Ben Caleca: In college, keep your options open

BY BEN CALECA

Published December 6, 2009

I often spend much of my column attacking pseudoscience or extolling the virtues of ambitious projects that use technology for good. This time, since I won’t have another chance before I graduate this December, I’ll share my advice for those of you still trying to find a niche during your time here. Whether or not you’re aware, there are plenty of opportunities to take advantage of what makes the University of Michigan so great.

A lot of freshmen are now entering the dreaded phase of trying to figure out what they wish to major in, a daunting prospect for many students that is compounded by frustrations about what majors will give them the best chance to land a job. But in searching for a major, you should pursue something that you love. If you come here and decide to slog through classes you despise so you can have a job, who’s to say you’ll enjoy your work any better? For someone with a passion, there is always work to be had. Ask any English major who studied writing and now makes more money than many of his or her peers, or any musician who lives job-to-job making a living but enjoys life.

Beyond simply picking a major, take classes that you want to take. If you’re not sure what exactly you want to do, your friends in other classes can be valuable and your GSIs even more so. Once you finish your foundation classes, your professors can increasingly help you select relevant classes. Don’t be afraid to take classes outside your major, even if they seem irrelevant. If you enjoy it and do it well, you can only be more knowledgeable. The more I’ve met people and learned about career options, the more I have seen that we are really in a global, interconnected world — there are crossroads for almost any set of interests you can imagine. Those who can take advantage of these intersections are often very successful.

Always know your professors. They are the people who will educate you, and if you don’t converse with your professors at least occasionally, they’ll never be able to give personal advice. You may not realize it as underclassmen, but it’s not uncommon to go out drinking or share dinner with professors and grad students as a senior. They like to know good people as much as you do, and it’s one of the easiest means of networking. It also makes sense if you’re considering grad school. For grad students, who you research with is often more important than where you go to school. They may know about great job opportunities out there and might help you get your foot in the door.

As far as networking is concerned, be smart about jumping on any opportunities to meet new people. If there’s a physicist giving a lecture on some obscure theory you’d heard of — that you don’t understand or even study but you want to know about — go listen to it and see if you can talk to him after. You never know what can come of showing an interest in people’s lives and work. The same goes for career fairs. If you see a company and are interested in the field, even if you think it’s not suited to your skills, talk to their representatives, ask them about their work and ask them what got them there. Large businesses often have room for all kinds of people.

Communication is the key when it comes to standing out. Professors and coworkers appreciate people who can explain their work. It’s better to be a good engineer who can write a great report than an exceptional engineer who cannot explain what he did — the most financially successful artists sell their work by explaining its aesthetic and symbolic attributes.

The last bit of advice is one that I’ve gleaned by watching friends here who seem to have a complex: They think they need to know exactly what they’re doing with their life after college. They need to know their career, their spouse and where they will live. Statistically speaking, each of you will have several careers, each with a few different jobs, in the next 20 years. You’ll probably move and meet new “true loves” at least two or three times. College is about getting the basic skills down — the real learning comes later.

If you made it to a school like the University of Michigan, then you’ve been given a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow. It can be overwhelming for many people, but if you go out and look for what you love to do, it's easy to find your niche and be successful. Even if you miss one chance, there are always several more waiting.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.