Conformity, careers and course election

by Cristian Cano | 4/19/17 2:40am

Whether you enter Dartmouth with a very specific idea of what you want to study or with no idea at all, there will be many times when you must think about your major and how it aligns with your goals.

Is this a subject that interests me? Is it what my family wants me to study? Will I be able to find a job after graduation? These questions, and many more, come up again and again throughout the process of deciding a major. For students pursuing less common majors, these questions can be a perpetual reminder of their need to justify the subjects they study — both to others and to themselves.

Leslie Blakney, associate director for advising and the pre-law coordinator at the Center for Professional Development, has worked for the past four years with students in all stages of the major decision process, from freshmen who are exploring their options to sophomores who have recently declared their majors to juniors and seniors who have decided that they don’t love the majors they’ve been pursuing.

“First and foremost, major does not dictate career path,” Blakney said. “That is something that we emphasize very early on.”

Much of the work she does with the CPD involves helping students determine how they can use both their subjects of interest and their liberal arts backgrounds to find postgraduate success. She encourages the students she works with to take classes that interest them while still meeting their career goals and major requirements. To that end, she cautions students against prematurely deciding to double major, since doing so can limit the flexibility of their D-Plan.

A general perception amongst the student population is that many students decide to pursue some of Dartmouth’s more common majors, like economics and government, when those subjects weren’t part of their original plan. Blakney said that these decisions might not come from a perceived need to conform to certain paths, but rather from the opportunities to try new subjects that students didn’t have before college.

“One thing I have experienced over the years is that students adapt,” Blakney said. “They may come in with a certain plan, and for no bad reason they become aware of other career paths.”

Of course, some students do keep their original major, and in other cases students who were originally pursuing a popular major change their mind and shift to a less common one. Blakney noted that the CPD has seen students with very diverse interests and career goals, and sometimes students who pursue the arts and humanities end up at jobs that typically look for candidates with more quantitative skills.

Students even find ways to pursue careers that aren’t directly tied to any of Dartmouth’s major and minor offerings: Recently, one student working with the CPD was able to receive an internship with a well-established chef.

Another popular perception on campus is that one’s major may not be very important in the long run, since the prestige of a Dartmouth degree is what really opens doors for graduates’ employment opportunities. Blakney acknowledged that employers are aware of the Dartmouth brand, which comes from the successes of alumni, but emphasized that employers are not merely looking for a Dartmouth degree. Instead, she said that students must do their part to present the skills that they have learned while at Dartmouth. She suggests going so far as to recall specific instances and classes in which they demonstrated specific skills.

“Every year, we have a large volume of employers that want to come and recruit Dartmouth students,” Blakney said. “A common thing that they want to assess in that process of interviewing and looking for their candidates is: Are [Dartmouth students] able to articulate the value of their experiences as it relates to the position for which they’re applying?”

Fortunately, students have a wealth of resources, such as the CPD, to help them with these difficult decisions. However, there are still issues that students face when it comes to selecting a major.

For some students, there is a fear that some majors provide more financial stability than others. Kate Domin ’19 entered Dartmouth considering a biology major and the pre-health track, but she has since switched to an art history major and a Hispanic studies minor.

“I think that there’s a pressure to choose a certain major based on employability,” Domin said.

Among the challenges Domin has faced is a feeling that others don’t take her major as seriously as others. She said that she often hears others remark that her major is “so interesting” and “so fun,” and while she agrees with those statements at face value, she finds it disheartening when people think her major is less rigorous than others.

Regardless of the challenges, however, Domin enjoys her path of study greatly and appreciates that she no longer feels the unnecessary stress that her previous plans produced. Her family and friends have been supportive, and she already has an idea of what she wants to pursue after college.

“Something I’m really interested in is visual aesthetics and social media,” Domin said. “I’ve been doing some internships in communications and public relations departments, working with social media as a platform through which we express ourselves in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing.”

Some students feel much more unsure about their choice of major. Gisele Phalo ’17, who spent some time away from Dartmouth and will now be graduating in 2019, has considered a great number of options for her major.

“I came in wanting to be an Arabic major, and then in my sophomore year I wanted to do computer engineering,” Phalo said. “Before that, I wanted to do classics, but that didn’t work out, and neither did engineering. So I took some time off, and when I came back I wanted to do theater. Then I switched to geography. Then I switched to Spanish. And now I’m thinking about anthro[pology].”

Phalo is taking her first anthropology class this term, and she hopes that her interest in ethnography will help her keep this major. She said that, regardless, she’s not sure if she wants her major to impact her future career.

Phalo said that she believes the major decision process isn’t really one of conformity, but rather of finding ways to follow one’s passion in a way that’s economically viable. For example, she remembered that many of her friends who wanted to be Arabic majors are now government majors, since there are so many opportunities to use Arabic in a governmental context.

Sarah Gupta ’19, who is currently a linguistics major and an Arabic minor, knew that she loved linguistics from her first class in her freshman spring but had a bit more difficulty dropping the pre-health track.

“I liked the idea of pre-med because I like things to be planned out,” Gupta said. “I like to have a lot of structure and know what I’m doing.”

She said that she found the idea of a rigid plan reassuring, and since she also wanted to help people, she thought the track was perfect for her. As time went on, she gradually realized that she didn’t enjoy any of her pre-health classes and finally decided to stop taking them last term.

What does her future look like now? Gupta is aware of the many options available to linguistics majors but finds the freedom to be a little overwhelming.

“There are a lot of people here who go into majors that are very pre-professional,” Gupta said. “With linguistics, there are a lot of things you can do with it. That’s exciting but also kind of scary.”

For Gupta, her perception of conformity with majors relates to the feeling that everyone else seems to have their lives figured out, so some students might feel like they need to intern at a place like Goldman Sachs until they reach that same level of confidence. She said that many students reach a point where they become aware of what makes them happy or unhappy, however, and will adjust their academic path accordingly.

Her final piece of advice?

“You just have to follow your dreams, as cheesy as that sounds,” Gupta said.