The science of it

And here I was doubting the choices I had made. It’s only after I completed my bachelors, masters and then another qualification to boot which required three exams and close to a thousand hours of studying, did I realize my jahilpana when it came to science and how it is actually  kind of disabling.

I am almost entirely na-aashna with even basic principles of science. Although like typical little girls my goal too was to become a doctor, such ambitions quickly went poof when I struggled to enjoy middle school science classes. The teacher failed to keep my attention. I have always been unable to motivate myself to study something if the teacher sucks and if I disagree with their teaching/testing methods. And suck this one did. I couldn’t make much sense of what she taught and the classes bored me no end. So when the time came to choose subjects for O Levels, my only criteria for picking courses was to pick the non-sciencey ones.

Other people couldn’t believe this of course, since being a nerdy kid unquestionably implied studying science. Humanities was supposed to be for the less brainy ones. But I guess I have always gotten a kick out of breaking stereotypes. I stubbornly refuse to follow the herd if I don’t agree with conventional “wisdom”.  And so I happily embarked on a life devoid of science, feeling liberated that I could study only what interested the science-teacher resenting fifteen year old me.

Fast forward to eight years later. Engaging in conversation with people from a non-business background, I became aware of the gaps in my knowledge of how the world really works.  And I began to wonder if choosing to run away from high school science had been such a smart idea.

But khair, the point here isn’t to question my choices. It’s more about how, regardless of what you pursue, many people later feel that they chose wrong. And what is perplexing is how this is true both from the sciencey perspective as well as non. When I read the view from the ‘other’ side, it sounds all too familiar, and so this post on Knowledge@Wharton actually made me doubt having the misgivings that I sometimes do (note the double negatives please).

The article talks about how trying to figure out what is going to get you a great job in future doesn’t really work out so well. The “moving target” of the skills in demand in the future is difficult to hit since you start studying for it well in advance of entering the workforce, only to be faced with a new reality when you do. It talks about how science was the way to go in the US, but today PhDs in scientific disciplines such as chemistry and neuroscience are struggling to find relevant jobs.  Pretty alarming figures of the unemployment rates in technical fields are cited in other similar articles along with anecdotes of people wanting to get out of science.

Ironic, given how I had started thinking that our parents’ generation had it right when they were pushing their kids to study science.

And this is how it was in my field. Back when I was at university, the country’s economy was doing great (or so the economic statistics indicated) and the financial sector was booming. You majored in finance (the only alternative being marketing) if you were a smart kid and were all set to make big bucks once you graduated. The thing is, the world changed during that time. The big bucks aren’t that big in finance anymore, at least in Pakistan. It’s tough to get a job in the financial sector across the globe. Basically, what was supposedly going to guarantee you a future rolling in money back then probably isn’t going to do so today.

Against the backdrop of the recession of the past four years, I thought this problem was isolated to business and finance graduates. Apparently not. Those in techie fields are complaining about it too. Where are all the jobs then? News reports which talk about severe skill shortages in the US such as this really leave me puzzled, when science, humanities and business graduates all seem to be complaining how jobs have disappeared. Really, what’s going on?

I guess it’s more about being flexible and adapting to the needs of the job market instead of regretting the path you have taken (although if you go and study something obscure as 17th century literature, you can’t help but blame yourself for your lack of transferable job market skills). It’s difficult to forecast what specific fields will be the most in demand in future when the world is changing at an unbelievable pace. The future may be unpredictable, but being ready to reinvent yourself is crucial in ensuring you are not left behind. This line from an article on Big Think really puts things in perspective: “20somethings who sit on the sidelines because of a bad economy will never catch up with those who figured out how to get in the game”.

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