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I am someone who has wide-ranging interests, and these interests are not terribly interdisciplinary. (Say someone is interested in Physics and History. Or perhaps, Economics and English. Or, Civil Engineering and Music Composition. You get the picture.)

The fields I am interested in do not inherently intersect. They can be fused, however I don't think this interests me, because it would result in a "perversion" of each respective field, for lack of a better word. It seems forced...and would probably ruin my interest in both fields.

It's not that I "like" one field more than another; both fields are interesting to me and I cannot calculate which one is more interesting. The fact is, they are very different, and I like each one for different reasons.

I want to go to grad school, because I enjoy learning, reading, writing, etc. and I am interested in a career in academia. But I am trepidatious about immediately going into grad school because I basically believe, "Whichever field I end up choosing is the field I will be destined to spend the rest of my life (or at least many years) exclusively studying. I really don't want to mess this decision up."

How can someone in my situation decide which interest to pursue in graduate school?

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    The question itself is to chatty. Summarize before you post. For your answer, it is obvious; each one has their own interests and limits, it is for you to discover and reach. Anyway, this question is primarily opinion based and has to be closed; I'm flagging this. – Ébe Isaac Sep 22 '15 at 6:42
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    I understand you cannot calculate which one you like more. Do you have an idea which one is easier to get a job later? – scaaahu Sep 22 '15 at 6:51
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    Voting to close this question as too broad, as there are too many questions in there. Moreover, most of the individual questions are not well fit for our format as they are too broad in themselves, polls or nothing we can answer without exactly knowing your personal values. A question that you may ask here is something along the lines of: “What aspects can one consider when choosing if one is equally interested in both subjects?” (By the way: Stack Exchange is not a forum.) – Wrzlprmft Sep 22 '15 at 7:50
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    @Kyle if you see open questions that are totally subjective, please just flag or vote to close them. Just because we've got one or two broken windows doesn't mean we want people to break more windows. We want people to fix the broken windows. – EnergyNumbers Sep 22 '15 at 8:55
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    Why do you need an MSc program to learn, read and write? Cannot just go to eg library? – Greg Sep 22 '15 at 11:18
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If you like two subjects equally, pick the better paid one for your actual career. That one should be the basis for most of your formal, documented education.

You can still treat the less well paid one as your hobby, and go for informal education in it.

Taking your first example, Physics and History, I would make Physics the subject for formal education such as a master's degree. Go on reading about history, join a historical recreation society, take on-line courses in history, blog about history as your hobby.

  • +1, cannot think of better advice for students in general. Following your passion is fine, but if you're going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for it, you should plan for financial success too! – John Doucette Sep 22 '15 at 17:27
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Let me briefly analyze the situation, based on your description. On one hand, it sounds like you want to go to a graduate school, because you "enjoy learning, reading, writing". Since you mention a desire and slight probability of a Ph.D. route in the future, I'm not sure, if I would go as far as @EnergyNumbers and conclude that "you're studying for pleasure". It appears like, you're very undecided about the best direction you should take. Having said that, while you mention professional academic career as desirable, your phrase "I don't enjoy much else" sounds quite alarming to me. Perhaps, I misunderstood you, but my take on this phrase (with a combination with the first one) is that you would love to learn, but not do work. So, based on this assumption, it appears that EnergyNumbers' conclusion (learning for pleasure) might not be too far from the truth.

On the other hand, considering the learning for pleasure assumption and your undecided state, enrolling in a graduate school seems like a rather poor idea to me (cost, stress, need to focus, deadlines, length of study, etc.). There are much more optimal options for someone like you, who enjoys learning, but wants to figure out what discipline/area/topic is the best fit. Such options include enrolling in several MOOCs, based on your interests, or taking some non-degree individual classes at a college/university of your choice (on/off campus). This approach would allow you to validate your assumptions or clear fuzziness in regard to what discipline/area/topic to choose or, in general, whether to consider going the academia route or choose another direction (i.e., industry).

8

The world is full of interesting things, and you cannot study them all deeply. Even if your interest were all in an apparently focused area, like physics, you would soon find that it is full of interesting sub-areas, and that you cannot effectively simultaneously focus on, say, superconducting qubits and entangled photon imaging.

This leaves two basic options:

  1. Celebrate that you have more than one good choice, and choose one to focus on.
  2. Choose a career path that doesn't require you to focus---i.e., don't get a Ph.D.
5

This answer will be based on U.S. colleges and universities (while other systems may specialize at different points, often earlier).

One theme you'll notice in the answers here is which profession you would like to pursue afterwards. This is a key difference between undergraduate studies in the U.S. and graduate studies. Undergraduate education is often broad and flexible, aimed at developing educated and well-rounded citizens rather than preparation for a specific profession. However, almost all graduate programs are intended to be pre-professional. Depending on the program, sometimes it's preparation for a type of job in business or government (lawyer, dentist, social worker, statistician, software engineer, etc.), and sometimes it's preparation for a specialized career as a professor or researcher. Not everyone ends up with this career - for example, there's a notorious shortage of professor openings relative to students who hope to become professors - and some graduate programs provide preparation for a much wider range of careers than others do. But the strong assumption is that you are aiming for a career that will make use of this education. Students who don't have relevant career plans are often looked down on a little, on the grounds that they are just killing time while trying to figure out what to do with their lives ("perpetual students"), and in the meantime taking up space in graduate school that could go to someone who really needs this education for their future. This is a radically different perspective from undergraduate, where nobody assumes that a philosophy major necessarily intends to become a professional philosopher.

So the conventional approach is to decide what you would like to do with your life, and then choose the graduate education you need for that goal (if any). But if you have the time and money to study with no particular goal in mind, then you can do whatever makes you happy.

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As you're studying a Masters for pleasure, pick the subject that would be more pleasurable for you to study.

Your case is very unusual, so other people's experience in how they selected their masters wouldn't be much use. Many people take a Masters to advance their career, or to switch profession / industry. And for them, the answer would be different.

But in your case, you're studying for pleasure. So it's much simpler. Pick the course that would be more pleasurable to do.

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    I wouldn't say it's "very unusual" for people to not know what they want to specialise in. – Nit Sep 22 '15 at 14:10
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+1 to Patricia's answer.

One alternative possible decision rule: which of your interests is easier to pursue in your spare time, without additional formal training?

In my personal case, I was interested both in mathematics and in languages/linguistics, but languages (and, to a degree, linguistics) are easier to do "on the side" than math, where you really need to invest significant time and effort to get anywhere. So I studied math and took language/linguistics courses on the side.

  • While Patricia's and your advice are indeed valid and make total sense, we need to consider (see my answer) that it is very likely that the OP does not seriously want to pursue any of those interests professionally. In that case, it really does not matter how to proceed, since all interests remain as such (interests as hobbies) and, thus, can be pursued at the OP's convenience. – Aleksandr Blekh Sep 22 '15 at 13:36
  • Another way of thinking of both our answers is to compare life as a physicist with history as a hobby to life as a historian with physics as hobby. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 22 '15 at 13:42
  • @PatriciaShanahan: I understood both answers, which imply choosing one direction as a profession. IMHO you're missing my point: I got an impression that the OP has no intention to make any of the interests a profession. – Aleksandr Blekh Sep 22 '15 at 18:03
1

I am in a similar situation to yourself, but will try to answer this without opinionated bias. I'm also not going to focus specifically on graduate school, rather keep the answer generalized to college programs.

When it comes to higher education, the biggest factors to realistically consider include: cost, marketability, and the ability of the student to succeed in both the program and a career once they have finished. So unless a student is already wealthy from some outside factor, then they need to make a decision that will allow them to make the most out of any given program's time and monetary cost. This is done by estimating one's ability to be marketable enough to earn a profit after exiting the program and one's capability to both complete the program and succeed in a the career options for which each program prepares the student.

The first task should be fairly easily accomplished by most adults who are looking to further their education. There is plenty of information available about median incomes for various jobs and what the ideal education level is for them. If the time and cost required for a program do not justify what will be spent to complete it for whatever the student's needs are, then it likely is not a viable choice for them.

The second task is a bit more difficult. There is research being done daily that discusses the marketability of various degree programs, but it is hardly set in stone and is often skewed by regions or locations (ie, Silicon Valley for tech based jobs). This is where a particular student would need to heavily tailor their decision based on their own experiences. They need to first decide if they are set on living in an certain area. That will drastically change their ability to be marketable for many degree programs. As income levels for industries vary by location, then that would likely be the next issue. A particular job might constantly be in demand, but it might not have a particularly good income level in the region where the student wishes to spend their life. Teaching is a good example here as it is often in demand, but what they make can vary greatly by where they work (ie, teachers in Alaska make significantly more money than most of the rest of the US, because not many people want to live there).

Finally, the truly hard part begins. After assessing the complete financial situation, would be the student's own ability to find and do something with which they are comfortable. This can offset some of the money parts, but not all of it, which is why I put it last. After a student has narrowed down their interests by their ability to provide for themselves and/or their families, then comes the time to narrow down any further decisions based on what is it that they can and are willing to do for hours and hours every week for the foreseeable future. If the student is someone with wildly varying interests, then the best career path would be one with options, versus one where there is a mostly clear path of what they will be doing throughout their day. For example, Computer Science offers a dizzying array of possible titles and positions for each degree level completed, while Archaeology is a significantly more limited field. Each student will differ at this point in the process and must be treated differently to determine how to quantify their personality fit and possible fulfillment level of the programs that they are deciding between, but ideally it will rarely come this far as the previous stages are more generic and easier to handle, as well as being topics that are often overlooked.

To the OP, my recommendation is to consider the first two tasks of my answer and try to narrow down the fields based on facts and choices that you may have already made in life before trying to handle the personal choice of enjoyment. It may be that by preferring warmer climates or having already started a family, one option stands out more sharply as a prospective career. If you manage to make it all the way to the last point again, then take the time to sit down with everyone who would be concerned with your available choices, and start working through the pros, cons, impacts, etc. If possible, do this at the office of a counselor, whose job it is to help with these sorts of decisions. Good luck.

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