We see it every day; it is displayed on the Occidental website as well as on the back of every student and staff ID card—the college’s mission statement. The statement refers to an “increasingly complex, interdependent and pluralistic world” that graduates will eventually face. In recent years, this world has been shaped by a more selective system of higher education, reflective of a competitive job market.
Fears about finding a job after graduation leave many college students facing a quarter-life crisis, wondering whether a college major should cater to their passion or their potential job prospects. But even in the midst of hypercompetition, a major is not practical unless it matches one’s interests. The pressing question students should be faced with is not whether to follow their passion, but which avenues they should take to follow it.
I am currently undeclared, but I am planning on pursuing a degree in English. Since discovering an interest in literature in high school, I have been repeatedly warned of the lack of job opportunities for writers and my impending professional doom.
But in the true nature of a liberal arts institution, Occidental staff and students dedicate themselves to constant conversation about where students see themselves following graduation. My professors and peers seem to understand how and where an English degree can be applied in the professional world—through education, the medical humanities, advanced reading and writing or communications. With on-campus resources like the Career Development Center, professional staff also help students see the practicality in any subject they choose to study. As long as the subject is applicable in the context of what a student wants to accomplish beyond their college campus, it can be pursued as a profession.
According to a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, nine out of 10 college students say one’s major should be interesting on a personal level, regardless of its practicality. The meaning of the word “practicality” itself varies among students, as no one major is equally sensible for everyone. A student with no passion or interest toward finance, for example, is bound to fail in that field of study. He or she would be thrust among students of the same major that are not only capable of doing the work, but also actively interested in the topic at hand.
In a New York Times editorial, Associate Dean of Haverford College Philip A. Bean addresses the additional level of competition in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. With so many recent STEM graduates, those fields only have need for graduates with equal levels of mastery and passion. If a job applicant lacks one or the other, their employment opportunities will likely suffer. Job prospects are never guaranteed, even in traditionally sensible fields related to engineering, medical work or computer science.
By no means should college students believe they can do anything they set their mind to in post-recession America. After all, no degree is useful without a sense of direction. In 2012, CNN published an article titled “Why ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice.” Within the next year, other media outlets followed with similar editorials asserting that passion is rarely profitable.
In a Forbes article titled “3 Reasons Following Your Dream Will Send You To The Poorhouse,” contributor J. Maureen Henderson discusses the rarity of landing your “dream job.”
“None of us are owed a life in which we get paid to do exactly what makes us happiest and the sooner you get over your resentment at the rarefied few who do make a living from their love, the better off you’ll be,” Henderson wrote.
These articles underscore that blindly pursuing your dreams, regardless of financial or professional consideration, can often end in disaster. But post-graduation woes can be combated by rooting that dream in reality. At Occidental, students interested in nontraditional majors or seemingly insensible fields are encouraged to pursue their intuition and then guided toward practical application by experienced advisers and professors. Once passion is demonstrated in a particular program, a student can then consider different pathways to his or her career.
Still, college students of all interests should seriously consider their major choice—and the future that major could present—before committing to a specific area of study. Taking a variety of classes in a single department and familiarizing oneself with the faculty can solidify an interest and dispel fears of impracticality. Pursuing internships and jobs in that particular field can also show students different ways in which their academic passions can translate into real-world employment. In fusing passion and preparation, it is possible to mold interests into skills applicable to the world outside of the education system.