Within the first few minutes of meeting someone new, I’m guaranteed to hear a variation of “What are you studying?” Exchanging this detail is an inescapable formality for any college student. A major is a crucial identifier that contributes to a significant portion of your personal brand. Now as I approach the end of my junior year at NYU, I find myself in countless conversations with my peers about what life after graduation will entail. As the pressure to pull together a post-college plan becomes more salient, I can’t shake the feeling that, in choosing Psychology, I chose the wrong major.
A claim that I frequently heard as a concerned first-year was your major is not as important as you think. People around me retold anecdotes of others who serendipitously ended up in careers that diverged from what they studied in college. During a first-year cohort meeting, my academic advisor even presented a slideshow comparing the areas of study pursued by accomplished celebrities and their current occupations to demonstrate that the incongruence was rather common. This surprising flexibility was always emphasized, not to be nihilistic, but to be encouraging in that your working life is not confined to your major.
Immersion in a discipline will naturally lead to more exposure to and more connections within that particular field, which could also result in more opportunities specific to that field. As a Psychology major, I have been able to find work relatively easily as a research assistant in a psychology lab and as a human resources intern, presumably because my studies overlap with the skills needed in these positions.
Though instead of moving closer to a more defined future through these work experiences, I only felt that I was discovering what I didn’t want to be doing. I was more than halfway through my junior year when I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, at which point it was too late to change my major. The alternative is to gain work experience, and in my ongoing search for summer opportunities relating to journalism, I have found that it takes a lot more for me to be considered a competitive applicant. Even for the places that don’t explicitly state that a Journalism major is required, there is still an additional expectation for me to prove that I have suitable experience and translatable skills despite my major. In a cutthroat job market, this disadvantage is evident in the ratio of how many applications I have submitted versus the places I actually hear back from.
The extent of this struggle was considerably surprising to me. Psychology especially has a reputation for being applicable to a wide variety of fields, as it’s regularly featured on listicles describing the best majors for those who are unsure of what to do after college. The assumption isn’t baseless either — the American Psychological Association reported that according to a 2013 survey, only 26.7 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology work in a job “closely related” to their major. I, like many others, chose this major because I believed in the promise that it keeps your options open, but as I try to outgrow it, I can’t help but feel boxed in.
As you mature and change throughout the course of college, your aspirations can change too. Yet the structure of university doesn’t leave room for that, as your major becomes a path that you need to see to completion. I’m in school to achieve my professional dreams, but ironically, it’s the major that I chose that seems to be holding me back.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, April 9 print edition. Email Janice Lee at [email protected].