Why you shouldn’t let other people decide what you study

I was seventeen years old. Sitting in the sixth form common room after my evening cleaning shift, flicking through a pile of prospectuses. I had the option of going pretty much anywhere I wanted for university, because I’d worked hard and it looked like I was going to do well in my exams.

But that didn’t answer the question of what I actually wanted to do.

I was good at languages and humanities. I wanted to do something useful with my life. I wasn’t sure what form that would take yet, but I was thinking about being a teacher (teachers being the most useful people I’d met).

Psychology looked interesting. Maybe Psychology and Spanish? Or Sociology and German? Ooo, a study abroad scheme. I could do a year in France, perhaps.

The possibilities seemed endless, and while this was a good thing, it was also daunting.

Then I stumbled across Criminology, which seemed really interesting from the description.

Crime novels were (and still are) some of my favourite things to read. We didn’t have a TV, but if we had, I’d have been watching crime shows too. In Psychology class, my interest was piqued during the term on Abnormal Psychology, particularly when we discussed the psychology of criminals.

And there was a uni doing Psychology and Criminology. Maybe I could include a language option alongside that, I thought. (I hadn’t yet learned how to chill the fuck out and not take too much on.)

Then we started having all these people in to talk about what we should study at uni. They made speeches from the stage in the Drama hall, telling impressionable and largely lost 17-18-year-olds what we should be doing with the next few years of our lives.

And it’s not like they were wrong, exactly.

It’s just that… well, only you are you.

Criminology was shat on by a lot of them. It’s unscientific, it’s like the poorer brother of psychology, it’s not in-depth enough, you might as well just be doing sociology… and on and on and on.

So I switched my mind away from Criminology pretty early on. I ended up studying Psychology and Philosophy, which wasn’t a bad choice either (although I did choose the wrong university, but more on that in a future post).

I ended up working in advertising for a while, which I rant about in-depth sometimes, so I won’t here. But one of the reasons for that was that it’s hard to work out what to do with a Psych&Phil degree. I knew I didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist. I’d love to become a philosopher, I thought, but sadly that’s not really a viable career option these days.

I don’t know if things would have been different if I’d studied Criminology; if I could have bypassed my years of working my way up in an advertising corporation, hating myself more with each passing day.

I don’t know if I’d have discovered during the first part of my degree that there’s a fascinating field studying criminals online, and catching the bad guys who lurk in the darker parts of the web.

And I don’t regret what I did do with my life, as such; it taught me lots of lessons, for which I am grateful.

But just occasionally there’s this little voice in my head:

“What if you hadn’t listened?”

What if you’d done what you wanted, even if your careers advisers didn’t think it was a good idea; even if your dad threatened to disown you if you did an arts degree instead of following in his footsteps with an MBA?

If you’re trying to work out what you want to do at university, or with your life in general, at the moment, there is one single piece of advice I’d give you.

Work out what you want to do.

I’ll say it again, properly emphasised:

Work out what you want to do.

Because ultimately, in twenty years’ time when you’re looking back on your life, you know who won’t have been having to live through it? Your careers adviser. Your teacher. Your dad.

You know who will have had to live through it, though? Regrets, happy bits and all?


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