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How to make the ‘right’ decision of what to study at university

If you’re preparing to finish high school this year, you’ve probably got a lot on your mind – and not just exams. Mapping out a career path before you even get through VCE is seen as the ‘norm’. However, this expectation might leave you in a bundle of nerves.

Looking into your future can be terrifying when all you see is murky uncertainty. Along with this doubt is a greater sense of risk, and this is why the decision of what to study can become stressful, according to Dr James Lucas from Deakin’s Faculty of Health.

As a lecturer in social work field education, Dr Lucas has delved into the uncertainty of decision-making and the stress factors involved. ‘Making decisions, especially important life decisions like choosing what to study at university is complicated. There are many things to consider,’ he explains.

There’s also the question of whether you’re making the ‘right’ decision, which can further heighten stress.

‘There’s a lot of pressure on young people to decide what they want to be when they grow up; pressure from parents; pressure from society generally.’

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your choices, Dr Lucas offers his advice on overcoming these stressors and making the right decision for yourself.

How will you know what the ‘right’ decision is?

Before you get caught up on the idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decisions when it comes to choosing what to study, Dr Lucas has some news:

‘I don’t necessarily think there is a “right” decision in an objective sense of the word. Rather, “right” has a more subjective sense in that you make a decision with which you are satisfied, that reflects what is important to you, and that you are likely to follow through on once made,’ he says.

‘Making an objective “right” decision assumes you have all possible information about all possible options, as well as the risks and benefits of those options. In the world we live in – and as human beings – this doesn’t seem possible.’

Even without the pressure of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, making a decision you’re comfortable with can still be a nerve-wracking task.

Why is decision-making so stressful?

Dr Lucas says there are a few different factors that can affect how stressful a decision is. Besides huge levels of uncertainty, ‘an important influence on how stressed we feel while making a decision are the appraisals, or mental judgements, that we make about what resources we have available to us to make the decision,’ he explains.

‘For example, if we judge there to be sufficient time available, we have the energy and we have support from others (e.g. our parents), then we are likely to feel less stress than if we don’t have enough time, are exhausted and have pressure from others to make a decision.’

Another big stress factor is, ‘There’s still the pressure to choose what you want to be as though you will end up in that chosen pathway for the rest of your working life,’ Dr Lucas says.

But the world of work is changing rapidly, and it’s now common to have multiple and varying careers throughout your working life. McCrindle research states the average school-leaver today will have 17 different employers in their lifetime and five separate careers, so it’s likely that what you study at university won’t define your entire future career.

‘In my own personal experience, I started off studying meteorology, then studied social work, then studied psychology, but then sought work as a social worker,’ Dr Lucas says. ‘Social work is my career path at present, but who knows what my future may hold!’

'“Right” has a more subjective sense in that you make a decision with which you are satisfied, that reflects what is important to you, and that you are likely to follow through on once made.'

Dr James Lucas,
School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

How can you overcome stress to make a choice?

First and foremost, Dr Lucas says, ‘Believe in yourself! Yes, I know that may sound a little cliché, but the research has shown that when we believe in our abilities to make the more satisfying decision possible for ourselves, we are more likely to experience less stress.’

When researching your choices of what to study, you should avoid cramming all that information into your brain because, ‘When we’re highly stressed, your brain and nervous system become flooded and will react by trying to conserve energy,’ he says.

‘And guess which parts of your brain take up the most energy? Those parts in the frontal lobe responsible for planning, coordinating and processing complex information, maintaining concentration and emotional regulation. All functions we need to help us make important decisions.’

Dr Lucas says keeping a notebook of all the information you collect is a good way to overcome this. Write notes from conversations and research, make pros-and-cons lists and so on.

‘It’s also not a bad idea to keep your organisational skills up, as well as trying to break down the decision into smaller parts (e.g. what are the options? What are the benefits and cons?)’ This way, you can avoid becoming overwhelmed by trying to tackle a massive decision at once.

Should you realign your perspective on stress and decision-making?

Another way to tackle stress is to use it rather than run away from it. Dr Lucas says it’s not a bad thing to be stressed, as it can ‘energise and motivate you to act when needed’.

‘If you have too little stress, you are likely to feel there’s no desire or need to make a decision. Too much stress, however, and you can’t function. You need to maintain a middle ground between these two extremes. Use your stress and reframe it in a more positive light,’ he says.

You can also use mindfulness to help you through a stressful decision, but Dr Lucas says there’s no need to buy into ‘the whole McMindfulness industry in popular culture’.

‘Essentially, mindfulness is the ability to remember to maintain our awareness on a chosen object.

Mindfulness is conscious, deliberate and operates in the present moment. We use it all the time, but some objects we choose to be “mindful” of are not necessarily helpful. This could be the thought of being a failure, that you can’t cope, or that you’ll make the “wrong” decision,’ Dr Lucas explains.

Practicing mindfulness is important for strengthening this ability – especially for focusing on objects that will help you deal with the stress of decision-making.

Making a decision you’re comfortable with

Applying the above strategies will help you become comfortable with your decision, but Dr Lucas says it’s also helpful to consider the things you value in life, and what’s important to you.

‘For example, do you have a connection with people? Social justice? Or building things? It’s these values that will drive and motivate you in life and, when things get challenging, will provide an “anchor” in that storm,’ he explains.

‘If you choose something to study and are thinking only of what job you’ll get at the end but are not passionate about the area, then you’ll make your experience much more difficult and you may run out of steam when it gets tough.’

Dr Lucas says it’s important (and helpful) to remember: ‘You don’t need to have your whole life and career figured out by the end of high school!

‘And with all the new pathways for entry into university, there are multiple doorways to further study. Completing Year 12 is just one of them.’

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Dr James Lucas
Dr James Lucas

Lecturer in Social Work Field Education, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

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