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Not according to plan: From college major to career path
Two NYU seniors explain why they’re changing career paths.
By Nikkala Kovacevic | Staff Writer
A portrait of Phoebe Tan standing in front of a beach.
Pheobe Tan. (Image courtesy of Phoebe Tan)

“I just think it’s really difficult to know what you want,” lamented Phoebe Tan, a Tandon senior.

Many college seniors can relate to this. For most American college students, their careers begin the day they fill out their college applications. While there are other driving forces that push a student toward a certain career path, there is nothing quite as daunting or humbling as clicking the button to decide on a major. Now, this is usually not the be-all-end-all decision in one’s career trajectory, but it is certainly a monumental step. 

Such a discussion could easily devolve into a criticism of capitalistic structures and the pressure to be thinking about a lifelong career at the ripe age of 18. But acknowledging those pressures doesn’t erase the fact that for many college students, major means career, and career means life. At least, that’s what it feels like everyone is saying. 

In reality, only 27% of graduates have a job related to their major. This number contradicts the popularized notion that changing paths post-major declaration, or even post-graduation, is almost impossible. 

Toward the end of her college career, Tan switched from the pre-med track to the entirely different world of finance and is now working in equity research for biotech companies at an investment bank. The jump from studying chemical and biomolecular engineering to working in finance might seem big for some, but for Tan, it happened naturally. 

During her junior year, Tan began looking for internships with the eventual goal of becoming a dermatologist. Feeling the pressure as her peers secured science-related internships, Tan started having doubts about her selected career path and decided to branch out with her internship search into other scientific fields. 

“I definitely didn’t think I was going to get a job in finance,” Tan said. “I was just trying it out.” 

After landing an internship at a biotech company doing sales, Tan was able to find a balance between her skills in science and the corporate world, which she was less familiar with. 

“If you ask me something about science or something about engineering, I could do it, but if you ask me something about finance, literally the most basic thing, it would not have worked,” Tan said. “So the places that I ended up getting interviews for were workplaces that were merged between finance and science.”

In many ways, Tan’s hesitation to decide on a clear-cut career path left room for her to explore interests she wouldn’t have pursued otherwise. Tan described how she decided on engineering only as a result of her apprehension toward going to medical school.

“I don’t really know what I want, but obviously I’m gonna start working when I graduate,” Tan said. “So there is a path that I’m heading down and I’m very lucky.”

A portrait of Laura Derbonne standing in front of a cherry blossom tree at Washington Square Park.
Laura Derbonne. (Photo by Kiran Komanduri)

For others, like CAS senior Laura Derbonne, the college-to-career path is determined by external factors. Derbonne discovered that a key aspect in identifying what she’s passionate about lies in finding a place within her community. For the first half of her college career, Derbonne did not have a medical diagnosis of autism and felt like an impostor in communities of individuals who did have one. 

“I never felt like it was my place to be in any sort of advocacy groups or in a very visible role because someone that has always had this diagnosis might grow up facing all kinds of discrimination,” Derbonne said. “I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” 

Derbonne found a passion for advocacy and representation after receiving a medical diagnosis. The only problem was that this happened well into her college career, after she had already declared her major as English. 

“When I got that [diagnosis] was when I really started thinking, ‘This is something that I could see myself doing,’” Derbonne said. “I could make a career out of fighting for people, more than just using my words but using the law and real actions to effect that change too.”

This realization steered Derbonne toward law school in order to hone her interests into something more meaningful to her. Having already been inspired by disability advocates before her diagnosis, Derbonne finally felt as though she had the right to speak up on behalf of the autistic community. Now, she plans to attend law school after graduation with a focus on disability rights and advocacy. 

“It became more of something that was at the forefront of my mind as a career,” Derbonne said. “So even though I have kind of cycled through a lot of different things, I guess in the back of my mind, I figured I’d probably be doing something in the legal field.”

For many, deciding on a major can be a convoluted experience that extends way beyond the individual. There is the matter of parents and family, plus school requirements and timing. These factors make the direct major-to-career pipeline a difficult one to follow. 

“I feel like most people that don’t end up super happy with what they’re doing probably stay with it because the concept of switching, especially to a completely different department or school, would just be so much stress,” Derbonne said.

Despite her decision to pursue law, Derbonne values her English degree and the wide career options it gives her.

“I had all these different interests, but [did not know] how to place them into a career,” Derbonne said. “English was something that was safe for me. I’m happy with my English degree, because I guess all that really matters is that I enjoyed it.” 

Any college student can testify that from the application process to job hunting, your business is everybody’s business. Fortunately, Tan didn’t have to worry about losing the support of those around her.

“I think people already knew that I was looking to go out of medicine, but I think that they were surprised that it was finance because it’s so different,” Tan said. “They’re always really happy for me and very congratulatory, but some people are just very surprised.” In any situation, moving away from what you were planning to do is a bold decision. There is a certain stigma against deviating from what we’re pressured to believe is the norm. But these seniors — as valuable as their previous paths were — knew that they could only realize their goals if they diverged from them.

Contact Nikkala Kovacevic at [email protected].