The malaise of future careers

| Staff Columnist

(Becky Zhao | Student Life)

When I was applying to colleges, I had no idea what major I would choose. One of the most appealing aspects of Washington University was its flexibility; there were loose core requirements, leaving room for me to explore different subjects before deciding what I wanted to do with my life. The flexibility was especially attractive because I was still clueless about what direction I would take, aside from avoiding pre-med at all costs. The deadline to declare a major—sophomore year—seemed vague and distant, and hardly even worthy of consideration yet. I eagerly signed up for classes in a healthy variety of subjects: anthropology, psychology, literature, political science, legal studies, international and area studies, and music. No need to specialize; I was milking my liberal arts education for all it was worth.

At an extended family gathering last week, however, I discovered that indecision tends to be synonymous with a lack of motivation. My uncle smirked when I explained that I was still unsure about my major. “For all that money, you better figure it out pretty fast,” he told me.

Immediately, the object of my panic switched from an upcoming anthropology exam to my hazy future. I had no plan, no career path lined up. What in the world did I think I was going to accomplish by spreading my courses across eight different disciplines?

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To make matters worse, it seemed like all the people around me had already mapped out their careers. One friend had lined up double majors in biology and music, followed by medical school and a stint as a military doctor. Another would be a political science major, head to law school and then prosecute domestic violence cases. Another would be a finance major, head to Wall Street and get rich. Hey, at least he had a plan.

So without a chosen major and subsequent career lined up, I decided that I must be destined for failure and destitution. I panicked. I panicked throughout my anthropology class, my literature class and my international politics class. I panicked through lunch, through studying in the library and through an episode of “Weeds.” I panicked all the way to Writing 1, where I was assigned 10 minutes of free-writing.

As the only core class required by the University, Writing I had always seemed like more of a chore than anything else. I resented the class on principle because I hadn’t chosen to enroll in it. That day, however, I was too busy panicking to be bothered by principles.

As I stared down at the blank sheet of notebook paper, I wondered why the University would require this class. How would 10 minutes of free-writing address my future? Or lack thereof?

So before I started panicking again, I started to write. I wrote about the first images that came to mind, and then the images that followed. I wrote about what I saw in my head, and then what I wanted to see. I wrote about the then and the now, today and tomorrow.

After 10 minutes, I hadn’t written a masterpiece. I hadn’t written much at all. I hadn’t figured out my future. I hadn’t lined up a career path or picked a major or even narrowed my interests. After 10 minutes, my notebook page was barely half full. But after 10 minutes, I was still writing.

  • a wise WU senior

    I also entered WashU without any idea what major I would choose and found its flexibility in terms of course selection appealing. My advice would be not to stress out too much about this, though. When I came to the end of your article, I discovered that you’re a freshman. That means you still have about a year to decide what major to declare! From personal experience, I can tell you that I think you’ll be fine. I declared a double-major on the day of the deadline to declare a major and will now be graduating in May. Here are some pieces of advice:
    1. Don’t let your friends who claim to have their whole lives mapped out intimidate you. I knew plenty of people like that my freshman year. Yes, some of them will go on to pursue the paths they’ve planned, but many of them will not. In reality, no one knows for certain what they are going to do years from now. I had friends who made fun of me at the beginning of sophomore year for not knowing what I would major in, but then they both went on to change their majors junior year! Consider yourself lucky that you are not confined to some straight and narrow path. You have lots of opportunities ahead of you!
    2. There is nothing wrong with spreading your courses across eight different disciplines as a freshman. You are trying new things as you work toward figuring out what interests you most. While other people are just focusing on one subject, you are getting a broad education, which I think is a good thing.
    3. Yes, eventually you will have to declare a major, but remember that declaring a major is not the same thing as declaring what you are going to do with the rest of your life. What you major in does not have to determine your entire life course! And if you happen to discover, as I did, that you love a certain subject later in your career at WashU, you can declare a minor in the fall of your senior year. (They say you can’t do this, but you totally can.)
    4. To choose a major, think about all of the classes you’ve taken and what you’ve liked best. Think about what you’re good at too. Talk to a career adviser or your four-year adviser. They probably won’t tell you exactly what to do with your life, but talking things over with them can still be helpful, and they probably have more insight than I do!