study what you love, but you’ll need a job

The implicit message I received as a high school student was to pick a college major I was interested in. It didn’t matter what a student majored in; a bachelor’s degree would open the door to a fulfilling, well-paying job.

That message made sense in the late 1990s, when the economy was humming.

Throughout college, my peers and I were still largely told to simply follow our passions. In one of the classes I took for my minor in sociology, the professor told us most students don’t get jobs in their majors anyway.

I was a journalism major, a course of study I chose because I wanted to work in journalism. I really hoped my sociology professor was wrong.

I graduated from college in 2004. Now my peers and those a few years younger are seeing the folly in believing that students can major in whatever interests them and have an easy time finding a good job after college. In excruciating, depressing detail, my local newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, has devoted a series of front-page Sunday reports to the struggles twentysomethings are facing in an economy worse than America has seen since before we were born.

Their stories are heartbreaking in their familiarity. Take the 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania history graduate whose annual earnings total $12,000:

“The good schools project this image that if you have our degree, it’s a ticket to any job you want — which is obviously total B.S.,” he says. “I don’t think I was properly informed of the negative side to all this.”

The Great Recession seems to have prompted a healthy shift in how students are told to decide which path to pursue in college. Now they’re told to be more pragmatic than we were. There is an increased emphasis on STEM (for the uninitiated that stands for science, technology, engineering and math). This makes sense because our country is lacking professionals who excel in those disciplines. Surely, many students who haven’t thought about working in those areas would enjoy technical vocations. I have several friends who are engineers, pharmaceutical researchers and medical workers on various levels. They might not be able to walk right into a job, but they have a much easier time finding work than I. Their paychecks aren’t bad, either.

But not everyone can be a scientist. Some, like me, just aren’t cut out for it. Besides, if everyone majors in nursing or engineering because it’s practical, where will our future English teachers and photographers come from?

The struggles my generation faces illustrate the importance of every student having a different mindset than what we were told a decade ago: Pick a major that reflects your interests and passions. But keep in mind that you’ll need a job to go with that diploma.

That’s why one of my favorite series of writing assignments comes from a client that publishes magazines for high school students. A few times a year this client assigns me to find examples of what college graduates with certain majors have done with their degrees.

I’ve interviewed professionals with degrees in “practical” fields like math and engineering. But I’ve also spotlighted “fluffy” degrees including political science, religious studies and the arts. Many of the people I’ve interviewed have told me they are using their degrees for jobs they didn’t know existed. And a lot of them have changed their minds once or twice about what they wanted to do. But the important thing is that they explored potential careers and how their majors would help them on paths toward those careers. Every young person should do that.

Students who are in high school, and even the early years of college, don’t need to have a specific career in mind right away. But we can’t tell them to follow their passions and expect good jobs to materialize. As legions of twentysomethings will tell you, that simply doesn’t work.

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