Motivation for an education shouldn’t be money

Rebecca Smalbach

The impact of work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is quickly quantifiable and impressive―doctors heal a broken bone, researchers discover a pill that will prevent the spread of HIV, engineers design an architectural wonder.

The salaries earned by people in these fields are equally impressive. According to data from the U.S. Census, engineering majors had the highest earnings, with an average of $92,900, and other majors within the STEM umbrella had similarly high earnings.

Unemployment for recent STEM majors was at only 3.6 percent, according to the same census data, while unemployment for recent liberal arts majors was at 5.2 percent.

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In a recent opinion in the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, head of hiring at Google, wrote that the most critical factor college students should consider when picking a major is the hireability of the degree they earn.  

However, none of this data means that students should necessarily throw themselves down STEM career paths just to have better job prospects upon graduating college. 

While considering post-college plans is important, what’s more important is that students are able to explore the fields of study that they are most passionate about without feeling forced to concentrate on a topic they’re not interested in, solely because they believe it will lead to a good job after graduation.

I have never seriously considered a job in any of the STEM fields. I am not interested in those areas of study, nor do I find most of them particularly enjoyable. Yet many adults question my lack of interest.

“If you can do math, why not go into engineering?” they say. “There are lots of job opportunities for engineers, and they make lots of money.”

I find these types of statements to be based on two critical misconceptions. First, that there aren’t plentiful job opportunities for those who have degrees in liberal arts fields, and second, that I should be choosing my career based solely on the amount of money I will be making.

Though a degree in the liberal arts may not correspond to a specific job in the workplace, this does not mean that liberal arts majors are unwanted.

The value in a liberal arts education comes from intangible goals that cannot be checked off a list: It comes from the writing and critical thinking skills that are necessary to succeed in any job.

People with liberal arts degrees are always in high demand, albeit not always in fields that are as well-known or publicized, because employers want to hire people who can collaborate and communicate well, and who have a broad base of knowledge.

A survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers revealed that the ability to work well with others and communicate effectively was the top quality potential employers were looking for.

According to data compiled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities taken from the U.S. Census, college graduates with degrees in the liberal arts are overrepresented in fields like social work or counseling. These fields might not have the best salaries, but many still consider them to be extremely important and rewarding jobs.

The people in these jobs may not be part of the 1 percent, but it is better to be paid a merely sufficient wage and be happy than to make billions and be miserable.

There are people who are so fortunate as to have interests in fields that are well paid, and they should without a doubt work with the subjects they find fascinating.  

However, people whose interests lay outside of jobs with $100,000 dollar bonuses should explore those pursuits as well. Wanting to make enough money to live on is one thing, but sacrificing subjects that are truly interesting in order to reach a higher tax bracket is another.

It saddens me that people like Bock tell students that their only concern should be choosing a major that will lead them to a well-paying job.  

In Marin especially, it seems to me that parents often push their children down pre-established paths―lawyer, doctor, banker. There are only a few ways to do things, and any deviation is unacceptable. But often these careers are not what students are interested in; their passion lies elsewhere.  

I understand that pay is an important aspect that most people consider when picking a major or career, but it should not be the sole reason.

It seems ridiculous to herd people towards well-defined career paths with well-defined end goals and well-defined retirement plans, if that is not where their interests lie.

Preprofessional major, engineering major, liberal arts major or undecided―all of these are valid choices. The guiding factor for how a student should choose a major should not be a parent’s wishes or a higher salary, but what the student truly cares about.