Your Major Should Not Define You


I feel that it is a common trend to pursue the career that your degree leads to.

I mean, it makes sense. You study a degree to get a job? Right?!

Well... Perhaps not.

It turns out, the purpose of education is a very deep unanswered hole. Are we preparing people to enter a capitalist workforce? Are we trying to make adults who can compete in a global economy? How about to create emotionally healthy adults who can engage in functional relationships?

Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.
The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

These two quotes come from David McRaney, in his blog post on The Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Essentially, the idea is that we think we're making rational decisions based on what will be good for us in the future. We think that the choices we make are well informed, and unbiased.

However, it has been proven that as emotional creatures, we are tainted by our past investments. When investing in stocks, we are hopeful that our money will return. If we've invested much into a falling stock, we are inclined to believe that the graph will go back up in our favour. Even though rationally it may not. If we've spent four years in a committed relationship, we have bias towards it. Even if it's not healthy for both adults, many will try cling to it, and force it to work.

This idea is called "The Sunk Cost Fallacy". 

Individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort) (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). This fallacy, which is related to status quo bias, can also be viewed as bias resulting from an ongoing commitment. For example, individuals sometimes order too much food and then over-eat ‘just to get their money’s worth’. Similarly, a person may have a $20 ticket to a concert and then drive for hours through a blizzard, just because s/he feels that s/he has to attend due to having made the initial investment. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the extra costs incurred (inconvenience, time or even money) are held in a different mental account than the one associated with the ticket transaction (Thaler, 1999).

Our mind has a separate region for understanding gains and losses. And as time passes, the prospect of losses becomes a greater motivator on behaviour than the promise of gains.

Education is an investment in both (usually) time and money. It takes years to attain a degree, and depending on where you live, may also be very expensive. 

Therefore, when one completes a degree in Mechanical Engineering, they are compelled to work in an engineering field. If you spend 5 years toiling over a specialisation, you want that hard work to payoff. The education you received must be put to good use, i.e. a job, otherwise your five years of your life can feel potentially 'wasted'.

But what if, there was a better path for you than being a mechanical engineer? What if you saw the path of computer science to be more fulfilling and lucrative long term? Would you change career paths? Or would you stick to what you have?

It's a very hard decision, and I think it may be more comfortable to stay with what you know.

However, it got me thinking. Perhaps, the past education of a person could be binding them from doing what they really want. Even if they knew of a better path for themselves, they have already invested too much time and energy into who they are already. To reinvent themselves would not be a stable decision. Essentially, by using the sunk cost fallacy, education may be holding people back similar to stocks. They feel they have invested too much time in a discipline, to let go. 

However, the thing is,I don't think education should be treated akin to a form of monetary investment.

Instead, rather than thinking about education's value in the form of how it helps one get a job- could we not think about it enriching the one being educated. I.e. Education primarily helping the one being educated, rather than being of help to someone else. The educaiton itself intrinsicly being good, compared to, what the education 'buys you'. I think it's much more important to be a happy functioning human being, than to have a optimally paying job.