I recently met with a student who told me she needed some major life advice. She wasn’t sure which school she wanted to transfer to, or even if transferring from community college was something on her horizon. I asked why she wasn’t sure. She said she didn’t know which major she ought to pick—there were so many too choose from—so why move forward with something she wasn’t sure about?
I asked her what she meant by “sure about.”
She said, “I want to choose something I know I can get a job in.”
I asked myself: since when have we defined “something we’re sure about” as “something we can get a job in?” Maybe I missed it somewhere. (But as an academic advisor, I was sure I would’ve noticed.)
I said to her, “Pretend you knew you could get a job in whatever major you choose. So, if you had to pick one, what would it be?”
She stared at me for a few seconds, then said, “Probably Art or Music.”
I said, “Why those things?”
“Because I could be creative. I could make something new.”
“And that’s important to you in a career?”
She nodded. I said to her, “There are a lot of jobs where you can be creative and make something new, you know.”
<Cue the epiphany pause.>
There are 3 things to know when you pick a major in college.
I’ve had this kind of career conversation many times. I’ve had it with students in high school, just out of high school, even adult learners coming back to school decades later. And I’m always perplexed by the notion that the only way to choose a viable career path is by choosing something that will get you a certain job at the end of the road.
A few things come to mind when I hear that.
Nothing is “certain.” The world is rapidly changing. If you told your parents in 1996 that you wanted to work for a company that produces phone apps like Uber and Snapchat, they’d look at you like you were crazy—because those jobs didn’t exist back then. The truth is, we don’t know for sure what kinds of jobs will be available in 10 years from now.
Sure, you could “get a job”, but what if you hate it? Great; grand; wonderful. You got a job in your field—and you’re miserable. You studied for 4-8 years to get this degree in something the market said would be “certain.” But now you’re kicking yourself because you’re in a job that takes more out of you than you’d like to give. You spend each lunch break regretting the decision, and envying your friends who pursued their interests and are reaping the benefits.(Note: I wish this on none of my students.)
What about the things you were once curious about? Where did they go?
Let’s talk a bit more about number three, because this needs more attention. “Curiosity” can be understood as: a desire to learn or know more, an interest, a spark.
When we’re babies, we’re insatiably curious. We can’t keep our hands off things, or keep from putting them in our mouths. We babble our insights, point at things in the distance, and stare at strangers because they look funny. We crawl around our hallways and stagger away from our caregivers in the pursuit of something more interesting. As children, we gasp at cool stories; build castles in the clouds with our playmates; imagine the ends of the world and beyond; and ask that singularly philosophical-yet-infuriating question: “Why?”
Why, why why?
For some reason, when we grow up, we stop asking "why."
We start going through the motions. We learn what we’re expected to do, do it half-heartedly, then call it a day. Recently, I’ve been reading and hearing about high school students’ curiosities & interests taking second place to the “requirements” they’re expected to get through in order to excel in school and build “the perfect” college application.
This makes me sad. I believe doing what you love is more important than building some artificially ideal college application. If you obsess about what others want or expect you to do, at the expense of exploring that the exciting ideas that keep you awake at night, your application may be stellar—but it won’t be “you.” When young people prioritize performance over interests, they lose their own identities.
Yeah, it’s extreme to link curiosity with identity. And sure, it’s a good thing to do your best in high school to pursue your best-fit college options. But I’m convinced that at the end of the day, your curiosities are what make up your core. They move you to action. They wake you up in the morning. They get you to sit up, take notice, ask questions, and immerse you in “flow” (that pleasant state of being where the rest of the world fades away…)
Ask yourself the right questions when making big life choices in college.
You might be a high school senior reading this, wondering, well I have never thought about this before. My life is so packed with “college prep stuff” that I don’t have the time to even figure out what makes me curious.
If that’s you, ask yourself these questions:
What do you catch yourself wondering about in your down time? (Note: if you don’t have regular down time, that’s a big red flag. Start there.)
What do you know about—but don’t know ENOUGH about YET?
What ARE you curious about?
What WERE you curious about when you were 10 years old?
Or my favorites:
If you had to research a topic for a whole year, what would it be and why?
If you had to teach a class, what would it be and why?
The latter two questions can yield really cool answers. I’ve heard things like “social inequalities in my hometown” to “marine biology & history - combined” to “how great novels get written.” Things that typically haven’t been presented as options to students before. Things that, perhaps, students have never been given the time or permission to ask questions about.
You might ask: isn’t that dangerous, though, to throw caution to the wind and simply dive into whatever makes you curious? What if I’m curious about professional opera, even when I know I’ll never sing it?
Well, here are some things to keep in mind as you pursue what makes you curious.
Pursuing your curiosities doesn’t mean you abandon all reason.
Of course, you still need to use your brain. You still gotta do the things you gotta do to be a successful adult. If I said, “oh, I’m not curious about taxes,” then I’d have a nice hot date with the IRS. Being curious doesn’t mean being naive.
Curiosity leads to meaningful learning experiences.
You’ll retain more because you’ll learn something for its own sake, not because it’ll lead to some societal prize (higher pay, corner office, executive suite, etc.) Those things, in the end, don’t matter nearly as much as having a fulfilled mind and spirit.
Plus, if you choose to do or study something simply because it’s competitive, or because it gives you an “edge” over your classmates / fellow job seekers, your heart won’t be in it. Your short-term, murky enthusiasm will not cover it in the long run, and you’ll probably burn out.
Soon you’ll realize that you made the choice to go into this field for the wrong reasons—and it won’t be long until you start being reminded of what you originally wanted to do.
The more you follow your curiosity, the more rewarding it becomes.
I studied Philosophy and Psychology in college because I couldn’t get enough of dialoguing and reading about fundamental questions (e.g. What is existence? What’s right versus wrong? What’s the nature of the soul?) Nor was I satisfied with a surface-level understanding of brain functioning. I wanted to go deeper; I wanted to know more about how the brain processes information, why people are the way they are.
No, you probably can’t get a job asking philosophical questions all day—though this article might beg to differ. You also can’t officially practice Psychology with just a bachelor’s degree. But, in my case, studying these things was fun. And I learned a ton more than if I’d chosen something just because someone told me to, or because it was more “certain.”
There’s more to it than just learning it, though. What I was learning became part of me. Psychology, Philosophy, and Education (my own creative way of combining the two disciplines) has become part of my identity because I love the subjects so much. And still, to this day, I find them insanely interesting. Basically, I find them fun, and that’s as good of a reason to study something as any other.
If you love it enough, you’ll find a way to make it work.
Twenty-something researcher Meg Jay says in her insightful Ted Talk that it’s important for young people to get “identity capital.” Identity capital are experiences that add to who you are and who you might become.
So, things like internships, volunteer opportunities, jobs, experiences, connections. And as she says in the talk, “identity capital begets identity capital,” which means experiences lead to more experiences, more connections, and even to serendipitous opportunities that you might not have ever considered.
No, this might not lead to a specific job in your major, but the fact that you dove head over heels into something that geeked you out, and that you immersed yourself in a topic and truly, deeply learned something will equip you MUCH more strongly with the skills and creativity necessary to form a successful career.
Try it for yourself.
If your criteria for choosing a career, a major, or a pathway is solely “so I can get a job”—or “because it pays more”—or, my least favorite, “it makes me look better to everyone else,” I encourage you to change the way you think about this whole idea. Instead, go back up to the curiosity questions in the middle of the article and ask them to yourself again.
And don’t think too hard about it, either. This often isn’t a rational, intellectual decision—it’s something you make with your gut. What “feels” right to you. No, it’s probably not quantifiable, but that’s usually where the magic happens.
So get out there, and get curious.