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Half-hearted studies, Half-hearted jobs?

  1. Sep 2, 2015 #1
    I'm going to rant briefly, but please bear with me, there is a point to this.

    I've seen a recurring theme here: It concerns people who have very few aspirations in life and are afraid to commit to any of the few notions they have.

    Basically the thread I see over and over starts like this: What fields can I study that will make the most money?

    Here's the first big clue: If money is what this is about, why bother with college? I know people with only a high school education at best. who nevertheless built significant businesses around renting and hauling dumpsters. I know another guy who started an excavation business and now owns several airplanes for fun. I know people who erect radio towers and set up antennas. I know a family that started a crane service company. They all live good lives.

    You can find honor, a sense of accomplishment, and often a very good living even when doing a dirty job. See Mike Rowe's web site for more details and opinions.

    So which professional fields make money? Who says professional work pays all that well? The people I cited earlier have no student loan debt; they own significant businesses free and clear; and they have the ability to explore their curiosity --wherever it leads them. They don't need to make piles of money to live well.

    The entrepreneurs I mentioned are well aware of the opportunities. They see one and they make the most of it. In contrast to those entrepreneurs, those with career questions are often lost. There are opportunities all over the place, and they know so little about what they want, that they're actually afraid to start.

    Conversely, I see questions posted by those who are too focused. They're stuck on doing a very specific kind of research and they won't consider anything else --and then they want the readers here to figure out what career options might be out there.

    My question is this: how did we get so disconnected from the working world that young adults have no idea of what to expect upon graduation? Yes, academia is supposed to be an ivory tower and all that. Yet, sooner or later we need to put those ivory tower ideas in to practice. Aside of high school guidance counselors who only seem to know enough to shovel students off to the next college, what resources are available to students where they can learn about the working world?

    And thus, my question for discussion: How can we instill reasonable aspirations and expectations of careers so that students can make the most of their education?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 2, 2015 #2
    A personal thought based on my own experiences: we grow up learning that by not "doing what we love," we're cheating ourselves out of happiness. Combine that with a not-so-stellar job market for some new college graduates (particularly in the humanities), and you've got one stressed out generation--stressed out about whether they made the wrong choice of major or they can get a job in the field.

    Remember, when you were attending college, there was no internet (as we know it). Now, with just a quick Google search, students are exposed to, for instance, the bleak outcome some people face when they decide to major in physics, and while that's certainly not always the case, the people in the worst situations are the ones that are going to vent about it to others.

    So it's not shocking that a lot of students deal with a ton of second-guessing when it comes to what they're studying. I mean just look at a lot of the posts here. Half of them are "should I major in physics and be poor but happy and be able to solve the mysteries of the universe, or engineering and work in a boring office just making a profit for some company but have money?" As if no engineering jobs can be as interesting as a physics job!

    It also doesn't help that a lot of high schoolers have no idea what engineering is like. There usually isn't an engineering class in high school. Most engineers come into engineering because they like physics and math, but not necessarily because they know what engineering is totally like.

    White-collar jobs aside, there's also just an engrained idea that a college degree is needed to be successful--you're right. I think that idea is becoming less dominant in recent years, because some people (anecdotal, I know) have seen the kind of debt college can incur and have decided to go into trades instead. I think that's a great idea--we need people like that. College isn't a ticket to the middle class like it was in the '50s, unfortunately.

    I don't know of a clear-cut answer to the question. I'm just speaking from my own experiences why students often have these crises. I know--I was one of them. I figured I'd be selling my soul by going into electrical engineering instead of physics. I'm a junior now, and I enjoy both, and I'm happy with my choice. As Feynman said (paraphrasing), everything's interesting if you get deep enough into it.
  4. Sep 2, 2015 #3
    Jake, I hope you don't mind if I turn the question around a little: Have you experienced the impact of this problem in new hires at your place of work, or is it just the forums that you see this as a problem? I don't mean to suggest that the second case makes it less worthy for discussion, but I'd love some first hand accounts if they exist.
  5. Sep 2, 2015 #4
    Out of curiosity, how many current students here work? When did you start working? What kinds of jobs have you had/have?

    My answers to this: I started working at age 14, as a janitor. I worked all through high school and college. I worked in retail, in maintenance, in construction, and in a lab. In retrospect, I learned a lot doing this. I missed out on internships in college, but I think I learned something even more valuable doing maintenance work and asbestos removal.

    To be honest, I was pretty clueless about the job market in many ways when I graduated college, but I did at least know a lot about the world of work, and what it looks like.
  6. Sep 2, 2015 #5
    I've seen some of that confusion among a few interns we have had here. However, most of the interns we get are already reasonably savvy about this particular work place.

    We often see daughters and sons of employees working here. It's a fairly well kept open secret that this can be an interesting place to work. This water utility where I work does not make a significant effort to recruit from schools. People "discover" us by accident. The typical employees start in their late 20s/30s and about half stick around until they're eligible for retirement. To a recent college graduate, this place may look quite dull. We tend to attract those who are starting families and looking for steady work with longer term paybacks and outlooks.

    Thus, I acknowledge that your suspicions are valid. Most of the rant I wrote is focused upon the regularly recurring posts I see here. Clearly it is a problem for some, but I'm not sure if we're seeing a self selecting series of comments or whether this is a tip of a much larger iceberg.
  7. Sep 2, 2015 #6
    I had newspaper delivery routes (that dates me a bit, I know), I worked in a two way radio repair shop; I worked on writing software for a contracted project (early 1980s), and worked in an electronics firm while attending college. I was also an intern at the Naval Research Lab. I didn't like having to maintain a security clearance, so I ended up at the water utility so that I could attend Johns Hopkins at night.

    I knew what the work place was like long before I graduated college, and I knew I wanted to do something with telecommunications and RF even before I graduated from High School.

    And yet, I see this confusion and malaise even in my own high school children (and their friends). I'm not sure what to make of it.
  8. Sep 2, 2015 #7


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    I doubt many think this is dull, and many would hope for it. I think it is more that this sort of thing is thought not to exist anymore.
  9. Sep 2, 2015 #8
    Water utility infrastructure is so expensive and disruptive to build, that it has to be designed for the ages. The mindset that we're designing, building, and maintaining infrastructure that is expected to last for a century or more is alien to many younger workers. One does not usually get this mindset from temporary or contract workers. People who think this way are found among those with a long term investment in the community: In other words: those with families and extended family, who own property in the area. Not many recent college graduates fall in to that category.

    That is why the utility offers stable, long term employment with a full pension plan. They invest in their employees and they then expect the employees to stay with the company and help maintain an institutional memory of what works and what didn't. It is indeed unusual these days where most businesses do not look ahead more than five years in to the future.
  10. Sep 2, 2015 #9
    You were kind enough to answer my question, so I'll give yours a shot - though I find my ideas rather underwhelming.

    Who teaches students? Typically, super specialized individuals that often have very little experience in the work force. Are we surprised college students come here asking for which super specialized education they should pursue, without really understanding how it fits with the workforce? I think one opportunity is to connect with high school and early college students and discuss our experiences and opinions on this subject. I've recently had an opportunity to engage with high school students around career development - unfortuantely, it fell through. I'm going to give it another shot at a future date. If I do, I"ll let you know if I think we can have much impact there.

    Another avenue might be through their parents, because so many of a student's opinions are shaped by their parents.
  11. Sep 2, 2015 #10
    Since I graduated from university not so long ago I can tell you sth about all of this.

    Now when I look back I have felt that until the end of high school I was living in some kind glass bubble that was created by the society - school, parents, teachers etc. That bubble protected me from real life very well. I was told not to worry about anything, just study because good grades allow me to go to good university which eventually allows me to land a good job. I wasn't encouraged or even allowed to explore world outside of school, hobbies because "it's a waste of time". Even when I was working during summer holidays I was still in the bubble. Society instead of preparing me for real life, protected me against it.

    I am on this forum since 2009 which means 6 years. You can see from my older posts how childlish I was. I realized what I want to do with my life when I was during my senior year in college! Experience that I got during college should happen during high school. I feel like only now after all that happened to me - I have failed as entrepreneur, I have seen what college education really looks like, I have worked in shitty company that didn't want to pay me money for my work - I finally become an adult and know what to do.

    But still I feel like I'm 3-4 years behind. That all of that should happen to me ealier. Many of my friends still don't know what to do. They work in jobs that they are unhappy with, having no idea what should they do with their life.
  12. Sep 2, 2015 #11


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    I'm glad you have found your way. What specifically do you think would have helped you in your highschool years? I am asking as a member of this community, but also as a father of two daughters - the elder will be starting highschool next week!

  13. Sep 2, 2015 #12
    I find this thread really interesting actually. However, I don't see what is fundamentally wrong about someone just wanting a career for money. After all, that's what jobs are, right? Just something to do for 40 hours a week so that we can live the other 128 of them as we please.
  14. Sep 2, 2015 #13


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    I agree to a large extent. But the job will ideally be well suited to your personality, strengths and weaknesses (notice I did not include "passion"). If you love working with people in teams, but take a lucrative programming job where you work alone at home, you will likely not last very long.

    However, when I hear people talk about "finding your passion" as a way to select a career I don't know what to think of it. I am now passionate about my job, but I wasn't before I started it. I have passions outside of work that are ultimately much more important that work, anyway. My work provides us a nice life, and I am lucky that a fair fraction of many workdays are spent thinking about things I have learned to find interesting, but it only defines a modest part of who I am.

    I have had the same job since I finished grad school - I accepted it even though I knew that I had very little idea what this job would entail. It was "easy" to accept the job offer anyway, partially because of something my father told me many times. If you go into a reasonable job with a good attitude, you can likely find some aspect that is interesting to think about; this can sustain you through the uninteresting tasks. For jobs requiring a PhD, it is even more likely to be true. Notice the assumption that all jobs have some aspects that aren't interesting or "fun". I admit that I was very LUCKY and ended up with a great job and finished school at a time when jobs were much easier to find than they are today, but I also try to make the best of it when it is not so great (and there have been long stretches when it was not much fun).

  15. Sep 3, 2015 #14


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    Before I graduated, I worked as a technician for several companies (Instrumentation and controls, R&D in fuel technologies, Electrician, R&D in electronics, etc) and while I loved the work, I was always working on someone else's projects and a glorified lackey. Not until I graduated, did I get to work as a designer and then engineer. My head was hitting a career ceiling so to speak. Smaller companies may risk hiring you with less credentials, but often everyone plays it safe and hires the guy with the degree.
    Another word of (cynical) wisdom. You only get paid what you are worth to another company, NOT what you are worth to YOUR company (unless you OWN your company or a run large American company as CEO, then you may get paid far more than you are worth). Without credentials, you will always be working for less, regardless of how good or how much better you are than anyone else.
    If I had studied harder and graduated sooner, I would be further along in my career (I am not complaining, even though I often work much more than 40 hours per week, but I sometimes wonder, " They are paying me for this???") as I don't actually work that hard and enjoy the work that I do.
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2015
  16. Sep 3, 2015 #15
    Sorry for long post :P In the end I follow my "passion" but it's like young people love - teenager's first love has nothing to do with true love and marriage builded upon it. You could say I found my way in life when I could tell the difference between crush and love ;) Many young people think they are passionate about something (like on this forum everyone want to be cosmologists and theoretical physicists!) but in reality they have no idea that it's just a crush based on their wet dreams.

    When I was starting high school I had several hobbies/passions - drawing, writing, astronomy, computers (like messing with Pokemon roms and hex workshop) but I didn't know what to do with that. I will tell you what was good about high school and what was good about college but should happen ealier. Have in mind that I live in EU and not in rich country like UK or Germany. We don't have major/minior system, school/college advisors, education in high school is test-based, no extracurriculars. We finish high school when we are 19 years and it's tradition here that we do MSc degree (BSc here is like 2-year degree in US) which means we need to study 5-6 years.

    High school pros:

    - I had several programming classes (simple html and C++) which allowed me to realize me that CS degree is not a good idea.
    - I was cleaning floors in a factory during holidays which allowed me to realize that if you are low in hierarchy poeple will treat you like a ****
    - I was picking up calls from various clients in a car workshop. It was crazy, chaotic and I realized that I'm not good at multitasking or client service
    - I was the only one young person working in accounting but middle-aged co-workers were afraid that they will lose their job because of one more person extra (me) so they didn't give me any work even when I asked, didn't show anything and I was isolated and then fired because boss said I was useless <- very, very good and useful lesson!
    - I was engaged in toxic relationship (most people get this experience during their 20s or 30s) - it's not about a career but it was very very good lesson - I belive it's better to suffer and learn the difference between good and bad relationship when you are young rather than when you divorce and have kids

    College pros:

    - Opportunities for extracurriculars, I could finally do something with other people which helped me to explore other options. I have found what I want to do because of that.
    - Shitty college, no joking. While my university was top 5 in country, Physics was very shitty there, no one was helping me and I was simply forced to learn how to network, write emails for REUs to professors from different unis, find information (do research - that's how I found this forum) and opportunities (like how to go to student physics research conference and how to get financial aid for that). Until that point school or parents have organized my whole life for me. It was very first time that I was forced to do sth on my own. Those skills are most important - after all you can plan your life or career only because you can find information and opportunities you need! If my college was good I would probably not learn those skills until graduation!
    - I have learned that college education has nothing to do with reality and it should be just 10% of my education. 90% is self study and I should find good materials and teachers on my own. Doing your best only in your college studies is pointless.
    - During college I was freelancing for some small companies. Both were run by unexperienced guys: one who put all his all savings into it and other one who was struggling and couldn't get any better for several years. He didn't have any real skills (just some "manager" skills) and was earning money because of his skillful brother. Both of them wanted to make games but had no idea about it. Because of that they have failed. I have failed too when I tried to start my own business but at least I didn't waste any money or many years. I realized that it's better to be skillful professional rather than starting your own business without any working experience or skills.
    - Company didn't want to pay me for work because that work wasn't crucial. I realized that if you want to succeed in your career you need skills that others need. Otherwise even if you find a job, you and your work won't be respected.

    High school cons:

    - My classmates were all lazy middle-class kids but there are ambitious, young people out there and I regret that I haven't meet them back then because I could be inspired or learn from them many things.
    - Teachers or parents had no idea about current job market and they couldn't tell me how can I develop my interests into professional career or what strong or weak points do I have. Everyone assumed that since I'm good at math I should do engineering because I will be good at it (I wasn't) and job prospects will be stellar (they aren't). I sucked in programming so hard but studied EE and Physics and no one have told me that I shouldn't since it's probably the only one career that you can get in my country with Physics or EE degree! Teachers or parents really didn't understand what programming really is.
    - I didn't have any chance (minus programming class) to explore my hobbies or interests deeper in more professional way like I did in college (freelancing or projects) so I couldn't tell the difference between love and crush. Most young people choose their degree because "they think it's interesting" but don't know reality because they have no chance to explore their option during high school. Research project (not pop-sci crap), engineering class, making game with your classmate or even plumbering - it's not something you can do in high school
    - I wasn't encouraged to do anything but studying. Doing real stuff and living real life was for "when you finish your education"
    - Bad teachers, really
    - I didn't have any opportunities to learn about the world from professionals. I wish I could met let's say gamedev professional who could tell me about job prospects for different specialists, how should I start, which ways should I explore etc. I wouldn't make so many mistakes and waste so much time then.
    - I was smart so getting good grades were too eeeazy so I was lazy and sure that success in life will come cheap and easy. In school I have learned that I don't need to put an effort in order to succeed. And school didn't learn us that even if you work hard, success is not guaranteed. I have learned my lesson much later because I tried to learn and master something outside the class and start my own business.
    - Gap year isn't popular here so most young people go to college right after high school. There is a lot of pressure from parents and teachers (statistics).
    - That "go to college for the best future" mantra. High schooler won't even think that being hair or nail stylist could make him happy or wealthy. "Manual labour is for people too stupid for college" - that's how they think.

    As you can see most of my valuable experience come from outside of the classroom. Young people need proper guidance and opportunities to explore their interes, strong/weak points. You can find what is suitable for you only because you try and do things even if it hurts! Not because parents or school is telling you what to do. You can understand real world, your value (and what to do to increase it) and have reasonable expectations because you been there, do that, not because school or parents are telling "you are smart".
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2015
  17. Sep 3, 2015 #16


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    From what I gather in your post, I know you stated you finished your degree in physics, and then ended up leaving the STEM field for another career. What do you do for a living currently?
  18. Sep 3, 2015 #17
    Yeah, sorry I know my post was messy but I wanted to describe process in detail. I didn't want to brush off this topic with few sentences that tells you nothing.

    I do gamedev-related freelance.

    Fun fact - I did it since my freshman year of physics degree - as a freelance and extracurriculars in my uni. I even did intership in a game studio. I didn't stop it even when I was sure that I will get PhD and pursue academic career (had cursh on physics but realized I hate research). After BSc I tried to land full-time industry position but couldn't get any further than Level Design so I pursued Master degree in unrelated subject (just to complete my education and prepare to art school entrance exams). During that time I've tried to start my own game studio with my uni friends but it didn't work out. In the end I study at art school (starting junior year now) and probably will apply for full-time studio position in a year or two. I will complete my education in the same time I would complete PhD in Physics so it's not that bad.

    However I regret that I took all those detours (academic career, entrepreneurship, I've even wasted some time on freelance writing). I don't show my non-art education or jobs on my resume. My friends who pursued their art education right from the start and knew what to do have good career. But in the end those are the areas that I was interested in since junior high school so what I really needed was just some guidance so that I could explore them faster and in more responsible way.
  19. Sep 3, 2015 #18


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    I think in most cases it's not exclusively about the money.

    I think as a young person you're stuck trying to solve an optimization problem when it comes to your career. You want to maximize your earning potential, maximize your happiness, and factors such as pride and social status. You also want to miminize risks of injury, minimize difficult unrewarding tasks. And the best data that you can get on this is statisical, which most people don't intuitively understand. The most abundant "information" is either anecdotal or commerical.

    On top of that you're facing a lot of social pressure from peers, parents, relatives and teachers. The social pressures are not always reality-based either.
    When they come from parents and relatives they can be historical, or culturally driven.

    Historically a university education was a key to a steady income and fairly easy life. In the WWII generation, those with degrees were the officers. In the baby-boom generation they were the ones that were able to avoid the Vietnam draft. In the workplace they held all the senior management positions so they held a lot of power. before the internet, information beyond what could be looked up in an encyclopedia was highly restricted because the only place to get it was at a university library. Those with degrees had knowledge, so again, they held power. So when older adults offer experience-based advice to their childern or gradnchildren of course they push them towards university.

    There are many cultures where specific professions (doctor, lawyer, engineer) are the only occupations that are considered "successful." You could be a plumber pulling in $130k per year, but next to a lawyer who barely pulls in $50k you would be considered a failure simply because you work with your hands.

    And there there's the "smart person" pressure. If you manage decent grades in high school, guidance councillors will tell you to pursue something professional. If you're good at biology: become a doctor. If you're good at math: become an accountant. I don't think too many guidance councillors our there will look at a student and think hey, this gal's smart, she should try to start her own business.

    Part of the answer is that there's a big confusion between education and profession. Students subscribe to the idea that education leads directly to a related career, even when they are not pursuing a professional course of study. It's not their fault. This is reinforced everywhere from school websites, to online forums, to forcing the student to answer the inevitable question: "Physics, huh. What are you going to do with that?"

    If you decide to get an advanced education that's great. You learn more about the world. You develop critical thinking skills. You develop practical skills that be drawn on for careers, hobbies and generally enhancing life. This is important.

    But an education is not a meal ticket.

    We can do that by what I'm doing right now.
  20. Sep 4, 2015 #19
    But it either should be or young people who finish high school should know how to use it. I only know how to use my art school education (higher education is free in my country) because I was in college before, I experienced some stuff and I know how to organize professional education on my own (finding good professional teachers, coursers, self-study materials, projects). I didn't know how to use my physics education when I started it. Most young people don't have this knowlege and it would be better for them to get vocational/professional "meal ticket" instead of general education.

    And that. Before 2007 it was easier to earn good salary before 30, get a good job right after college etc. Reality is much harder than we expected.
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2015
  21. Sep 4, 2015 #20


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    I guess it also depends a bit on where you live. Here is the UK the newspapers are currently filled with articles about "generation rent". the fact that many (in some places most) people in their early 20s find it virtually impossible to get on the housing ladder: the average house price in the UK is about £180K (in London it is £480K) and the average starting salary for a "normal" graduate is something like £22K (at least here in London) and the majority will never make more than £36K a year (about the final salary for a teacher), renting is extremely expensive (and if you rent it is difficult to save up for a deposit)). This means that you have to make quite a lot of money just be able able to live what used to be considered a "normal" middle class life.

    One consequence of this is that you end up with a situation where many young people decide they do want to have a go at making enough money to basically have the same life that their parents had and going to university will certainly raise you chances of being able to do that; or they "follow their dream" and simply accept that they will never make "enough" money. Academia incidentally falls into the latter category if you are living in London: if you go that route you will not be able to afford to buy a house until you are in your late 30s and then only if you get some help with the deposit: this is one reason why you see a lot of people living academia when they are in their mid 30s (i nearly did)

    Hence, it is no wonder young people are stressed out about what to do with their life. A lot of people believe -perhaps correctly- that they simply have no chance of ever getting the the type of life they were taught to expect when growing up.

    Also, learning a good trade is not necessarily "safer": plumbers typically make something like £30K a year, still not "enough".
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