Friday, December 10, 2010

Carrier Thoughts

As a researcher in education, I make a living these days learning skills to familiarize myself with educational issues. This means that while in the short run, I can identify educational issues, in the long run, I should be will be able to come up with workable solutions for them. One of my not so many strengths in this field is the exposure I have had to the Indian system of education for 25 years, that gives me a somewhat unique perspective on things (or so I like to think). For the rest of this post, I will blabber about things in context to the Indian educational system. Kudos to you if you have enough patience to sit through the end of this post. You don’t have to, especially because it is a Friday night (and not all souls need to work on bettering the educational system alone in the lab on a Friday night), but your opinion on this will be encouraging.

The choice of science as a career is as much a social choice as an individual choice. Opting for science is usually, but not always a conscious decision at the individual level. It happens through layers of conditioning at the individual, family, community, and societal level. In Indian communities more renowned as close-knit communities, a career choice is usually made based upon individual preferences, peer pressure, family values, and even societal obligations. This means you aim for that coveted seat in an IIM not only because you want it, but also because your papa, mama, chacha, dada, bua, tai, and perhaps even the bai and the doodhwaala wants it for you. For some students, choosing science is a way of fulfilling one’s quest of gaining an understanding of physical phenomena through observations, experimentation, and inferences (there was very few students exclusively in this category I would think, the last one being Albert Einstein, who was not Indian). For others, choosing science is a way of meeting one’s individual goal of a perceived notion of a better and successful career leading to better employment (and sometimes most of the times better matrimonial) opportunities. While personal interest plays a major role in students choosing a career, other amalgamating factors familial, socio-cultural, economic, and institutional in nature play a significant role in influencing their career choices.

However, not all students who choose sciences are a good fit to the programs of their choice (how else do you explain science in high school followed by say bachelors in English?). This leads to high number of professional program attrition and significant dissatisfaction and failure after investing time and money. It would thus be useful to get a broader perspective of the personal, familial, and societal factors influencing an individual’s career decision.

Alternatively, it is essential to understand the factors that lead students to reject science as a career option. Does fear of mathematics lead students to opt out of sciences in college even though they were interested in physics or computer sciences? Is fear of numbers a deterrent factor, so much so that you ended up studying say Hindi even though you wanted to study statistics? Does studying science always lead to better employment opportunities and a more fulfilling life? Is individual perception of a successful career choice a function of one’s income (the general perception being science students end up with higher paying jobs than non-science students)? An in-depth understanding of these perceptions evolving around students and society can help educationists understand the gamut of factors that students as decision makers consider before making a conscious career choice. The reason? To maximize the number of students who make conscious career decisions and succeed without having to opt out of a specialization before finishing their degree.

The other pressing problem I can think of would be the underrepresentation of women in certain branches of science, especially engineering. Shall we blame it on the patriarchial society as always, or try to investigate if there are motivational issues as well? Whatever it is, the skewed nature of gender distribution in certain branches of science is disturbing.

The overarching question that emerges is whether social status, better paying jobs, and interest in science are the main reasons why students study science. The overall aim? Maybe to ensure that students are more aware of their career choices when they make them. Maybe to encourage more students to take up sciences through effective teaching methods. Maybe to ensure that students make career choices not only based on social perception but also through interests. Maybe to ensure that ideally, “selection” and not “elimination” is the criteria for education. Or maybe to take a break and think of something different on a Friday evening when others have a life and you are slogging alone in the lab for your exams, fooling yourself into believing that someday YOU will be that educationist who will bring about radical changes (for good hopefully), who the society will look up to.

On this note, I will leave you to carry these ideas in your head and think about them (hence the title of the post, “carrier thoughts”). Or maybe don’t bother. Go enjoy that drink with friends while you still have a life J



Padmanabhan said...

An essay along these lines:

Happy Mind said...

I think this thought of yours is very much true
"Sometimes better matrimonial opportunities."

Partha said...

Previously the career options were Clerk,Doc.s and engineers. But now-a-days things have changed drastically and the young people have wide choice in front of them. But choosing career as per the choice of elders in a no no.

Rajarshi said...

I think the key reason for people (in Indian context) flocking towards science is better employment opportunities (as rightly pointed out by you) which in turn results in the social conditioning you have talked about. However, there are issues with the system as well for e.g. one can't take combinations of apparently unrelated subjects for e.g. Econometrics and Medieval Slavic History (which upto a certain extent is possible in Western countries). Having said that, I don't agree with the fact that all students who opt for science don't have a genuine interest in science (They are atleast not as rare as Albert Einsteins, Chetan Bhagat or no Chetan Bhagat:)). I can't comment on pure sciences but atleast in application sciences (read engineering) I have come across such students. I had people in my batch who lived and breathed transistors, dabbling with circuits, doing projects otherwise not required as a part of the curriculum. However, after passing out many of them had to confront the realities and ended up working as "coding coolies" in one of the IT shops. The sad part is most of such genuine interest types couldn't manage to go to the US universities, reasons were manifold (as against what is the practice in the elite colleges) and most of those who managed to go to the US for a MS, had scant interest in engg. in the first place and ended up doing a MS in computer science after a B.E. in Electrical Engg.

As an aside, I had written this post on the plight of humanities in India sometime back. Though its my personal take, the topic is somewhat relevant.

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year.