Article Published: October 21, 2014
Article Published: October 21, 2014
By Raul Valdes-Perez, Contributing Writer
Have you known someone who invested four years in an undergraduate major and then disliked the work that the major prepared them for? Some majors channel graduates into definite career paths: nursing (284,000), education (825,000), engineering (303,000), computer science (9,840), architecture (67,500), etc. Then there are graduate programs in law (206,000), medicine (407,000), dentistry (5,730), etc. In parentheses after each, I put the number of hits from a Google search on “I hate/hated being a nurse/teacher/lawyer/programmer …” How can such unhappiness be avoided?
In my case, after high school I had visions of becoming a lawyer because I liked language and argument. I began as an economics major, but disliked unrealistic assumptions such as homo economicus. I liked the math, so became a math major. But I didn’t like the narrow job prospects, and was influenced by a classmate’s enthusiasm for engineering, so switched to civil engineering in order to build things. I found that configuring physical objects wasn’t my strength, so switched to the more abstract electrical engineering. Electricity was still too physical, so I finally found my calling in computers, which thankfully someone had invented just decades before. I avoided unhappy outcomes because my alma mater was flexible, I was not in a big hurry, and tuition was less than $1,000 per year (really), paid by my parents. But what is one to do nowadays?
My past columns developed the idea that people often make inferior decisions that could be avoided if they took the initiative to seek out advice and do it well. I’ve put forth principles and good practices from my experience and reflections and from scholarly literature. My last columns examined the specific contexts of seeking a job or evaluating job candidates, but in light of the general discussion in my book “Advice is for Winners.” Here I look at major/career selection. Readers may be past this, but know others who aren’t.
Here’s an approach that few people follow, but should. Understand your strengths and figure out, by background reading and conversations with knowledgeable adults, what majors you match up well with. Reject those that you know you dislike, although it would help to articulate your reasons to trusted advisors who could challenge you if they detect nonsense. For the remaining candidates, make a list of people to reach out to who studied that major, preferably including people who continued in it as a career and others who diverged from it. How to prepare such a list? Approach responsible adults who care about you—family, teachers, friends, neighbors, etc.—and explain your goal of researching courses of study and how they can help—by recommending or introducing you to someone you can interview by posing well-thought-out, prepared questions.
Here are some candidate questions: Why did you study this major? Would you do it again? What alternatives did you consider and why did you reject them? In transitioning to a job, did you encounter any surprises specific to your major? What is it like to practice professionally in this area? What is a normal career path ten or twenty years out of school? What questions should I ask myself in order to determine if this major is right for me? You’ll hear diverse stories and contradictory advice, which may be unsettling; a chapter in my book explains how to deal with this inevitability.
How many wasted years and how much unhappiness could be saved if young people, or anyone facing career-determining decisions, departed from the norm of winging it? Lots.