? A great career placement center, a thriving alumnae network or professors who are personally involved in helping graduates. The reputation of your school and major matter, too.

When deciding between schools, think about which one will give you the greatest boost in finding your first job. You don’t want to fly solo when you start that all-important search because your college placement center doesn’t know much about your degree or can’t help in your desired city. Going at it alone makes it much harder. So consider this up front.

4. Don’t repeat Mom or Dad’s life. So many parents expect their kids to choose the degree they chose or go to their alma mater, to follow in their footsteps.

But beware if you are choosing a path just because it’s expected, because your parents, or whoever, made their choice based on what was best for them at the time. You should do same—make the choice based on what’s best for you right now.

5. Women, don’t underestimate yourselves. As Sheryl Sandberg shares in Lean In, women start to opt out of their potential early in their careers—even at the selection of their major. Why? Because it might not fit their lifestyle in the future.

It’s way too early to top off your potential. Pursue the degree and career that you are capable of and know that you’ll make adjustments when and if you need to in the future. Don’t sell yourself short over potential life balance concerns way in the future.

When you’re starting a career…

1.Don’t listen to your parents too much. Sure, they know you best and care most for you, so listen for timeless insights and wisdom. But don’t take all their advice on how to find or how to choose the right job.

I hear too many parents giving advice that landed them a great job in 1995—but that doesn’t mean it’ll work now. So unless your parents do work that keeps them at the forefront in your field today, find other mentors and advisors who will help you broaden your perspective.

2. Start where you will learn the most. The first few years in your career give you a frame of reference. That entry-level job will teach you how to show up—and it will determine your personal definition of quality.

So go to an organization that 1) is recognized for quality and 2) that will act as a springboard for your career. Even if you dream of being an entrepreneur, you might benefit by working in a larger innovative organization—that’s also in your area of interest—first to learn foundational business skills.

3. It’s too early to not be stretched or uncomfortable. If you’ve been working for just a few years and feel really relaxed and comfortable, then it’s time to shake it up. You should be in a constant state of learning—especially this early in your career.

4. Make sure you have career steppingstones. Picture yourself interviewing for your next job when you’re deciding to take a new position—always think one step ahead so that each move propels you forward where you want to be. Consider if each move you make pushes you in the right direction, or if it cuts off options.

Now is the time to be both bold and smart. So follow your heart, but don’t ignore your head.

Check out Patti Johnson’s top 10 list of the best career advice she’s received, nuggets of wisdom she still carries with her.

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at