7 Things You Can Do If You Picked the Wrong Degree

It’s the situation everyone dreads.

It’s a few weeks into your degree. You’ve bought your textbooks, got to know your lecturers and made a few friends on your course. Maybe you’ve even written your first essay or two. And it slowly begins to dawn on you that you have made the wrong decision. Perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong course; perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong university. Either way, you’ve committed to this for the next three years or more and you are starkly aware that it is not what you want to do. The only option is to panic – right?
Wrong (thankfully). This is a situation that a few people every year, in every course, find themselves in. It might be that the workload is too great or the content of the course is not what the syllabus made it out to be. Whatever the reason, pretty much all of those people panic. And then pretty much all of them get up again, dust themselves off, and take steps to sort out the situation.
Realising you picked the wrong degree is not enviable, but it’s not the disaster that it might have been made out to be back when your teacher was lecturing you about thinking through what you put on your UCAS form. If you’re in this situation, or making your choices and worried that you might be in the future, here’s what you can do to fix it.

1. Don’t despair

It’s easy to think that this setback means that your academic life is over. It isn’t. Of likely outcomes, the worst-case scenario of having picked the wrong course or university (or both) is that you end up needing to take a year out before returning to a different course or university next September, and the associated additional costs in fees and accommodation. It’s not nothing, and if you’re on a low income is can feel disastrous, but it’s worth stressing that this is the very worst-case scenario and even then, it’s not that bad.

You have more time than you think.
You have more time than you think.

Right now, you and your friends have all been progressing through school at the same rate, and probably competing, and the idea of taking a year out can feel a bit like you’re conceding the race. But all kinds of things get in the way at university, and the sense that you’re all running the same race starts to end as your lives go in different directions. A year might feel like a very long time now, but even in five years’ time, you’ll probably have to count on your fingers when a job application asks you which year you started your degree. And there are all kinds of things that you can do on an impromptu gap year that might mean that picking the wrong course was the best mistake you ever made.

2. Isolate the problem

The first thing to do is figure out what exactly it is that you don’t like about your course. It might be obvious – perhaps you had narrowed your choice down to two courses and you’ve only just realised you picked the wrong one. Or perhaps it might be a general sense that you are not as happy as you might be. There are heaps of possible causes for that, and you’ll need to know what’s responsible in order to address it.
Is the issue the courses that you’re studying? Perhaps they’re pitched at the wrong level for you – too hard, or too easy. Perhaps the workload is too great. Perhaps you chose a course that you thought was hands-on and practical, and the first term is all theory-based. Perhaps you don’t get on with your professors. Perhaps you expected better marks than you’re getting. Perhaps you find that you’re not a good fit with the other people on your course, and it makes you feel out of place.

You may find it helpful to get your thoughts down on paper.
You may find it helpful to get your thoughts down on paper.

Or is the issue your university? Perhaps you’re happy with your course, but you don’t seem to get on with anyone there. Perhaps it’s too fusty and traditional, or people from your background are few and far between. Perhaps it’s all focused on the bottom line of graduate employment and loses the importance of learning and research by the wayside. Perhaps you don’t like the assumptions people make about you when they learn that you’re a student there.
Or – and it’s important to consider this before you make any drastic changes – perhaps the issue is with you. The move from school to university is a significant change that can be upsetting to anyone’s mental health. If you’re feeling rubbish but can’t put your finger on a particular cause, it might be a mental health problem that you should see your doctor about, rather than anything based on your academic experiences.  

3. Get support

Concurrently with isolating the problem is getting support. Universities don’t want their students to drop out (aside from anything else, it looks bad on their statistics), and there should be a support structure in place to help you. You might already have been assigned a personal tutor who is your go-to person if you have any problems – email them as soon as possible. Even if you don’t have a personal tutor, there will be pastoral support available, such as through your department or through your student union.

There will be plenty of pastoral staff on hand to discuss your quandary.
There will be plenty of pastoral staff on hand to discuss your quandary.

Many people don’t avail of these services because they fret that their problem isn’t serious enough, or they won’t be paid attention. While we can’t guarantee that you’ll have a positive experience, it is the case that it’s exactly this sort of problem that university pastoral support is trained and there to help you out with, and if they refuse to do so, that is a dereliction of duty on their part rather than any failing on yours.
But nine times out of ten, they will be sympathetic and supportive, and they will help guide you towards the best next steps for you. They should also be able to signpost other support, such as counselling, career guidance or financial services if the additional cost of changing course or university places you in financial difficulty.

4. Change courses

If you like your university but not your course, this is the path of least resistance when it comes to fixing the problem of having chosen the wrong degree. Universities are not usually delighted about letting students transfer between courses, but they’ll usually do it in preference to you dropping out (it’s those precious statistics again).

Universities will usually favour a transfer over the student leaving entirely.
Universities will usually favour a transfer over the student leaving entirely.

One thing to bear in mind is the relative competitiveness of the course that you’re moving from and to; if you’re going from Law to an undersubscribed foreign language, you might find that they way is smoother than vice versa. Another consideration is the earlier in the year you bring this up, the more likely it is that you’ll be allowed to join the course this year rather than having to take a year out and come back. Past four weeks in, and the chances of being allowed to transfer directly will have dwindled.
Changing courses within the same university is much easier, cheaper and less bureaucratically exhausting than transferring between universities, which is why it’s so important to figure out whether your problem is really with the university or the course. It would not be an improvement to wait a year, transfer courses within the university and then discover that it’s still not right for you. However, your university wants to avoid this happening just as much as you do – so for instance, you might be able to sit in on some lectures from the course you want to transfer to, to make sure it really is what you’re looking for.

5. Get away from your university

Getting away from your university can mean several different things. The most obvious one is that if it turns out it really is the university that you’re not happy with, you can look into transferring to a different university. In the UK, this will almost always mean taking a year out and reapplying, barring a very lucky quirk of term timing and spaces on your preferred course.

Try moving to a less studenty area, or taking up hobbies in the community.
Try moving to a less studenty area, or taking up hobbies in the community.

But there are other ways of getting away from your university. If you like your course but not the student culture at your university, instead of upping sticks altogether, you might want to think about whether it’s possible for you to have a social life that’s not really connected to your university.
Most mature students do this: they come to university to study, but they don’t live in student accommodation, and their lives are mostly separate from their university studies. It might not be what most people think of when they think of a typical university experience, but don’t rule it out if you do have friends and family near your university who you could spend time with instead.
There are formalised ways of leaving your university for a bit as well, such as spending a year abroad or doing a year in industry. In most cases, this will extend your studies by a year, but that means having a different set of people on your course, and knowing that you’ll get a break can make a big difference.

6. Choose your modules within your subject carefully

Here’s a common scenario: you couldn’t make your mind up between two similar courses, and now you think you’ve picked the wrong one. That might be a choice between Mathematics and Physics, Politics and Economics, Biology and Chemistry or History and English. But one thing to remember is that in all these cases, there is a considerable amount of overlap between the two; in fact, you might even end up sharing modules with students from the other subject.

Focus on the intersections between your current and desired subjects.
Focus on the intersections between your current and desired subjects.

Your first year is likely to focus more on the ‘pure’ version of your subject, which can be difficult if you don’t feel that it’s what you want to do. But in later years, your subject might take on some interdisciplinary elements that shade into the course that you’d rather be doing. If you’re doing Physics but would rather be doing Maths, for instance, take a look at the second and third year modules (the stage when you’re likely to start picking and choosing among modules) and see how much you can focus on the Maths-y theoretical end that might be more to your taste. Talk it over with your lecturers, too.
It might be that you can carry on doing something that is ostensibly the same course that you started out on, but in terms of the modules and the content you’re studying, is very nearly the course you would rather have been doing instead.

7. Do a different postgraduate qualification

Most of this article has been based on the assumption that you’ve figured out early on that you picked the wrong degree. But what if you only realised late on in your studies? Perhaps you’re loving studying your degree, but it’s dawned on you that it’s the wrong degree in that it won’t get you the job you want. If that’s the case, it’s first worth remembering the long list of jobs that you can do with any degree, and that even ‘unprofitable’ degrees can still lead to a great career.

Transition to certain professions will require a conversion course.
Transition to certain professions will require a conversion course.

But if that’s not reassuring, remember also that an undergraduate degree needn’t be the end of your time at university. More than 11% of people now have a postgraduate degree. Yes, there are horror stories of people with MA after their names being asked in their first interview on graduation why they failed to get a job on the basis of their BA alone, but doing a postgraduate qualification is increasingly becoming the norm.
You should be able to put together a narrative for job applications that explains your switch in subjects, and that could be as simple as “I feel like I learned a great deal from my degree, but I realised that [job you’re applying for] was my passion, and wanted to make sure I had the right set of skills.” While it’s true that conversion courses for things like Law and Medicine are competitive, if you start working on that application now, you’ll increase your chances of success. So whatever stage you’re at, if you’ve realised you chose the wrong degree, there are still so many options out there for you. Good luck!

Image credits: struggling at laptop; stopwatch; notepad; handshake; arrows; street; venn diagrams; stethoscope.