Opinion | Column

Working for top dollar

human foibles

If you’ve taken a couple of computer science classes at Duke over the last few years, you’ve probably noticed something surprising. No, it’s not the dramatic changes in your sleep schedule or the hours upon hours spent debugging, only to find that you made a dumb mistake in line 2 of your code. Those things, after all, were bound to happen. The answer is much simpler: there are more people in class (and I don’t mean only on exam days).

Yes, you have may have noted that the comp-sci lecture halls seem a little more packed these days than they once were. Perhaps you have considered that your observations were indicative of a larger trend occurring. If so, then you would be correct. Computer science has become one of the more popular majors at Duke, and in a few years, it may very well be the most sought-after degree on campus. Likewise, STEM majors across the nation are becoming more and more commonplace, while the number of humanities majors has fallen in recent years. The data is clear: people everywhere are jumping on the tech bandwagon. But why?

You will likely hear a variety of different answers to that question. People may mention the fabulous amenities available at places like Google and Facebook. Perhaps they’ll talk about the opportunity to work for an industry innovator such as Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison or Jeff Bezos. But in the end, what really appears to attract people to Silicon Valley is the prospect of making money. Nearly seven in ten job seekers during the past year identified “salary and compensation" as being among their top considerations. (For comparison, only three in five said the same about “perks and benefits.”) And with several tech-related jobs now ranking among the highest paid in the nation, it isn’t all too difficult to connect the dots.

At first blush, there appears to be nothing inherently wrong with picking a major due to its expected financial returns. In fact, it may even be understandable, at least to some extent. Nowadays, one of the top desires of a soon-to-be college graduate is security. Those who are not planning on furthering their educations will be thrust into the real world, jarred from the comfort of the routines they have established over the past few years. Faced with such a prospect, it is easy for many to engage in worst-case thinking: they picture themselves homeless and living on the street. The only way to avoid such hypothetical situations, they conclude, is to find a job. And, for reasons ranging from simple greed to the desire to justify the investment of college, this job must pay lots of money.

So, what exactly is the problem? The harsh truth is that most people don’t particularly enjoy their majors. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: the choice that makes the most money is often also the one that provides the least amount of happiness. Is a little extra money worth spending four or so years studying something you don’t like? Many people seem to think is is. After all, they probably believe that they can eventually convince themselves to like their majors, thus removing their initial cognitive dissonance.

But even then, issues can arise. People flocking to popular majors such as computer science will simply saturate their respective job market, potentially leaving many people out of work. After all, if everyone has a computer science degree, then no one has a computer science degree. In addition, those who fail to successfully rewire their interest levels will not be that invested in their chosen line of work. This should probably bother more people than it currently does. After all, do we really want doctors and lawyers who don’t care about their jobs? Indifference in this case cannot be tolerated, especially when other people’s lives are on the line.

You might be thinking, “Well, who cares if people may not be suited to their professions? At least they’ll be making boatloads of money!” That may be true, but at what cost? Studies have shown that a majority of Americans are unhappy at work. Even in the perk-saturated world of tech, employees exhibit signs of dissatisfaction with their jobs. (Things don’t seem to be much different in other countries, either.) What could be going so horribly wrong? People have put forward various theories, but the answer seems pretty clear: when people choose majors they don’t like, they end up in jobs they don’t like, leading to discomfort and unease.

A contestant on a popular Chinese dating show made the rounds on the Internet when she famously declared, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.” It would be easy to criticize her and label her as shallow. Unfortunately, if you apply her statement in the context of majors and jobs, many people seem to share her beliefs. You’ve probably heard it said a million times that money can’t buy happiness, that you should chase your dreams and do what makes you feel happy. But how many people who say these things actually believe them?

It is time to time to let our actions speak louder than our words. We need to stop discouraging people from pursuing majors solely on the basis of hypothetical future employability, especially when our reasoning relies on faulty misconceptions. We need to start asking whether or not some people are good fits for the jobs they want—it may hurt at first, but it will pay off in the long run. And perhaps most importantly, we need to understand that people should be to allowed to strive for jobs they will enjoy and work they will excel at doing. For those currently doing just that: keep up the good work, and continue leading by example.

Ben Zhang is a Trinity senior. His column, "human foibles" runs on alternate Mondays.