Self-discovery is key to selecting a major

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Choosing a major should be uncomfortable -- more uncomfortable than the time your university asked you to donate before you graduated or the week you forgot to eat anything other than ramen noodles.

It should force you to reckon with foundational questions about what you want out of your education and what it means to get an education in the first place.

At an institution like the University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater) -- or most colleges or universities -- no one is going to make you answer those questions for yourself. Your freshman adviser likely will tell you to take a bunch of big lecture courses in a range of disciplines during your freshman and sophomore years and pick a subject based on those classes.

Or worse, your adviser will be impressed that you walked onto campus proclaiming your "premed" status and send you on your merry way.

This conventional wisdom is lousy because it ignores the reality that what you study matters a lot less than the skills you build by studying it.

It's unlikely the content knowledge I built through a degree in politics and philosophy will come in handy in any practical economic sense. Most employers will be thoroughly unimpressed with my ability to unpack Wittgensteinian quietism in his "Philosophical Investigations."

But college doesn't have to be job training, nor do I think it should it be. It's a chance to unleash your curiosity wherever you see fit in an environment where risk-taking usually doesn't involve much risk.

College is the perfect place to experiment with an interest you've never had the chance to cultivate. Maybe it's the gender politics of video games or the neurobiology of vomiting in musk shrews. Pick a major that lets you do that -- or design your own. Many colleges don't advertise this option, but it's usually available.

The more you customize the experience, the more you'll get out of it. Don't pick a major that doesn't interest you, even if it heads Yahoo News' list of the top 10 majors with the best starting salaries.

Plus, every five minutes someone a lot smarter than me says entire disciplines and the business model, which saddles students and parents with crippling debt, are dying. So maybe it's time to stop assuming that universities as they exist now are the way stations to fulfillment and well-paying jobs.

For me, that meant picking an interdisciplinary major. That's why my transcript looks like it has some kind of personality disorder. A class in "Transatlantic Security" is listed below "Problems in the Philosophy of Religion" as fulfilling different pieces of the same major.

I began to refuse to take courses with enrollments higher than 35.

For lots of people, this might look aimless. But it was part of a plan that let me turn a research university into the liberal arts college I imagined in the first place.

This isn't for everyone, especially those in the sciences, where smaller courses are built on foundational knowledge built in bigger lectures.

But the point stands. Even if you're treating college as a way to climb the economic ladder, a way to have a better shot at stable employment, there's no excuse for studying something that doesn't interest you.

Majoring in accounting or engineering or medicine might give you a statistical edge over your fellow English literature peers after graduation, but interesting and interested people can find jobs, even if they haven't been imagined yet.


Alex Zimmerman, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, graduated this year from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in politics and philosophy. He can be reached at First Published October 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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