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#College2Career: Kelly Eagen on Why College Major Isn’t Career Destiny


Choosing a major is invested with a mythic kind of importance, as if it were the first step on the path to inevitable career success or failure. But, if that were the case, every pre-law student student would go on to be a lawyer, and every English major would either write the Great American Novel or go on to live, penniless, in a garret. The actual truth is that while choice of major is important, it’s not the end-all, be-all of career prep during college. PayScale’s College Salary Report offers the information prospective students need to pick the right major, program, and school for their particular goals and needs; stories like this one offer perspective on how to use that information.

Kelly Eagen 

(Photo Credit: Kelly Eagen)

Kelly Eagen, a primary care physician for the San Francisco Department of Health, appears to have done exactly what your mom would like you to do: she became a doctor. But, in fact, her path was a bit more winding than her eventual destination would lead you to believe.

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“When I started college at Duke University, I was enrolled in the School of Engineering anticipating that a BS in biomedical engineering would be my major and a relevant field for someone considering a career in medicine,” Eagen says. “While the subject matter of biomedical engineering was fascinating and relevant, the curriculum was very restrictive and my interests were broader than the heavy graduation requirements of an engineering degree required.”

She graduated with a degree in mathematics for the simple reason that she loved math. The subject had always been her favorite in high school, and at Duke, she found herself adding math courses every semester.

“Pretty soon getting a degree in math was a no-brainer even though I didn’t plan to ‘be a mathematician’ as my sister still teases me,” she says.

Eagen went on to earn her MD at the University of Chicago‘s Pritzker School of Medicine, and do her residency in family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Think About Passion, as Well as Practicality

Of course, earning a math degree isn’t exactly the same thing as majoring in art history or anthropology, but it was still a different approach to a career goal more traditionally achieved through other means. Eagen’s experience underlies an important truth, no matter what your interests or aims: in the end, education is not just vocational training, and learning how to think is just as important as learning facts and ticking off boxes on a future job application.

“Studying math is the study of logic and problem solving,” she says. “Strong problem-solving skills are relevant to most daily activities of living and many professions. While I do not use the geometric proofs or differential equations I learned on a regular basis, I apply problem solving to medical decision making on a daily basis. I also manage all Quality Improvement work at our health center and this involves big picture, systems-level thinking, which I think I am well-suited for because of my mathematical inclinations.”

Eagen feels that majoring in mathematics made her stand out among other applicants when applying to med school, and also notes that it enabled her to take a year off after college to teach high school math in Brazil. She uses that experience today to help her to educate patients and medical students at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches.

It’s About Experiences, Not Just Experience

Even a heavy course load didn’t prevent Eagen from engaging in community-based extracurricular activities.

“I think it is particularly important for physicians – especially future primary care doctors – to stay connected to the community,” she says. “I taught photography to underserved children in an elementary school, volunteered in a free children’s clinic, served as a ‘best buddy’ to a child with leukemia, and also just maintained a social life for myself. It’s possible in the world of medicine to become ‘too scientific’ or too one-sided and if this happens, you can lose touch with your patients.”

In her job with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Eagen works with homeless adults in the Tenderloin.

“My ability to understand and make medical decisions is equally important to my ability to understand and incorporate the influence my patients’ families and communities have on their health and their lives,” she says. “Extracurricular work I participated in during college and medical school fostered my cultural competency, my ability to empathize, and inspired my dedication to care of the underserved.”

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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