Two stories.

First, a couple of years ago, I went to my daughter's high school to give a presentation on careers. I put up a slide that listed about 20 of my friends, their college majors, and their careers today. As all these friends were in their 40s, it had been a bit of time since college. Only the accountant as still working in her field of study. So, I told these high school students that what they majored in wasn't critical and the teacher about had a heart attack. He kept interrupting me and saying, "No! What they study determines their future job!" 

Second, a few weeks ago, I was in Turkey. We visited a carpet shop and began speaking with the salesman who had excellent English. He told us that he had lived in the United States for 20 years and returned to Turkey recently. How did he end up in the US, we asked. He went for graduate school--he and his wife were enrolled in a Ph.D. program in political science, but he had dropped out when he realized it was not for him. We laughed. My husband and I met in a political science Ph.D. program and had both dropped out when we realized it was not for us. So, we had three political science dropouts. I'm an HR person, my husband is a statistician in pharmaceuticals, and this man sold carpets. Our careers couldn't be more different, even though we all studied the same subject in school.

There is a huge disconnect between what schools teach and what reality looks like. A teacher is a job that generally requires a specific degree and certification, so teachers tend to think that is what all jobs require. And, of course, there are plenty of careers that have similar requirements. If you want to be a lawyer, you need to go to law school. But, what you study as an undergrad doesn't really matter all that much.

I was about to write that if you want to have a STEM job you should major in a STEM field but then I remembered my friend, Byron, whose degree is in German and works as a computer programmer. Hmmm.

John Thornton, Jr, wrote about the stress we place on our children at VoxOne of those stressors is the emphasis on careers. He writes:

One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. It was only later that I realized visualizing the future like this meant that every grade, every volunteer hour, every achievement or failure carried the weight of fulfilling that imagined future.

This is like telling your 16-year-old to carefully consider his prom date because he's going to have to marry whomever he takes to prom.

We all realize this is utterly ridiculous, yet we expect kids to be focused on their future careers with gazelle-like intensity. (To steal a phrase from Dave Ramsey.) Let's face it--when you're young you don't even know what careers are out there. I spent many years as an HR data analyst. Did my 6th-grade self even know that job existed? Of course not--and in reality--the type of work I did as an HR analyst didn't exist in 1985*(when I was in 6th grade) because businesses didn't run on computers as they do now.

If your kid has an interest, it's absolutely okay for them to focus on that and maybe it will lead to a career! But if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. 

Over the past year, I've continued to ask questions and pay attention. One afternoon, I sat in our church's common area with a sophomore. "Ugh, I'm so stressed about picking classes for next year," she said holding up her course registration manual. It looked more extensive than I remembered from my time in high school. I asked to flip through it for a minute -- it was 43 pages long.

While I'm totally in favor of lots of options, choosing should be based on what seems fun and interesting and not an indication of a lifetime career. She shouldn't feel any pressure when picking her classes. Math, English, Science (of some sort), and History should all be required, but whether she takes psychology, keyboarding, woodworking, or choir is irrelevant to her future career as whatever. Even if she later wants to be a furniture designer and took psychology instead of woodworking there is time to learn that later. It doesn't matter.

The real things that matter in school are learning basic facts, how to communicate, and how to work. Picking a career is unnecessary at that stage.

Now, a side note: I'm going to get people who say, "but if you major in underwater basket weaving you'll end up living in your parents' basement!" Yes, there's a higher chance of that happening, so do look into your college major and study whatever you want but minor in business or economics or education or something marketable. And don't take out loans that you can't easily pay back. But, don't think that if you major in political science you can only work in Washington, D.C. Turns out, you can do just about anything. 

Published on: Jan 15, 2019
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