When discussing my enrollment here at the University of Michigan with anyone other than a fellow student, I am always asked the classic question “What are you studying?” and I always hesitate before I say, with a cringe, “I’m undeclared.” I quickly follow up with a rushed answer of what I am planning on declaring. It does not matter that this is my first year, or that I have another year before I need to decide; it is expected that I have an answer. 

But there is a problem with trying to force students into a major too quickly. By pressuring myself to have an actual answer for everyone who asks me this, I now have tunnel vision. My constant repetition of this one answer has solidified it in my mind as my only option, and it leaves no room for consideration of other majors. It is like a brainwashing technique I have performed on myself.

In addition to needing my major decided upon, I also apparently need to know what job I want, what kind of career I want to dedicate my life to. This has happened to many of us. When your answer to “What’s your major?” is met with more questions like “And what can you do with that?” instead of offering words of encouragement for having one part of our life decided, we are expected to not only know our five-year plan, but also our 10-year plan, even our 15-year plan.

Our lives are expected to be planned out by the time we graduate, with an outline that includes not only the first job we have lined up, but also our entire career plan for the rest of our lives. According to our family and bosses, if we do not know where we want our lives to go, we will forever be wandering, lost with no purpose motivating us to go to work. We are told our key to success is to plan out every second of our future so we always know what the next step is.

As a result of this pressure, we begin to force ourselves to make choices that limit our options for the future. We see this in the types of internships we choose, the classes we take and the higher education we pursue. Rather than keeping our doors open when searching for jobs after graduation, we are narrowing our focus to a one-way track that can fall apart if one step does not happen as planned.

For instance, if one wishes to become a professor, a Ph.D. is required. You make it through graduate school, potentially incurring thousands of dollars of debt, and enter the job market ready to change the world by teaching the next generation. However, based on a study done on the 2014 U.S. Ph.D. recipients, a little less than half with definite job commitments said they’d hold a job in academia. This shows that even after earning a Ph.D., it’s not unusual for your career plan to change and force you to adapt to the new circumstances you find yourself in.

With no alternative, we leave ourselves with no room for the unexpected, no room to adjust to unplanned events that can put damaging kinks in our tightly wound plans. For example, there is that one class, possibly a few classes, in every major that is critical to moving on to the higher-level requirements. We try hard to do well in those classes, and we tell ourselves if we are meant for that major we should do well in them, but when some of us still end up with a far less-than-satisfactory grade, that may throw a wrench in the coveted life plan we have been prompted to establish.

We begin to question if this major is what we should do, yet because we have only devoted our time and thinking into this one option, we have no backup plan. So, instead of asking students to force themselves into making decisions some may not be ready to make, we should be allowed to consider all options one at a time and not be afraid to diverge from the original plan if necessary.

We need to accept that there is no one specific path for each of us as individuals or even to get to a specific career; everyone will get to where they are in life a different way. At one of the workshops during my orientation last summer, we were shown the familiar diagram that links some of the larger majors in LSA to the numerous careers each can lead to. We should refer to this to inspire us, and relieve some of the anxiety of picking a major and deciding upon a career.

Therefore, answering the question “What job can you get with that major?” does not need to bring us to our knees in an effort to explain our reasoning for making this choice. We must remind ourselves that a career is not made out of one decision we make when we are 19, and we must trust ourselves to eventually find the job and career path that suits us — something no one can tell us.

Alexis Megdanoff can be reached at amegdano@umich.edu.

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