Thursday, October 15, 2015

What should students pursue, interest or money?

I was attending the 47th North American Power Symposium during 4-6 October in Charlotte, North Carolina when I had this interesting conversation with a professor from another university. I told the professor that I did my Masters in Electrical Engineering and then I moved to Engineering Education to pursue my PhD. The first reaction which the professor had was in form of a comment in which they told me that it will not be very beneficial for me in terms of the salary which I will earn after graduating from my degree program. I think the assumption which the professor made here was that a graduate with an education degree will earn less than the one with an electrical engineering degree.

There might be some truth in what the professor said (although when I compared the salaries of professors from Engineering Education and Electrical & Computer Engineering departments at Virginia Tech, I did not find much difference between them; but for now, let us go ahead with the assumption that electrical engineering professors earn more than their counterparts in engineering education). It might be difficult for me to compete with electrical engineering graduates in terms of the salary which I will earn after my graduation, but is that all I want from my education? A big fat salary? Or does it have to be more? Is there a bigger purpose for me and for others that leads us to pursue higher education?

If I look at the current narrative about the higher education, it seems like students see it as an investment in terms of time and money and the expectation is that this investment will pay off once they graduate from the university. And this is why a lot of their time and energy is focused on taking classes or engaging in activities that help them secure a high-paying job. This is not to say that all students look at higher education only as a means to get a high-paying job but the number of students who do so is significant. And this is very evident in my own discipline, engineering. In fact, I have myself fallen into the trap of taking classes and engaging in activities that, I thought, would eventually help me get a high-paying job.

I am not against having a desire for a high-paying job. In fact, with the rising costs of higher education, one needs to ensure that one has a well-paying job by the time they graduate so that they can payback their student loans. Issues arise when people start constructing their academic lives around money and jobs; and ignore various avenues of learning which are essential for personal growth and development into a responsible citizen. Moreover, there are other issues with focusing one’s higher education entirely on getting high-paying jobs. The economic landscape is changing rapidly and it is possible that the sectors which are high-paying now will no longer be high-paying a few years later and vice versa. So, if students pursue money while they are in college, there is no guarantee that they will succeed in that pursuit as there might not be many high-paying jobs in their fields few years down the line. Moreover, the charm of money fades away after some time and if one does not find their work interesting and satisfying, one might encounter dissatisfaction with their career and life.

In my opinion, students should follow their interests while they are pursuing higher education and try to get into careers they love. Even if they do not make a lot of money as compared to those who pursued money, they will still love what they do and hence live meaningful lives. And when the going gets tough, doing what they love will keep them going.


  1. This is an idea that we struggle with all the time in the arts. I agree with your ideas on students pursuing their interests and talents, but I would like to challenge the notion that the idea of higher education is to get a job. In my opinion, the purpose of liberal higher education is to teach students how to learn, question, and think.

    Too often, faculty and administrators place more value on one discipline than another which seems to be the case of the professor you mentioned in your blog. Placing more value on one discipline than another ultimately leads to departmental silos and results competition for resources. Departments are forced to act from a scarcity mindset rather than a collaborative mindset which negatively impacts the idea of a well rounded student.

    1. Willie, I do not think I mentioned that "the idea of higher education is to get a job." In fact, I was myself challenging that notion. However, I agree that the purpose of liberal higher education is to impart critical thinking to students. But I wonder if that is true for all the disciplines. Especially in my "home" discipline, engineering, I think there is a great emphasis on learning certain skills and emphasizing certain topics as that is what the industry wants.

  2. Well said Willie. I agree completely! So many times people end of working in fields which were much different than those they studied in. Or, even if they remain in the same general field, their career path shifts dramatically from what their training (e.g. coursework) focused on. In addition to teaching students how to learn, question, and think, I would expand that further that higher education should also teach students how to integrate knowledge and experience from one area in to practical applications in other areas.

  3. The simple fact that we must reckon with this question shows how our economic structure is unequal. Compensation is not evenly dispersed. This harms individuals without a college degree far more than ones with one. If you have a job you should have the ability live a happy life without worrying about income.