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Education and careers

Education and careers

“CAN I talk to you for 5 minutes?” “Sure.” “I did very poorly in the quiz.” “How poorly?” “I got a zero.” “That is a problem. A zero shows you could not even attempt the easier parts.” “I think I do not understand economics. And I am worried. What happens if I fail the course? And economics is my major.” “What were your A-Level grades like?” “I got two As and a B.” “Then understanding basic economics should not be an issue.” “I just don’t seem to get it.” “That cannot be. This is an introductory course. And we are just doing basic commonsense stuff about demand/supply.” “I have not taken economics before.” “This course has no pre-requisites: it is an introduction. Something else must be going on. Are you spending time with books? Any tension? Not fallen in love, have you?” “No. Nothing like that.” “What are your hobbies? What are you reading right now?” “This very fascinating book on Napoleon.” “You like history?” “Jee.” “Then why are you majoring in economics?” “My father told me to. He feels a degree in economics will lead to better job prospects.”

There are some variations on the details, but I have, in my teaching career — now spanning almost two decades — had many such conversations. Lots of students choose the institutions they enrol in, the degrees and majors they pursue, and sometimes even the courses they enrol in on the basis of advice from parents and/or on the basis of perceived notions of what would be more marketable, will have better job prospects or will give them ‘better returns.’

A lot of this advice is just completely off the mark. Undergraduate degrees are not about becoming an expert in any area. They are about learning how to learn. They are about developing one’s skills at debating, at making logical and persuasive arguments, and about learning clear thinking. They are about tasting a lot of subjects and finding what one likes. And, they are about doing explorations that allow the full development and flowering of personalities that young students are becoming.

Undergraduate degrees should not be seen as being tied too closely to job prospects. Job prospects change rapidly as economies have become and continue to become more dynamic. Instead of trying to figure out what job prospects will be like in engineering or IT four years down the road, and even trends within sub-disciplines, it is a much better idea to focus on learning skills that allow you to be more flexible and allow you to gain the confidence and the ability to adapt as the needs of your area evolve.

Young people also need to understand that there is always room at the top of any profession. We produce a lot of doctors. Does that mean we do not need any more ‘good’ doctors? Are you satisfied with the doctors you go to? I still cannot find good doctors: no geriatric care providers, not too many oncologists, etc, but more importantly, even today there are not too many good general physicians in Pakistan.

The same is true of other areas too. Even in areas like Urdu literature or Islamiyat, where we do produce lots of masters-level people, it is not the case that we have a lot of quality Urdu literature graduates or Islamic studies scholars. There will always be room for those who have a passion for a subject and can offer quality. Such people will always be able to make room for themselves.

There is plenty of evidence now, from various countries, that people with a better quality of education, one that allows students to adopt and adapt, are able to survive and thrive much more easily in dynamic settings, and they are also able to cope with shocks much better. And, shocks, one can bet one’s last rupee, are bound to happen over the lifetime of any person and any career in any area now.

It might come across as trite, but it is a fact that people enjoy as well as work harder at things they like/love. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Whether Confucius said this or not, there is wisdom in it. For those who saw the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, do keep the character of Farhan, who wanted to be a photographer but was being coerced into becoming an engineer, in mind. When young minds are forced to study subjects they do not like/love, do not care for, or do not really want to engage with, they consciously or subconsciously resist and rebel. Many still make it through, but their dislike for the subject only increases with time. Further, their love for learning is hurt and their ability to enjoy life diminished.

Some are lucky. They rebel successfully and are able to switch to what they wanted to study. Farhan, from 3 Idiots, was in the end one of the lucky ones. But there are some who are not. Some do so poorly in studies that they are forced to drop out of their universities and colleges. These young people pay a heavy price for either poor advice or the lack of access to proper counselling and guidance services. Even most of the elite private-sector schools do not have proper guidance and counselling services. It is painful to see young minds being destroyed or being seriously damaged over issues that could have been avoided or could have been handled with just a simple but well-informed session with a decent counsellor.

We have only scratched the surface of issues in the area of education and careers. We will return to these in subsequent articles as well.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at LUMS, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2015

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