Meeting new people usually starts the same way: after the hello, how are you and the what’s your name? people dive into slightly more personal questions such as, Where are you from? Where do you go to school? What are you studying? The last one is a favorite amongst any audience; teachers, peers and family friends are all curious as to what you plan to major in while in college. It’s a fair question which usually leads people to express their approval of the subject matter or interest in the field. All is fine and dandy if your major obviously leads to a post-college career. Otherwise, you might receive the classic response of: “Oh, how do you plan to make money from that major?” Yikes.
When I was still thinking about attending medical schools, I would always mention that I was pre-med before I mentioned I was an English major. If I ever said that I was an English major first, I would make sure to immediately qualify my studies by saying I was pre-med. The need to justify my college education with something people see as “useful” for obtaining a high paying job set the tone for these interactions. Conversations like these were exhausting and discouraged me from discussing my true interests. Now that I have dropped the pre-med track, I am constantly questioned as to whether or not I will be able to make a living.
People hear “English major” and naturally assume I’m destined to be a poor writer, using my struggles to fuel my fiction. Normally such people don’t follow up with questions about my passions, favorite books, interest in other fields, or why I chose English (a similar, but much more intimate and meaningful question). So I stand there trying to come up with some form of answer to satisfy the question. I feel a need to appease the person with an appropriate response that shows I’ve thought about my future thoroughly. But why should I care what other people think of my major?
Such experiences are not limited to humanities majors, either; students in other disciplines outside of economics, computer science or pre-health, are subjected to the same derision. Pre-professional students have a clear defense about their choice of study because these courses of study clearly and succinctly translates to plans after college. Even as an English major, I could still pursue a postgraduate degree. People just assume I won’t.
Even for students who are not pursuing a specific pre-professional track in college, there are some majors that are immediately valued as good investments. Math, public policy, political science, engineering majors are usually seen as prestigious, “difficult” (as I’ve previously discussed) or insanely rigorous. Such majors are seen as beneficial in the long run because they have social weight in the “real world,” meaning people could see a plethora of different careers branching of their studies. In a way, these students are still on a type of career path, just one that’s not as obvious. Nonetheless, these majors appear to others as ones that can be used to earn six figure jobs. My English major, on the other hand, is not seen the same way since the careers are less obvious. Since people can’t see how my major directly translates to a career, it is assumed I will struggle to find a job after college.
It is one thing to ask what a student plans to pursue after they graduate, as that demonstrates interest in their desired career path. You’re trying to learn more about the individual and their specific passions within their field of study. I find this type of question flattering, and an opportunity to discuss what specifically about English literature excites me. It is another to ask how they plan to make any money.To do so completely and immediately undermines the person’s interests, and instead places the emphasis on their future salary and nothing more. It’s insulting and unrealistic to assume that a capable college graduate will enter the world without having any idea about their future livelihood.
At the end of the day, the focus should not be on the money someone will potentially make, but rather the joy and excitement the person has for what they want to do. Being able to sustain yourself as a working adult is essential, and I understand that, but happiness is also salient in life. Sure, money can buy things that make you happy, but it cannot buy you eternal happiness. So, if you find yourself in one of these interactions and you’re thinking about asking about how someone plans to make money, please don’t. Consider asking something else—anything else—instead.
Cliff Haley is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.