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What’s Next?

Answering the Question We Hate

By Ian Ybarra

Features Columnist

What’s your major? (This one’s not a problem.)

So what are you gonna do with that? (Ah, there it is.)

I wish we could stomach it as a necessary evil of graduating, but we’d be lying to ourselves. Truthfully, we’ve been dealing with these question for four years. However, there are two differences now: one, the exchange is initiated with a smile and a “Congratulations!” (not so bad) and two, the question we hate is now laced with more urgency, prejudice, and I-told-you-so’s than ever before (not so good).

Our gators -- short for interrogators, of course -- come from all sorts of swamps and walks of life. They taunt us with threats about the “real world” and incessantly ask what we’re gonna do with these degrees of ours.

Gators talk like the purpose of higher education is to spend four years crafting a physical key to unlock some magic box full of money and security (as if that’s what they did). Wrong. We came to college to learn about ourselves and others, to debate ideas of old and new, and to draw inspiration from the art and science of it all. In the process, we strengthened ourselves for the future, when we will have to constantly reinvent ourselves and create things to fulfill our desires and improve the lives of others.

Gators imply that the majors we chose as freshmen define our work forever. They say it like we don’t have choice, but we chose to attend MIT rather than a trade school for exactly that reason -- choice.

Still, gators frown and advise us to “be realistic.” How’s that for hypocrisy? For so long they’ve labeled us the “best and brightest,” who could do anything we put our minds to. Shouldn’t we be the most unrealistic dreamers of all? If we don’t dream up the really cool stuff and make it happen, who will?

Unfortunately, however ridiculous the question, we must answer. What’s my major? Materials Science and Engineering. What am I gonna do with that? I’m tempted to say, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” or “I’m going to become a clown. You know, polymers have done wondrous things for clown shoes, make-up, and tricycle horns.” But I usually play it straight. I say I want to be an author and speaker when I grow up. What about? Among other things, helping young people gain confidence enough to truthfully answer punk questions like these.

Now, if you’re like me and your career plans don’t match your majors in a way that your gators are used to, how do you get them off your back? Tell them about your friends who did things completely unrelated to their majors, or take your pick of executives or politicians who studied art history as undergrads.

Or tell them about Mitch Tyson ’75, who became former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas’s science adviser, CEO of PRI Automation, and most recently, chairman of AmberWave Systems. To top it off, he really is one of the “nicest guys you’ll ever meet.” Swell, but there were points when even Tyson was vulnerable to gators.

After one and one-half years as an undergraduate physics major, Tyson decided he didn’t want to be a physicist (uh, oh). Then he set a new goal of impacting science and public policy. After earning his S.B. in Physics, he earned S.M. degrees in Nuclear Engineering and Political Science on his way to work for Tsongas.

Years later, he made another switch that gators wouldn’t like. He ventured into the private sector. Tyson said he made the difficult transition by emphasizing his skills that were transferable and hoping someone would say, “He’s a smart kid. He’ll pick it up.” Transferable skills and intelligence. The formula may sound simple, but it’s one that we, too, can use to land the jobs we really want. That is, if we have the guts.

Perhaps your fear of gators has caused you to say that, for now, you’ll take a safety job and then, in a few years, you’ll do what you really want to do. Tyson’s thoughts: “You’d be surprised by how many people start in jobs they hate and stay in jobs they hate.”

Please, don’t let your desire to appease the gators cause you to upset yourself. We’ve dealt with them for years. Their teeth just look a bit sharper this time around.

And remember, when you’re talking to an undergraduate in the future, don’t ask the gators’ favorite question. Instead, ask “What do you want to do with that brilliant mind of yours?” Better yet, don’t ask anything. Offer something. Offer her a job. Wouldn’t that be an awesome graduation gift! Worst-case scenario: she’ll turn you down. Then you will have given her the gift of confidence -- something she could use to fend off the real gators.

Ian Ybarra is a member of the class of 2004 and may be reached at ianybarra@alum.mit.edu.