Editor's note: This essay, by Pope Center staff member Jay Schalin, is the latest installment of a Clarion Call special series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers different perspectives of the college experience.
A fortunate few learn exactly what they want to be early in life and take the quickest path to where they want to go. I wasn't one of them, to put it mildly.
I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree until I was in my forties. Even then, my choice of major evolved gradually. I started out simply wanting to take a few computer courses to help me get a better job. I soon discovered that a few courses were not much help in the job market.
The more education I got, the more I wanted. If I had known when I started that I was going to get a four-year degree, I would have put a whole lot more thought and effort into deciding on a major.
I knew for many years that I had a couple of high-level talents: I could write well, and I could analyze statistics and trends. But in my early adulthood, due to immaturity, I made a couple of abortive attempts at getting a college degree and gave up.
I subsequently found that it isn’t easy to get a chance to perform high-level functions without an education. Perhaps there was a time when it was much more possible. But today, with over a quarter of the population having at least a bachelor’s degree, a college education is generally required for getting your foot in the door. And so, restless by nature and always looking for a bigger break, I wandered from job to dead end job.
In my thirties, I gave writing a shot. I had no trouble getting low-end freelance work, and wrote steadily for a large daily newspaper in New Jersey, but a salaried position with benefits proved elusive without a degree. Eventually, I soured on the low pay, the demeaning story assignments, and being the old guy with no future amidst callow youth who complained about having the very job I wanted and who regarded me as a chump for wanting it.
Somehow, I convinced myself that getting a degree in journalism didn’t make much sense, when I could already do the job as well or better than most recent graduates I encountered. It was the mid-1990s--the profession was already starting to suffer from low salaries due to internet and radio competition and declining advertising revenue. So I bitterly returned to jobs where at least I wasn’t the only one with no apparent future.
I was working at a family-run hotel as a night clerk (a job I would recommend to those attending school, because of the potential for study time on the clock). The hotel was just starting to computerize, and maintaining the computer fell to me, even though for most of my life I qualified as a technophobe.
At one point, I had to create an Excel spreadsheet for bookkeeping purposes. I don’t know whether an actual light bulb appeared over my head like in the cartoons, but I distinctly recall being hit with dual realizations: “I can do this,” and “This is kinda fun.”
I found a temporary hiring agency that offered applicants the opportunity to learn computer skills by taking tutorials. I went diligently and achieved some degree of mastery in the basic applications: Excel, Word, and Power Point. It seemed so easy. Armed with my abundance of new technical skills, I reentered the job market, expecting great rewards. Only to discover that these skills were now the minimum requirement for many of the jobs I had in the past, and no longer wanted. I would remain a hotel clerk a while longer.
But I was hooked, on using computers and on learning in general. I eagerly marched down to the local community college (Ocean County College (OCC) in Toms River, New Jersey), where I had an informal conversation with a very nice woman in the admissions department. I said the word “computer;” she heard the word “computer.” I said the words “program,” “applications,” and “data;” she heard the words “program,” “applications,” and “data,” and it was decided that I should pursue an associate’s degree in computers, or more specifically, Information Systems. After all, that is the easiest major for people interested in creating computer applications, and I wanted the fastest and easiest path to good job credentials. The Internet boom was white-hot, and I had a feeling I was finally going to catch a big wave and ride it all the way to shore.
But, if there had been an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise third party at my advising session, he or she would have realized that I was not so much interested in organizing the data into computer programs, but in using computers to analyze data. Computer programmers do not analyze economic, scientific, or social information—they are responsible for storing information in the computer, moving it around to different locations in the most efficient manner, and enabling others to manipulate it for their own purposes. It is statisticians, economists, natural scientists, financiers and social scientists who create the equations, determine the inputs, and analyze the output for their end meanings.
By becoming a computer scientist, I was turning my back on my real talents and a lifetime of accumulating knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. It was a wrong turn. I don’t blame the advisor—it is unrealistic to expect admissions personnel to understand the nuances of every job category and every major and sub-major on campus. She gave the best advice she could, considering the information I gave her. Garbage in, garbage out.
There’s a lot more information that is unrealistic to expect from advisors or counselors. Most people giving advice at colleges are part of the academic mainstream. They will not tell you if a major is dumbed-down and unchallenging (as this individual pursuing a Business Education degree discovered). They will probably not warn you that studying a particular discipline, such as sociology, will greatly reduce your job prospects upon graduation. And they almost assuredly will not steer you away from dsiciplines where the atmosphere of political correctness and radical politics is stifling.
Unless you are absolutely certain about the degree you wish to pursue, it is probably best to talk to professors in your potential majors, as well as professionals who have already worked in that profession, before making any final decisions. But even their advice should be taken with caution. Some professors are eager to increase the number of students in their department for selfish reasons. A far more common problem is the genuine enthusiasm professors (and professionals) feel for their subject area—they want everybody to share the joy they get from working in their chosen field and tend to oversell it.
If you’re young and have time, it might be best to get your general education requirements out of the way before choosing a specialty. Take a range of subjects (including some practical and/or quantitative courses) and see what attracts.
Anyway, my associate’s degree yielded few job offers, despite my good grades. The explosive high-tech job market of the 1990s was already starting to slow, and I had no connections in the industry. But I was committed to making good things happen. So an associate’s degree in information systems from OCC became a B.S. in computer science from Richard Stockton College. Already in the back of my mind, however, I was thinking that the required math courses for a computer science degree might provide some kind of roundabout way back to my real interests.
But the siren’s call of opportunity and job security was pulling me further into my chosen major. If one is successful in a field of study, the acquisition of knowledge in that field becomes addictive. I was acing my computer classes, and achieving technical proficiency was an intoxicating feeling.
Even before graduation, I got an entry-level job as a computer programmer with a subcontractor to the Federal Aviation Authority. I was initially thrilled—I had accomplished what I set out to do. I tried to be interested in the routine programming tasks I was responsible for. I even took some graduate courses in computer science at Drexel University in Philadelphia at night.
But the job didn’t last forever—with the terrorist acts of 9-11-01, the FAA became much less interested in long-term software projects and more interested in security. I survived a couple of rounds of layoffs, but eventually I got the boot. With the job went the enthusiasm for life as a techie. The classes at Drexel made my lack of deep interest in technology and lack of first-class background in theoretical mathematics much more apparent. High-tech industry was in a free fall, and my programming job prospects appeared grim. Although I was initially shocked and depressed at losing my job, deep down I was a little bit relieved.
Eleven years after I wrote my first Excel spreadsheet, I have an M.A. in economics from the University of Delaware and a job with long-term potential that allows me to use both my writing skills and my analytical abilities. I even apply a few (okay, very few) of my computer skills in my duties as a webmaster. Choosing the wrong major is not the worst thing that can happen to somebody, if that major is in a rigorous program that challenges and inspires (although I was rather long in the tooth to be taking such a lengthy detour—it’s better to make mistakes in your teens and twenties instead of your thirties and forties). A degree in any of the quantitative disciplines, such as computer science, engineering, or the natural sciences, can be valuable no matter what your eventual career choice turns out to be—they give the brain’s logical functioning one heckuva workout. Still, choosing a major is an important decision not to be taken lightly—know yourself, do your homework before deciding, and let the buyer (you) beware.