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Don’t Let Your Major Box You In

Higher-Education-e1312766892130At some point during our college lives, we all check off a box indicating our major. For many people, this is when they begin to box in their futures as well.

I’m here today to tell you that this box is meant to be broken.

In total, 12 long years of my life were dedicated to obtaining my PhD in chemistry, and I loved every second of it. I published over 15 pieces in international journals, and I won a couple of outstanding research achievement awards. However, like many people, I realized that my future opportunities and interests weren’t aligned with what I thought they would be when I selected my major — and that’s okay. In my field of research, nanotechnology, it takes about 20 years before any work reaches end users. I’m a little too impatient for that. I wanted to do something where I could see the value — and impact — more quickly.

Additionally, I always found myself attracted to the analytical thinking and problem-solving aspects of chemistry, but not necessarily the content. So while I might not be combining ammonium hydroxide and nitric acid on a daily basis, I use my problem-solving skills every day. In other words, my education did not go to waste.

Bonding Two Unrelated Subject Matters

I can guarantee that you’ll be surprised how connected the skills you learn in college are — regardless of your major. These days, it’s not just about the subject.

No field is studied in a vacuum. Whether your major is English or accounting, you will acquire many applicable skills that will help you in a variety of scenarios. Stay on your toes; you never know when these skills will come in handy.

I noticed something very powerful about utilizing different skills while I was a teaching assistant at Penn State University. Every week, I held office hours, and roughly 10 students showed up. Interestingly, most of these students asked me the exact same question. I could have done the usual and spent my time answering the same question 10 times. But I decided to use a technology product that would allow me to collect students’ questions in advance and answer them via video. That way, students could get their answers in a convenient way, and I could use my office hours for more complicated or unique problems. The solution was simple, but the implications were huge. Connections like these lead to innovative products, businesses, and career opportunities.

Your Major Is Nobody’s Business

You might find yourself wondering whether your lack of a formal business education will prevent you from succeeding in the business world. Let me tell you, from experience, that that statement couldn’t be falser.

While the necessity of a formal education is still extremely important, there’s no better teacher than life itself. Today’s top business leaders have learned their trades by doing. Surround yourself with people, decisions, and energy that provide an entrepreneurial feel. Whether that means joining a startup, working for free, or interning, the best way to learn is to get involved in any and every way possible.

In my opinion, business school is a better place to network than to gain practical experience. No amount of education can replace the hands-on experience of actually working in an organization. What you learn on the job is priceless. Armed with the knowledge and confidence necessary to succeed, you’ll be a much better candidate when future positions open.

Don’t Be Boxed In

No matter your major, there are three skills you’ll gather throughout your time in higher education that will be critical to your future success. I will give some simple examples to demonstrate how we use these skills, but might not relate tasks back to these skills.

  • Data collection and analysis: Every student goes through the process of figuring out where to buy the cheapest textbook, or which app to use to take notes in class. This is simply an exercise in collecting information and analyzing it for a) price or b) convenience. You continue doing this more often and getting better at it until you’ve earned a lifelong skill.
  • Structured thinking and planning: Ask yourself: How did you plan your schedule amongst dozens of courses? You have a goal in mind: You want to graduate in four years with a degree, and you plan backward from that.
  • Persistence, with which comes experience and efficiency: Did you get better at managing your homework, picking classes, choosing professors, and making excuses for missing deadlines? This is persistence. When you do something more often, you get better at it. This is true for any skill in life, but the realization that this happens will prove very valuable as you take on a new project, job, or career.

While I was working toward my PhD, it required all three skills. With the foundation of these three skills, experience and life will teach you the rest, regardless of the major listed on your degree.

I can mix chemicals like a boss, but now I can also be a boss. I didn’t let my major dictate my future, and neither should you.