STEM or Shakespeare? Your move.

By EDITORIAL BOARD

SARAH FAGAN

Choosing your major is a big decision. It should be: a lot of money and effort goes into earning your diploma. These days, the professional world places so much emphasis on education that for some, filling out their major declaration form feels like the first step in a job application. As an editorial board, we weren’t surprised to come across a recent Washington Post article explaining how as a direct result of this perceived professional pressure there’s been a big shift in the kinds of majors students declare. Ever since the financial crash in 2008, English and History departments across the country are a lot less crowded. Students in Economics or STEM classrooms, on the other hand, find themselves struggling to find a free seat. 

At Middlebury, things are no different. Humanities departments report declines in both major declaration and individual class enrollment over the past several years, while the Comp Sci department seems to grow bigger by the day. Class numbers aside, there’s a pretty pervasive belief on campus that an Economics or science focus leads to a surer or higher-paying job. A lot of the time, STEM subjects are equated with “practical skills,” while humanities or languages courses are treated almost like intellectual hobbies. Many students seem to think that the only reason to declare a humanities major is out of pure passion.

As the semester progresses and job and internship searches collide with many sophomores’ major decisions, these kinds of course-related anxieties are only intensifying. All over campus, Music or Literary Studies majors can be overheard making the obligatory deprecating jokes about future employment challenges. We wouldn’t run off to Forest for an Add/Drop card quite yet, though.

As it turns out, many of the assumptions we make about the relationship between majors, job prospects and earnings simply aren’t true. For instance, the fields of arts and communication formed the largest employer for the Middlebury class of 2018, while financial services came in second. The Post article further points out how, while graduates with science and technical degrees initially earn higher salaries than say, English majors straight out of college, this pay gap disappears over time. Numerous reports attest to how employers at large banks and tech companies seek humanities and social science majors. As often as not, humanities majors (and liberal arts students in general) are championed as “well-rounded” and “highly adaptable.” 

And so, contrary to Middlebury myth, the kinds of skills which students gain through humanities courses are enormously important in the working world. As an editorial board composed largely of humanities or language majors, we realize we might be a little biased. In our experience, however, the stuff we’ve learned in class proves incredibly, professionally valuable. 

This past summer, for instance, one editorial board member worked as an Investigative Intern at a public defender’s office in D.C. She stresses just how crucial storytelling was in and around the courtroom; her job involved listening to clients and writing clear, compelling statements. She roots these skills — namely the ability to appreciate and tell stories — in a lot of the classes she’s taken at Middlebury, both within and beyond her Political Science major. Even the structure of humanities courses teach professionally valuable skills; another member of the board reflected on how the ability to write and defend a thesis, or argument — something she gained, in large part, through English Literature essays and seminars — came in handy speechwriting and canvassing for her local political representative.

Contrary to Middlebury myth, the kinds of skills which students gain through humanities courses are enormously important in the working world.”

The benefits of humanities majors extend beyond purely professional skills. To that end, many editorial board members pointed out that job prospects aren’t the only reason for declaring a major. There are other, equally valid ways to go about compiling your course schedule. One editorial member reflected on how important a role her History major plays in her broader, “personal” education. She explained how the things she learns in class have proved more applicable to her everyday life than she could have ever expected. Another board member explained how she declared her GSFS major because of the profound impression left by a couple of the department’s professors. In her experience, creating a close relationship with a department — any department — represents a thoughtful and rewarding way to approach your education. 

It’s equally important to acknowledge that, for some students, the choice of major isn’t really a “choice” at all. Many students entering the workforce face unavoidable financial concerns. For many international students, there are visas to consider (for example, US Immigration Law means that international college students who choose to major in STEM-related fields are substantially more likely to receive an HB-1 visa for two years, rather than one). Some international students may circumvent these kinds of restrictions by studying liberal arts or choosing to double major or minor in non-STEM fields. But even at schools like Middlebury College, obtaining a visa often comes at the cost of complete freedom of major choice. These considerations too, form important and worthwhile reasons for approaching your education a certain way. 

At Middlebury, there are as many valid reasons for declaring a major as there are students. Our goal isn’t to pretend that job prospects don’t figure significantly in those reasons; we simply want to point out that they aren’t the only reason. Not just that, but the majors which lead to jobs aren’t always the ones you might expect to. And so we encourage you not to silence your passions. Instead, embrace them — they might translate to the next chapter of your life much better than you imagine. 

 

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