My dad went to college, and he regaled me with memories of what he did and how the experiences he had shaped his future. You’ve no doubt heard family members talk about this, and often we tell students how they need to build their resume so they can land the opportunity they’ve always wanted post-college.
In a way this is true, but sometimes we run the risk of making this process sound like it’s very linear. It’s not the case that every career has a linear path to it, and one slight deviation means that one has lost the opportunity to move one — sounds more like the Yellow Brick Road on the way to the Wizard of Oz. Rather, life and careers are a collection of experiences and learning opportunities that shape who we become; they are all important, and they all bring some new skills or ignite a new passion within us, but we alone are the unique person that results from those experiences.
I am reminded of this during visits with alumni of my current institution, Stony Brook University. I asked Stony Brook alumni how it is they came to find their ultimate career and how it is that college helped them launch on that path. I visited with a chief legal counsel for a major bank, a financial investor, the CEO of a technology company, a prominent attorney, and a real estate developer. Their majors? Art history, political science, history, physics, psychology. I’ll leave you to figure out which person earned which degree. Bet you won’t be able to.
All these folks spoke about the exciting opportunities and relationships they had in college — student organizations, the student newspaper, an elective class, volunteering, internships, etc. Their takeaway message: there is no unique way to get to a particular outcome. History majors can work at Google and biology majors can go in to marketing. In short, one’s major should be more about one’s interests, and all along one should work on cultivating skills that will be helpful long term. Nationally, this is a well-known: English majors gain entry in to medical school just as do biology majors. In fact, many professional schools say they would like folks with more writing, critical thinking, and experience with communications and people-to-people skills.
At my former institution, the University of Texas at Austin, I served in the administration of its College of Natural Sciences. I asked employers how we could best serve science students. Their answer? Get the students to take more writing, culture, language, and ethics classes. So we created an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science and Arts degree. Here at Stony Brook University, the College of Arts and Sciences already has interdisciplinary degrees, with Bachelor of Arts majors able to major and minor in different disciplines while pursuing a traditional interdisciplinary core common to a liberal education. The combination of depth (a major) and breadth (minors, and a general education curriculum) is favored by over 94% of employers surveyed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities — employers tell us this is more important than “picking the right major.”
I wish I knew this when I was in college. I was always stressed out. I thought I was supposed to pick a major with some lifelong plan in mind. The reality is quite different. No one I know would say they’re doing exactly what they imagined 20 years ago, but each of us are happiest when we remain open to new opportunities all along the way. I tell students today to try not to stress quite so much if they are on the right path. I tell them their major is important, and they must tackle it with all the energy and thoughtfulness it deserves. But I also tell them not to think they have locked themselves on a path, because every major in our College can open doors in to numerous careers. Leave time for that “other stuff,” check out a student organization, establish relationships with faculty, students, and mentors, and allow one’s self the permission to try things out. That’s what we encourage in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University, and I hope it’s what we will encourage of college-bound students everywhere.