Selecting a field of study part 3

To high school graduates, selecting the field of study in college is probably the most difficult decision but it is essential because it gives students direction to focus on and allows them to plan their career earlier. Certain fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math help prepare students to enter specific careers that are currently in high demand all over the world. However, according to a college study, only few high school graduates are enrolling in these fields because most do not know what they want. The study’s author noted: “Most of them have no idea what they really want to do when they graduate. Even the ones who claim that they do, they really do not. You cannot blame them because when you are only 17 or 18 years old, you do not know anything of the “real world”. No one explain anything clear enough for you to make the right decision so most of them only have a vague idea about the fields of study and careers planning.”

Unfortunately, many parents whom for years have been supporting them also do not know much about career planning either. Parents who support their children with nice clothes, good nutrition foods, and do not hesitate to buy them iPods, iPhones, or iPads but when their children are ready for college their guidance is: “Go to college, study hard, get a degree, and then find a job.” To them, a college degree is the goal as it can get them a job just like what has happened in their time. They do not know that time has changed and today a college degree is not a guarantee for employment as thirty or forty years ago. Today college students need more guidance to help them develop their skills and prepare for a career in the real world. After graduated, they should be able to be independent which means they have to be able to make a living on their own based on their knowledge and skills. Parents and children need to know that there is a difference between a degree and skills because companies do not hire people on the degree but on their abilities that meet the company’s needs.

College education requires a lot of planning and guiding BEFORE students enter college. Students and parents must research the job market to identify which possible careers will make the most sense. They must find out what kind of jobs are available in the local market as well as the global market, what salary a graduates in a certain field of study might make etc. These information are available, but students have to find them because nobody will give it to them. Many high school graduates select their field of study based on their own interest or their past academic performance. If they do well in history in high school, they may select history in college. If they are interested in music, they may study music. If they are good in writing, they select literature etc. Few would ask how many job openings are there for historians, writers and musicians. Many often confuse between interests and careers. An interest can be a hobby, something that they enjoy but it may not be a career that they can make a living of. If high school students do not distinguish between these two then their parents should and this is where parent’s guidance is important. Some students watch something on TV or read magazine and think “That work seems fun and I can do that.” They select what they think is fun without understand the job market needs. Few years ago, a student told me: “I watch shows on TV where they decorate houses and I think I want to do that. It was fun and I like to decorate things. Fortunately, during the first year in college I got a summer job as interior decorator for a furniture company and found it was mostly about selling furniture and answering phones which you do not need a college education to do that. I learned the truth between what was on TV and what the reality was. That is why I switched to Computer Science.”

Many high school graduates selecting a field of study based on the influence of friends. It could be a mistake as most of them do not know what they want. Many go to college and wander around to see what interests them; they select a field, take a few courses then switch into another field and do it a few times without any direction. In the end they probably select the easiest field that they do well without knowing exactly what to do with their life. This is where parents should intervene and they should look proactively on behalf of their children on job market, where the jobs are, and which careers have better future. Parents should be well informed about career planning so they can guide their children to get on with the market trends. It is not easy to convince a young person but sometimes parents have to insist on certain paths because given the high cost of a college education and the time their children may waste in college. Basically college education is an investment and it should be planned carefully. It is important for parents and students to spend time to understand future possibilities, their education goals, as well as their interests, abilities, and what they will need to be happy in the future.

I often advice parents to tell their children: “What do graduates with this degree do for work? It would be best if both parents and children go to the school and ask the school counselor: “Students who graduated in this degree over the last few years, where are they working? What kind of wage are they making? Are they working in their field of study?’ If the answer are: ‘They have not find a job yet”, “Their earnings are not very good”, “They are still unemployed and have not pay off their school loans.” then this is the time for parents and children to think seriously about their fields of study.

Another better thing BEFORE making a decision on what to study is to talk to third or fourth year students about how they chose their field of study and what their future prospective look like. These students can probably answer you more specific questions better than a counselor as they have had their own view about a specific career. Additionally, they can provide information about the curriculum, the training program, and their experience looking for work. You might find that different degrees have impacted the graduates very differently when they pursued opportunities after graduation. For some, the degree they chose made finding a job easy, for others their degree does not mean anything in the job market.

Parents and students must understand that not all field of study are created equal. Of course, they all offer a degree upon completion, but they do not guarantee a job. When you are choosing a field of study, it would be wise to check out the job placement of others who have pursued this same degree. There is no reason why you should be choosing a specific career knowing that there is no future and no job. In a perfect world, the best field of study would be the one that interests you as this is something you intend to do for the rest of your life. However in this competitive world, an important consideration when choosing a field of study is the possibility of gaining employment following graduation.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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