​​Rahul Subramaniam, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Athena Education

Rahul is an education coach and a Start-up co-founder devoted to building creative organizations that impact and uplift societies. His primary venture, Athena Education, helps students become the best versions of themselves and receive admission to top universities around the world. Rahul went to high school in Fremont, California. He received perfect SAT scores and got into every Ivy-League college he applied to, finally choosing Princeton over Harvard. At Princeton, he studied Politics with a certificate in Political Economy. Post his graduation, Rahul served as a Director of College Counselling at a prestigious college counseling and test prep company in California.


Let’s face it: if an Indian teenager wants to study the humanities, their extended family will have a lot to say. “But what will you do in life, Beta?” “If you study engineering, you’ll go places. Just look at Didi.” “Trust our experience; we know what’s best for you.” Such reactions are invariably fueled by concerns regarding the prestige and practicality of the humanities. But are they justified?

To be fair, STEM paths do take you to lands with a richer harvest of jobs. But if you’re inherently right-brained, and you love curling up with a book or binging historical documentaries, then spending decades debugging code may not be the wisest idea. And if that nosy uncle of yours persists, you can always politely inform him that Barack Obama majored in political science and Justin Trudeau in English literature.

The humanities are a delightful pursuit anywhere, and immersing oneself in the majesty of our heritage at an Ivy-League or any other reputed institution around the world can be transformative for the mind, heart, and spirit. Countless peers of mine, having investigated the intricacies of Plato and Shakespeare, have graduated to six-figure-dollar salaries. There’s also Sobhit, a former student who pursued Modern Culture at Brown, and is now working at a major Hollywood agency, collaborating with writers, directors, actors—the whole shebang.

But how do we balance these two perspectives? How can we grasp that elusive synthesis of “successful, and fulfilling” in our own lives? 

Perhaps the best first step is the sublime Japanese concept of Ikigai, which loosely translates to “purpose” or “calling”. Specifically, your Ikigai lies at the intersection of four circles:

(1) Aptitude – what you’re good at 

(2) Passion – what you love 

(3) Money – what you can make a living doing 

(4) Society – what the world needs

Everyone must strive to optimize for all four circles. If you can’t, do three. So put your head and heart into listing items in each category, and start looking for overlaps. Who knows, this one exercise may remove much of the haze from your decision-making. It certainly did for me!

Coming back to our discussion regarding the humanities, the reason families are wary is Point 3, the economic angle. So allow me to unravel a whole array of established and often lucrative careers in this space. Take political science, for example. The 2019 US News and World Report lists “political scientist” as one of the 25 best-paying jobs in the US. With a nuanced appreciation of how governments operate within and without, you can provide powerful insights to a political party seeking election or a think tank re-imagining institutional structures. And of course, how can I forget lawyers and public policymakers, who spearhead countless initiatives seeking justice and wealth in both the public and private sectors. And of course, you can pivot to other policy areas, from labor to the environment.

There are other ripe offerings in the basket. You can specialize in development and work with the United Nations or Gates Foundation, or participate in international affairs to diffuse tensions in the world’s most pressing conflict regions. Beyond that, you can join a multinational corporation wishing to expand into new regions, and if you’re familiar with different languages and cultures, you can be extremely useful in facilitating ties between offices across different countries. Moreover, with media and entertainment becoming increasingly democratized, the opportunities for creatives with strong organizational skills abound. Sobhit, the student mentioned above, is a prime example!

Let’s take another subject—psychology—which can lay the foundation for a vocation in psychotherapy, helping others tackle unresolved experiences and emotions and putting their own pieces of the universe in order. There is also a growing demand in workplaces for experts in “industrial/organizational psychology,” who enable companies to optimize their productivity, welfare, and impact.

And wait, let’s not forget that an undergraduate degree isn’t the end. The Creativity + Management combination is deadly, so you can always overlay an MBA on top of a humanities degree, providing you with an even more diverse toolkit with which to envision new products, solve complex problems, and inspire others to unearth their own Ikigais!

Furthermore, the humanities can also be combined with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), which have produced some fantastic developments across fields. For example, literature and computer science (CS) converge in natural-language processing. Psychology and CS? Artificial intelligence! Technology + art = graphic design— ubiquitous on every screen of our phones, tablets, and computers. Fintech, at the cusp of technology and economics, is another blossoming field, as every bitcoin fan will tell you. American universities have a concept of “minors,” so you can mix and match by majoring in philosophy and minoring in math, or something to that effect, which will make your mind a veritable force to be reckoned with! 

OK, I’ve made my point. Essentially, an Ivy-League degree in the humanities, if you approach it correctly, will give a solid bump to both your career and life. I’d recommend that if it appeals to you, go for it! Top US universities are constantly looking for intellectual diversity in their batches, and they’ve seen plenty of students applying for engineering or economics. Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard if literally every single incoming student were googly-eyed about machine learning. So if you have an aptitude and passion for Dostoyevsky or the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, showcase those unique elements in your application, and everywhere for that matter!

Here’s another secret: MIT and Caltech, two hard-core tech schools, require every applicant to provide a humanities recommendation. They understand that technological breakthroughs come through combinations of technology and other disciplines. They clearly love the humanities. And so should you, even if you’re a tech student!

So go forth, young sailors, and explore new seas and lands! But don’t forget to seek your Ikigai! Be idealistic, be practical, take wisdom from every source, and then make your own decisions. Godspeed. 🙂

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