Why Most College Graduates End Up Working in a Different Field Than Their Major

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A sobering statistic:  Within ten years, seventy percent of college graduates will not be working in a field related to their major.

What are the causes? Some graduates, certainly, have little idea as to what they want to do and change fields, and to a great degree, this is not their fault. Some get laid off and begin anew, among other miscellaneous reasons.

However, at the foundation of this factoid is the sobering reality that many college students are being misguided by fulfilling the wishes of parents, society, or a personal desire to achieve much needed prestige and respect. Regarding the latter, most young adults are pressured and motivated by their current dependence on seeking greater independence, and the enchanting image of being a well-respected physician or lawyer is quite enticing. But there is something more happening here than meets the eye, a cause that runs deeper than what has been mentioned.

Ultimately, it's not even about what anyone else wants or a misinformed desire but more about a lack of focus on what the student wants--need that has not been addressed or nurtured to any great degree in the pre-college years. Many are simply placed in the education factory (reading, writing, arithmetic) by school districts with little regard for student interest, desire, ability, skill / talent affinity and so on. The key to anyone's success is first and  foremost knowing one's strengths, abilities, interests, even, of course, weaknesses and shortcomings. Addressing the problem concerns working with the student before she even reaches college, so let's take a look at the early school years.

Unfortunately, the most important issue that needs to be addressed at the secondary school level regarding not just the student's education but success in her life is not emphasized enough or even dealt with in some districts. And that issue begins and ends with an understanding of the self--the student's wants, needs, and desires.

If this understanding is left unexamined, then the student begins down a path seeking to satisfy parents, society, or some misguided need to enhance a sense of self, resulting in lost time and ultimately in most cases failure. The focus, therefore, should not be so much on the child's "education," or receiving a well-rounded diet of science, math, language, phys ed., and art but rather a focus on the student's needs and how she desires to be educated.

Here the focus doesn't have to be exclusively on college. It's not the end-all and cure-all many believe it to be. It may entail trade school, co-op education, apprenticeship, or just getting the student some books and tapes. But even education at the high school level is, unfortunately, more problematic than most know and, to a great degree, a waste of time. (I explore this issue in great detail in my upcoming book Education: A Waste of Time? Seven critical elements needed to avoid wasting 10 to 15 years and 100s of thousands of dollars). But let's get back to the issue at hand.

Considering that the majority of students will never use biology, chemistry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, literature, and so on, what is the point of them learning these subjects?

On the short side, considering that people forget 80% of what they read in 24 hours, what of students a few years after graduation? Especially students who barely studied the material because of lack of interest in the first place. In reality, the majority of jobs don't require anything beyond basic math, and even fewer require any science. Most jobs are clerical and administrative. Even in most high tech jobs, employees are using canned or pre-existing software that doesn't require a college degree to use efficiently. On top of that, let's consider that the majority of students entering college don't even meet the minimum requirements for math and writing. Above all, the student who has the intellectual curiosity and mental discipline to work in the advanced niches of the science, math, and engineering fields is few and far between.

Certainly, there's the age-old argument that math and science help the student to think logically, or there's the belief that by taking a variety of classes the student will "discover" an affinity or desire for a particular subject that she wouldn't have know about without the exposure. Hogwash. High school, to a great degree, is advanced baby sitting. Not to degrade the teachers or administrators but it's the system itself that needs cleaning up, but that's something I go into more depth in Education: A Waste of Time?

Regardless as to whether or not certain classes even need be taught to all students, the bottom line is that if the student isn't interested he is not going to learn. He may learn how to get good grades, but if he's not interested he will not retain the information. And it doesn't take years of exposing science and math to a student to determine whether or not he likes it. That answer will often be discovered in a matter of weeks not years. But let's get to the real issue.

The real issue is not about what's being taught, for the student will reject or accept what she will (regardless of what parents, teachers, or administrators desire,) but that we need to sit down with the student on a consistent, persistent basis and simply ask, "What do you want to do with your life?"

Are we too silly to believe that teenagers don't know? Do we respect their intelligence so little?

It is vital to sit down on a regular basis and work with the student to see what she wants to do, especially during the social / personal formative years as personal understanding changes and changes often. But one must ask, what are her interests, desires, goals? What are her aspirations? And at this point, the best suggestion I can give to the parent, teacher, counselor, is to shut up and listen. Don't interject by giving alternatives because you think that going into acting, dress design, or the circus is not a good idea, but rather sit still, appreciate and encourage the student's honesty and openness, encouraging and informing in a positive manor. For anyone worth their salt knows that to work and work successfully (40 or more hours a week year after year after year after year) requires one to, if not love what they do, at least really, really like it or one ends up adding to the miserable who walk the earth with long faces of despair.

I can't count the number of stories I've heard where famous people who became actors, movie directors, business owners, designers were told by their counselors to think about doing something else. As a matter of fact, this type of "counseling" often backfires. There is one famous movie maker who was only inspired by the counselor who told him to do something else. He was actually motivated to succeed to prove the silliness of the counselor's suggestion. Goes to show how rushing water oftentimes gathers its own strength to take down unwanted dams.

Bottom line, those who succeed only do so because they love what they are doing. They love it so much that they would do it for free. And some do. If you don't love what you are doing, you are not only not going to be successful but you are not going to be happy. And most likely, at some point you're going to drop out and do what you love. And please, don't be of the unhappy people (the opposite of the shinny, happy people), for there are simply too many of the frustrated and grouchy in this world as it is (probably the main cause behind most economic downturns).

So don't waste time listening to bad counseling, listen to your inner knowing. You are much more qualified to tell you what you want to do than anybody else. If you're in school and you're not happy, make yourself happy. Do what you love. The money will only come if your heart is in it. Don't try to make anyone happy but yourself when it comes to your career, for work is too large a chunk of your life to be piddled away on unhappiness.

One last point before I close.

The notion that one must go to college, that one must do so for job security and better pay, is just not true. Today, a college degree will not ensure job security. Many experts believe that people will have up to 10 career changes in their lifetimes, a result of the lack of job security and a work environment that is rapidly changing not only from year to year but at times month to month. With outsourcing, downsizing, multinational corporations, and an ever changing and expanding economy, you owe it to yourself to do what you love, for only in doing so will you find the happiness that will bring the financial security you and your parents desire so much.