top of page
Wladislaw Sokolowskij/Unsplash

This story features Beeline Reader for enhanced readability. Click to turn the feature on or off. Learn more about this technology here.

Opinion: On (seemingly) “Useless” Subjects

Do we want to be “salted fish”?

Growing up in Hong Kong, it is not uncommon to hear comments on how we should pursue, academically, subjects that could have high job prospects or earning power.

I recall a couple of years ago, after the release of public examination results, online comments began to emerge regarding one of the top-scoring students’ major selection as he entered university:

“Such a waste of his scores — he scored the highest in the Hong Kong public examination but

he decided to study Chinese literature?!?”

To put this in context, the majority of the highest scorers over the course of history have commonly picked medicine, dentistry, law, business as their majors in Hong Kong universities,* and certain major choices such as ones in arts and sciences tend to have lower admission requirements.† While definitely an over-generalization, the mindset that certain subjects do not render the students competitive in job markets seems to pervade the city, and have influenced the decisions of many in choosing what they study in college.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue my bachelor’s degree abroad. Yet even in the United States, I have encountered multiple situations where a friend’s parent would ask me “Why environmental engineering? Isn’t computer science easier to get a job?”

While we should consider the practicality of our major choice for our future career, I would argue that it is equally, if not more, important for us to think about what interests us, what motivates us, and what we care about. We learn the most when what we study aligns with what we want to know deep inside. We typically only go through college once, but we can change careers multiple times.

Courtesy of Chun-Man Chow

College is a journey, a journey to explore, try different things, and find our passion. Every experience in the journey, sweet or bitter, forms an inseparable part of us, and it is exactly through this process of searching, we learn more about ourselves — what we like, what we don’t like — we find ourselves. That is the beauty of college education — it allows us to truly explore and learn more about ourselves, to develop our own talents, and to find something worth fighting for. In the tumultuous times today, with climate change, inequality, social injustice together with many other problems that currently plague our world, we need scholars across different fields to work together to tackle them. There is value in everything we learn, whether it is in the knowledge itself, or in the method of inquiry, or critical thinking, or the ability to commit to a certain viewpoint motivated by evidence. Those seemingly useless subjects all help us develop transferable skills that guide us through life and our career. By focusing just on getting jobs but not what satisfies our intellectual curiosity or our thirst for truth, we often missed the chance to explore life options that might be more fitting to us.

Whenever I hear the phrase “XX cannot feed you” (「XX 不能當飯食」), a poem comes into my mind. This poem by Langston Hughes has stuck with me from a “useless” literature class:

Hold fast to dreams  For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.

To young aspiring students out there: Don’t let others dictate what you should study. Pursue what you want to learn more about, what keeps you excited and motivated, and what resonates with your heart. We all have the choice to decide whether we want to become a “salted fish” (鹹魚).

Jakub Kapusnak/Unsplash


*Actual statistics inferred from the writer’s experience and samples from the last decade:

湯圓.(2017, July 14) 升學表表姐 — — 狀元的選擇. 頭條日報. Retrieved from

† International Undergraduate Admissions, University of Hong Kong. Admissions Scores of HKDSE Applicants Admitted in 2017. Retrieved from


Support Student-Led Science News

The only student-run newsroom focused on science and society. Our in-depth, data-driven approach, mentorship for early-career storytellers, and multicultural content take time and proactive planning, which is why The Xylom depends on reader support. Your gifts keep our unbiased, nonprofit news site free.

Chun-Man Chow

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Dan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and Environmental Engineering Science. He then completed his M.Phil. in Advanced Chemical Engineering at Cambridge as one of fifteen 2016 Churchill scholars and is now a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dan works at the intersection between chemical and environmental engineering and is developing novel electrochemical systems for water treatment and environmental remediation.

bottom of page