On Campus

Study what you love

The trials of choosing a major

From what I want to study to what kind of world I idealize, there is no doubt that my first four months of independence have changed me, and the distance with which I now view those experiences, having just returned home for the holidays, affords me new and revealing perspective on my first semester of university.

Firstly, an academic dilemma has fostered just as much self-examination as my social conundrum. I came to school with the intention of majoring in international relations; my very decision to come to Trinity was based partly on their unmatched IR program. I’ve always been interested in and passionate about issues of international scope. It has always struck me that perhaps the most important issues facing humanity require solutions to be implemented at the international level. Thus, studying international relations seemed like a good idea.

The study of international relations at U of T is divided among the Departments of History, Political Science, and Economics. Cool, I thought, I like the sound of all of those. Four out of my six first year courses were dictated by my choice to major in international relations. I like one of them. The others — introductory economics and two political science courses — well . . . appropriate euphemisms escape me. I do enjoy my history of international relations course, but I’ve come to some realizations regarding the other disciplines that I wish I had understood earlier.

Political science, for instance, is not at all scientific. As far as I can tell with my obviously sparse understanding of the discipline, political science vainly attempts to squash the unsquashable nuances of political society into narrow, inflexible definitions and theories, necessarily omitting certain aspects of reality in order to achieve artificial coherency. The competing theories of realism and liberalism stand in irreconcilable opposition, each making their respective claims about human nature and the behavior of states, neither willing to compromise its convictions in the face of opposing evidence. Studying the world from such a normative perspective seems dangerous to me. History, with its focus on empirical evidence and its reluctance to make predictions or to create sweeping theories on the basis of its discoveries, seems a better way to understand why the world is the way it is.

Economics also shares this focus on empirical data, but unfortunately, it’s just boring. Again, my views are undoubtedly limited by my continued naivete and perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, but I suspect that for my purposes, I could achieve a sufficient understanding of economic activity without learning how to manipulate graphs of short- and long-run equilibrium. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I hate economics, and any discipline that takes as its starting point the assumption that human beings are always rational arouses serious suspicion in me.

Which brings to me a side point: it’s very easy to “learn” just enough to pass an exam — indeed, to get an entire degree — without actually learning anything. My economics course is a perfect illustration. The material is dry and the professor drier, so I don’t do the readings, don’t go to class, cram for two days before the exam, memorizing only that which I know I’m going to be tested on and nothing else, and I always manage to pull off a solid mark. Not a great mark, but enough to pass the course and go on to take more economics courses if I wanted to.

The tests are essentially repeats of the past tests our professor provides, so an actual understanding of the material isn’t necessary: memorizing a few graphs and equations and promptly forgetting them post-exam will get you by. The potential implications of university graduates entering the workforce without having necessarily learned anything other than how to past a test are severe indeed.

But back to my main point. Having discovered my disdain for political science and economics, and not wanting to spend the next four years learning only enough to pass exams, I find myself at a crossroads. I have to pick a major by the end of first year.

My preliminary analysis reveals a fundamental dichotomy between what I am truly passionate about studying and what I think would be good to study for a certain career. While it’s hard to ignore the latter consideration, I think it’s best to follow your passions as much as you can. For one thing, as a recent conversation with the Dean of Trinity College confirmed, your GPA will be happily higher if you are studying something you actually love rather than something you think will land you a job.

Secondly, in all likelihood a Bachelor’s degree won’t land you a job you’re going to be happy with anyway. While I do indeed aspire to work in the international system in some capacity, doing an undergraduate degree in something I’m passionate about, like philosophy and psychology, by no means excludes me from doing graduate work in international relations if that is what I ultimately decide is necessary.

Let your undergrad be a degree to teach you how to think and how to communicate, and let grad school be where you worry about a career. I have friends whose parents have gone on to med school after an undergrad in philosophy. While it might take a bit of catch-up and hard work, switching gears between degrees is by no means impossible.

So ultimately, I think it’s important to realize that the widely-accepted formula of major = career begs some closer examination. First year is meant to be exploratory. You’ll change your mind a dozen times, hopefully because you’ll be discovering what you truly love to learn about and not because of what you think will get you a job.

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