Deciding on a Major – Balancing Passion and Pragmatism

By: Amos Fong

So, what would you like to do with your life?

Back in high school, I always envied classmates who possessed clarity and direction; who knew they were going to be the doctors and lawyers of the future. Funny thing is some of them are now in law and med school and they don’t seem quite as certain as they were before. Guess they should have done a little more research into what their chosen major really entailed.  

Deciding on a major can be tricky business. Advice abounds on how to choose your major, ranging from ‘follow your dreams’ to ‘go where the money is’. In essence, the main consideration in deciding on a major involves striking the right balance between these two extremes – passion and pragmatism.

Passion – What inspires you?

There might be an academic subject that you can spend hours reading about; such as History, Literature or Biochemistry. Or maybe there is a career that you aspire towards: whether it’s saving lives as a doctor or helping the needy as a humanitarian worker. Perhaps it is a hobby that takes up all your time: possibly a passion for film, music or blogging. These are all things that give you meaning and allow you to experience what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’ and are all good places to start when deciding on a major.

However, in the age of DOTA 2 and mindless TV series it seems like many students have no idea what they really want. This is why it is vital to start thinking early; read in depth about subjects that engage you, speak to individuals who are working in interesting fields and start cultivating hobbies aside from the slack-jawed, media-induced pastimes that modern society has wrought. Go out and get your hands dirty. Volunteer in a social help centre. Attend a talk on astronomy. Read a book about economics. The more you widen the scope of your experience, the likelier you are to find a subject that resonates with you.

But what if you’d like to study a bit of everything? In that case, you can look into taking a Liberal Arts program or if you’re applying to an American college: experiment with different electives in your first two years and with designing your own major.

Pragmatism – What are the future prospects?

While choosing a major based on interest is perfectly fine; on the other side of the coin looms the specter of pragmatism. Allow me to give a blunt example: you might love art but you might not be talented enough to succeed in the industry and artists as a whole aren’t exactly known for their promising employment prospects. Of course, if you possess the talent, with a bit of luck you can overcome the odds and make a name for yourself. But if the odds don’t look good, you might be better off picking a ‘safer’ option. In the words of an ancient Chinese proverb that I just made up, ‘dreams alone don’t fill an empty stomach’.

While you should not consider majors purely on their monetary returns and job prospects, these are certainly crucial factors to keep in mind. With all the jokes about unemployed arts graduates, recent hype about STEM subjects and unquestioned prestige of law and medical degrees; the harsh truth is that graduates in certain fields have vastly more job opportunities, economic payoffs and ability to weather financial hardships compared to others.

If you have a desired career but are unsure of what it really entails; look around for opportunities to shadow someone in that job for a day. If you have an opportunity to apply for internships over the summer or during your gap year, whether it is in a newspaper agency or marketing department, work it like a full-time job and try to experience every aspect of the industry.

Striking a balance – Passion & Pragmatism

If you’re fortunate, you might have found a major that scores highly in both aspects. However, not everyone is so lucky. While it is certainly possible to throw pragmatism to the wind and pursue your dream, or stifle your passion and opt for a ‘safer’ option, this is a decision you will need to make yourself. It is also important to consider the non-financial aspects of choosing a particular major; you might have weighed the costs and decided the lack of financial security is an acceptable sacrifice in order to stay true to yourself or bring some good to the world.

As their careers progress, many people don’t end up in a field related to their major. Different majors bring with them different benefits and it is ultimately how much you are willing to negotiate between passion and pragmatism that will influence your decision. But the only way to make an informed decision is to explore what engages you and to find out more about the careers related to these subjects.

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