Survey: College Grads Often Second-Guess School, Degree Choices

Posted By Terri Williams on March 9, 2017 at 8:46 am
Survey: College Grads Often Second-Guess School, Degree Choices

Students attend colleges and universities for lots of reasons, but most would agree the primary objective is to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to land a fulfilling job that pays well. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. According to a recent UK survey of college students, 20% would have chosen a different school if they had it to do over, and 18% regret their degree choices.

In an earlier UK study, more than half of the survey respondents said their parents tried to influence their choice of career, and the majority stated that their parents did – or tried to – pick the school they would attend. These findings are consistent with yet another survey, this one by Scottish Widows, a financial services provider, which revealed that 90% of respondents between the ages of 21 and 65 regretted making hasty career choices.

But regret isn’t just a problem across the pond. Americans also grapple with their college, career, and degree choices. College majors vary by college or university, and students are limited to the choices offered by the school they attend. For example, a student may be interested in robotics engineering, but parental pressure to attend a local college that doesn’t offer anything remotely resembling this major may require the student to choose a major in which he or she has little interest.

Students also choose careers based on job growth rates and earnings expectations. For example, California needs more than 45,000 cybersecurity professionals, and many other states are also in dire need of grads with these skills.  Business is booming for those with a graduate business degree. And certain engineering and healthcare specialties are always in demand.

But students shouldn’t choose a career based solely on earning potential or job outlook data. There are many other factors that should be considered. In fact, a recent report on the degrees with the best and worst satisfaction rates found that some of the jobs with the best job prospects had the lowest levels of satisfaction. Also, some respondents stated that they loved their major, but they ended up not liking the job that the degree led to.

Out of alignment degree choices

This comes as no surprise to Bob LaBombard, now retired CEO of GradStaff, who tells GoodCall®, “According to a recent survey of more than 3,000 GradStaff job seekers, about 60 to 70 percent of college graduates are unsure which jobs best align to their academic backgrounds, skills, and interests.” And he notes that the findings are consistent for STEM and liberal arts grads. “This provides further proof that a specialized field of study – in the sciences or in the arts – does not guarantee a direct path to a lifelong career,” LaBombard says.

Taking the wrong career path or making the wrong degree choices can have several negative consequences. According to Allison Cheston, a New York-based career adviser, “The negative effect of choosing a career you ultimately decide isn’t right for you is in direct proportion to the amount of education and work experience you dedicate to it.”  For example, Cheston tells GoodCall® that students who go to law school or medical school spend a considerable amount of time in school. And this extended education comes at a significantly higher price tag compared to someone with a bachelor’s degree.

Both the time and cost factors can put students at a disadvantage. A few years ago, a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that the average student owed $180,000 by the time he or she graduated from medical school. And in addition to eight years in school (four as an undergraduate), doctors spend anywhere from three to seven years in internships and residencies, depending on their specific field of study.

Imagine a doctor going through this process and then deciding that he or she didn’t really like this career choice. A Medscape 2016 compensation survey reveals that less than half of the physicians in 15 specialties – ranging from general surgery to orthopedics to internal medicine – feel fairly compensated. And if they had to do it all again, less than 60% of the physicians in 11 specialties said they would choose a career in medicine. Less than 60% in 23 specialties said they would choose that specialty again.

And there are other costs for bad career or degree choices. Employee engagement is critical to an organization’s success. Workers who are not engaged tend to have higher levels of absenteeism, are more likely to be low performers, and can also lower morale. And these factors make them more likely to be fired.  (Note: employee disengagement can also be a result of the work environment or the company’s culture.)

Don’t limit career options

But the good news is that college degrees also provide a high degree of flexibility, so graduates always have the opportunity to change course. “Today’s careers are much more fluid, and therefore you see doctors becoming authors or medical directors for ad agencies – you see lawyers running startups, sometimes, but not always, related to law,” Cheston says. This flexibility isn’t limited to physicians and lawyers. For example, she says psychologists can use their training to work in consumer behavior research, organizational development, and executive coaching.

Sometimes, when graduates like some – but not all – aspects of their career, they may prefer to be an independent worker, since this allows them to maximize their strengths.

“I believe that your twenties should be a time of experimentation with different career paths and that no experience is wasted,” Cheston says. “The key is to identify and capitalize on your transferable skills to pivot to a new opportunity.”

Regardless of the course of study, LaBombard believes that there are other factors that determine success. “Many CEOs have liberal arts degrees, which is further proof that career success and satisfaction isn’t a product of your college major,” LaBombard explains. “It’s a product of your passionate pursuit of knowledge, your life experiences, and the skills and abilities you hone along the way.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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