Job security from STEM degrees means putting artistic passions aside

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This is a feature piece from our Fun Issue, The Darkest Timeline. Life has become such a clusterfuck that it’s hard to tell the difference between reality and satire. This is a factual, reported piece that we put up alongside similar satire articles. Have fun reading!

In high school, all of Hitarth Chudgar’s music teachers looked up to him whenever there was a music fest or a choir event. But when he was in Grade 10, his parents asked him to quit music and focus more on the sciences, believing it was “impractical” of him to focus on a field that they thought wouldn’t pay his rent in the future. “Since I grew up in a brown culture, academics were the most important,” Chudgar says. 

In his first year of university, music took a backseat for the rest of his life. The pressure of having a good job became more important than his passion. 

“It feels bad because I worked so much on my passion and eventually it all just faded away,” he says.

Now, music remains a gateway for the second-year computer science student. It’s an escape from academics, his part-time job at H&M in downtown Toronto and everything else that comes along with full-time adulthood. In his second-year, Chudgar is trying to invest more time in his passion by writing or singing songs in his free time. 

Chudgar still tears himself away from the world to make some time for his passion, but he finds it difficult to balance music, work, five courses and living on his own. 

The fear of not being successful in the music industry negatively impacted Chudgar, it did not allow him to take music as a seriously as a profession. He loves to write and sing music, but is scared that not every person who loves music can make it big in the industry. 

“Even if your creative work is not your primary way of earning income, you are still an artist, musician [or] writer”

The social stigma around a career in the arts is just one of the barriers for students like Chudgar, alongside other concerns like financial problems. This is part of the reason why many students major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields instead of following their creative passions. 

A 2018 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences researches the stigma of underemployed and unhappy graduates of the creative fields like humanities. 

The study shows a difference in earnings of varying bachelor degrees post-graduation. For example, those with a bachelor’s degree in engineering had an average earning of around $80,000, whereas those with a bachelor’s degree in arts had an average earning just under $50,000.

When asked about financial satisfaction, 51 per cent of arts graduates admitted they have worried about money in the past seven days. This compares to about 35 per cent of people with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and 40 per cent of people with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences.

David McNeill, a mental health counsellor at Ryerson, says he has talked to many students in the creative fields who feel paralyzed by self-criticism, perfectionism or fear of judgment. “I think artists can sometimes be pressured to abandon their creative pursuits due to financial constraints.  Sometimes the balance we need in our lives is difficult to achieve, or feels very unfair,” he says.

“If I could emphasize one point [to students], it would be to trust yourself. And to let yourself make mistakes, take risks, be imperfect,” he says. “Even if your creative work is not your primary way of earning income, you are still an artist, musician [or] writer.  Everyone’s path is different and valid.”

“I knew I had to go to school and then earn money, that’s how it works”

Students are often worried about the uncertainty and instability that come along with the careers in the creative fields. A 2018 study called Changing Arts and Minds says over 20 per cent of those in the creative sector are being paid at a level which is below the poverty line.  

The likelihood of a mental health problem in the sector is three times that of the general population. The most commonly diagnosed disorders were anxiety, 36 per cent, and depression, 32 per cent, which concludes the survey of health and wellbeing in the creative sector. 

Mathias Sawicki, a third-year civil engineering student, spends his Friday nights playing guitar in a humid room with walls full of posters, not unlike a basement. His band is called Perennial Daydream.

“The venues are a bit of a heap, but it’s our heap for the night to play our music,” says.  

Sawicki is currently doing his co-op at Stantec, a company of designers, engineers, scientists and project managers in Markham. Sawicki says leaving a creative passion to choose a career in STEM is really a “common experience” among his generation.

“Being in the creative fields gives you a number of uncertainties, doubts and unsettlement altogether,” Sawicki says. 

“Often people think their passions do not require a degree to excel in it and treat it as a hobby,” Sawicki says. His parents did not take music seriously until Sawicki sat down with them to explain his “plan.” He had decided that in order to become a musician, he didn’t need to go to school.

“Sucks to say, but I prioritized civil engineering for stability in finance,” he says. “I knew I had to go to school and then earn money, that’s how it works.”

Music is more like Sawicki’s plan B and he plans to make it his full-time job after school.

Ryerson Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) dean Charles Falzon says creative fields tend to attract people who go beyond the traditional models of career paths. 

“Built into these careers is the challenge and insecurities that come along and on the other hand, is the thrill and success of making a difference,” he says.  

Falzon says it’s completely okay to choose careers that are more predictable and stable. During his university years, he was as clueless as any other student about his path and career choices. “Did I want to graduate and earn money? Sure I did,” he says. 

Now the dean of FCAD, Falzon was once scared, uncertain and in doubt about his passion too but he believed in himself.

The 2019 award winner for the best director for Canadian screen awards was a recent Ryerson’s Image Arts graduate, Falzon says. “There are thousands of FCAD graduates who are happily working on middle or entry-level jobs,” he added. 

“I tell [students], it will happen if you continue to work on your dream,” Falzon says. “Ryerson students learn exactly what is needed in the 21st Century.”

Falzon has a big impact on students and his words and experience make students feel certain and clear about the future in the creative fields. He never segregated his passion from work, rather saw both of them as a “holistic” life.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted David McNeill as saying “Artists can often feel pressured to abandon their creative pursuits due to financial constraints, and these feelings lead people to work in fields that are stable and secure and that doesn’t make them question their future.” The quote has been updated. The Eyeopener regrets this error.

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