Education and career: What you study is not what you are

Students lack the capacity to make career-related decisions

New Delhi.

In India, the concepts of "higher education" and "career planning" are often conflated. Parents think of higher education choices as determinants of a child’s career, expecting a clear and direct connection between what their child will study and what his or her career will be.

This logic has worked for those pursuing careers in medicine and law; after all, who wants to engage a lawyer who didn’t go to law school or a doctor who doesn’t have a medical degree? Today, however, most higher education choices rarely result in a career directly related to a major.

For example, not all Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduates work as engineers and not all economics students become economists. And even if you attended law school, there is no "rule" that you must work as a lawyer. The main point of education is to develop critical thinking skills that can be used in any career.

Moreover, it is important to understand that the employment landscape is changing swiftly. As conventional business models are upended, new jobs are emerging, and the pace of change is exponentially fast. Jobs are fluid, requiring multiple skills; a singular focus is no longer adequate for a career that spans 40-plus years.

Since no one can say with certainty what the jobs of the future will look like, developing foundational skills is key to remaining employable. This means that, practically speaking, studying any subject in university can serve as a platform to access a range of careers.

When engaging a career counselor, be sure to understand that, while higher education and career choices can go hand in hand, the ground reality can be quite different. Here are some things to consider.

Sidestep Grade 8 panic: As educators, we meet parents of Grade 8 students who worry that their child "has no direction" or "doesn’t know what he/she wants to do". Don’t panic, it is perfectly normal for a 13-year-old to be unsure.

They have barely been exposed to subjects such as physics, economics or calculus nor have they critically examined Shakespeare or UN policy toward refugees. The point is, up until Grade 8, they have acquired the building blocks to learn more, at a faster pace and across disciplines.

It seems premature and slightly unfair to ask them what they want to do when they are just beginning to build knowledge and hone skills. At Grade 8, students lack the capacity to make career-related decisions, so parents need to guide them in making informed decisions, keeping as many options open as possible.

Make informed choices: The Indian education system forces students to make irreversible choices early. Understanding this is key when deciding a "stream" and choosing subjects after Grade 10. Eliminating certain subjects, especially science and math, just because they may not seem related to a potential future career, is shortsighted.

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