Episode 8: Balancing Passion with Pragmatism in Major Selection

Episode 8: Balancing Passion with Pragmatism in Major Selection

Date of Publication/发布日期
October 23, 2020
Jonathan Helland
Files & media
Volume 1 2020-2021

Balancing Passion and Pragmatism in Choosing a Major

I see it all the time—a student with a love for theater, a talent for painting, or a passion for protecting the environment tells me they want to major in engineering or finance. Why? Not because they actually want to be a financier, but because they want the job security and lucrative pay that comes from a college degree in an in-demand field.

Even for students who do have a passion for a lucrative and in-demand career, it might not be the best fit for them. It’s not enough to want to become a software engineer if you don’t have an aptitude for mathematics. But even if you have the perfect combination of interest and talent in a high-demand, high-pay field, it might still be impractical to pursue a field that is too competitive. The lucrative and high demand fields tend to be in the exact areas where a Chinese student is going to face the stiffest competition and the most selective programs.

There’s a lot to consider, and much of it is dependent on the individual student, school, and program. Everything I say on the topic in this essay will be a gross generalization. This is unavoidable. Ultimately the final decision of what to major in will be decided by the student and parents based on the counselor’s individualized advice.

I’m not going to make these decisions any easier in this blog, instead I’m going to make the many reasons these decisions are difficult as clear as I can.

What does pragmatism look like?

Whether or not a major is pragmatic can be summed up in a few factors:

  • Are graduates with this major able to find work?
  • How much money do graduates with this major earn?
  • Do you have what it takes to be success in this field?
  • Will you be able to get into a good program for this field?

College is a big investment of time and money. It’s perfectly reasonable to be worried about these things when making a huge decision about what to major in.

It makes sense to seek certainty and security in a changing world and some majors really are tied to higher wages and employability.

What does passion look like?

The common question is this: If you didn’t have to worry about money (or status, or prestige), what would you do with your time?

Everybody should identify those things in life that bring them joy and should make room in their lives to do those things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it as your career! Many people have noted that as much as you might enjoy your hobby, once you start doing it for a living, it can become much less enjoyable.

So, even of your passions, you should ask—would I still enjoy doing this if I had to do it day after day, to a deadline, whether I felt like it or not? Sometimes the answer is no, and maybe you should let your hobby stay a hobby. In many cases, however, the answer is still yes.

And sometimes it’s still worthwhile to major in your passion even if you’re going to get a career elsewhere. Mr. Westbay and I both majored in our passions in college. I studied English literature and he studied Latin. But I did not become a literary critic and he did not become an ancient Roman senator (or whatever classics majors do). Instead we both got the best job in the world helping BASIS students get in to college. In many cases the connection between what you do for a living and what you study in college is loose at best.

If your dream career doesn’t require a specific degree, (or, if it requires a post-graduate degree and graduate schools accept applicants from many different majors), then you might as well focus on your passions.

Always keep this in mind: You will be more motivated, and therefore more successful, if you study something you enjoy.

There is more overlap than you think

Passion and pragmatism aren’t always in conflict with each other. And often, the gap isn’t as big as people think it is.

Most people enjoy the things there are good at. They spend more time and develop more skill with those tasks they enjoy. When looking at where your aptitudes are and what programs you’ll be able to get into, you’ll usually find they align perfectly with your passions.

Furthermore, the difference in pragmatism between lucrative, high-demand majors and others is actually smaller than people think. For example, it’s true that STEM majors have higher salaries than humanities majors 5 years after graduation, but this difference shrinks significantly when we look further down the road, this evens out. Among people in their 50s (their peak earning years), humanities majors actually make more on average than STEM majors. (https://www.chronicle.com/article/over-time-humanities-grads-close-the-pay-gap-with-professional-peers/)

Don't assume you know which majors are pragmatic based only on gut feeling, or what your friends, family, or neighbors say. If you're worried about it, do some research or talk to your counselor.

You don’t actually have to choose just one

American colleges allow student to take a double major or a major and a minor, and a sizeable portion (between 12 and 25% with a double major, more with minor) of American university students do. This means that a student can easily study their passion in college while also getting a degree in something that offers more security.

There seems to be some misconceptions about double-majors and minors that I would like to clear up here. Most importantly, while it is more work to get a double major, it is not anywhere close to twice the work. To explain, I’ll briefly break down how college graduation requirements tend to work:

1 college credit = 1 hour in class per week. For example, a class that meets for 1 hour each on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is a 3-credit course. Most classes, therefore are worth 3 or 4 credits for a single semester. Most students take 4 or 5 classes a semester for an average of 30 credits a school year.

In order to graduate, you typically will need around 120 credits. Usually, you will need 30 credits in your major (a certain number of which will have to be upper-level classes). There will be a certain number of “General Ed” requirements every student will have to take. This varies widely, but let’s say it’s another 30 credits.

That means that only half of the credits you have to take in college are required. The rest can be any classes you want (electives). Even if you take two completely unrelated majors (majors with no overlapping requirements), you still won’t have to take any more total credits than any other student.

(Important note: Electives are any class you take that aren’t required. Most students will take some of their electives in their major(s).)


Double majors are required to take more advanced, upper-level coursework (you have to take the advance classes in two fields rather than one), and in some cases this extra school work will make it harder to take advantages of some opportunities like internships, but for most students, if they have a passion for modern dance (for example) but really want the job security and high pay that comes from a degree in chemical engineering, my suggestion might be to simply major in both. One major for your wallet, one major for your soul.

(Note that “double major” and “dual degree” are usually two different things, the later of which is a lot more work and outside the scope of this blog post.)

There is also the possibility of taking a single major and a minor. A minor requires many fewer credits (15-18, usually) than a second major. However, a minor usually won’t be seen as a qualification for employment or graduate school. A minor makes sense if you want to study an interest, but you don’t want the extra stress of a second major and have no desire to work in that field. It can also be a great way to bolster your major with extra studies in a supporting field (a student who majors in Environmental Science with a minor in biology, or a Physics major with a minor in Applied Mathematics might be a little more attractive to graduate programs and employers).


In short, if something brings you joy, college is an excellent time to pursue that. Even if you have to have a plan B.

Final Thought

Getting a job isn’t the only reason to go to college, or even the most important reason. Most people find the educational experience to have life-long benefits far beyond your future paycheck. Your college experience will affect how you see the world. The knowledge, values, and friendships you gain may be worth it on their own.

Life is short. Study what you love.