Right now, there’s a high school senior, just months from graduation, stressing out over picking a college major. Seventy percent of Americans think 18 is too young to make that type of decision anyway, according to a 2021 study. It’s a lot of pressure to put on humans who’ve only been able to vote and drive for about five minutes. What if they pick a field and then realize it’s the wrong one? Will their lives be ruined forever?
“Trust yourself and give yourself a chance to explore, and understand that it doesn’t need to be decided right now,” said former Towson University family and human services major and current public relations supervisor Patrick Seidl. He was sure he was going to be a social worker — until he wasn’t. “College taught me the important thing was that I was learning, not necessarily what I was learning.”
I’d known I was going to major in journalism at the University of Maryland since I was a freshman in high school. But I’m part of just 27 percent of people working within their major, meaning the other 73 percent, like Seidl, are not. And he and a lot of other currently happy and successful people who strayed from their initial plans want you to take a breath. It’s gonna be OK.
Meet Andrew Walen, a journalism major-turned-therapist, and Peter Metsopoulos, an English major who “wanted to be Stephen King” but instead took a path through film production and teaching before landing in nonprofit operations. And say hello to Erik Beard, who majored in theater but is now an amusement park lawyer, which sounds like the basis of a really weird John Grisham novel. Their current job titles don’t match what they studied in college, but it turned out to be the best thing.
“You don’t have to know” your exact career at a young age, said Metsopulous, of Baltimore City, who didn’t become a novelist but channeled his love of writing through all of his jobs. “I consider myself pretty lucky.”
If you’re not sure what you want to do, you’re not alone. Career coach Judy Berman told me that according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the average person changes careers five to seven times throughout their life. She knows from personal experience: Berman studied English and psychology with the intention of getting her Ph.D. and teaching, but took a foray into marketing, including a stint at The Baltimore Sun. She’s grateful she was able to find what she loves, and can now help others find that, too.
“I ask my clients three questions: ’What do I love to do, what am I good at and what will someone pay for?’ ” Berman said. “And then find that sweet spot.”
This advice isn’t given lightly. Berman and the others interviewed understand there can be parental, societal and financial pressures surrounding one’s choice of major. Seidl said that while his parents were supportive of his change in career, “it was always in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to waste their money. I wanted to make them proud.” Former College Park resident Beard, on the other hand, stayed a theater major, even though he knew after two years he wasn’t going to be an actor, because his parents told him, “You can change, but you’ll have to pay for it.”
But that change doesn’t mean that you’ve wasted your time, Beard said, if your original major was something you loved. Even if your intended title changes, your intentions won’t. Every single person I talked to for this column said their current careers lean on at least some of the skills of their major.
Seidl’s passion to help people as a social worker took him into nonprofits, some of which he now represents in public relations. Beard believes his theater training has made him a better attorney, “arguing in court and questioning witnesses.” And Walen, of Pikesville, realized that “what I loved about journalism was getting to talk to people, because I wanted to be a part of their story. I could interview Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks and cool entertainment people, but that’s for an hour and then they’re gone. Being a therapist means I get to be part of people’s lives, ongoing.”
It’s possible that you’re like me, and your major turns out to be your destiny. But if it’s not, college can provide answers to questions you didn’t know you needed answers to. Seidl suggests getting involved in student groups and organizations, “taking full advantage of internships and service projects” and taking seemingly random prerequisite classes. That jazz history course he took at Towson University helped prepare him for working with clients like the Hippodrome Theatre, where he’s worked with artists in the genre.
“I treated [college] as an opportunity to really, really put my feelers out and see what interested me and what I might consider as a future career,” Seidl said.
I know this is scary, and that you could be taking out loans to pay for a degree for a career you’ve changed several times before you pay it off. But it’s important to hear these stories as proof that you don’t have to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Follow your gut into places you never thought you might go. And it’s OK if you find yourself some place you don’t want to be. You don’t have to stay there.
“The major thing,” Berman said, “is that life is too short to be stuck in a bad match.”