Your College Degree Does Not Define You: A First-Hand Experience

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This article takes from my personal experience as a graduate with a chemistry degree who plans on pursuing entrepreneurship and writing. I hope that through this article I can provide insight as to life after the decision and encourage you to do work you enjoy. Your degree doesn’t define you. Do not let it define your choices. Find more of my posts at davidlykhim.com.

I graduated with a degree I don’t plan on using. I’ll admit I considered not finishing the degree and switching to a different major, but I didn’t. Now, I have a pretty piece of paper that my parents paid $100,000 for me to obtain, with no plans of putting the credential to use.

Many students don’t quite understand why they’re learning about things they don’t care for. It’s a common problem that college students and graduates face.

A public health student has plans of going to medical school but longs to pursue a singing career. A biology student who stresses about class all the time wishes to become a photographer. A business major who expects to become an accountant actually wants to study psychology and criminology and do social work to help the community.

Are you doing what you want to do?

While some will stick to a plan they don’t like, others will decide to make a change, to change their field of study or pursue what they enjoy. I consider myself a member of the latter group. I finished my chemistry degree, but I am instead pursuing a life of entrepreneurship.

Since graduation, I’ve had numerous encounters that went along these lines:

Person: “What did you major in?”
Me: “Chemistry.”
Person: “Are you looking for a job in chemistry?”
Me: “Not really.”
Person: “Do you plan on going to grad school?”
Me: “That isn’t the plan, no.”
Person: “Do you want to work in a lab?”
Me: “I’ve worked in one, but I learned that it isn’t for me.”

I admit that I had considered dropping out of school on multiple occasions. There came a point when I felt that being in school limited my growth instead of nurturing it. It was frustrating. Before that, I realized I no longer wanted to pursue a career with my major, chemistry. I wanted to dance, to write, to start a business, to do something that made me feel alive–something that gave me a sense of purpose.

There came a point when I felt that being in school limited my growth instead of nurturing it.

Some of our readers who have graduated may understand, and those still in school are facing the same dilemma.

It’s the social norm to believe that you’re supposed to get a job related to your degree. Business and economics majors believe they’re supposed to get accounting jobs. Biology majors believe they’re supposed to take the medical or research route. Humanities majors are often told that teaching is probably their only option. The truth is, they don’t have to take any route specified by anyone but themselves.

It’s frightening to think that you may spend four or five years in college to obtain a degree that you won’t end up using, but it happens. When it does, you can force yourself to continue work in a field you don’t enjoy, or you can do something different.

This is what life has been like with my decisions, and how I approach my own situation.

Most People Don’t Understand or Approve

After graduating, I moved back in with my parents to save money and was faced with these two questions from them on a daily basis:

(1) When are you going to graduate school?
(2) When are you getting a job with your degree?

They don’t quite understand my position and reasoning for my post-grad decisions. My choices don’t make sense and even appear childish to them. Why get a chemistry degree, but not use it?

After some frustration, I’ve realized that they probably won’t ever completely grasp my mindset because they’re from a very different background and generation.

My parents immigrated to the United States with essentially nothing, and their well-being depended on money. Having money meant having food and shelter and being able to provide for their children. To my parents, having money epitomized success and happiness.

For my parents and many others like them, the end goal was the same as ours: success and happiness. The difference is that the definitions of both terms have drastically evolved over a few decades.

To my parents’ generation, life was not about achieving the fulfillment that my generation hopes for. Their idea of fulfillment and happiness meant having a job, being able to pay the bills, feeding their families, and surviving. Financial stability was seen as the magic bullet that would end all their problems.

In modern times, a career in science can almost be directly equated to financial stability. For this reason, my decision to not pursue a career in a scientific field has been met with my all-time favorite one-liner:

Stop wasting your time.

I understand this generational gap (for the most part) and I’ve accepted that my parents won’t really understand how I will lead my life. I’ve accepted that I may continue to disappoint and frustrate them by not putting my degree to use. I know that although it’s difficult now, in the end, as long as I’m happy, my parents will be happy.

Outside the realm of family, society has its own less-accepting view of the concept. It’s not a common idea to spend a small fortune to obtain a degree and not use it. Society may even look down on it because it isn’t normal. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not what you’re supposed to do.

I know that although it’s difficult now, in the end, as long as I’m happy, my parents will be happy.

david with tassel photo

If you decide that your degree isn’t for you, keep your friends close. They will be your pillars of support when you need it most. My closest friends have seen me at my lowest of lows and have played a large factor in keeping me motivated to keep pursuing my own idea of fulfillment.

You may feel like you wasted time your time and others will reinforce this feeling. It’s understandable. You might not realize it, but you have gained many valuable skills through the process of obtaining your degree.

Through college, I didn’t just get a degree. I learned how to critically analyze problems to find a solution, how to focus my attention on a goal, how to talk to people in large groups, and how to conduct research in addition to picking up a bunch of random skills along the way. Likewise, even if you don’t plan on using your degree, your college education was definitely not a waste of time.

You may feel like you wasted time your time and others will reinforce this feeling.

Much of what I’ve encountered is a lack of understanding from others. Most people will not get why you do the things you do. They won’t understand that what you do makes you feel fulfilled and alive.

Most people won’t understand how it makes you feel because they haven’t yet experienced it themselves.

My Mindset to Become Fulfilled

I’m constantly filled with fear. I rarely ever know how my decisions will play out and it frightens me. It’s sometimes paralyzing to realize that my future isn’t set in stone and that each decision I’m faced with will play a factor in my future success or failure. I don’t allow this fear to keep me from taking action, though. I continue to make moves and make decisions knowing that I can always adjust my route if things go horribly wrong. I’m not trying to avoid failure.

The only person responsible for my future success and failures is myself, and I’m okay with that–I actually prefer it. I don’t want to take someone else’s advice only to find that it didn’t work for me and end up bitter. I would rather fail as a result of my own choices and decisions.

Although I don’t know exactly what I will do with my life, I know how I am going to live it:

I’m going to pursue what I’m interested in, what makes me feel fulfilled, and what allows me to help people. I’m working to become the person that I want to be, not the person others expect or tell me to be. I’m trying to become someone that I would personally look up to.

Through this mindset, I rest assured because I know that, in the end, I will be fulfilled in whatever I do. This empowers me. It keeps me driven to continue working hard each day.

Likewise, don’t be scared to work toward a life of fulfillment and happiness that you define by yourself. It’s going to be difficult, but don’t let that stop you.

Don’t be afraid to change your major to something you would actually enjoy studying. If you decide to finish up your degree, don’t hesitate to do work that you enjoy, even if it doesn’t pertain to your degree. You will have less regret attempting something you enjoy and failing than had you not attempted it at all.

On the other hand, you will greatly regret pursuing something that you don’t enjoy, that you forced yourself to do, that doesn’t make you happy.

Neither your degree nor your major define who you are or what you are capable of doing. Don’t let yourself be restricted by your degree. If you find work that makes you feel fulfilled, pursue it. Find a way to make it your life.

You deserve to do work that you enjoy.

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David Ly Khim
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David Ly Khim

Co-Founder at The UP Lab
David Ly Khim is a blogger, marketer, dancer, and do-er working to help you realize your significance to the world. He is pursuing a profession in digital marketing.
David Ly Khim
Follow me!

Author: David Ly Khim

David Ly Khim is a blogger, marketer, dancer, and do-er working to help you realize your significance to the world. He is pursuing a profession in digital marketing.

39 thoughts on “Your College Degree Does Not Define You: A First-Hand Experience”

  1. I advocate real world learning above all else. After learning things in the real world, get an academic perspective. I somewhat wish I’d worked more in the real world first, perhaps doing a 2 year military tour or doing a start up.

    I chose a very flexible, liberal arts major (Math-econ) which has direct and immediate real world applications. I further supplemented it with two practical minors(statistics and accounting) and learned bits of computer science on my own. I feel I have the ability to do anything. I even opted for a somewhat less lucrative first career out of college because it gave me the most room to grow.

    What many people study is worthless in their lives. The fundamentals of what I do now professionally I could’ve done at age 16 if I were given a 2 week crash course in MS Office, data analysis and doing public presentations. I’ll admit that the sheer depth of my work would not be as profound but the overall picture and the net results would still be similar. 10 years from now I could work in marketing, data science, consulting, finance or even writing.

  2. Pingback: Yes. | Sen's Blog
  3. Person: “What did you major in?”
    Me: “English.”
    Person: “Are you looking for a job in [education, law, etc..]?”
    Me: “I’ve considered it, but no.”
    Person: “Do you plan on going to grad school?”
    Me: “Not really. If I do, definitely not anytime soon.”
    Person: “Do you want to be a writer?”
    Me: “I love to write but don’t want to make a career from it.”
    Person: “So then, what?”

    Different major, same questions–you nailed it! I can’t seem to escape the “what are you going to do with THAT?” post-grad questions but there’s a part of me that loves the mystery on people’s faces and not feeling so transparent and categorized. I’ve found so much fascination and growth in my English courses but its up to me to decide how I will apply what I’ve learned. Thank you for writing this, David!

    1. Thank you Danielle! I’m glad that I was able to put our situation in a manner that resonates with you. I’m sure you would agree. that it has definitely been a frustrating (sometimes annoying) couple of months. I wish you all the best!

  4. Yes, I love this article. It absolutely speaks to me and everything you wrote in this article is what I strive to live by- doing what I love and giving back. My parents are like yours and I do understand that obtaining stability is important, but I want to do more than just “survive.” I want to live and do what I love to do too. Thanks for posting this!

  5. This was posted two years ago and I just read this now, but I heartily agree with everything you said here, David! I’m so glad that I’m not alone, because just like you, I graduated with a degree that I didn’t entirely enjoy (Education & Psychology) and I’m planning to pursue a career in theater or writing.

    I am planning though, to make my degree my as my back-up plan just in case ideal career path won’t fall into place. But wish me luck!

    Thank you for this experience, David. 🙂 I hope everything works out for all of us struggling students out there.

  6. Your article really speaks to me. I done a BA and a postgrad diploma but I don’t plan on working in my field because i’m no longer passionate about i studied. I done internships then i realised it wasn’t something i wanted to pursue. Sometimes it scares me but i would feel more at peace doing something that i truly enjoy. In the end it will be worth it for sure.

    1. Hi Nadege! I’m so glad that you can relate. It’s definitely scary realizing that you are no longer interested in a career path. Like you have to start from scratch. But since the writing of this article, the change I’ve made has been worth it. (: Good luck!
      David

  7. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this. It describes my situation at the moment so perfectly that I feel that I wrote it!

    I have just graduated with a Bachelor degree in Speech Pathology (I realized it wasn’t for me about a year ago, but I decided to finish) and I’m feeling so down about my parents and others around me not understanding me when I tell them that it isn’t what I want to do anymore! I want to pursue my love of cooking, writing and photography instead.

    It’s so nice to know that I’m not alone, and that it’s okay to not use my degree! It’s made me all teary reading it because it is that comforting! Honestly I can’t thank you enough, I’m very glad you decided to pursue what you love!

    1. Thank you for sharing that Rebekah! It really isn’t the easiest situation. I can relate. Everyone around me, including my family, my girlfriend at the time and my closest friends didn’t understand what I was doing. It was hard to stick to it because of the discouragement. In the end, you just have to stick to your decision. You don’t want to end up forcing yourself to do something you have no interest in. It isn’t a waste of money. I feel it’s better to make that change now before we’re old and have a bunch of other responsibilities! We’re still young and figuring things out.

      I hope you’re doing well! (:

      David

      1. Hi David! This article really calms me down and made me feel much more confident about my career change. I studied a degree for three years and I realised its not something for me. I intend to pursue another field that I find fulfilling and purposeful, something that truly speaks to me. I feel that it’s more of a realisation than a decision, really. And if you don’t try, you wouldn’t know either! It’s scary to start from scratch. Could you share how you went from graduating to another field? How was the process and what did you do to put yourself into a different field from your degree. Did you went to school again? Or did you just jumped into the field?

        Thank you!

  8. I was working part-time in an Old Navy as I went to college for funeral services. Good money; respectable career; family business. As I continued through school, my motivation towards it lessened, but my motivation at work grew. I recently graduated, AND was recently offered a promotion at my store, which could quickly grow into something I could live off of and really enjoy the work it entails. I wouldn’t be making nearly as much as I could being a funeral director, but I have this feeling in my gut that I should take the promotion, and fall back on funeral services if it doesn’t work out. My biggest obstacle is bringing this to my family. They can be extremely judgemental and manipulative. I know they’ll be extremely disappointed and probably very pissed. I don’t know what to do or how to approach this.

  9. This post really encouraged me; I felt like the only one. I graduated May of 2015 with a degree in biochemistry. I did exactly what you did. I finished the degree for the sake of finishing. I was worried about wasting money and never graduating so I stuck it out. I have plenty of lab experience and I got my first “real” job in a hospital as a Clinical Lab Assistant. I endured for 6 months before quitting on the 29th, my birthday. I was sick of going home mad everyday. Industry turned out to be too stressful for me. I decided I want to write and volunteer instead.

  10. I’ve been feeling this way for a while, I’m currently finishing up my BFA in Graphic and Web Design with a concentration in Graphic Design, but lately I’ve been feeling unmotivated and uninspired to design anything unless it’s for school. I’m getting to the point where I don’ want to even think of Graphic or Web Design. I’ll be graduating soon, but I’m not sure if I want to do anything in my field anymore. I’m not sure what to do anymore, but I don’t want to disappoint people or get put downed, criticized or judged.

  11. This post is my life. I’m not a chemistry major, but I am not using my degree because I want to pursue other things. It’s tough explaining that to people who don’t understand especially when I need to work a day job that I hate. Thanks for the article, makes me feel reassured that I’m not the only one in this position and that I can do this.

  12. Hi David, really a great article. 😀
    I was in a huge dilemma because I was doing psychology and I felt that I will not do something relevant to my degree in the future. However, I enjoyed the process of learning it, even though most of my course mates have the goals to become psychologists or a psychiatrist. I were not sure what I wanted to do in future, but I am very firm that I wanted to become a writer ( in Chinese) / \ sort of controversial and because I also wanted to improve my Chinese language skills, I decided to take another part-time degree later on 😛
    Thank you so much for sharing. There was an experienced elder told me that as long as you enjoy the process of learning, you can choose to continue. Even though what you do later on might not be related to what you studied. 🙂
    However, I might be not confident with what I choose to do because every time they asked what I wanted to do in the future, I couldn’t give them an exact answer, they made me felt like I was the blur blur girl who did not know where she wanted to go.
    And so your article gave me some strength to continue believe in my choices, and also making mistakes because of my own decision, it is ok.

  13. Thank you very much, David Ly Khim.

    I fully agree on your article because I am in the same situation as yourself. Last month, I attached your article in my first blog, “Where Am I At Now?” Before I started on a blog (recent and past experiences) about my life, reading James Altucher’s book, “Choose Yourself,” then your article made me consider writing a blog.

    Yuh, go with what makes me happy. Thanks again.

  14. Hi David,

    I’m in my 4th year of an MEng in Electronic Engineering and your article cuts deep. It’s also cool to see so many people in the comments section resonating with this. It would be hugely appreciated if I could contact you for some advice as you seem to be a few years ahead of me and have excellent clarity. Thanks regardless for writing this article, but let me know if you don’t mind me reaching out for a little advice. Cheers.

  15. Four years now after this article was posted still making much sense, Feeling much better knowing that there are so many people going through the same situation, Am at my final year, 4th year at the university and after going through attachments/Internship ive noticed i lost intrest with what i study, (Hospitality Management) i have love for research on animals and im intrested in pursuing either Animal science or Veterinary Medicine

  16. Thanks
    I just graduated with a degree in accounting, but I hate accounting. I don’t have the personality to be a modern accountant. You have to be fast-paced, talk with clients, talk ‘business’. My brain doesn’t work that way. Even though I graduated above my class, accounting lingo just doesn’t click with me simply because I have no interest in it. Trying to figure out a different path rather than becoming an accountant. Maybe get an accounting job for the time being to ‘feel’ what it’s like, but I’m not an office person. I’m an artist … it was a wrong move I made on my part, to major in accounting, but I did learn a lot and gained skills I would never had if I majored in the arts.

  17. Thank you so much for this article! I’m going through such a dilemma. I finished a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and didn’t really get the chance to explore that “real world” experience. Everything was books to me. I regret not just finding a job related to my interests. ( I was working part-time in retail during school) Instead, I looked at what seemed to be shown a lot on the job market. Then I thought completely re-routing with an associates degree in Health Information Technology so I can do medical coding, which provided internships and everything. I am now 2 years after graduating with that and still haven’t gotten a job. They want actual work experience (or the networking, I suppose). But I know the main reason why I can’t land that job. It’s because I’m not passionate about it. And that attitude really shows. And I really can no longer fake myself into being into it. The interview always get me stumped because in the end I’m still thinking… why am I doing this? I’m so glad I am not alone with this feeling. I feel like I wasted 7 years of my life. But it’s better than wasting your WHOLE life to self-doubt and always wondering about “what if’s”. To anyone who is still trying to figure out what to do, don’t be afraid to pursue your interests in some way. Because it will always come back to you. Best of luck you guys.

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