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College Majors and RIASEC Types (Part 3)

In last week’s entry, I summarized research indicating that congruence or lack of congruence, in RIASEC terms, does not appear to be a good predictor of success or lack of success in a college major. I suggested that RIASEC type (or some other indication of interests and skills) can nevertheless be useful in choosing a college major if we focus instead on the career that the student wants to pursue by way of the college major.

In last week’s entry, I summarized research indicating that congruence or lack of congruence, in RIASEC terms, does not appear to be a good predictor of success or lack of success in a college major. I suggested that RIASEC type (or some other indication of interests and skills) can nevertheless be useful in choosing a college major if we focus instead on the career that the student wants to pursue by way of the college major. This is the approach I used in my book 10 Best College Majors for Your Personality (JIST Works), and in this week’s entry I’d like to consider one of the implications of choosing a major on the basis of one’s career goal.

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One issue that arises is the relationship between the skills required by the occupation and those required by the related major. If students have reason to believe they can handle the skill requirements of the occupation, will they be able to handle the skill requirements of the major?

I investigated the skill requirements of majors by looking at occupations linked to them according to a crosswalk, developed by the National Crosswalk Service Center, that connects programs in the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) taxonomy to the job titles used by the U.S. Department of Labor in its O*NET database. I computed verbal skills for majors by taking the mean of the ratings of related occupations on four skills used in O*NET: oral comprehension, written comprehension, oral expression, and written expression. If more than one occupation was related to the major, I used a weighted average based on workforce size, so that occupations with a larger number of workers had a greater influence on the skill ratings than did small occupations.

My results uncovered some anomalies: instances of mismatches between the skill requirements of the occupation and of the related major. For example, the physical therapy major was rated 35.6 (on a scale of 0 to 100) for mathematics skill, on the basis of its being linked to the occupations Physical Therapy and Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary. This seems like a fairly low level of skill, but when one looks at the course requirements of the major at several colleges, it turns out that students are often required to take courses in analytic geometry and calculus.

I found a similar disconnect for the industrial and labor relations major, which is rated 46.6 on the basis of its linkage to the occupations Compensation and Benefits Managers; Business Teachers, Postsecondary; Compensation, Benefits, and Job Analysis Specialists; and Employment, Recruitment, and Placement Specialists. A course in calculus, perhaps called calculus for business and social sciences, is often required for this major.

This is a pattern I have observed many times as I have examined the requirements of various college majors: They frequently require a higher level of math skill than the related occupation demands. Here are a few reasons why I believe this happens:

  • So students will understand the theory and philosophy of the subject. Often important theories are based on scientific evidence that can be explained only in mathematical terms.
  • To leave open the door for advancement. Some students, admittedly a small group, will want to pursue the subject at a level beyond what is typically required for entry to the occupation and therefore will need to have advanced math skills for that advanced study. Other students later may want to advance in their field to a management position that also will require higher math skills than are typically needed by practitioners. If students do not learn the preliminaries as undergraduates, they may have difficulty mastering more advanced applications of math later.
  • So practitioners will be able to understand researchers. In many fields, practitioners are encouraged or even required to keep abreast of research findings. However, researchers in most fields tend to use math at a higher level than do practitioners. If practitioners are to make sense of research findings, they need to have some grasp of the math used in the research.
  • To test persistence by creating hurdles. Some fields are highly competitive, with many more aspirants than the workforce can absorb. One way to weed out less committed students is to challenge them with difficult math courses.
  • To create well-rounded citizens. A case can be made that knowledge of math is useful in areas other than work, and therefore a certain basic level of math competence should be required by colleges regardless of one’s occupational goal. This argument makes sense only if the math requirement is the minimum set for students in all majors, or perhaps all majors within one school of a university.
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