With graduation season fast approaching, it’s a sure bet that seniors will be told once again by commencement speakers to follow their passion. For those lucky few whose interests happen to lie in science, technology, engineering and math, the advice is music to their ears because they know they will be earning a respectable salary doing the work they love. Until recently, however, their peers seemed doomed to extended periods of unemployment and disillusionment. But a 2011 study by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project partially calls that assumption into question (“What to Do If Your Child’s First Love Is ... Art,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 9).
Of the 13,500 arts graduates at 154 institutions, 92 percent of those seeking work after graduation found it, and 66 percent reported that the first job was a close match of the kind they wanted. Despite the low pay, they said they were “very satisfied” with the work and the opportunities it provided. In contrast, the Gallup organization in 2013 found that only 36 percent of executives, 34 percent of doctors and 31 percent of teachers were engaged in their work. (I haven’t seen any data about satisfaction for those exclusively in STEM jobs.)
So it comes down to whether money is as important as we assume. That’s a question that is highly personal. I have many friends in medicine and law who are totally disaffected despite earning impressive incomes. And I know many young people who still find gratification teaching despite the relatively low salaries. It’s impossible to know beforehand how anyone will feel down the line. The point is that there is hope for graduates who shun the traditional paths to wealth.
I think the key is to take a hard look at one’s reason for choosing a major and then applying for a job. Parental and peer pressure play a powerful role that is not fully appreciated. Because I graduated from an Ivy League university and my father worked for the same Wall Street investment banking firm for his entire 50-year career, all my friends assumed I had it made. But I had absolutely no interest in the field. I knew what I wanted to do and followed my inner voice. I never regretted my decision to become a teacher. I wish the same satisfaction for others.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.