Students should not rush to choose a career

Students should not rush to choose a career

Hundreds of thousands of students around the Arab world will be entering universities in a few weeks, and millions will be starting their last year of high school. All — not to mention their parents — will have their futures and career paths in mind.

In the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which runs every three years and in which six Arab countries last participated, 15-year-old students from 72 countries were asked whether they already had a career in mind, and if so in which profession. Surprisingly, 85 percent of them had already decided, and their choices fell in a short list, with “medical doctor” at the top. Other surveys indicate that youngsters are highly influenced by their parents in making career choices, but not by any knowledge of what is available or even their own social and intellectual interests. I remember being told throughout my childhood that I shall be (not “should be”) a medical doctor, this being the most respectable profession. Thank God I found my own calling — after I entered university.

As I meet students everywhere, and out of respect for my professorial experience and my educational expertise, I often get asked: “What field do you recommend that I follow?” Or, from a different angle: “Professor, I am interested in astrophysics (or mathematics, or some such field), do you think there’s a future for it in our region?” 

I always tell the students: First, no one should tell you what field you should follow, not even your parents; it will be your life and career, not anyone else’s. Secondly, don’t rush to make a career choice, at least not until you have been exposed to enough subjects and had many discussions with professors and experts, and that means not before at least one year in college. Thirdly, please do remember this: What you need is to acquire skills that will allow you to change jobs and even careers in the future, in case (as will almost invariably happen) the economy develops in a new direction, or new avenues and projects appear in your country or region.

Indeed, it is obvious from the PISA data that the 15-year-old kids who were surveyed had little knowledge of what careers are out there or even which ones pay high salaries. Here are the 10 professions that were mentioned, in decreasing order of popularity: Medical doctors, teachers, lawyers (remember, most of the kids were from western countries), police officers, nurses, psychologists, architects, veterinarians, sports players/athletes, and office workers. 

Compare this with the highest-paying jobs in Germany, for instance (according to a 2018 survey): Doctors and dentists, lawyers, engineers, math experts and web developers, research scientists, marketing coordinators, architects, and psychologists. The list in the UK (from a 2017 survey) differs quite a bit: Brokers, chief executives, marketing directors, airline pilots, financial managers and directors, lawyers, air traffic controllers, medical practitioners, IT and telecommunications directors, and financial managers and directors. The list from the US (from a 2018 survey) is dominated by medical practitioners (anesthesiologists, surgeons, obstetricians and gynecologists, orthodontists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, etc.), then petroleum engineers, IT managers, financial and marketing managers, and (perhaps surprisingly) political scientists. 

What you need is to acquire skills that will allow you to change jobs and even careers in the future, in case (as will almost invariably happen) the economy develops in a new direction, or new avenues and projects appear in your country or region

Nidhal Guessoum

What these lists show is two things: One, there is a whole series of professions that pre-college kids don’t even seem to be aware of; and two, there’s a huge difference in the market demand from one country to another. What the lists don’t show, but something we must stress, is that these lists will change significantly in a few years, let alone in a decade or two, when youngsters who are entering university now will be in the prime of their careers.

Last year, a report from the Institute for the Future and a panel of 20 technology, business and academic experts from around the world estimated that 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not yet been invented. And I highly recommend to everyone (students, parents, teachers and officials) to read articles on the web, such as Benjamin Doxtdator’s “A Field Guide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’,” and Mary Ellen Slayter’s “11 really cool jobs that don’t exist today, but will soon” (for example, drone manager and self-driving car mechanic).

Before choosing a career or even a major in college, students need to take the time to explore all avenues: Talk to professors, ask librarians to find good career resources (books, websites and databases), and explore the web. Oh, and yes, they should talk with their parents, but they must remember that it will be their life, and the future will be very different from the present.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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