Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where engineering and English majors end up


Pew Research. I do love their work because I am a research geek. As much as I like research, I find it compelling and comforting when real-life anecdotal experiences support, maybe enhance, the research.

According to the Pew Research folks, ". . .only about 26% of physical-sciences majors work in any STEM occupation at all; their biggest employment categories are health care (17%), non-STEM managerial jobs (14%) and education (12%)."

So maybe we're asking the wrong questions.

I'm not a STEM expert by any stretch of the imagination, but physical science majors working in health care doesn't seem to be a big surprise, nor does the move to education. I can only hope they got their teaching certificates and are encouraging students that science can be really cool and, perhaps, training the next generation of science mavens.

While the chart is interesting in its specifics, I think the story it tells is even more interesting. But let me back up to those real-life anecdotal experiences. I had a student who was an English major. She wasn't really sure what she was going to do with that degree, but we knew she had a lot of options and not just because English majors generally have excellent research and communication skills. Once she graduated she realized what she really wanted to do is teach, so she got her Master's degree with her teaching certification and has been a teacher since.

A friend of mine majored in computer science and operations management. While she had a long and steady career in the computer industry, she has become a life coach with a wide range of ministry. She's still organizing and helping others organize, but on a very different level than she once did.

Still another friend of mine majored in education. She taught for a period of time and then circumstances necessitated a change. She started working for a university and took a chance on a whole new opportunity, which led to work she's been doing ever since. And, for a period of time, she was able to be an assistant coach, which fed her passion.

One other friend of mine had aspirations to be an astronaut. He pursued computer science and engineering and he got to work on some projects that supported the space program. Eventually he left the computer industry to open a travel agency and pursue his lifelong passion of music, so he still DJs and he has a band.

Over and over again, whether through friends or former students or my own life experience, it's easy to see that a college major is often an incidental indicator. Everyone wants to do meaningful work, and that's not always possible. Sometimes the work is meaningful to someone, but it's not what feeds our souls.

Sure, my friends are boomers and my former students are not the current millennial generation. But time and time and time again, what I see and hear are people talking about passion. Those who end up doing work that is also their passion are blessed. Those who are able to do work that enables them to pursue their passions are also blessed. Those who pursued work to get stuff have found their lives a bit emptier, in spite of all of the stuff. That's what today's millennials see and why they are more interested in work that has meaning and work that enables them to pursue their passions.

We shouldn't be surprised when an English major ends up doing pretty much anything because English majors are well equipped to do many things. We shouldn't be surprised when an engineering major ends up as a manager for a non-STEM company because what led that student to become an engineer has something to do with the way he or she thinks and is. (Management can be a form of engineering, I think.) We shouldn't be surprised when folks find ways to intersect their interests with their work. Those who have been able to make those intersections have been doing so for generations.

When I advised my incoming freshmen, and tried to assuage the concerns of their parents, I asked those kids what they wanted to do if time and money were of no concern. Keep in mind these kids were college freshmen, so only a few months out of high school with their whole lives in front of them. They were more honest when their parents weren't in the room, especially those who had parents who wanted to answer for them, projecting parental dreams and aspirations on their kids. And we'd talk through the hopes, dreams, and passions of the kids to try to find a major, perhaps along with a minor, that would help propel them.

But I would often tell kids and parents alike that a college major isn't a guarantee nor is it a life sentence. At most, it is a doorway to a lifetime of opportunities. I had a student who got to the end of his junior year and just knew he was in the wrong major and going after the wrong things, so he changed his major and I helped him explain why he was going to be on the 5-year plan for graduation. He worked hard to catch up and finish only a year late, and was so much happier for it. Pursuing a college major is often a way of discovering what one might be as much as it is learning what one is not.

By all means encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics, music, biology, graphic design, culinary arts, and English. But don't pay any attention to the trumpeting headlines that suggest some degrees are worth less than others because a college degree is only part of anyone's story. And a college degree is not the end of learning, not by a long shot.

Where any student with any degree ends up depends on years of choices, including what should be years of pursuing more and other learning, most of which rarely takes place in a classroom.

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