4 Ways to save yourself from a soul-sucking college experience

By the start of the second semester of my masters degree in bassoon performance, I knew I didn’t want to be an orchestral musician.  I was lost.  Everyone was (seemingly) passionately pursuing their degree, determined to land that coveted orchestral position.  The pursuit of perfection and mastery on the bassoon drove me, but without the goal of attaining a job in an orchestra there wasn’t a clear path to a sustainable career.   The realization that my degree path might not be the key to my career success took me to dark places, quickly draining my passion for the work.  The soul-sucking, 21st century, college experience left one thing clear: The next steps in my college education would be on me.

If the 21st century college experience is not what you expected, you’re not alone. Many of you are questioning your degree path, the amount of debt you’re taking on, your institution, and your decision to attend college in the first place.  This is not your fault. Universities are going through an identity crisis, trying to preserve their great traditions, while attempting to better equip you for work after graduation.

I struggled most with the mono-dimensional focus of my degree.  Like many professional degrees that can’t be automated (education, medicine, the arts) if your desired path is an orchestral job, mono-dimensional focus is essential.  Historically, this type of focus was enough to catapult you into a sustainable career. Today, this same focus without real world context, makes it difficult to be passionate about your degree path.

Lack of context may be the reason many of you feel so lost.   Pre-internet, universities provided you with foundational knowledge for instant recall when specific information was needed.  Your degree is probably still rooted in the idea that content is delivered in a very siloed, non-connected way, while the rest of the 21st century world is rooted in synthesis and contextualization.  No longer do you need to memorize facts and figures, that’s what the internet is for. Instead, universities should be teaching you to effectively connect the abundance of information at your fingertips and provide context at a moments notice.  With this in mind, I’d like to offer you 4 ways to save yourself from a soul-sucking college experience:

  1. Explore why you feel this way:  It’s totally normal to feel like you’re not on the right degree path.  Take steps now to figure out why.  Here are a few suggestions:
    • Self-exploration, rooted in passion, is key.  Ask yourself what you’re passionate about.  If it’s not your current degree path, ask yourself why.  I laid out a nice path for self-exploration in this post under the passion bullet.
    • Check out your campus career development center for advice.
    • Check out places like The Muse for inspiration.  
  2. Put all options on the table: It’s always ok to course correct if a dramatic change will stop the soul-sucking:
    • Change your major. It’s ok!  If self-exploration helps you understand that your passions lead you to a different degree path, make the change now.  Better to spend an extra year on your education now than starting all over in six years.
    • Go to a different school.  It’s ok! Sometimes the soul-sucking has nothing to do with your degree path.  During your self-exploration make sure you take into account your school environment.  
  3. Explore opportunities outside your degree:  For many of you, your degree doesn’t allow curricular space to explore the things you might be interested in pursuing.  Co-curricular or extra-curricular activities can go a long way to round out your college experience. If you love your career path but determine that the soul-sucking is coming from the classes you take, engage with the world around you in the following ways:
    • Take a class or join a club across campus, in a completely different degree field. I like net impact.  
    • Study abroad
    • Look for arts venues in the community or on campus and volunteer to roll up your sleeves and help the organization. 
    • Give back to your community— Join pre-existing service organizations can help contextualize your degree work.
    • Start your own campus organization.
  4. Be Smart, Creative, and Passionate: If you’re not certain the degree you’re pursuing is right for you, don’t worry, most of the time your degree path is not as important as the skills you bring to the table in an employer’s eyes.  Your future employer is less interested in your knowledge of a specific content area and more interested in your ability to combine your knowledge with your passions, and then channel both to creatively solve the problems placed before you. Here are some places to explore:

Eventually, I escaped my own soul-sucking experience. In the darkest months of my 22nd year, I took control. Through self-exploration I realized that my strengths were in the relationships I had built with the talented people around me.  As a first step on a new path, I organized and performed in a chamber music concert that involved over 40 of my friends.  By all accounts the extra-curricular performance was a success. The organization of that performance was a small step away from a career in orchestral playing, and I loved it.  I don’t like to let one event define my career trajectory, but many things began to fall into place after that performance.  I once again found meaning in my playing and, for the first time in months, felt that there was a path for me.  I finished my degree and began to organize musicians in pursuit of my first organization, The Envision Chamber Consort. (apologies for pictures missing from the site.) 

In closing, know this: Regardless of what you hear from your professors, parents or friends, there are many different ways to carve out a living for yourself.  Have an open mind and embrace the skills of the 21st century workforce now, even if your degree path isn’t helping you build those skills.  What soul-sucking experiences have you had and how did you address the situation?  I’d love your thoughts below.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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