All my friends seem to have a theme. They build their Yale careers around sexy topics like public health, economic development or the environment. One friend has wanted to be a pediatric oncologist since age 7; another fell in love with paleontology after a middle school class trip. When they search for summer internships or contemplate careers after Yale, they know exactly where they are going — be it an African NGO or medical school.
But I have no theme.
I can’t help but feel left out. I still haven’t found that thematic North Star to guide my life. When I told my friends this, they scoffed: Wasn’t my theme conservative politics? Yes, to some extent. But my public persona at Yale reflects my beliefs, not necessarily my life plan. I have academic passions and values I hold dear. But those do not make a road map for the future.
As I contemplate my options for this summer, I find myself at a loss, despite possessing limitless possibilities. This freedom frustrates me. How do I begin looking when I don’t know where to start? To some extent, having too many options can be paralyzing. I would think some seniors searching for jobs could commiserate.
It seems that everyone expects me to have a theme. At every family gathering, the question inevitably arises: “So, what do you study?” And I try to mumble something. Sometimes, I take the subject of a seminar and make it my focus du jour. Other times, I play up my major. Regardless, I can’t escape the sensation of not knowing what specialized topic defines me.
The problem originates with the liberal arts education, a concept I swallowed hook, line and sinker — and one I still believe in. Unfortunately, cross-disciplinary, broad-based learning does not lend itself to a focused theme like global women’s rights. The Western canon teaches us how to live the good life. But it also does a shoddy job of directing us toward the ideal summer internship or career.
One professor I asked for advice told me not to worry. Students who specialize in one topic do so to avoid life’s difficult question: Who do you want to be? They pick the easy way out by following the trends of the moment. Down the road, they realize they dislike their chosen themes.
He might be correct — in fact, I can think of some cases where I know he is. On the other hand, many of my friends exude genuine passion for their chosen field of study. Even if they are faking it, I still have no idea what to do, even just for a summer.
When I talked to another mentor about my summer dilemma, he turned my question back on me: “If you could have an ideal three months, what would it entail?” Unfortunately, if I could answer that question, I never would have walked into his office.
We can heap some blame on society. A world of themes encourages everyone to have one. When a business looks at two otherwise equal resumes, it chooses the applicant who specializes in the industry. The themeless lose out, and doors begin to close. Your options do not look as limitless as you originally thought.
Against this backdrop, I can see why so many Yalies go into banking, consulting or Teach for America for a summer or after graduation. These employers require no theme; they sometimes even admire a liberal arts education.
I would love to end this column with a tidbit of advice for like peers struggling to find internships or jobs at this very moment. But I still cannot answer the question for myself. I don’t know if I will have answered it six months or five years from now. I am not sure I ever will. But that doesn’t make the question any less important.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.