Your College Degree Does Not Define You: A First-Hand Experience

david graduation photo

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This article takes from my personal experience as a graduate with a chemistry degree who plans on pursuing entrepreneurship and writing. I hope that through this article I can provide insight as to life after the decision and encourage you to do work you enjoy. Your degree doesn’t define you. Do not let it define your choices.

I graduated with a degree I don’t plan on using. I’ll admit I considered not finishing the degree and switching to a different major, but I didn’t. Now, I have a pretty piece of paper that my parents paid $100,000 for me to obtain, with no plans of putting the credential to use.

Many students don’t quite understand why they’re learning about things they don’t care for. It’s a common problem that college students and graduates face. The public health student with plans of going to medical school longs to pursue a singing career. The biology student who stresses about class all the time wishes to become a photographer. The business major who expects to become an accountant actually wants to study psychology and criminology and do social work to help the community.

While some will stick to a plan they don’t like, others will decide to make a change, to change their field of study or pursue what they enjoy. I consider myself a member of the latter group. I finished my chemistry degree, but I am instead pursuing a life of entrepreneurship.

Since graduation, I’ve had numerous encounters that went along these lines:

Person: “What did you major in?”
Me: “Chemistry.”
Person: “Are you looking for a job in chemistry?”
Me: “Not really.”
Person: “Do you plan on going to grad school?”
Me: “That isn’t the plan, no.”
Person: “Do you want to work in a lab?”
Me: “I’ve worked in one, but I learned that it isn’t for me.”

I admit that I had considered dropping out of school on multiple occasions. There came a point when I felt that being in school limited my growth instead of nurturing it. It was frustrating. Before that, I realized I no longer wanted to pursue a career with my major, chemistry. I wanted to dance, to write, to start a business, to do something that made me feel alive–something that gave me a sense of purpose.

There came a point when I felt that being in school limited my growth instead of nurturing it.

Some of our readers who have graduated may understand, and those still in school are facing the same dilemma.

It’s the social norm to believe that you’re supposed to get a job related to your degree. Business and economics majors believe they’re supposed to get accounting jobs. Biology majors believe they’re suppose to take the medical or research route. Humanities majors are often told that teaching is probably their only option. The truth is, they don’t have to take any route specified by anyone but themselves.

However, it’s frightening to think that you may spend four or five years in college to obtain a degree that you won’t end up using, but it happens. When it does, you can force yourself to work in a field you don’t enjoy, or you can do something different.

This is what life has been like with my decisions, and how I approach my own situation.

Most People Don’t Understand or Approve

I recently moved back in with my parents to save money and I’m faced with these two questions from them on a daily basis:

(1) When are you going to graduate school?
(2) When are you getting a job with your degree?

They don’t quite understand my position and reasoning for my post grad decisions. My choices don’t make sense and even appear childish to them. After some frustration, I’ve come to realize that they probably won’t ever completely grasp my mindset because they’re part of a very different generation.

My parents immigrated to the United States with essentially nothing, and their well-being depended on money. Having money meant having food and shelter and being able to provide for their children. To my parents, having money epitomized success and happiness.

For my parents and many others like them, the end goal was the same as ours: success and happiness. The difference is that the definitions of both terms have drastically evolved over the course of a generation.

Life was not about achieving the fulfillment that my generation hopes for. Their idea of fulfillment and happiness meant having a job, being able to pay the bills, feeding their families, and surviving. Financial stability was seen as the magic bullet that would end all their problems.

In modern times, a career in science can almost be directly equated to financial stability. For this reason, my decision to not pursue a career in a scientific field has been met with my all-time favorite one-liner:

Stop wasting your time.

However, I understand this generational gap and I’ve accepted that my parents won’t quite understand how I will lead my life. I’ve accepted that I may continue to disappoint and frustrate them by not putting my degree to use. It wasn’t a difficult decision because I know that in the end, as long as I’m happy, my parents will be happy.

Outside the realm of family, society has its own less-accepting view of the concept. It’s not a common idea to spend a small fortune to obtain a college degree and not use it. Society may even look down on it because it isn’t normal. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not what you’re suppose to do.

It wasn’t a difficult decision because I know that in the end, as long as I’m happy, my parents will be happy.

david with tassel photo

My close friends have played a large factor in keeping me motivated to keep pursuing my idea of fulfillment. Likewise, if you decide that your degree isn’t for you, keep your friends close. They will be your pillars of support when you need it most.

You may personally feel like you wasted time your time and others will reinforce this feeling. It’s understandable. However, you might not realized it, but you may have gained many valuable skills through the process of obtaining your degree.

Personally, I’ve learned how to critically analyze problems to determine a solution, how to focus my attention on a goal, how to talk to people, and how to conduct research in addition to a bunch of other random skills I picked up along the way. Likewise, even if you don’t plan on using your degree, your college education was definitely not a waste of time.

You may personally feel like you wasted time your time and others will reinforce this feeling.

Much of what I’ve encountered is a lack of understanding from others. Most people will not get why you do the things you do. They won’t understand that what you do makes you feel fulfilled and alive.

Most people won’t understand how it makes you feel because they haven’t yet experienced it themselves.

My Mindset to Become Fulfilled

I’m constantly filled with fear. I rarely ever know how my decisions will play out and it frightens me. It’s sometimes paralyzing to realize that my future isn’t set in stone and that each decision I’m faced with will play a factor in my future success or failure. I don’t allow this fear to keep me from taking action, though. I continue to make moves and make decisions knowing that I can always adjust my route if things go horribly wrong. I’m not trying to avoid failure.

The only person responsible for my future success and failures is myself, and I’m okay with that–I actually prefer it. I don’t want to take someone else’s advice only to find that it didn’t work for me and end up bitter. I would rather fail as a result of my own choices and decisions.

Although I don’t know exactly what I will do with my life, I know how I am going to live it:

I’m going to pursue what I’m interested in, what makes me feel fulfilled, and what allows me to help people. I’m working to become the person that I want to be, not the person others expect or tell me to be. I’m trying to become someone that I would personally look up to.

Through this mindset, I rest assured because I know that, in the end, I will be fulfilled in whatever I do. This empowers me. It keeps me driven to continue working hard each day.

Likewise, don’t be scared to work toward a life of fulfillment and happiness that you define by yourself. It’s going to be difficult, but that shouldn’t stop you.

Don’t be afraid to change your major to something that you would actually enjoy studying. If you decide to finish up your degree, don’t hesitate to do work that you enjoy, even if it doesn’t pertain to your degree. You will have less regret attempting something you enjoy and failing than had you not attempted it at all.

On the other hand, you will greatly regret pursuing something that you don’t enjoy, that you forced yourself to do, that doesn’t make you happy.

Neither your degree nor your major define who you are or what you are capable of doing. Don’t let yourself be restricted by your degree. If you find work that makes you feel fulfilled, pursue it. Find a way to make it your life.

You deserve to do work that you enjoy.

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Photo source: Fotofillic

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15 thoughts on “Your College Degree Does Not Define You: A First-Hand Experience

  1. I advocate real world learning above all else. After learning things in the real world, get an academic perspective. I somewhat wish I’d worked more in the real world first, perhaps doing a 2 year military tour or doing a start up.

    I chose a very flexible, liberal arts major (Math-econ) which has direct and immediate real world applications. I further supplemented it with two practical minors(statistics and accounting) and learned bits of computer science on my own. I feel I have the ability to do anything. I even opted for a somewhat less lucrative first career out of college because it gave me the most room to grow.

    What many people study is worthless in their lives. The fundamentals of what I do now professionally I could’ve done at age 16 if I were given a 2 week crash course in MS Office, data analysis and doing public presentations. I’ll admit that the sheer depth of my work would not be as profound but the overall picture and the net results would still be similar. 10 years from now I could work in marketing, data science, consulting, finance or even writing.

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  3. Person: “What did you major in?”
    Me: “English.”
    Person: “Are you looking for a job in [education, law, etc..]?”
    Me: “I’ve considered it, but no.”
    Person: “Do you plan on going to grad school?”
    Me: “Not really. If I do, definitely not anytime soon.”
    Person: “Do you want to be a writer?”
    Me: “I love to write but don’t want to make a career from it.”
    Person: “So then, what?”

    Different major, same questions–you nailed it! I can’t seem to escape the “what are you going to do with THAT?” post-grad questions but there’s a part of me that loves the mystery on people’s faces and not feeling so transparent and categorized. I’ve found so much fascination and growth in my English courses but its up to me to decide how I will apply what I’ve learned. Thank you for writing this, David!

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    • Thank you Danielle! I’m glad that I was able to put our situation in a manner that resonates with you. I’m sure you would agree. that it has definitely been a frustrating (sometimes annoying) couple of months. I wish you all the best!

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