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Very Interesting, But...

The headline on the article (on the site) says it all: "Young people in Europe interested in science, but not in scientific careers." The article reports on a Gallup poll of some 25,000 young people ages 15 to 25 in all 27 nations of the European Union. The poll found that 67 percent of the respondents were interested in science and technology. Interest was much higher among the males than among the females. The most popular topics were "new inventions and technologies" and "Earth and the environment," with almost 90 percent of respondents expressing either moderately or great interest.

However, only 13 percent of the respondents said they were definitely considering studying biology or medicine; 11 percent, engineering; 10 percent, the natural sciences; and just 8 percent, mathematics. Now, it’s true that when you add up all those separate percentages, the total is a respectable 41 percent. However, there probably was some overlap among the categories, with some respondents considering more than one scientific career alternative.

I was intrigued by this research because it demonstrates an important aspect of the concept of interests: interests are not always the same thing as career preferences. People can be very interested in reading or hearing about things that they would not consider engaging in as a career. This means that options on interest inventories have to be worded carefully to indicate a kind of interest that goes beyond informing oneself.

But what kind of interest, then, should be measured? It depends on what the purpose of the inventory is. If the inventory is intended to help a student select a college major (or high school area of concentration), inventory items can measure academic interest. "Would you rather read about ancient cultures or graph an equation?" But if the inventory is intended to help a person choose a career, the items should focus on work activities. "Would you rather bandage a person with a leg wound or convince a client to buy your product?"

Furthermore, the career-related inventory has to focus on the intrinsic satisfactions of working with the objects of interest and avoid consideration of extrinsic rewards associated (perhaps erroneously) with the occupation. If, for example, the inventory asks, "Would you rather work as a physician or a shoe salesworker?" it risks causing the respondent to think in terms of which worker earns the most or has the highest prestige rather than in terms of what work tasks are of greater interest. As my mentor, Martin R. Katz, used to express it, interest inventories that consist essentially of job titles are "asking people to invest the coin that they hope to earn." In other words, if you already knew you’d rather be a physician than a shoe salesworker (whether for good reasons or otherwise), you would have already made that career choice.

The lesson to take away from the Gallup poll is that interest alone, even in work tasks, is not a sufficient basis for a career decision. How many people have abandoned a career that they found interesting but rejected because it did not pay well enough, required working punishingly long hours, trapped the worker in a cubicle, exposed the worker to filth and unpleasant odors, served a soulless corporation, or (in these recessionary times) did not present job openings?