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When to Specialize?

November 25, 2009

The idea that a higher education is primarily about accumulating skills tends to gain currency in times like these, when students -- and, for those of traditional age, their anxious parents -- watch the ranks of the jobless grow steadily. The sort of exploration -- even dabbling -- in which many students have historically engaged may seem like a luxury in an era when vocational interests might seem to trump all others.

The traditional argument against such an approach is that exposure to a broad array of subjects and educational approaches helps students develop as engaged, thoughtful citizens and in other important ways. But a new study suggests that giving students time to figure out their academic paths may actually result in their making better career choices, too.

The study, which was published by (and is available for purchase from) the National Bureau of Economic Research, was conducted by Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy.

As a high school student in Hong Kong, where he was trained in a British-style secondary school system, Malamud contemplated attending a university in England, but hesitated because the postsecondary system there would have required him to choose a major right out of high school. Mechanical engineering attracted him, but he was unsure enough about it -- and reluctant enough to commit -- that he wound up going to college in the United States.

As is obvious from his title, Malamud wound up not becoming an engineer, but his experience left him wondering, as a labor economist, about education's relationship to and impact on career choice. "There's a lot of attention paid to the role of a college education in helping students accumulate skills they can use in the work place, but quite a bit less to what education teaches you about yourself -- about your talents and tastes," says Malamud. "This study was designed to test whether education provides information [about the student] as well as skills."

To try to answer that question, Malamud compared entering college students in England, who apply for a specific field of university study while in high school, with those in Scotland, who enter a broad "faculty" for their first two years and typically specialize in a single discipline only for the second half of their time at a university. (The Scottish model is much more closely equivalent to most undergraduate education in the United States.)

Malamud tracked graduates from the two countries' postsecondary institutions into the labor market to see how closely aligned their career choices were with the fields in which they specialized in college. (Some of the connections -- mechanical engineering to mechanical engineer, say -- were much clearer than others, such as historian to, say, librarian or archivist, Malamud acknowledges.)

Malamud's thinking was this: "If education was just about accumulating skills, and you specialized really early" -- as the English students do -- "you'd be much less likely to switch out of your field, because you'd lose all the skills you accumulated.... You'd expect a place like England to have fewer switchers, because students have a lot more to lose."

In fact, the data showed that students who emerged from the English institutions were about 20 percent more likely than their peers in Scotland to end up in careers that were not aligned with their university majors. The patterns hold up not just immediately after graduation, but six years after students left college, too.

English students, Malamud says, "were specializing so early that they're making more mistakes."

The students at Scottish institutions, by contrast, seem more likely to have chosen to study fields that successfully aligned with their career interests, says Malamud, success that he attributes to the time and freedom they're given to experiment with a broad range of fields, and to learn both what they like and what they're good at.

Malamud's study, so far, doesn't answer the question of whether students who are given more time to specialize necessarily end up making the right choices, either for them as individuals or for the economy; satisfaction surveys or earnings data some number of years after graduates enter the work force would be required to try to get at that, he notes.

But he does posit -- without great data to back it up -- that someone who (like he almost did) "specializes too early in mechanical engineering, only to switch to economics, probably would have been better off majoring in economics from the start.... When you specialize later, you can avoid making mistakes, avoid losing skills, and seem to end up better aligned and better matched."

 

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