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Hi Alma,

I'm majoring in STEM in CC, and I love the arts. In fact, I spend all my time in the arts outside of classes. I want to go into the arts for a career (I think) but I'm hideously petrified of being underqualified for jobs or other opportunities. I haven't switched my major because I really do love what I'm studying, but I'm not sure if I want to carry it into a career. I'm not 100% cemented into my arts community, but am trying my best to get there. People know me, and I know them, but do they really consider me "one of them"? Is that even what I should be looking for? How will I sell myself to employers if I'm not at the top of my artistic game now? Am I doing the right thing?

Starving STEM Artist

Dear Starving STEM Artist,

I think the healthy dose of skepticism that I’d call our “school spirit” has had small, surprising benefits: specifically, my lack of faith in the concept of being over/under/just rightly qualified. There is nothing in the world that could make me believe the job market operates on any measurable metric like that. The anxiety the concept gives us is very real, but I imagine you would still have it even if you felt your major and career plans lined up more neatly.

About the arts community—that is an environment comprised entirely of individuals who are doing more or less what you are: fumbling around the terrifying yet exhilarating prospect of being an artist in New York. Frankly, I am skeptical that anyone our age (assuming you are also in your early twenties) who is genuinely cemented in the arts community is there for any reason other than who they know. And if not for who they know, then for their ability to hand roll cigarettes while their black nail polish is still wet. I’d go as far as to say that the question of belonging in an “arts community” is a mirage at best—something not quite concrete yet perpetually on the horizon, moving farther away every time you think you’ve approached it. So yes, it is possible that there are people there who might question if you belong, but I guarantee that they are too busy dissecting their own position to be much bothered by yours.

Concerns over employment and belonging are MVPs of the anxiety game, and I think that has to do with the social nature of both. Worrying that you are an unemployable misfit depends on positive assumptions about those around you: that they are more qualified, more legitimate, more acceptable, and because of that, not anxious. Dispense of that assumption!

Redistribute the wealth of anxiety that you believe yourself to be the sole owner of, and in return, give yourself the benefit of the doubt which you reserve for other people. Resisting the desire to adopt a me vs. them mentality (a classically anxious mindset) will help too. There is no arts community, only individuals trying to prove themselves to a panel of judges that doesn’t actually exist. There is also no united applicant pool that puts your resume to shame; just a bunch of anxious unemployed people shooting their own resumes into the ether and hoping for the best. The cruelest thing about anxiety is that we only really feel our own, and its conspiratorial nature coerces us into believing that we are surrounded by people who thrive while we suffer.

To be honest, if we had met in a context outside of you writing to me, I probably would have been a little jealous of your situation. My addiction to feeling bad about myself would have made you an enviable subject, caught between passions, pursuing both at the same time with confidence and intention. Hell, I still think you are in an enviable situation. Your mind is clearly delighted both by STEM and the arts, which is a truly rare and wonderful gift. Personally, my cortisol level spikes whenever I see numbers, and I can count on one hand the number of “problem sets” I have completed during my time here. As graduation looms on the horizon, I find myself in the inverse of your situation: wondering if my fear of math and science has limited my education and career prospects.

I think that wondering if you did it all wrong is an essential part of attending this school,; the years we spend here are so steeped in expectation, and we are so suffocated by seemingly endless opportunity, that the question is inevitable. However, as you leave Columbia, where the STEM/humanities divide is at its mightiest, I am confident you will find a world that has less interest in keeping those arenas strictly separate. Even if you fully integrate yourself into the artistic community (read: artistic group of insecure individuals), I believe your interests, which have been until now split into two distinct camps, will merge into a supernova of undivided creative potential. You could say this is the richest petri dish (to put it into STEM terms) from which unimaginable opportunities may spring forth.

The very lack of a predetermined path in how to merge your interests professionally is as terrifying as it is crucial. This uncertainty is inherent in any artistic pursuit; it is the oil in the art world’s highly volatile engine. Making art ceases to be exciting unless there’s a real chance it will be considered shockingly terrible or worse, unremarkable. The possibility of this very column reaching deaf or unkind ears keeps me on my toes. Yet I write. Yet you make art.

So, from one terrified person to another, I urge you to sally forth into the void. Carry all your love and passion there with you. Isn’t there something indescribably thrilling about the thought of it, which rivals even how scary it is? If any part of you answers yes, I dare you to go for it. You’d be surprised by how much you will share with the people you’ll encounter there: a shared fear, if nothing else. I, too, am trying to pluck up the courage to make that fateful leap. Perhaps I will spend years feeling bitter and lost, but the lingering exhilaration that lurks beneath it all tells me it may just be worth it. If you agree, I’ll see you in the void. I imagine it is a place not unlike the front of Avery, where hand-rolled cigarettes and black nail polish abound.

Sincerely yours,

Alma

Ask Alma is the advice column of the Columbia Daily Spectator. All questions are answered by Alma. To respond to this piece please email opinion@columbiaspectator.com. Have a question of your own for Alma? Fill out this form.

Alma Mater advice column STEM career anxiety imposter syndrome
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