Which box do I check?

Sarah Pugh grew up in northern Massachusetts, not far from Boston. She is in her third year at Northeastern as a political science major. She ultimately hopes to attend law school and work in the federal judiciary. 

There was this little box on your college applications that said something along the lines of “What program are you applying to?” or “What will be your major?” Some people (the lucky ones) know the answer to this question and have known for quite some time exactly what they want to do. I (and many others) am still trying to figure it all out. And here I am in my third (middler? junior?) year.

When I was filling out my application, I saved that ominous question for last. There was absolutely no way that I was applying as an undeclared student. Because then everyone would know that I didn’t know what I was doing and everyone else has it all figured out, right? After ruling that out, there were only a hundred other choices. Much better.

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It came down to political science or biology — two majors on very opposite ends of the spectrum. I had always enjoyed learning about the government, and watching the debates during elections season was fun too. To be honest, I didn’t know what political science even was. I couldn’t fathom what made it a science. Also, what kind of job would I have with a degree in political science? You can’t just graduate college and become a successful politician. Ultimately I checked the box for biology. After all, I liked AP biology in high school and I did well in it — what could possibly be different?

I went to orientation, met other biology students, and registered for classes. I was excited about my decision. My first semester was filled with microbiology, chemistry, calculus, and economic justice (an elective for the honors department).

After what was only two week’s worth of classes, I hated chemistry, calculus, and worst of all, biology. I loved my economic justice class. It was engaging, the readings were interesting, and I just liked it. I can remember being on the phone with my boyfriend complaining about school and he asked, “If you could be studying something other than biology and you had to choose now, what would it be?” And it was then that I decided to change my major to political science. I loved learning about the government systems and how it affected our everyday lives, and I could figure out what to do with it career-wise later.

Later that week I was in my advisor’s office signing the paperwork and talking to the department head about why I wanted the change. I felt so grateful to be at a school that encouraged its students to explore their interests and that they made changing programs of study so simple. I attended the major fairs that are typically held for the undeclared students to talk with other students. There were these pamphlets that they passed out called “What To Do With a Degree in Poli Sci” — just the question I needed answers to. Today I know that there are plenty of options.

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Technically I am a political science student with a concentration in comparative politics and a minor in international affairs — talk about a mouth full. Furthermore, I’m looking into adding a minor in history. I recently completed my first co-op job at the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts as a legal intern. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and have nothing but wonderful things to say about my experiences, though not enough time to share them. In short, I am now looking at law schools for when I graduate from NU.

As cliché as it may sound, the biggest and most important piece of advice to someone that may find themselves in a similar situation to my own is study what you love; the rest will fall into place.

We can’t all be engineers.

I was an American Studies major as an undergraduate. It was possibly the broadest major I could have chosen at a liberal arts school. And I LOVED it. I loved reading history and sociology and literature and politics. I would do it again if I had it to do over. Except I would have double majored in sociology.

I knew even before high school that I was better at reading comprehension and writing, not as good in math and science. Remember those silly bubble tests they give you in grade school? I performed far better on the language components and got placed into advanced English courses. I continued to struggle with science and math – particularly math, for which I had tutors through most of high school. I eventually discovered that I was pretty good with applied math, such as statistics and accounting, but my reading and writing were still stronger. Someone recently suggested that I just didn’t have the right teachers to get through to me, but I’m not so sure it would have made a difference.

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Based on my interests and academic performance, a liberal arts college made sense. Yes, there were science and math majors there, but they were outnumbered by the English and history and American Studies majors, so I fit right in. There were no engineering, health or business majors. It was only when I went home or to the bank I sometimes worked at, that I got blank stares or sometimes sarcastic comments about my degree. Being first-generation college, my parents didn’t know what to make of my major. My father asked who on earth was going to pay me to read books and write essays. People at the bank rolled their eyes and assumed I’d be a history teacher (not once in my life have I ever wanted to be a history teacher).

What did I intend to do with that American Studies degree? I didn’t. I picked the classes and major that I liked most and went with it. Not necessarily the most practical of options, but 15 years later, I still don’t regret it. Based on my experience with several campus programs conducting research with faculty members, a staff member in my school’s Career Center helped me identify the research and consulting firm where I ended up working right out of college. And dad said no one would pay me to read and write!

I’m not suggesting everyone should be a liberal arts major. A college degree is a significant investment, and it would be foolish to ignore practical implications when choosing a major or career. College is far more expensive now than when I went. But practically speaking, we also can’t all be engineers or doctors, or other “obvious” jobs people think of when they think stability, prestige and high income. Not everyone has the skills or drive to succeed in those positions. I know I don’t, and I can either spend my life feeling like I’m somehow not good enough, or I can get over it and take satisfaction in career opportunities that actually fit me.

And for those wondering what an American Studies degree has to do with being a career

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counselor, I use two of the core skills I learned in school – researching and analyzing information – every day.

In the words of Dr. Seuss: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”

Tina Mello is Associate Director of University Career Services, and has worked at Northeastern for over 10 years. Nicknamed the “information guru” by other members of the staff, she loves to research and read about various job/career/education topics. For more career advice, follow her on twitter @CareerCoachTina.