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Major Concerns: What to Remember If You Feel Trapped By Your Degree

What are you majoring in?

Students often encounter this question before they’ve even begun their college career. It’s a logical question to ask someone who is in college, or about to be, but many students don’t have an answer. Among the throngs of students who enter our nation’s colleges every year, very few begin their collegiate careers with a clear picture of what they want their major to be. Of the few that know their major upon entering, or are able to choose one quickly, a considerable amount find themselves changing course at least once before their graduation day.

Choosing a major is not a decision that students take lightly, nor should it be. Many colleges require students to spend at least a year taking different courses before declaring one, and for good reason. Regardless of what your academic interests are, taking an extensive course in anything can change your perspective on it. There are plenty of myths surrounding the college major topic, but one of the most common, and most dangerous, is the belief that you are defined by your major and will only ever be able to work in that specific field. It’s easy to feel trapped by your major, compelled to work in only the field you hold a degree in. Regardless of what it says on your diploma, though, you are more than the sum of your courses. Your major and your career do not have to go hand in hand.

Before starting college, I intended to study English. Whenever I mentioned it to any adult, the response was almost always “So you want to teach?” While I have nothing at all against teaching, that was never my intention. Anyone who thinks that an English degree limits you to teaching, though, does not know the discipline of which they speak. What does former CEO of Goldman Sachs and United States Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson have in common with former Avon CEO Andrea Jung, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and journalist/television personality Barbra Walters? All five majored in English and they are only a few of the noteworthy names on that list.

English, though, is only one of many college majors that afford students more options than many realize. There probably aren’t enough jobs in Philosophy for everyone who earns a degree in the discipline to work directly in it. Thankfully, majoring in such a subject seems to prepare students for careers in many different industries. The ability to think and analyze critically that comes from studying such a subject has served billionaire investors George Sorros and Peter Thiel very well and likewise filmmaker Ethan Cohen and renowned author David Foster Wallace. If you’re starting to suspect that many CEOs didn’t study business or finance, you’re certainly right. Many, in fact, studied history. This list includes Ken Chenault of American Express, Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, and Sam Palmisano, formerly of IBM, so if you are a history major, you’re in good company.

Does a degree in political science or government limit you to a career in politics? Not if you are Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, who became a literal rock star after earning a political science degree. The company he is in includes popular television host Jerry Springer, Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who also tried his hand at practicing law before switching to finance. There are, in fact, many politicians who did not study either discipline. California Governor Jerry Brown holds a degree in classics and former New York major Mario Cumo earned his in English. Former president George W. Bush majored in history and his brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, in Latin American studies.

No matter what you choose to major in during your undergraduate years, what you do with your degree is up to you. A major only defines you if you allow it to. I know law students who were advised not to major in pre-law as undergraduates. Someone who did though, is actor Matthew McConaughey. The list of actors and actresses who did not major in theater or acting is extensive. Both George Clooney and Brad Pitt studied journalism while Julianna Margulies concentrated in art history and Ashton Kutcher pursued biochemical engineering. If any of these people, or so many others, had felt trapped by their college majors, your favorite films might be very different. They all had options, and so will you, probably more than you realize.

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Samuel O’Brient grew up in western Massachusetts, though most of his days are spent at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester, New York. His time there is spent studying business communications and serving as editor in chief of the SLC Economic Review. As a writer, journalist, and blogger, he has written for many different online venues on a variety of topics. When he’s not working on his blog, Samuel can often be found sailing, on the golf course, or on the tennis court.