“Where do you go to school?” “Harvard.”
“Cool! What do you study?” “Psychology.”
“Cool! So you’re gonna become a psychologist?” “….”
I have been in this conversation for probably a hundred times. Each time I get asked the last question, I become frustrated and try to change the topic. People just don’t understand why I would be studying psychology if I don’t want to become a psychologist.
If I had the time and patience, this is what I would say: “I have no interest in becoming a psychologist. I chose to concentrate in Psychology because many of the classes that I found interesting while browsing Harvard’s course catalogue happen to fall under the psychology department. At Harvard, choosing a concentration doesn’t mean that I take all my classes in that area; in fact most of my classes are not in Psychology. I’ve taken many classes in English and History, and learned two languages at Harvard. In any liberal arts college, what you study has little correlation with what you do in life. Peter Thiel was a Philosophy major. Jack Ma studied and taught English. Reid Hoffman studied cognitive science. Xu Xiaoping, China’s foremost angel investor, went to music school. Stephen Schwarzman studied “interdisciplinary major” (just imagine the amount of explaining HE has to do). Even though I study Psychology, I really see myself as having a background in journalism. I write for my school newspaper, did internships in journalism, and have published a fair amount of articles. But my school doesn’t have a “Journalism” major. Even if it did, I wouldn’t have chosen it because I came to Harvard and to America for a truly liberal arts education, not four years of pre-professional training. Then again, I don’t know if I want to be a journalist forever either. I’m open to a wide range of career options. I don’t know what to do with my life, to be honest.”
I have had to give this lecture many times to people who are not familiar with the concept of a “liberal arts education,” including but not limited to Chinese parents, Uber drivers, and high school students dying to know which major will give them the best career prospects.
Many people find it hard to believe that I’m studying something that doesn’t appear to be immediately applicable to my future career, especially people in China, where students pick a major before even applying to colleges. I strongly believe that college is less about getting ready for a specific career track, and more about gaining confidence in oneself, making friends, and developing a more critical way of looking at the world.
I always get a little frustrated when people ask me what I study right when they meet me (after the Big Three of “What’s your name? Where are you from? Which school do you go to?”), because my major is not a critical piece of information to who I am. I’m not defined by Psychology. I probably spend less than a fifth of my time at Harvard thinking about Psychology. I would be much happier if people asked me what I enjoy doing (writing), what excites me (technology), or what I’m doing during the summer (writing about technology).
I understand that when people ask me what I’m studying, they are trying to get more information about my background and interests. But way too often, when we ask that question, we are prepared to define that person in our minds based on the stereotypes and expectations associated with that major. As a psychology major, I’m supposed to be able to read people’s minds and give counseling sessions. Computer science majors are supposed to be geeky, anti-social and bespectacled. English majors are supposed to be emotional, artsy-fartsy and unable to get a job.
But the truth is, I can never imagine myself in a lab coat, giving psychotherapy sessions, or reading minds. “Psychology” is little more than the word that will happen to appear on my degree when I graduate from Harvard. The only significance my major has to me is that if one day I become famous enough to have my own Wikipedia page, it will say: “She obtained a B.A. in Psychology from Harvard College.” I will then leave it to the readers to figure out how I moved from a psychology major to whatever I will be doing.