Choosing a career in today’s world

Two online Business Insider articles about trends in college education in the United States recently got my attention. One bore the intriguing title “12 college majors that may limit your career potential.” The other carried the equally click-worthy heading “After 10 years paying for student loans, I know exactly what I should have done differently to get more from my money.”

Their common assumption is that because college education has become increasingly unaffordable unless one takes out a student loan, there is no other way to think of it but as a financial investment that has to be measured in terms of its career returns. Meaning, how well it improves your chances of landing a stable and high-paying job. The subtext here is, given what is available on the internet, one may not need to go to college just to learn a skill or earn a living.

The 12 college majors’ programs that will not easily land you a job in the States today are: acting or theater arts, film, anthropology, civilization studies or archaeology, philosophy, psychology, communications, English, history, interior design, marketing, and photography. The reasons vary. For some jobs, a degree may not be essential. For many others, an undergraduate degree in these fields may not be sufficient. To become employable, say, as a teacher or a lawyer, one would need a graduate degree. The trend is clear: The number of students majoring in the humanities and the social sciences is diminishing, and their corresponding faculties are shrinking. It is the so-called science, technology, engineering, and math courses that are enjoying an upsurge in enrolment. This is a trend that began manifesting itself in the University of the Philippines (UP) sometime in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when the small departments in the natural sciences metamorphosed almost overnight into full-blown institutes, attracting the best of UP’s entering freshmen. While the old liberal arts departments languished in their poorly maintained offices and barely kept their majors, the new specialized science institutes got new buildings, more students, and more funds to finance the further studies of their growing faculty.

It is a trend that, fortunately, has not yet led to the closure of degree programs in the arts and humanities. The general education curriculum, which covers the first two years of college irrespective of one’s major, has made sure that there is space for the liberal arts, although this too is fast shrinking. But the university only responds to the demands being put to it by parents and by the larger society.

Then as now, parents see a college education almost entirely in terms of its promise of a stable and well-paying career. As a result, they tend to impose on their children their own conceptions of the kind of education and college experience that is best for them, often in blind disregard of their aptitude and capability. Mercifully, the choice of a career is now much less dependent on the parents’ decision than it used to be. Today, a myriad of factors are beyond their control. First, there is the stiff competition for extremely limited slots in the country’s top schools. The admissions procedure is no longer completely dependent on the score one gets on the college admissions test. In UP, almost equal value is assigned to one’s grades in the first three years of high school. Second, there is the problem of getting into one’s preferred degree program even after one has been assured a place in the school of one’s choice. A student’s admissions score may qualify him/her for entry into the main UP Diliman campus, but it may not be sufficient for admission into the major’s program of his/her choice. Such students, and there are many of them, would be advised to look for another major’s program where slots are still open, with the option to shift to the originally preferred course depending on their scholastic performance. This need not be the fatal ending to one’s dreams that it is sometimes thought to be. Let me explain. When I entered UP in the early ‘60s, the campus teemed with free spirits who remained without any specific major until the pressure to graduate compelled them to choose one. They came under the fascinating category “AB General.” The upside to entering the university without a specific program is that it opens one’s intellectual horizons to the broad diversity of learning opportunities that the university has to offer. After all, at age 16 or 17, a period of searching, how many young people can say with certainty what they really want in life? To be forced into a career path at such an early age, and to find oneself clinging to it in later life as a form of personal validation—that, to me, looks like a recipe for a midlife crisis.

The undergraduate years are best seen as years of general exploration of the vast field of human inquiry. To limit one’s focus to the area of study or discipline in which one is majoring is to specialize too soon. Not even the best undergraduate programs that advertise themselves as terminal courses can produce specialists in such a short time. That is the function of graduate and postgraduate programs that combine field research and practical work experience with academic work.

One of the articles I mentioned above concludes with a memorable passage: “The most important piece of a university degree isn’t what you learn, but who you meet.” Again, in the same utilitarian spirit that undergirds much of modern education, this view regards the university primarily as a site where one forms connections useful in one’s professional life, rather than as a place of learning.