This past week, I welcomed my students back to campus for a new semester, and as always, I got to know them a little by asking their majors (which is not unlike asking “what’s your sign?” in the dating world). I like to spend a few moments chatting about their fields of study, but whenever someone proudly proclaims they’re interested in something like 17th century French philosophy, well, it’s harder to muster enthusiasm. It’s a bit like feeling cornered at Thanksgiving dinner while a young relative proudly introduces me to a new boyfriend who’s got dark, mysterious, brooding eyes but no common sense or 401k to speak of. I can only grimace politely and think: what are you going to do with that?
My mother gave me some advice when I was a teenager: you can fall in loooooove (always in a dramatic, breathy tone) with anyone, even the village idiot, but love isn’t everything when it comes to relationships. When you’re falling you need someplace to land, and it makes a difference whether that place is a foundation of shared values or just a giant hole to climb out of. That advice served me well; I chose a husband who’s adept at steering clear of potholes and pitfalls.
Curiously, though, my mom was mum when it came time for me to go to college. She never tried to steer me toward one major over another nor gave any advice as to how to select a “good” one. I’d like to think that she was philosophically against the conviction that picking the right major means ending up with the best career and instead believed education should be generalized and more about learning about whatever you want…but let’s face it: that idea now seems about as antiquated as casual, serial dating of the 1950s.
No, even if they hate it, more people today accept the idea that monogamy in majors is at least as important as in relationships and that choosing the “right” one will lead straight down a path to the perfect life. Coupled with the fact that retirement pensions and Social Security benefits seem increasingly out of reach for younger generations, a career has never seemed more like a til-death-do-you-part proposition.
The problem, of course, is that most of us are asked to figure out what we want to be when we grow up while we’re still too young to contemplate what for richer or poorer really means, so we choose blindly and hope it works out. However, if it doesn’t and if your erstwhile soul mate, Medieval Irish Poetry, fails to bring home a paycheck and now you’re in the hole, you may find yourself starting over again later in life. The good news is that since nobody can figure out how to repeal the Affordable Care Act and a single payer option for universal healthcare is gaining traction, fewer people need to stay with their jobs for the sake of the benefits.
But how do you know when to swipe right on your major so you don’t end up in a soul-sucking finance job? (If you happen to love your soul-sucking finance job, the comments section is open.) I’m probably not the best person to offer advice since English is regularly featured in “Top Ten Most Useless Majors” lists, but I’ll do it anyway and say that compatibility may just be the number one factor. Sure, you might be dazzled by the idea of a handsome medical degree, but if the organic chemistry just isn’t there, you’ll never walk down a hospital aisle in a beautiful white lab coat.
One way you can determine if you and Film History have a future together is by using a matchmaking service, also known as a career aptitude test. Not that I can fully endorse this idea; when I took this test in high school, my number one result was agricultural entrepreneur. I appreciate that they tried to dress up farming to make it sound fancy, but I regularly mix up rakes and hoes and my knowledge of tractors is limited to the furious scrutiny I give their back ends when I’m running late (honking invariably fails to move them), so agriculture is probably not for me. Besides, I can’t imagine successfully keeping cows or pigs alive when most days it’s a struggle just to raise my own children.
If you have my kind of luck with tests, you can always try a different tactic and figure out whether you’re building something special with Archeology by taking an elective or two first. Yes, tuition is expensive these days, but it’s even more expensive to realize down the road that your current major should have remained a one-semester-stand and changing your major now means two lost years. Don’t forget: your fiscal clock is ticking! Therefore, be sure to friend zone such fields of study as Floral Management or Bagpiping by turning them into hobbies or even gigs if you can’t completely say goodbye. The nice thing about careers is that they don’t get jealous if you take on a side job.
But perhaps the best way to discover if you’re supposed to move your relationship forward with Kinesiology is to pay attention to the reactions of those around you. Obviously, the final decision is yours, but if your best friend can’t understand what you see in Postmodern Art, Optometry might look like a more attractive option. And if your teacher looks like she wants to speak now because she’s afraid of forever holding her peace, you may want to rethink your Family Studies and Human Relationships goals.
I’m always torn as to whether I should give any of this advice to my students or let them figure it out on their own, for better or worse. And beyond that, aside from suggesting how to choose, I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell them what to choose. I mean, we got rid of arranged marriages for a reason, right? I’m just one of those hopelessly out-of-touch liberal arts instructors who stubbornly clings to the theory college is (should be) more than just job training, so what would my advice be anyway? It’s the perennial struggle between following your dreams and, you know, eating.
Thinking of my own children, who are still thankfully too young to get mixed up with the rakes and the hoes, I always return to my mom’s advice. I’d tell them to use their head as well as their heart when making a decision that has the potential to become something permanent and tangible, something to have and to hold from that day forward. Because after all, the first step to living happily ever after is to make sure you can, in fact, be happy with whatever you choose.