“WHAT are you majoring in?”
“My mum wanted me to. She thinks it will give me better opportunities for employment.”
I have had countless such conversations with students in all sorts of schools and universities. In schools it is about what you will be studying at university level; at college level, the question is about what the students are studying; and post-university it is about what they had studied and why.
A common theme across a lot of these conversations is that students, by and large, do not know how to frame and contextualise their thinking about major choices including career. They do not know how their subject selection is related to what they might want to study later or to what they might want to do in life.
They usually don’t have access to people who could help them think about these issues in a more informed way. So, by default, the fallback is on what is available and/or advice from the people around them. The catch is these people might also not be well informed or have specific reasons for suggesting a particular course of action which may or may not be the optimal course for the child.
It is important for students to study subjects that match their interest and aptitude.
Over the 25-odd years that I have taught I have met many young people who say a) they are studying a subject because their parents asked them to, b) they did not know what to do, so just chose randomly or on the basis of where they could get admission, c) they had to choose a major because they did not take the right subjects in high school, and d) they chose a subject because they were told they would have good job prospects if they studied it.
I have also met many young people who, after choosing their major, have said to me a) they made the wrong choice, b) they did not know what they would have preferred and when they found out, it was too late to switch, c) they wish they had known more before they had to make a choice, and d) they wished they had access to more information and an academic counsellor or guide who could have helped them choose better.
It is true that we are not living in times when children growing up only knew that they had to be doctors or engineers to have good lives. Now there are many other careers they think of. Careers related to or based on knowledge of management, accounting, computer science and economics are also popular. But the information asymmetry still seems large.
The link between undergraduate education and a career is not clear to many (for most subjects, there is not a strong connection). The diversity of careers possible even in one field or area is also not clear to most students. When you choose to go into medicine, being a doctor is not the only choice. From nursing and paramedical work to pharmacy and many in-between and around these, there are several options.
Similarly, if you decide to enter education, teaching is not the only option. From school management to management of learning, curriculum, assessments, there are many options.
Another facet of the information asymmetry is related to assumptions on returns. Does management offer better career prospects than economics, computer science, history or sociology? More importantly, should current employment trends guide subject choices for young people who will enter the market four to five years later? Careers and job markets are becoming more fluid by the day.
The skills needed by workplaces now are often less related to what you have learnt in the past but more to a) the ability to learn new things, b) basic skills of communication, reading/writing, computer literacy and adaptability, and c) openness to change.
Thinking that a management degree at the undergraduate level will prepare you better for a job than a philosophy degree isn’t necessarily the case. Sound training in philosophy that allows you to learn how to learn, to think well, read and write well, and to apply critical thinking skills might make you a much more skilled person than an education in management which does not develop these skills in you.
And then there are issues of interest and aptitude. I meet many students who say that they wanted to study subject X but their parents or other considerations forced them to study subject Y.
Usually students are forced to take subjects that are perceived to have better job prospects or are more ‘marketable’ than humanities and the social sciences. If a child is not interested in a subject, it will be very hard for him or her to do well in the subject. Or to excel in it. The performance of such children will be poorer; they will have less motivation and some might even fail and drop out. If they take a subject they like, they are more likely to do better in it academically as well.
But, even if they do not, they will definitely enjoy it more. It is important for students to study subjects and take up careers that match their interest and aptitude. Remember the Farhan character from the movie 3 Idiots? You do not want to be a Farhan and do not want to force your child to be Farhan (Farhan wanted to be a photographer but was being forced to study engineering and was miserable as a result and was doing poorly academically too).
We need to introduce counselling services in schools/colleges. This is another area that has been neglected. But non-optimal choices by students are costly for the student as well as for the society.
The world is a better place if Farhan is a photographer rather than an engineer. Introducing academic counselling across the high school and college system is not too costly and the returns can be significant. Some schools in the private sector offer some services in the area already. The practice needs to be scaled up and introduced in public sector high schools and colleges as well.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.