Choosing a College or Major

Vonnegut QuotationI’ve been reading a variety of blogs about the process of choosing a college and major and feel that none of them really get to the point. All of them seemed concerned with long term happiness, though, which is a good place to start. One Forbes article advises students to identify their passions and make a plan. No kidding. Look both ways before crossing the street too. Another advises students not to focus on doing what they love, but to focus instead on financially viable educational and career paths. It’s always good advice to consider debt to potential income ratio in your educational choices, so follow that advice.

But it’s not necessarily good advice to pursue a job that you will hate because you think it’ll make you money. Some people can separate life satisfaction from job satisfaction, but many people can’t. Some people who make that choice aren’t very happy, and it shows in a variety of ways — miserable home lives, career burnout, and maybe late career switches that are costly in terms of both time and money. Heidi Grant Halvorson’s “The Key to Choosing the Right Career” provides an intelligent self-assessment measure — are you a promotion-focused person or a prevention-focused person?, which is something that you need to know — but knowing that won’t help you choose a career, as all industries have jobs for promotion-oriented people as well as jobs for prevention-oriented people. That self-assessment tells you more about what kind of job within a field that you’d enjoy than the field that you should study. There are, for example, art jobs for promotion-oriented people (producing original work) as well as art jobs for prevention-oriented people (commercial art), but both kinds of jobs are in the field of art. I want to help you decide whether or not to pursue art, English, business, or any other specific field. After you’ve selected a field of study, then you can decide what kind of job that you want in that field.

Before I get started, you should know that most community colleges and many four-year colleges and universities offer a variety of tests that can help you match your interests to a career. The ones I’ve taken have been fairly accurate for me, so if you have the opportunity to take one of these tests, I would recommend that you do so. What I’m going to say here is intended to help you think about the results if you’ve taken one of these tests, and to help you think about the big picture in terms of matching interests with careers and college choices whether you’ve taken a career planning test or not.

Before thinking about a career, though, you need to understand the different educational options available to you. I would like you to consider the difference between vocational education and non-vocational education. Vocational education provides specific training to do a specific job. If you pursue this kind of education, there’s no question about what job will follow, as your education is designed to prepare you to work in a specific industry. I’m not saying that people with a vocational education can’t do other jobs, just that their education is designed to prepare graduates for a specific job in a specific industry. Vocational education prepares students for careers in fields such as auto mechanics, engineering, architecture, medicine (doctors, nurses, radiology, etc.), accounting, education, and law. If you graduate with one of these degrees you’ll still need on-the-job training, but the degree itself gives you quite a bit of job training. That is what it is intended to do. A sure sign of a vocational degree, by the way, is that an internship or residency is a curriculum requirement in almost all schools that offer the degree.

Non-vocational degrees teach you a field of knowledge, and in the process develop valuable and specific knowledge and skill sets that are needed in many jobs, but they do not necessarily prepare you for any one specific job. Those who have graduated with one these degrees have been successful in many, many fields, but if you pursue this option you’ll have to learn how to sell yourself. Degrees in English, art, history, philosophy (and all the liberal arts), mathematics, and the hard sciences fall into this category. Non-vocational degrees can lead you to successful careers in the workforce, because most businesses believe that they can teach their employees the business, but they can’t teach them how to write, speak, work with people, or do math, which are skills students should have learned in college. Employers want students with strong communication skills (oral and written) as well as critical thinking and problem solving skills, and they say the same thing in survey after survey.

Some fields can fall into either vocational or non-vocational categories depending up their focus, such as business (but this is usually vocational), the human and social sciences, and communication (e.g. the academic study of communication vs. journalism, which is vocationally focused: by the way, journalism is a very bad idea right now).

So, how do you do the work of thinking through your career and educational choices?  First, know yourself. I’m going to guide you through a process of self-knowledge that will help you choose a major. And then after you’ve chosen a major, I will give you some criteria for choosing a college.

First, are you good with words or good with numbers? Words are what we use to understand people and ideas. Numbers are what we use to understand the behaviors of and relationships among things. Of course we use words to talk about things and numbers to talk about people too, but I’m talking about the primary language of interaction, what we use to acquire raw data about our subjects. The primary language of interaction with people and with ideas uses words, while the primary language of interaction with things (natural or mechanical) uses numbers. If you’re a words person, choose a major that involves people or ideas. If you’re a numbers person, choose a major that involves things. If you’re good at both, do whatever you want. You’ll be successful in any field. If you’re not good at either, I have a message for you below.

Another way to consider the words vs. numbers question is to break it up into questions about interests and skills:

  • Interests: are you most interested in people, in things, or in ideas?
  • Skills: are you best at working with your hands, working with words, or working with numbers?

Right now some of you are thinking, “I’m not good at anything, and I’m not interested in anything.” That’s not really true. Look at your grades since sixth grade. Is there a pattern? Who were your favorite teachers? What did they teach? What do you like doing? Do you have a favorite movie or book? What does the protagonist do? Why do you like it?

If none of these questions help, if your grades have been average or below average, and if you have no discernible interests, I suggest that you start in community college and pursue an A.A., as this degree is very inexpensive, will meet general education requirements needed in any college major, and is easily transferable: in most states all community college credits are fully transferable to any four-year college or university within the state system. You can take electives while pursuing your A.A. to explore different areas, and you’ll also have a range of two-year vocational degrees available to you (such as an A.S. degree).

Once you’re enrolled in a community college, you can talk to a career counselor, take the tests that I mentioned above, and consider vocational degrees in growing industries such as energy, the sciences, medicine, or computer technology. If you really have no particular interests or passions, then at least be mercenary in your career and educational choices: what will make you the most money with the least amount of student loan debt?

If you think that you have answers to some of my questions, though, start thinking through your answers. Maybe lay them out on a grid:

People Things Ideas

Check off the boxes that fit and see where you have the most checks.

  • Numbers+things? Engineering — the applied sciences.
  • Ideas+Words? English, philosophy, psychology, linguistics — the liberal arts and theoretical study in the human sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
  • People+ideas? History, communication, and the application-based study of the human sciences.
  • People+words or people +numbers? Management, communication, and the human sciences.
  • Numbers+ideas? Mathematics, computer science, and the hard sciences, especially theoretical study.
  • Hands+things? The fine arts and trades.

I think you get the picture. Most career tests will get you thinking along these lines. Note that these are all very broad fields with very different sub-fields within them. The most that I can do here is get you looking in one or two directions.

My basic assumption is that if you’re good at something, that’s probably because you enjoy it, or maybe you enjoy it because you’re good at it. I’d really like you to think about that assumption for a while if you think that you’re not good at anything, and ask yourself what you’ve been doing with your life so far.

In less polite terms: get off your butt and you might discover yourself.

Once you’ve chosen a major, you will then need to select a college. I’ve said it before, and I hate saying it, but it bears repeating: name recognition on the degree is more important, initially, than your actual skills and ability. The brand name of your college will help you get in the door. Your actual skills and abilities will then determine how well you perform, so those do matter too. Apply to the colleges and universities with the most reputable names in your chosen field. If you don’t know which these are, research. US News and World Report rankings are much hated but are at least reflective of name recognition and in fact generate name recognition. Find industry journals and look for articles on job placement. Visit a business and ask around.

Minors are smart. If you major in a non-vocational area, develop a secondary skill — take computer programming, web technologies, marketing, management, public relations. English and art majors who have learned a programming language and web technologies have highly valuable skill sets. And for the record, some of my former English majors have been told in interviews that they would be immediately hired if they had these secondary skills. Similarly, if you’re in the hard sciences, take additional humanities courses. Take creative courses too — learn to draw or write poetry. You need to remember that you’re not a machine, and odds are your specific area of study will impact human beings somehow, so you want to understand people in all of their diversity and creativity. Humanities courses will help you gain that understanding.

Once you’ve chosen a major and identified a few schools that are reputable in that field, consider the following measures to help you choose among them:

  • As mentioned above, US News and World report rankings.
  • The return on investment of the degree, or in other words, the cost of the college degree compared to the income its graduates earn a few years after graduation.
  • The college’s graduation rates — the higher the graduation rate, the better the student body and your chances as well. Don’t be too put off by a significant difference between four and six year graduation rates as some majors require extra time. Education majors at my current institution essentially double major in education and an academic field, so it’s very hard for them to graduate in four years, and they have to do so to meet state requirements.
  • The college’s student loan default rates — which is a good sign of student success after graduation.

Notice that I’m not talking about jobs in fields like like sports, music,  film, or theater (the performing arts). These are large industries encompassing a variety of jobs, including (sports) medicine, marketing, management, a variety of technical jobs, and more. If you’re interested in these fields, there are plenty of ways in. But of course everyone wants to be a rock star, a movie star, or a pro sports player. Let me give you some numbers about pro football that probably illustrate the dynamic in all of these fields. There are about 200-300 athletes drafted into the NFL every year (253 in 2012). Theoretically, competing for those spots are 85 players for each one of 242 NCAA Division 1 teams, or 20,570 players, not counting Division II or III players or free agents (of course, not all 20,000+ apply to the draft, but all 20,000+ theoretically could).

I can’t tell you that you won’t make it as a pro football player or a rock star, but I can say that the 1% who do make it have a very rare mix of luck and talent, part of which includes not getting injured (the Shmoop career guide works the numbers in more detail and comes up with about 7% for college seniors — but it’s hard to know how many free agents or underclassmen are trying out). If you’re going to college solely to play football, in terms of averages you’re taking chances almost equivalent to spending $140,000 (or the cost of a college education at an average four-year private institution) on lottery tickets in a single week. Sounds like great odds, but they’re still about 100 to 1 or a little bit better. In other words, if you’re going to college just to play ball and not get an education, you may as well spend your tuition money on lottery tickets. So play football or any other sport in college and love every minute of it, but take class seriously too.

Next — and I’m asking you to think way ahead here — will you be interested in graduate school? Does your undergraduate institution also have graduate programs in that area? Check the institution’s website to see what percentage of students go on to graduate school, and consider your undergraduate degree in terms of the viability of pursuing graduate study in that field too. Master’s degrees are always good choices, but Ph.Ds. in the humanities and human sciences as well as law school have a strong likelihood for high student loan debt and low employability.

So, to review the process:

  1. Identify your interests (people, ideas, things) and your skills (hands, words, numbers).
  2. Match these interests to a major.
  3. Identify the most reputable colleges for that major. Pick three or four or five.
  4. Choose among those by comparing graduation rates, student loan default rates, return on investment, and rankings.

After thinking all of this through, then I’d like to return you to that first article I linked to, the one that I picked at a bit for being obvious. It still asks important questions: who do you want to be? How do you want to live? Human beings aren’t machines: we need more than physical and financial support to live whole and entire lives. Think about the Vonnegut quotation posted up above too. If you’re inspired by your field of study, you will be inspiring to people who will recommend you for jobs or advanced study and to your employers. Remember, no matter what you choose — even if you do not choose — what happens is the result of your choices.

Other useful resources:

V for Vendetta: V for Vindictive

v-vendettaA link to my article “V for Vendetta: V for Vindictive” originally published May 2006 on Metaphilm which reads the Wachowski Brothers’ V for Vendetta as a melodramatic reaction to the Bush Administration post 9-11.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Fear of a Vegan World

Wallace_gromit_were_rabbit_posterThe Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Fear of a Vegan World” considers Nick Park’s gothic masterpiece as a response to vegetarianism by a meat-eating soul. If the premise of this essay sounds as if I lost my mind briefly while writing it, I probably did. But, I fear, there’s method in this madness. Originally published on Metaphilm February 2006.

Finding Hulko

hulkoFinding Hulko” is my July 2003 Metaphilm article describing how Finding Nemo and The Hulk exploit very similar family dramas for the sake of political commentary. Once again, if you think I’ve lost my mind, read the article. Then  you’ll think you’ve lost your mind…

Meditations on a Multicultural Utopia

suburbia1968 — DAIRY VALLEY, CA. Downtown Dairy Valley: the intersection of two lane Gridley Rd. and Artesia Blvd. On one corner the Tastee Freeze stood like a fortress of pleasure against the summer heat; even though it had outdoor seating only, it served up ice cream cones dipped in chocolate, taquitos, hot fudge Sundaes, and ice cold Cokes. Occupying two other corners were a Texaco and a Mobil station locked in a gas war to the death, volleying lower prices and various goodies from fully loaded painted windows. A family owned drive-through convenience store stood on the fourth corner, and immediately behind it was a pony ride. Anyone driving up and down Artesia Blvd. would see an occasional house and endless cow pastures; if you headed due south down Artesia from the Tastee Freeze and took the first left you’d drive into an older neighborhood and pass Luther Burbank elementary school, in the city of Artesia. Dairy Valley surrounded Artesia like a horseshoe; Artesia was the hub of a rural wheel holding the neighborhoods, the older library, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, the elementary school and Faye Ross Junior High, while Dairy Valley itself consisted of farm after farm after farm.

Until 1968, that is. The year Dairy Valley began its sudden transformation into Cerritos, California, home of one of the nation’s first indoor malls and the nation’s first solar powered city hall.

My family moved into one of the first subdivisions built over a cow pasture. The day an ornate, wooden sign was erected marking the entrance into Cerritos my father and I were there, with several other families, planting trees around the sign. Our house overlooked the railroad tracks that ran awkwardly through our city, and ironically across the tracks lay what was to be the last dairy farm in the area. Eventually one of the two gas stations closed and the other was refurbished, the convenience stored was plowed down to make room for a 7-11, the empty lot next to it became a Bally Health spa, and the pony rides were closed to make room for a small community of closely huddled duplexes. Both Gridley and Artesia were widened to four lanes, and eventually the subdivisions took over the entire block, their yellow masonry walls marching down the street like an unassailable army.

In 1968 I was four years old, oblivious to the marvel unfolding before me. I was witnessing the birth of Utopia. Southern California, by nature, gives birth to utopian dreams. Even as of my last visit in the mid 1980’s, a drive from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Pacific Coast Highway could be annoying and inspiring; vast expanses of rolling green hills, the view of the mountains and the ocean and the places where they meet, the cliffs of San Clemente, the insane traffic through the beach towns, the beauty of the agricultural areas with their orange groves and irresistible fruit stands. My father even grew fruit trees in his backyard; we had oranges, insanely large tomatoes, bigger even than my hands are now, apricots, nectarines, plums, apples, and lemons. We had rosebushes in the front yard lining either side of the wide, red brick stairway leading up to our front door. Everything grew and flourished there, everything and anything you could plant. Even people.

My neighborhood grew fat with young families and their small children, and like the Star Trek utopia we witnessed on television our neighborhood was a model of racial diversity. Mexican, Vietnamese, Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Puerto Rican, African American, Filipino, and Korean families all lived on the same block, shopped at the same grocery store, met at the same PTA and Cub Scout meetings, and saw their children through the same elementary, junior high, and high schools. We got into fights and played on the same little league teams, and many of us attended the same Catholic Church. We had to work through the accents of our friend’s parents and learn each other’s food when we visited for dinner. Our front doors were thresholds between the outside world of Southern California suburbia and the more intimate world of our family lives, a world dominated by foreign furniture, foods, and smells. Everyone I knew was comfortably well off, and most of the people I knew from the neighborhood lived there for years. We grew up together.

Since I faced this kind of diversity as a child, I took it for granted that things were the same everywhere. Racial and cultural differences were sources of mystery and pleasure to me, differences each family kept without flaunting. My parents entertained often, and largely entertained Hispanics. Finding Spanish speaking people was always a source of comfort to my mother and grandmother, a way of making suburbia seem more like home and less foreign. I remember a visiting uncle asking me once if I was proud to be Puerto Rican, and I told him, “No.”

“What? You’re ashamed of it then?”

“No, I’m just not proud of it. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t make myself Puerto Rican, I was born this way. It’s nothing to be proud of.” By the time I was a teenager I saw race and culture as givens; only those lacking any other assets would fall upon their ancestry as a source of self-worth.

I had come to define myself by my reading, and never learned to speak Spanish.

I used to spend a lot of time looking out my window over that last cow pasture. I’d study the cows whenever I got too bored, and wondered about the people that lived in the house just across the tracks. They seemed alien to me, not Tom Quan, my best friend down the street. The cows were a study in tedium. They sat, or stood, they ate and shit, feeding the grass that fed them in an endless cycle, seldom approaching the boundaries of their world. They seemed to see no sense it in, staying happy so long as the grass was green and they were left alone. They lived to produce milk then be slaughtered for their meat. In the middle of the cow pasture the ranchers built a structure to keep the rains off the hay–it was probably three stories tall, no walls, just a frame supporting a roof stacked to the top with hay. Shortly after the cows were gone, I watched it burn. Someone set fire to it. The house stood unoccupied for some time, and we liked riding our skateboards and motocross bikes in the empty pool. By the early 1980s, a strip mall featuring various upscale restaurants conquered the last dairy farm left in Cerritos. Dairy Valley was gone forever, its only reminder being the Black Angus I’d take my dates to occasionally if I liked them well enough.

My Irish friend was expelled from Catholic school after Catholic school, entertaining us all with his stories. One time he kicked the chair out from under a short nun while she was writing across the top of a blackboard, another time he put dish soap in the water cooler and gave several boys diarrhea. He poisoned one boy with mistletoe and got into fights with four others, by the time he was 17 his mother finally gave up and put him in public school, where he got me and another one of his friends into a fight with 12 Mexicans. I was stabbed in the back with a Phillips screwdriver six times, then thrown down by four of them and kicked in the head and ribs until I couldn’t see or feel anymore. My only consolation was kicking in someone’s front teeth when he tried to grab my boots, and a well placed fist given to someone who tried to bury that screwdriver in my chest.

Older California was as segregated as the Northeast; the poorer Mexicans in our area lived in a barrio, while the blacks lived in Compton and their football team always beat us badly. We cruised Whittier Blvd. afraid of the Chicanos in their ridiculous cars, flirting with the cholo chicks with their corduroy jeans and tight white T’s under unbuttoned flannel shirts, with their long dark hair and painted dark eyes, with their thick accents and hot breath, and their sweet wisdom. One of them, one who could barely speak English, loved me. I figured that out three weeks after I moved out of state.

The bad parts of town spread across Southern California like a cancer.

We got high with our psychology teacher on field trips and laughed at him when he couldn’t find his way back to the school. Girls who wanted an easy A visited his room at lunchtime; someone had written “Chester the Molester” in my book where the teacher’s name was supposed to be. I showed it to him and he laughed. My Algebra teacher was a Buddhist monk, and the school principal retired to pastor a Baptist Church, saying it was his lifelong dream. Almost all of us took drugs; we bought speed and acid from one of our High School counselors, and got free grass from his brother’s Sens plant next door. Quaaludes and mushrooms were accessible too, just a little harder to get. We had special places we’d go to get high, quiet secluded areas inside a bank of trees, where we’d push the limits of consciousness in search for meaning, finally settling for temporary relief. We took our dates there too because the ultimate high was getting laid, usually at the expense of a young girl’s self respect.

Our music was our identity, the only sacrament in our religion of despair. Everyone’s father was an engineer of some kind, it seemed, or a lawyer or a psychiatrist. We fed the burgeoning technological monster that is the late 20th century economic system with our purchasing power, being fed in return through high paying jobs in a never ending cycle. My friends, none of them, saw any point in living. We were killing ourselves slowly, angry for reasons we didn’t understand, straining to find the boundaries of our world within well defined comfort zones. We had everything we needed and nothing we really wanted for our vision of the future was of a treadmill; we saw ourselves someday transformed into hamsters running on an exercise wheel, turning the machine that fed us daily, living only to eat, sleep and shit. In the middle of utopia we knew emptiness, we conquered nature but became estranged from ourselves.

Our Utopia was Hell. Thank God “utopia” means “nowhere.”

This paper was originally published on in 1998 where it has also been translated into Spanish spain.

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