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Destigmatizing pre-professionalism

ways and means

There is one question that all university students must have some programmed response to: what are you studying? It seems like a simple question about one’s current area of interest, but the question probes at something much deeper in our lives. It asks—why are you at university? What do you plan on doing in the future? What do you value in life? Where do you find meaning?

Last week, I was discussing this question with an upperclassman I had recently met. I went first (since he was the one to ask) and explained that—while I was undecided on paper—I was gravitating towards studying English. I can’t explain all the reasons for this, but a key factor is my sense of a calling to study—even worship—literature.

His response disconcerted me. It went along the lines of: “Oh, I’m not doing anything that cool.” It’s not an exact quote, but bear with me. He went on to explain that he felt economics was a good option for employment (and that he did feel some good could come from it) but that it was a “basic” choice; stability was a strong motivating factor.

Why is it that pre-professional studies (business, pre-med, pre-law) are “basic”? This feeling seems to permeate some of the thinking at Duke. While I believe having a calling to something is special, not everyone feels a calling to a certain career or area of study. 

One of the key factors leading to this is the idea that pursuing a career for stability or wealth is “superficial.” This is, undoubtedly, an elitist sentiment. Attaining financial stability is not an easy task and is not something to be scoffed at. Being stable means being able to provide for one’s children, for one’s parents, for one’s community. It means having the chance to uplift others, to be able to give extra to causes we value—whether it be sustainability or resolving injustice.

One of the main reasons I still have half a mind to return to being pre-med is the idea of providing for my family in the future. What good is chasing my personal interests if it means my children will be lacking the benefits I had growing up? And although this is a personal question for me to resolve, it has always colored my perception of pre-professionalism. Pre-meds are not just chasing money—they are hoping to fulfill dreams that have yet to be born.

An interesting blowback to the feeling of “superficiality” (or even, greed) that can plague pre-professionals is the idea of “giving back.” I will tread carefully here. While I see pre-professional studies as being admirable in themselves (the world does need doctors and engineers and lawyers, likely more than it needs another eccentric English professor), there is an insidious nature to certain versions of pre-professionalism. 

Many people do feel called to study medicine to help others and to save lives; some people do feel called to pursue business to use their expertise in finance to help underserved causes. I hold these people in extremely high regard: they are choosing to sacrifice years of their lives to pursue the dream of helping others. Not only that, but the paths they have chosen are undoubtedly difficult and stressful, more so than most careers.

At the same time, there are people who assume this character in their actions without actually intending it. There is a false consciousness present among some pre-professionals (myself included when I was pre-med) that the work is primarily humanitarian. It took a while before I realized my drive to “help others” had been constructed by myself to justify studying a topic I was not particularly interested in; once I switched to accepting my genuine intention (providing for my future children), the purpose of pursuing a medical degree became far more clear to me. I was able to make better (and more honest) decisions about my future after I realized what my values really were.

This “lying to oneself” is caused due to the alienating force of social stigma. It is common to feel that we need a “good enough” reason to be pursuing a certain career; when someone asks what we are studying, we feel uncomfortable saying: “I want to have a stable financial situation.” We feel pressure to avoid this statement because we fear coming off as superficial or greedy. Instead, it is much easier to create a false outward persona—“I want to save lives!”—than accept our true intentions. This persona obscures our authentic emotions and causes us to act in bad faith. We deceive ourselves and thus deprive ourselves of self-understanding (and self-compassion). Our actions are made with false reasoning and false convictions which threaten to disappear at a moment’s notice.

Again, I want to stress that this does not preclude that there are no genuine humanitarians who exist (seriously, God bless the ones that exist). My trouble is that suddenly pre-professionals feel the pressure to pretend (even to themselves) that they have humanitarian intentions.

This pressure gets at the core of what seems to be lacking in a pre-professional career choice: meaning. Where is the deeper meaning in choosing a profession based on wealth? Well, what greater meaning is there in choosing a major because you “enjoy” it? If this feeling is authentic then it acts as an equally meaningful reason as future stability—the meaning of an action is generated by our free (genuine) will.

Choosing a career for stability is not meaningless; in many ways, it is a choice of maturity with great significance. Having wealth may mean having healthy children, being able to support a religious institution, or donating to the local food bank.

We shouldn’t feel the pressure to find some extravagant reason to study a subject—we should focus on having genuine intentions. I do believe that we should organize our lives according to some meaning. This meaning does not have to be a career (although it is wonderful when meaning is generated in work); meaning can be found in family, religion, community, or service. All it requires is our honest engagement.

Akshaj Turebylu is a Trinity first-year. His column, ways and means, runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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