Once, an undergraduate degree represented a ticket to the top in fields like engineering, management and banking; now it has become a bare requirement, and further qualifications are in turn changing from guarantees of a good position into basic necessities. In the current economic climate, competition for well-paid jobs is fiercer than ever. Being directly qualified for a career is the simplest way to ensure a competitive position in the rush for employment. A canny student could take a tangentially relevant degree and twist it to advantage in applications, but it’s an uncertain strategy which relies as much on the imaginative abilities of the interviewers as those of the interviewee.
So, assuming that our theoretical student subscribes to popular notions of success, and understands quality of life by standard rubrics (as most do), studying one of the degrees normally appreciated by major employers is a no-brainer. However, there are some that contend that you should do not what will pay best, but what you love, because for all the money in the world you can still be unhappy if you find your employment unfulfilling. By this line of reasoning, the aim should be to identify a pleasing course of study and then graduate into a pleasing career.
There are obvious issues here. Firstly, if one follows one’s heart and doesn’t attempt rigorously to link the two from the beginning, there’s a decent chance that graduation will feel like jumping between two moving trains. Secondly, in a world where popular perception of the good life requires significantly above-average income, students must consider that the “do what you love” message can be at odds with the most productive path. At no point in history have so many people been in a position where they are encouraged and given the opportunity to “follow dreams” and study “what they like”. But the “opportunity” belies a basic truth: a lot of pursuits will rarely provide a sustainable career, even if you study them at university level. It remains highly unlikely that your love for a given subject will enable you to join the handful who become famous enough to survive. There are as many starving artists now as there have ever been.
You could be that rarer soul who subscribes to different ideals of success, and finds bare subsistence to be perfectly sufficient while spending every day writing that elusive novel. Equally, you could be on a “calling” path – driven by the desire to teach, perhaps, or to practise medicine, or to fight for one’s country. The rewards of these callings are self-evident to those who follow them.
But if that’s not who you are, if you’re not driven by some singular mission or sense of love, then “do what you love” is a fickle friend. You might well cast around for a degree that sparks your interest, driven mad by uncertainty and the feeling that you “should” love something esoteric and brave. You may simply rely on what you did best at in school, and end up with less than you’d want from your degree and your life thereafter.
It’s not worth it. Make a cold decision, and pursue a degree with an obvious industry application. You’ll be better off than all the people who end up joining the race anyway, but only after graduating with a relatively unrelated degree. They might have had more fun during university, but they’ll have less when they’re searching for the jobs you’re getting. And if you do hate your job in the end, there’s always time to change back. The novel will wait.
Do not be afraid to admit that you do not know what you will do after graduating. Even though I currently study chemical sciences and philosophy, I do not think that I want to become a chemist or a philosopher. Nor do I think that there are many jobs that require this combination (does alchemy count?) I do, however, want to study what I enjoy.
I have occasional doubts. Fleetingly, I worry about the looming future and responsibilities I will soon have to face. These anxieties are not eased when adults condescendingly ask about my “career path” and “what I plan to do with my life”, as though now I am not living. Faced with an increasingly competitive job market and startlingly expensive university fees, one is tempted to think that a major that will more or less ensure a middle-income profession is the wiser choice. However, the myth of the ‘money-making major’ is a false one. Employers want people who know how to think, not what to think. Consider your mind a knife that can be sharpened on any subject, providing you apply yourself in it. Most work nowadays is so specialized that it is more beneficial to use the four years of undergraduate study to gain a set of versatile skills than to become a mediocre theoretician in your field of choice. If you hone your intellect, learn to analyze, understand, and approach problems, you will be much more valuable to a post-graduate employer than someone who has memorized the economics textbook. A hard-working undergraduate can master these skills regardless of subject, thereby allowing your average student to both enjoy and benefit from their academic choice.
It is important to bear in mind that your degree does not singularly decide your career prospects. Internships and part-time or summer jobs are excellent ways to get your foot in the door of companies and organisations by establishing connections with potential employers. Myriad business opportunities are available to students in all fields of study, allowing students to discover where their interests lie and what they picture themselves doing for the next considerable number of years. Any degree can be effectively supplemented with additional activities that ultimately coalesce into an impressive CV. After all, it is often the passions that you pursue outside of academia that reveal noteworthy features of your personality, as well as skills not gained through formal education but nonetheless of interest to an employer.
Knowledge can be an end in and of itself. It is difficult to find anything wrong with studying a subject for the sake of immersing oneself in learning, regardless of whether or not it holds the promise of future money. University is contemporarily seen as simply preparation for work, which ignores the important the too-often marginalized aspect of learning. University should not be a place where we are trained to perform tricks at life’s dog show, but rather a place where we learn about ourselves, what we are good at, what we enjoy. If you are passionate about a subject and wish to study it at university, chances are that you will do very well and not only find happiness, but gain invaluable skills that will enable you to follow a path in life which satisfies both your soul and your monetary needs.