Go Ahead, Change Your Mind

As a sophomore, you rarely know how you want to spend the rest of your life, let alone what major to choose. Some 25 years ago, I knew I was fascinated by how the body works, by what goes wrong and what can be done to fix it. So I took a variety of biology courses and everyone assumed I’d be a doctor. I had the grades, but as senior year approached, I began having second thoughts. Did I want to be on call 24/7? Spend seven or more years in training? Have responsibility for life and death decisions? Were the less demanding specialties interesting to me?

So after graduation I spent four years performing medical research and thinking about what to do with my future. I then went to business school and, finally, became an investment banker focused on life sciences companies. Now I decide whether a biotech company has a promising drug and the proper business plan. All the while, I draw on the biology courses at Colgate, the MBA studies and a liberal arts education. I didn’t know it then and would have been much less anxious if I had, but with the benefit of hindsight I laid the groundwork for a great career.

Liberal arts programs teach you how to learn, to analyze and to communicate. Post-graduate degrees in contrast are designed to provide specific technical training for a career or vocation. There is a reason that the best educators have decided that most people should not begin graduate programs (excluding medical school) until after some work experience. Hopefully, by then, the students that enroll will have a better idea about how to narrow their focus. And yet, even then, people still change their career paths.

It boils down to this: A liberal arts education isn’t trainingfor anything, it is training for everything.When you stop apologizing for your liberal arts background, you can figure out how to sell its strengths and use it to your advantage. The geology major who switches to art history and then to political science is actually demonstrating adaptability and an ability to quickly come up the learning curve in his or her new area of study. And if you do change careers later on, you will learn that the ability to adapt your skills in a radically different environment is not universal. On its own, an undergraduate science degreeisn’t training for much – post-graduate studies like medical school and Ph.D. programs are required for many careers in the sciences. But if you change your mind, then a liberal arts education will be equally relevant where ever your heart takes you.