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Interests, Work-Related and Otherwise

Career development professionals like to have clients take interest inventories because these instruments are easy to administer and fit well into the dominant philosophy of person-environment fit. This theory holds that people are more likely to be satisfied with and successful in their work if the work environment is a good fit for various aspects of the worker’s personality. Among the personal aspects that contribute to a good or ill fit, interests are usually considered very important, if not the most important.

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Career development professionals like to have clients take interest inventories because these instruments are easy to administer and fit well into the dominant philosophy of person-environment fit. This theory holds that people are more likely to be satisfied with and successful in their work if the work environment is a good fit for various aspects of the worker’s personality. Among the personal aspects that contribute to a good or ill fit, interests are usually considered very important, if not the most important.

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But the psychology of interests can get complicated. This was driven home for me by the results of a survey conducted in September by the Gallup organization for the European Commission, which is the executive branch of the European Union. The survey report is called Young People and Science and shows what was learned from telephone interviews of almost 25,000 randomly chosen people of age 15 to 25 in the 27 E.U. member states. The researchers found that while most young people are interested in science, most don’t want to work in a scientific career.

Specifically, the survey found that 67% of respondents were interested in news about science and technology. This was identical to their interest in news about sports, although quite a bit lower than the figure for news about culture and entertainment (90%). Almost one-third of them had a high level of interest in science and technology. The particular topics that interested them most were “new inventions and technologies” and “Earth and the environment.” Other popular topics were “health and medicine,” “information and communication technologies.” Respondents showed positive attitudes about science and scientists: 82% of them agreed that science brings more benefits than harm; 79% agreed that scientists are devoted people who work for the good of humanity. Even on the subject of genetically modified foods, which are banned in many European countries, 67% of respondents thought research would bring more advantages than harm.

Despite these signs of interest and positive regard, few survey respondents said that they were considering scientific careers. The fields of study that attracted the greatest interest were the social sciences (39%), followed closely by economics/business (36%). Only 31% were considering biology/medicine, 28% engineering, 25% natural sciences, and 24% mathematics. It’s also interesting to note the majors that they said they definitely were not considering: 52% named biology/medicine, 54% engineering, 54% natural sciences, and 57% mathematics.

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The survey asked respondents who were not considering studying engineering, biology, or medicine why they felt this way, and 56% said that they had already chosen their career goal, but 52% of them (also) said that they were not interested in these professions. Only 26% felt they lacked the necessary skills, and almost none (3%) believed these professions paid too little.

Ironically, 90% of the respondents agreed that “young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity.” Although the survey shows that young Europeans do have this interest, it does not translate into a great interest in a scientific career.

The lesson I take away from this is that not all interests are career-related, and that means that we who develop interest assessments must be careful to phrase our items so that it is clear that we mean “Are you interested in doing this (or dealing with this kind of knowledge) in your work?” Questions about people’s favorite leisure-time activities or favorite subjects to read about may lead to erroneous conclusions.

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There are several reasons why people may have interests that are not satisfied by their work and yet still find their work satisfying:

  • Their work may have so many high rewards other than interest–such as income, prestige, variety, or availability of employment–that they are willing to tolerate uninteresting work tasks and situations.
  • They may have interests that are so numerous and diverse that no job can engage all of them.
  • They may have interests in fields where they can never compete professionally. Although interests and skills have a high correlation, some fields such as sports and the arts can be pursued professionally by only a small number of people with exceptional native talent and dedication.

Typically, people in all three of these situations use their leisure time to pursue interests that are  not satisfied by work, engaging these interests through hobbies. For example, I am interested in music but lack the level of talent that would be required for a career in music, so I engage this interest by creating music videos and posting them on the Web (under a pseudonym). Like the young Europeans, I am interested in science and enjoy reading about it in my leisure time, but because I barely escaped a D in high school chemistry I decided not to attempt a career in science.