Wait But Why Do We Have to Chose Our Careers Now?

As we were brainstorming in class over a ‘Wait But Why?’ piece we could really dive into with relevant questions and answers to our generation, one of our group members introduced the idea of careers, and how society represents careers to college students as something that is set in stone for the rest of your life. The notion that your major will be your career which you will be doing for 30+ years is a troubling concept to grapple with as a student; we must choose a major at 18, thinking this is what we will be doing the rest of our lives, and frankly, most people have no idea, unless they are pre-med or engineers. And to be honest, even some of those people don’t know what field they will go into within that major, or they may be doing it to please their parents or go along with what society has deemed as important careers. It seems to me that breaking apart the ideology that a major is a career, and that a career is set in stone for life, is something worth talking about.

First, I think we need to start with the very root of the problem. Why is there a stigma around changing a career half way through life? If society did not put so much pressure on the idea that careers are set in stone, college students would not have the pressure of determining their major with the mindset it will be their job forever. I do not think enough discussion focuses around the fact that most college students have had little to no experience in the work force and yet we go to college to study for a career we ‘think’ we will like and do well in. It is so hard to know what you would want to do for the rest of your life, especially as students. If society put pressure on people exploring different career option and paths in college, instead of keeping the major requirements so strict and enclosing, more students would have the opportunity to really find out what it is they may want to do. Furthermore, if society would take the pressure off of the idea that careers are set in stone, then people would be much more inclined to give different careers a shot, rather than staying in a job they hate because they have no idea what else they would do.

I would like to use my own Dad as a case study, because his life is a walking testament of breaking down the stigmas of set in stone careers, as well as students struggling with the confined nature of majors to careers. As a sophomore at USC in the late seventies, my father came in declared as a pre medical student. His father was a Doctor, and so he was pressured by his parents to follow the same path. With the strict requirements for pre medical students, he had no time in his schedule to explore other areas of study outside of the maths and sciences. He saw friends and fraternity brothers pursuing teaching jobs and news anchor positions, and he yearned to try sports broadcasting. He asked his parents if he could switch majors, to which they responded that that choice would ruin his career opportunities. He gave that up, yet by senior year, he realized he did not have the grades to get into medical school, and when he applied after graduation, he did not receive any acceptance letters. The societal and parental pressures weighed heavily down on him, and he was not sure what to do. He actually left without telling his parents and traveled around Australia and Europe for a year and a half, just trying to figure out what exactly it was he even wanted to do with his life.

When he returned, he decided that what the right thing to do was retake a few classes at USC, and reapply to P.A. school. Fast-forward 30 years later and now my Dad owns his own medical practice as a P.A. with another Doctor. However, this story is only just beginning, because he continues to try and break the boundaries of societal notions of set in stone career paths. This past month, after finally coming to terms with the fact that being in the medical field practicing just was not his calling and was not making him happy, my Dad sold his business, and is now the Dean of a P.A. school in LA. He realized that although he was well past half way through his adult working life, he could still change things for the better, and pursue new and interesting forms of work. I would not be surprised if he changes again if he is not satisfied with this position, because he realized that no matter societies notions of what careers are, the proper ones versus the unrealistic ones, and the ones you do for life versus the ones that you continue to grow into and change with, he ahs the power within himself to pursue whatever career he wants to.

The example of my Dad shows that it is the way of though as a society that we put pressure on students to follow careers deemed right by others, when it may not be the right one for themselves. Also, his story shows that a career is in fact not set in stone, but evolves with the different steps you take to reach happiness within that career path. Students today to need be reminded by their professors and parents and other people in powerful and influential positions that a major may be what you study, but that does not necessarily mean it both limits and reserves you to one career. Although I do not have Microsoft paint or any means of painting stick figures in the way that the blogger ‘Wait But Why?’ does, I am able to paint a picture with words the ways in which students come to understand their majors and their careers.

Three stick figures enter college. On the first day, they go to the opening ceremony. There lies a stone and a sword in the middle of the stage. The President of the college announces that this is their turn to find out their career for life. He says good luck, and calls the first name. The first stick figure walks up to the stone at his name being called, and pulls the sword out. The sword reads “Doctor” on the side, and the student smiles in admiration at his new major and career. He proceeds back to his seat, with eager anticipation to begin his studies and life long career. The second walks up to the stone, and tugs on the sword, but it will not budge. Everyone in the crowd is shocked, and people are screaming. The word bubbles read, “What will he do with his life?!”, “How will he ever survive?!”, “The HORROR!!”. He terrifyingly goes back to his seat, and the last stick figure gets called up. He pulls his sword out and it reads “English”. Although he is excited at the opportunity to expand his mind with the study of English, he is not sure what he will then do as a career with this major. He says this to the crowd, and they act confused and worried for the third stick figure, so he goes, sorrowful and ashamed, back to his seat in the crowd. Interestingly, a fourth stick figure, who appears a lot older than the rest, comes back to pull the sword a second time, and his at first reads “Doctor” but glimmers away and re-appears as “Professor. The crowd is happy for him, but rather confused why his sword changed from one to the other. The ceremony ends.

As we see in this simple yet over-exaggerated modern version of Arthur and Excalibur, societies mindset is that we chose our majors,‘ in the same way that Arthur pulled out the sword from the stone. They think that this is set in stone, and that everyone who is supposed to ‘pull out their sword’ of their career path will. However, the second stick figure shows that not everyone knows what they want to do with their life in college, and so they are forced into picking, or pulling out in this case, their major, without it necessarily belonging to them. Or, in the case of the third stick figure, they chose a major that they end up not doing as their career, but that they love and are interested in. Society puts heavy pressures on students to make a choice and stick with it, like the stick figure number one. And they seem quite happy to support that decision, but not the decision of the second two. With the fourth figure, this is representative of my father, and many other adults who change their field, not out of a lack of success, but because they realized it was not the field for them, and they would be much happier elsewhere.

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5 thoughts on “Wait But Why Do We Have to Chose Our Careers Now?”

  1. Your father definitely has had an amazing career path and it’s amazing that he is able to switch careers successfully. I agree with you that there is a stigma that you should change your career after you have invested so much time in it. I also believe though that this stigma is beginning to be broken down. Most every professional I speak to tells me that your career is going to take you to places that you wouldn’t have thought you would have ended up and that’s perfectly okay. I hear countless times from my professors, families, counselors that many people major in a certain field and wind up somewhere totally unrelated to your major. Similar to your father’s story, one of my mentors switched career at about 30. Many were shocked by such a move but she did it because she felt a need for a change. She is now the regional manager for her current company and is happy where she is. If she had never taken the leap then she wouldn’t be wear she is now. At the end of the day, one has to make there own decision and fully commit. Careers don’t have to be so boring, they can be adventurous and exciting, which is exactly the approach your father and my mentor have taken.

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  2. It’s unfortunate that a lot of schools don’t do a good job in encouraging innovative academics. Being a student is difficult enough without getting boxed into a mold you never wanted to fit. I think that’s why there’s such heavy criticism of the higher education system. The most innovative minds in technology, business, education and design have spoken out about the restrictive trends in the system. We’re expected to conform to certain standards, depending on our industry of study, and if we don’t fit the typical, we’re criticized for it. I think Mark Twain’s comment “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” is central to your post. We go to college not to conform, but to discover new subjects, paths, opportunities and interests. Your post articulates that really effectively, and I agree that we need to break the stigma equated with “changing course” in the middle of our academic journeys.

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  3. I have good news for in you in the fact that I think increasingly as our generation grows older, enters (and re-enters) the work force, our experiences will align more with your father than the student who majors in chemical engineering, works at DOW for 45 years, and graduates at 65 with a gold watch.

    Careers are increasingly becoming a fluid structure. In our parents and grandparent’s generation, loyalties to their field and the company they worked at kept them confined on a narrow and almost pre-determined path. With that came benefits of course – security, safety, assurance –but our generation has different values. We will sacrifice predictability over our own interpretation of freedom.

    I think its clear our “millennial” values are now clashing with a stodgy university system that wants to peg you into a niche. They encourage you to innovate and be a leader in that niche, but you are in that niche nonetheless. The backlash to that will only grow, and universities will have to adapt to maintain their consumer base.

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    1. I really appreciate that you shared your father’s story. It’s refreshing to hear that your father ended up taking the career path that felt like the perfect combination of fulfilling both his and his parents’ wishes. Today, it’s difficult to decide where we want to go from the moment we declare our major. Although much of what we choose to study at 18 will apply to our jobs, I refuse to believe our majors will determine the careers we pursue for the rest of our lives. As people, we are constantly evolving, growing a new interest everyday with more exposure so it is inevitable that what we choose to spend our entire day doing (our career) will satisfy us for years. Personally, maintaining the same interest for years sounds draining and I still cannot imagine the redundancy of it when I get to that age. I’m starting to think that jobs are not necessarily something we are meant to love, but rather, a responsibility that we have as citizens, our contribution to the world, whereas enjoyment is found in the company of friends and family.

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  4. I was talking about this with my friends the other week. How can I choose what I want to do for the rest of my life right now! I can’t even tell you what my favorite color is without switching my mind. I switched majors a couple times now, and I finally think I came across a field I am passionate about. My fear is though, what if that passion does not last. 10, 15, 20 years from now, what if I don’t feel the same as I do now as my 21 year old self. Thankfully, I understand that later life education is always possible. Or, life after retirement brings forth possibilities in newfound interests. Even as a working individual, I know I can stretch my options. I can always find a way to do something I love. Like you dad, I hope I have the guts to make those bold moves if one day I feel myself saying, “but wait why!”

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