Home for the Holidays: Explaining Your Major to Friends and Family
Students are gearing up to head home for Thanksgiving and winter breaks, and that means getting back into the swing of life with family–including explaining what you’re doing at school to your parents’ friends and your extended family. For some people (engineering majors and pre-med people), this is not so bad! For others, it can be a little stressful. Here’s how to handle some of the most common less-than-positive results.
“So you’re planning to go to law school?” or “A future teacher, I see!” – This one tends to be tossed at Political Science majors (and liberal arts majors in general) by people who see law school/teaching as a backup plan. This can be frustrating for people who actually do want to be lawyers or teachers, since it implies they’re following a predictable path, and for people who are interested in other things (for instance, being the next Nate Silver) it’s equally irritating. It’s best to pick your battles–if it’s someone you’re only going to see once, laugh and say, “Anything’s possible!” before finding some more eggnog. For family members and people who will be interacting with you when you finish school, a little more explanation can be good. If you are, say yes and give a short summary of what kind of law you want to do or why you want to become a teacher. If not, something like, “Actually, no. But I am planning to try for the Peace Corps!” will usually do the trick. You want to make the point that there are other career paths than law school or teaching that you can follow. Don’t stress about one-off encounters too much, though–over the holidays it’s best to save your energies for people who you’ll be seeing again.
“You should really study [law/medicine/plastics] instead! Make some money.” or “You’re wasting your parent’s money with a degree in [pretty much any liberal arts field, but especially common for religion majors].” – Unlike some of the other comments, this one can be addressed with a little more bite because it’s explicitly rude. If your parents aren’t paying for your education, of course, feel free to (politely) correct this assumption–”Actually, I’m supporting myself while attending school.” To address the wasting money point, you have two options: you can either provide proof that you’re not (“Actually, people majoring in [your major] have really high grad school acceptance rates!”), or you can agree with whoever insulted you and up the ante. The first one has the advantage of coming naturally to most people, and even if what you tell the person regarding grad school or employment rates isn’t necessarily true, they won’t know that. The second approach, if you can remember it, can be tons of fun–it completely takes the wind out of your insulter’s sails when your response is, “I know! And they still love me anyway.” (For more on that approach, check out this BoingBoing article on insult pacifism.)
“I didn’t know people did that as a job.” – If you’ve picked an intended career path that’s less than common (for instance, librarianship, scientific research, or an esoteric kind of engineering), you’ll get this more than you’d expect. Generally, the best strategy for this one is to assume ignorance rather than malice and to be prepared for this question with a quick-and-simple example of how people in your field are employed. Smile and provide a concrete example that someone outside your field will be familiar with. For the library school example, you can point out that there are plenty of people in that field in k-12 schools and public libraries. If, like a friend of mine, you want to be a human sexuality researcher, talk about Kinsey. Cite an interesting study that got wide acclaim if you plan to be a researcher in the hard sciences. If the offending party is not someone you’re likely to see again, it may be easier to just smile, say, “They do!” and change the subject to something else–say, plastics.
“Oh, your school’s in [place your school is not].” – Particularly common for schools which are far away from home and aren’t Ivies. This can be very frustrating, especially if your school is highly-ranked. Just like for the coment above, assuming ignorance rather than malice will go a long, long way towards taking the sting out of it. Generally, if your school is small, it’s best to just tell people the state that it’s in rather than trying to explain where, exactly, your town is. If your school is in a major metropolitan area (or within an hour of one), just tell people it’s there. Chances are high that they won’t remember in ten minutes and it’s not worth the stress.
“Oh, you’re majoring in [industrial engineering/biology/chemistry]? I majored in [mechanical engineering/chemistry/physics].” – This is usually accompanied by a smug grin implying that your no-doubt difficult major is the easy way out. It’s annoying. If it’s an adult is the one saying this, plaster on your best fake smile and go with either a sickly-sweet, “That must have been hard!” or “Good for you!” If they’re an adult trying to make a college student feel bad about their major, they’re clearly not worth a whole lot of consideration.
College can be stressful, and finals can pale in comparison to the stress of holiday smalltalk. But, with a smile, an ability to sound moderately enthused, and enough eggnog (or a flask), they can be gotten through–with luck, you can even manage these questions with aplomb.
Got a coping strategy or a horror story not covered here? Leave us a note in the comments!