Career Advice, Now + Beyond

I’m terrified of being asked what I’m studying

No one's promising a high salary with liberal arts, so what is it promising?

“What are you studying?”

For those who aren’t on predetermined major tracks, this question can be quite a nightmare.

“What am I studying?”

For the first year or two of college, most undergraduates are undecided. In my parents’ time, college majors weren’t so much of a question. From the moment they entered college, their career—and a fitting major to accompany it—was already decided. Accounting, they both choose for its reliability and job security. 

Today, that’s still the mindset of many college students, and for good reason. After all, college exists with and for the underlying hope of a suitable and profitable career.

When I started college, everyone asked me that stressful question. Nervous as anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable determining their life in a single word, I would reply,  “Uh, I don’t know yet.” In some cases, this turned into what felt like a strange interview. They would ask me what my favorite subject in high school was or what I liked to do in my spare time. It seemed like they were trying to help me figure it all out—my whole life, right there. 

Others would simply say, “It doesn’t matter anyway, you’ll probably just end up changing it.” Those people were right, although I don’t like to admit it. My interests did change or rather my interesting of them did. 

In high school, everything was boiled down to its most simplistic form. In college, everything expanded. Literature was no longer just a book, but access to multiple cultures and societies. History was no longer reading a dull, reductionist textbook, but an examination of historical documents with multiple conclusions to be drawn. And all of these disciples inspired, motivated, and captivated me. 

It felt impossible to decide what to focus on when everything felt so expansive. In my sophomore year, I decided to take the leap and declare my major. Two actually: English and Religion. I found two things that I wanted to unpack in every capacity, two disciplines that defined the world in such crucial ways. Subjects that I could study for a lifetime. They continue to teach me to analyze, to think critically, to look beyond what I see initially. 

Now, I finally had an answer to that major question.  I actually knew what I was going to study. I was excited to share it with everyone. I had found my passions. But as soon as I declared, everyone suddenly started to pray I would change it.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to study?”

“What are you even going to do with that?”

“Ha, good luck making money.”

That’s what I get. All the time. And I’m sure everyone else who’s pursuing a liberal arts degree gets the same response. Sometimes it’s easy to laugh off. Other times, it kind of takes a toll, because it showed me just how little value most people have for liberal arts degrees. 

This isn’t necessarily unwarranted. If jobs are what’s supposed to come from college, then what’s the value if most who pursue liberal arts are unemployed? That’s a logical argument, but is a true one?

It’s true that people who pursue liberal arts degrees, specifically in the humanities and social sciences, statistically make less money. But is that enough to cut funding for liberal arts programs and universities while providing incentives for STEM ones?

We have a terrible tendency to promote and validate “more successful” degrees over another, without taking into account other factors. For instance, a study from Purdue University shows that those who majored in the humanities and social sciences were slightly more likely to be engaged at work. Additionally, those who were more engaged at work were more likely to be happier.

Another study by the Association of American Colleges & Universities shows many statistics in favor of humanities degrees. For instance, liberal arts majors are actually closing the earnings gaps between professional or pre-professional undergraduate majors, earning on average $2,000 more. Unemployment for recent liberal arts graduates is also low—only 5.2 percent—and declines as you get older.

Studies also show that money is not always the best motivator. Although we all want and need money, it’s proven that when completing tasks, we’re more receptive to intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic (money). When you’re motivated by personal interest, you’re more likely to be engaged. Additionally, you’re more likely to be better at your job, because when you’re not focused on money, you can direct your attention to learning a new skill or just simply having fun.

But how much does your major even matter? Only 27 percent of recent college graduates are working in careers that are related to their major, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Over 90 percent of employers said what really matters is being well-rounded. No matter what major you choose, critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills are what’s going to get you the job.

This data is all variable. One of the biggest variables in job satisfaction is personality. But either way, I think there is a correlation between the enjoyment of a task and the motivation I have to complete it. No matter what the statistics are or could be, there is significant value to studying what you love. Therefore, my majors aren’t limiting my opportunities but expanding them.

So to those who say that liberal arts majors will never make any money, don’t worry about us. We will be successful, we will be great, and we will continue to improve. These are the factors that will make us happier than we would be doing anything else. And one more thing: we can be anything we want, regardless of our major.