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Perceived job prospects impact concentration choices

BEO, economics concentrators likely to choose course of study based on career potential

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2016
This article is part of the series Spring 2016 Poll

Students concentrating in business, entrepreneurship and organizations or economics were less likely to indicate passion for the subject as the reason behind their concentration choices than students in the humanities, social sciences other than these two concentrations, life sciences and physical sciences, according to the spring 2016 Herald poll. In total, 92.5 percent of students listed passion for the subject as a factor in their concentration choice, while only 81.1 percent of BEO or economics concentrators said the same.

Seventy-seven percent of BEO or economics concentrators indicated that “chances of employment” were a factor in their choice of concentration, while just 31 percent of humanities concentrators indicated the same, the poll also found.

“A fair number of students” choose concentrations in BEO or economics to jumpstart careers in consulting, finance or business, said David Weil, professor of economics and chair of the department.

Brendan McNally, interim director of the BEO program, said the same of that concentration.

“BEO is ready-made” for students who have a “pretty good idea that they want to work in corporate America or professional jobs,” he said.

The “sciences, engineering and economics” are generally seen as more secure pathways to careers than concentrations in the humanities, Weil said, adding that this notion is not unfounded. “If someone said, ‘I am concentrating in comparative literature because it is more likely than other concentrations to lead to employment,’ I would question their wisdom.”

But some economics concentrators do not see their studies as a pathway to a paycheck.

“There is a mismatch between the aspirations of (some) economics concentrators and what the economics department does,” said Brandon Chia ’19, an economics concentrator. “Economics is misinterpreted by some people as something that very naturally leads into areas of consulting, investment banking, finance or technology, when in reality, it’s a specific mode of thinking,” he said.

There are some “shadow economics concentrators” who choose economics because it’s a “presentable degree,” Chia said, adding that “the ambitions of economics students are not to be economists, whereas engineering students want to be engineers.”

Disparities also exist between the motives behind declaring economics and BEO.

Yidi Wu ’17, a joint economics-philosophy concentrator and editor-in-chief of Post-, The Herald’s weekly magazine, chose economics over BEO because she had a desire to understand global phenomena and how people make decisions. “I heard BEO wasn’t a real major,” Wu said, referring to the concentration’s reputation as lacking rigor. She hopes to find a job with a small consulting firm after graduation.

Jeff Biestek ’17 chose to concentrate in BEO over economics because he hopes to start his own business someday, and BEO was the course of study most relevant to entrepreneurship, he said.

In spring 2014, a Herald poll found that “humanities concentrators indicated more concern about employment prospects than those studying the social sciences, life sciences or physical sciences,” The Herald previously reported.

Humanities concentrators “are concerned about career(s) but don’t choose based on career,” Weil said.

“It’s a red herring to suggest that humanities concentrators aren’t going to get a job,” said Ethan Pollock, associate professor of history and Slavic studies and director of undergraduate studies in history. “Those who get into Brown have already won the lottery.”

History concentrators are doing better than the average Brown graduate, Pollock said, adding that the percentage of recent history graduates who are either employed or attending professional or graduate school immediately after graduation is higher than the overall percentage for University graduates.

“The trick is to excel in your concentration. It doesn’t matter what concentration you’re in,” Pollock said. “Employers are valuing the ability to read, synthesize, make arguments, communicate, write well and do research.”

“When you study what you love, you do it with enthusiasm, and it allows you to develop expertise,” Pollock added. “The trick is to master skills and apply them in a range of ways, rather than just getting a stamp saying you had this or that major.”

Several sources noted how the structure of the University’s curriculum and its changing demography impact students’ concentration choices.

As a liberal arts school, the University does not have pre-professional majors such as accounting or finance, so many students choose economics or BEO because they think it’s a path to a more “traditional business career,” said Matthew Donato, director of CareerLAB.

In previous generations, colleges admitted more wealthy students who didn’t need to worry about debt, Weil said, adding that “these students didn’t need specialized training to get a job — they could study art history and get a high-paying job.”

“It’s not my place to say to some kid who is coming out of college with a lot of debt, who is maybe a first-generation college student and who doesn’t have a family safety net: Follow your heart and don’t do something you think is practical,” Weil added.

Others downplayed the link between course of study and career.

“I’m a big advocate for disconnecting concentration from career planning,” Donato said. “Economics is a bad proxy” for students trying to get a job in finance or consulting, he added.

“Everyone should choose fields that they’re passionate about,” since there do not seem to be substantial concentration-based discrepancies in employment, Pollock said, noting that any number of concentrations will allow students to develop the skills that employers seek.

Students cited several other reasons for choosing their concentrations. Of BEO and economics concentrators, 36.9 percent indicated that their family influenced their concentration choice, whereas 25.1 percent of students overall reported the same.

BEO and economics concentrators were also the least likely among students to cite faculty members as an influence in their concentration decision — only 12.3 percent reported that faculty members had played into their decision. But 32.5 percent of students concentrating in the humanities said the same.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Brandon Chia ’19 said that economics concentrators are not interested in becoming economists. In fact, he was referring to some economics concentrators.