The general attitude toward people pursuing pre-professional majors has taken an increasingly negative turn. Any academic focus with a pre-professional bent — pre-med, pre-law, economics, public policy, engineering — seems to automatically raise suspicion. People pursuing lucrative majors or career paths are seen as mercenary, competitive, narrow-minded, ambitious and greedy. “Pre-meds?” people scoff. They’re one-track-minded vultures frenetically cramming for orgo, hunting down a stable six-figure salary and social status. Economics majors? They’re just in it for the famed Wall Street bonuses, a huge percentage of the base salary. The obvious way to go is to study a subject you love and then, by the excellence of your work and the strength of your undying passion, magically fall into a career that’s tangentially related to your major, or, even better, find a dream job that directly relates to your interests.
The problem with that philosophy is that it doesn’t usually work out so perfectly. There are some people who pursue majors with no predefined career path — take English, for example — and end up in the same Wall Street jobs as economics majors or even end up as successful writers. But that’s not the case for most people. Most people can’t use an English degree as a springboard for a job as an accountant — those employers ask for prerequisites a major like that can’t fulfill. And even fewer people make it as successful authors or writers. There are only so many books that become best sellers, only so many newspapers and magazines to write for. So many people want so few dream jobs; success in those fields is usually contingent on circumstance and pure luck.
Some people love pre-med classes the way writers love to write. But for those who don’t, there are still reasons to choose a pre-professional major other than pure passion. Choosing a practical major is just a realistic option for those of us who aren’t stellar writers or who can’t find jobs as philosophy or comparative literature majors. Personally, part of the reason I chose my major is that I know there are career opportunities in engineering. But that’s compounded by the fact that I find the challenge of engineering rewarding. I can’t say I love all of the required classes, and I can’t say I love doing math problems enough to consider it a hobby I would pursue in my free time. But I don’t see why it’s such a bad thing to have a stable career path in mind and to be willing to work hard toward it.
This isn’t to say that you should select a major or a job you hate, and the good thing about most of these pre-professional paths is that they’re self-selective. Most likely, someone who resolutely hates biology or chemistry isn’t going to make it through the whole 10-year process to become a doctor. Someone who hates finance or public policy probably won’t tolerate four or more years of it. There has to be an intrinsic interest in the subject for it to work out, but interest doesn’t have to be the only reason. I don’t have to love every minute of every class in order to justify why I chose my major. I know the job I’m headed toward at the end of the road, and it’s a job that I’m happy to do.
It’s idealistic to believe the only proper reason to choose a major is out of pure love for the subject. There are so many other factors to consider — inherent talent, financial security, job opportunities. Every student has manifold reasons for choosing his or her major, and if those reasons are partially tied to a future career path, then so be it. Sanctimonious statements about the “right reasons” to choose a major or the “right way” to learn in college are presumptuous and, ultimately, unnecessary.
Barbara Zhan is a freshman from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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