The Only Major That Matters

In a few weeks I’ll start my fourth semester teaching. In general, I’ve been very pleased with my students. They are far more serious than I was at a similar stage in my education, and a lot more hard-working.

I would advise them to do a couple of things differently, however. The most important recommendation I have for them is to de-emphasize, in their own minds, their identification with their major course of study. Most of my students are science majors or engineers. I do not mean to denigrate the importance of what they’re studying or how hard they have to work to succeed in these areas. They do exhibit a tendency, though, to think of themselves as a “type.” This extends to the nonscientists as well. The minority of my students with liberal arts backgrounds seem to feel that they are not only lacking in scientific or mathematical ability, but lacking the aptitude as well.

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These comments are common:

“I don’t really have a mathematical type of mind.”

“I’m just a plotter. I lack creativity.”

I discuss this with the students during the last lecture each semester. They are selling themselves short by assuming that despite their advanced educations, they each possess only a limited skill set and a restricted capacity to learn and function.

I challenge the students to forget that they even have a major course of study. Only one skill set matters, I tell them. That skill set includes the ability to ask the right questions, gather data, solve problems and communicate the answers. Whether or not these skills are applied quantitatively, descriptively, in pursuit of measurable outcomes using reproducible experiments, or by thought and interaction is much less important than the ability to apply the framework to whatever challenge they encounter.

There’s a tendency within academia to assume that career paths are linear and predictable; that is, specific study leads to a more specific skill set in a way that narrows down one’s core competence and produces a very narrowly defined setting in which one can function.

Not true. In reality, poets can be surgeons, engineers can be journalists, and thinkers and problem-solvers can be anything.

When I set out to teach business and commerce to scientists and engineers, I probably unwittingly played right into this type of parochial thinking. Clearly, a focus of my future in teaching should be to broaden the range of platforms onto which my very diverse students can apply their many talents.

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