Even when they’re certain about their field of study, most college students experience trepidation about declaring a major. Dedicating oneself to a specific area of study can seem final and narrow. And—especially for liberal arts and humanities majors—the prospect of the job market is daunting. However, while your degree can certainly inform your career decisions, it doesn’t have to dictate them. In fact, according to a 2013 study by the website CareerBuilder, 31 percent of college-educated Americans 35 and older have never worked in their degree field, while 47 percent of recent graduates said their first job was outside their field. Below is a list of five people whose life trajectories took a markedly different turn after college.
James Turrell is an artist known for his work with light projections. His installations feature tunnels and shapes which appear to be solid objects, but are illusions, actually formed from his manipulation of light and space. Though Turrell is a MacArthur Fellow and enjoys international renown, his educational path would tell a different story: he obtained a pilot’s license at age 16, and in college, he studied math, geology, and astronomy before settling for a Bachelor’s in Psychology.
Octavia E. Butler was the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. As a child, Butler struggled with dyslexia, which made schoolwork difficult. She took solace in reading, gravitating toward science fiction, but was perturbed by the genre’s lack of female protagonists and explorations of race and class. At community college, she received an Associate’s in History. Shortly after, she began writing. Butler achieved great success: she won numerous Best Novel awards, made bestseller lists on The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and even has an asteroid named in her honor.
Before becoming an executive producer, actress, director, activist, businesswoman, and model celebrated as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women, Eva Longoria followed quite a different route. She worked in fast food throughout high school and credits the experience with developing her work ethic. She then earned a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. While her theatrical ambitions soon rendered her degree obsolete, years later, Longoria continued her education further, earning a Master’s in Chicano Studies in 2013. Her Master’s thesis was titled “Success STEMS From Diversity: The Value of Latinas in STEM Careers.”
Today, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel regularly ranks among Forbes lists of wealthiest American residents. Though he is most famous for co-founding PayPal, he has also made forays into hedge funding and big data analysis, and currently heads two grant-making foundations that fund scientific research. Interestingly enough, his credentials lack anything related to business, finance, or economics: his Bachelor’s was in Philosophy, and he later obtained a J.D., practicing law, derivatives trading, and speechwriting prior to venture capitalism.
Indra Nooyi is the former CEO of PepsiCo, and frequently ranks among the world’s 100 most powerful women. Currently, she serves on the board of Amazon. Prior to any of her business-world successes, Nooyi obtained a Bachelor’s in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics.