From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some Unsolicited Advice for My Students, Both Current and Past

"You can not tell how the dots will connect." Steve Jobs

In this post, I am doing something, I almost never do - give advice when it hasn't been requested, but I hope you will read what I say and consider it.

Earlier this week, I posted to FaceBook a link to an article in The New Republic entitled "Bad Job Market: Why Media Is Wrong About Value Of College Degree."The gist of the piece is that "[Nothing] has stopped the nation’s leading news outlets from regularly publishing terrifying stories about college graduates unable to find decent work, particularly during economic downtimes when unemployment and insecurity were on the rise." The author's claim is that these reports are just wrong.

I happen to agree with the author. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that "Adults age 18 and older with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $51,554 in 2004, while those with a high school diploma earned $28,645." Those without a high school diploma earned an average of $19,169." If you happen to have a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degree than your prospects are even brighter. Check out the data from PayScale.com.

But there's more to the story.

A degree is not a guarantee of a job in the field. I have often used my friend's experience to show the utility of a physics degree. One Ph.D friend after graduating went to work for the research and development department of Goodyear Tire Co. Another used his skills with computers and landed a position at an Austrian bank. Another one who earned an M.S in physics is leading the development of chips for the cell phone industry. Yet another friend has had success in IT. Four physics students of mine from Whittier College went on to engineering jobs at Boeing.

John Shumway, physics professor at Arizona State, commented on my FB post that universities are promoting the idea that a degree is some sort of ticket to a job, and he's right - they are not. There's a big push in the California community colleges to create more Associate degrees. Why? For those transferring to a four-year institution, the A.A. and the A.S. won't mean much beyond the sense of personal accomplishment. The biggest reason for the push is someone decided that a community college would be rated on the number of degrees it awards. Some CCs are actually going through the records to find former students who are within a few courses of a degree and encouraging them to return and enroll in those courses.

But there's more to the story.

Life sometimes sucks. And it sucks now. The guy who worked for Goodyear - he is now seriously underemployed. Prof. Shumway related that he knows too many people with all levels of degrees who are having trouble finding jobs. Just a couple of days ago, I chatted with a former student of mine who recently graduated and was getting phone interviews, but couldn't get any further.

But there's more to the story.

Very few people follow a path in life. I won't bore you with the various forks in the road I either chose or were chosen for me. The important thing is what Steve Jobs said. "You can not tell how the dots will connect."

So now for the two pieces of advice.

1. Everyone will tell you to study and get good grades. True, but in a few years, no one will ask you what grade you got, because no one will care. What will make the difference in the long run are the skills you develop.

2. There's some truth to the saying "it's not what you know, it who you know." Develop a network. Keep in touch with your classmates. If you have the chance to go to SACNAS or the Society of Toxicology or a meeting of any professional organization, GO! Say "Hi", shake hands, exchange business cards, follow up. You never know.

Good luck!

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