In defense of not using my degree
by Kathryn Daniel
I have a degree in engineering. But I’m not an engineer. Instead, I work as an administrative assistant and I’m a photographer on the side. This is by choice, but I’ve encountered a lot of stigma. The point of higher education is to give us more choices. Choosing not to use my degree should be one of them.
I’m starting to see a new generation of 20-30 somethings that understand the value of time. Not to get all philosophical, but I think that understanding you are here on Earth for a relatively minute amount of time is important. In the grand scheme things, our existence is a drop of water in the ocean. Why wouldn’t we want to squeeze absolutely every drop of joy out of it? Why do we waste what little time and resources we have on being unhappy, overworked or unfulfilled? Doing something fulfilling makes you happy, and if you’re happy and fulfilled then you’re more likely to want others to feel the same way. Who can argue against that?
Why waste what little time and resources we have
on being unhappy, overworked or unfulfilled?
When I was fifteen, I received an old film camera from my parents. They weren’t using it, so I begged them for it and immediately began taking pictures. Lots of pictures. I loved every second of it. Being alone and focusing on how to make others see what I saw made me feel whole for the first time in a long time. I wanted to feel like that all the time.
It’s interesting that going to college and getting a higher education made me fearful of doing something daring. It made me fearful of doing something that is actually based on talent rather than on how well I did in school. “I am good at math” is a statement can be proven by tests, whereas “I am a good photographer” is based on other people’s judgment of what I produce and how popular the pictures I take become.
Putting yourself at the mercy of other people’s opinions is scary, and it is hard to relinquish the power to control what others think of you. When I say, “I am an engineer,” people automatically think I am smart. In my opinion anyone can do whatever they set their mind to, and in that respect I don’t think that I am smart, I just know that I work really hard at whatever is put in front of me. Yet the prospect of doing something that fully relies on the opinion of others terrifies me.
Society is ruled by this fear. What if you don’t make enough money? What if you can’t buy that really expensive brand new gadget that you really don’t need? But here’s a different set of questions: What if you did something that made you happy? What if you stopped caring what others thought of your choices? At the end of the day you are the only one that has to answer for your choices. I have made the choice to not put myself through years of pain in a job that I know I would hate. I have made the choice not to go back to school until I am one hundred and ten percent sure I know what I want to do, if in fact I want to go back to school at all.
I’m not afraid of doing what I want even though people are going to ask, “Are you sure,” and, “isn’t it really hard?” Yes. Doing something in a creative field is hard. But so is forcing yourself to go to work and do something you just don’t like.
When I applied to college, I got in to a lot of different schools and programs, but honestly it came down to practicality and money. New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, or Tech, offered me the most assistance. The school was 1400 miles from my hometown and I wanted to put some distance between my family and myself so that I could have a chance to grow as a person and figure out who I really was. I chose the Mineral Engineering department because it was the smallest and I wanted to be known by my name, not just a number. Each of these decisions had its own reason. But sometimes we find out that a string of reasons doesn’t necessarily add up the way we might hope.
Going to Tech was great, mostly. At the end of my junior year, right before I started seriously dating who is now my husband, I made the decision that I did not want to spend the rest of my life calculating ventilation flow or ore percentages. I didn’t want to spend my days designing mines and calculating their economic feasibility. Yes, I was good at it, but every project I completed took a lot out of me. I don’t necessarily mean it was hard intellectually; I mean it was hard on my soul. I had to force myself to care about what I was studying so I could get it done on time.
People have asked me, “Well, why didn’t you just switch majors?” I’ll tell you why. At the time, I worked four jobs at once, while taking 16-18 credit hours of course work, and I had taken summer classes to guarantee that I would graduate in four years – a year sooner than my classmates. I didn’t want to change my major because I’d have had to stay in school even longer. At least this reason, that I wanted to get out of school quickly, was one that resonates with me now.
And yet I am regularly questioned for it. It is interesting to me why people feel as if I must need guidance just because I am not working in the profession in which I earned my degree. I think people have the best intentions when they question my life choice, but still I feel them wondering whether I fell and bumped my head. I have made a conscious decision not to spend my life doing something that makes me feel empty inside just because I could make more money doing it. Unfortunately, this puts me under scrutiny by the people I work with, the people I work for, and my family.
Here are some things people have said to me because I choose not to work in engineering and what I’d like to say back.
“You have a degree in engineering? Why do you work here?”
Honestly, why do you care?
“You’re smart. You could be doing so much with your life…”
Listen, it’s not as if I am sitting at home watching soaps and eating bon-bons all day. I work. I work 40+ hours a week. Making the choice to not go into what I majored in in college doesn’t make me any less smart. Don’t I have the choice to do what I want? Isn’t that the purpose of getting a higher education? By not wasting my life doing something that I could never put my heart into, I am also not wasting a company’s time and money, and I’m not taking away a position that could potentially be filled by someone that would love it and do a much better job at it.
“What do your parents have to say about your life?”
Sometimes I think of what it must be like for them to have to answer the question, “What does your daughter do?” There is still a huge part of me that doesn’t want to disappoint them, and that part of myself will probably always exist within me. I know that my parents love me, and I know how lucky I am to have both of them behind me, and I also know they don’t want me to struggle. The thing is, I would rather struggle but love what I’m doing with my life than “not struggle” and hate myself. Money will not make me happy, and I know that. Sometimes I wonder if it scares them that I would rather be poor and happy than rich and unsatisfied.
“What do you want to be?”
The classic question that adults love asking children is a strange one. The words they use are, “What do you want to be,” but what they mean is, “What job do you want to have?” A much more insightful question people should ask is, “What do you want out of life?” Now that’s a question I can answer. I want to be happy. I want to be married to my husband for fifty years. I want to give people the gift of memories through my photography. I want people to read what I’ve written, to take something from my thoughts and maybe know they are not alone.
Almost every day I feel like the word “wanderer” is tattooed on my forehead. I feel like reminding people that “not all who wander are lost.” But that wouldn’t really be accurate, at least not for me. I am not ashamed to admit that I am maybe just a little bit lost. I don’t know what I want to “be” when I “grow up.” Why is that so shocking? Why is there a stigma?
“So, what’s your plan?”
Well, I don’t really have a “plan.” The only “plan” I have is to love my husband with all that I have, and to find what I love, and hopefully one day get paid for it. Why must I have a plan at all? What if I want to “float about” for a bit?
“So what are you going to do with your degree?”
Whatever I want to. I could completely change my mind tomorrow and start applying to engineering jobs. I could quit my job next week and spend the rest of my life keeping house, taking pictures and writing. The only limits to what I can do are the ones I set for myself. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but at least I know what I’m not going to do.
Photo credit: SplitShire
Based on what you’ve written here, I think you’d enjoy the book Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz. His immediate focus is on the problems within the elite university system, but his content extends beyond that to the issue of high achieving, hard working students who graduate from college with degrees that do not reflect their passions. From there, he details causes and suggests solutions for all parties involved: the institutes, the parents, the teachers, and the students. It’s thought provoking and inspiring.
And, to speak to your question about why adults ask children what they want “to be,” I agree that it’s important to ask what will make them “happy,” but the reason the former question is synonymous with the question, “what will your job be,” is because most parents hope that their children will pursue a career that they are so passionate about that they do feel defined by it. I’m a teacher. It is not just my job; it’s who I am, and I hope that my daughter will grow up in a way that allows her to explore all of her interests, gifts, and curiosities to their fullest so that, yes, when it comes time to select a major, she can choose a field that makes her feel alive, satisfied, and proud. I don’t think it’s meant to box in the person being questioned, even if it feels like it when the answer is not readily available.
Still, interesting viewpoint. Thank you for sharing with us and opening a dialogue on the topic. I agree that it’s an important one.
It is rare that a young person has such insights. In the time I have known you, the one thing I have learned is that you constantly think outside the box, are a creative and caring individual, have so much to offer in life, and can do anything you set your mind and your heart to. Your kindness and generosity are refreshing in our world of “me first”. Cultivate your love for God, your servant’s heart (to serve others) and your creativity (to bring beauty to the world around you) and this will be true happiness! And, stand fast in your commitment to yourself, your husband (in the face of society’s pressures) and your God. Thank you for sharing your insights and I look forward to future installments!
I found this very interesting to read, thank you very much for writing it.
Having just finished high school and about to start university in 2 months, I’ve constantly wondered why many people will retire so late in life, when they can’t enjoy any of it. I’m going to be studying Civil Engineering, 50% because I like problem solving and construction and 50% because I feel as though without the degree life will be that much harder. That is though not to say that I don’t want life to be harder, I cant see myself using the degree after i finish, just to get stuck in a 9-5 job doing something, that, yes I’ll enjoy, but I would also rather spend time doing other things also.
The reason this resonates with me, is because I would rather be happy and poor, than rich and sad. In fact, I would rather be poor and happy, than rich and happy. I (in my naive opinion) would like to finish uni, then cram everything I can in, affording it not by saving from years of hard engineering work, but instead by working only when I need money, truly living on a day to day basis.
I think my parents too, are not pleased with this outlook, but who cares, after all;
“In the grand scheme things, our existence is a drop of water in the ocean. Why wouldn’t we want to squeeze absolutely every drop of joy out of it?”
I come from a country and a society where literally thousands of young men and women are routinely marched to degree programs that their parents think are best for them – namely Engineering and Medicine.
In the US you have the elite Ivy system, in India we have the IIT’s, IIM’s and AIIMS. Over a few decades this has resulted in an entire generation of non-creative, unfulfilled, lost people who know they should do something else with their lives to be happy but are stuck in the boring jobs that give them financial security to keep buying stuff they don’t need.
Our education is supposed to impart us with the gift of independent critical thinking, not produce ‘Excellent Sheep’. Kudos to you for realizing you don’t want to work as an Engineer early on in life. Once you’ve dealt with that it leaves the door open to explore what you DO want. Besides, the only meaning any of our lives have in the end is what we decide to give them.
All the best!