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Examining Educational and Career Choices & Trajectories through the Lens of Culture and Sociology

How are students and graduates adjusting and adapting to the realities in their educational and career trajectories? What role does culture play in the sociology of education? How are attitudes towards higher education changing? These are just some of the many questions being addressed over the course a two-day conference entitled ‘Cultural Sociology and Education: Meanings, Choices and Trajectories’ that is being held on December 1-2 at the HSE Institute of Education in Moscow. HSE News Service has spoken to two conference participants, James Hurlbert of Yale University and Amy Binder from University of California, San Diego.

An Information Problem

The issue of information and how it shapes expectations related to education and career trajectories is an area of particular focus for James Hurlbert, whose talk at the conference is entitled ‘“A Ferrari on Cinder Blocks”: Underemployment Among Professionals’.

‘There is an information problem that seems to run through professions’, Hurlbert said. ‘One part of that problem is the internal heterogeneity of professions that isn't well understood outside of them. By internal heterogeneity, I mean life for a country doctor looks vastly different than life for a cardiac surgeon, as life for a corporate attorney looks vastly different than a solo practice family lawyer. I'm not saying that here distinctions are unknown outside of their perspective fields, just that fields tend to be seen as monoliths from the outside, and people can be surprised after they enter them.

‘Underlying this issue is a perception of injustice. For example, people often sense that they've worked hard and played by the rules. To have that effort not be compensated in a way they deem appropriate can be offensive. Again, we come back to an information problem, in that it's very difficult to understand what one's day to day practice will be like, as opposed to one's educational training. To me, that is the fundamental issue’, he said.

Technological Disruption and Professional Underemployment

Related to the information problem is the technological disruption that is facing many professions, particularly those that can see large numbers of jobs outsourced to less expensive labour markets or replaced altogether by technology.

Mastering a distinct professional knowledge base is necessary to enter fields, but we can also teach skills applicable outside those fields

James Hurlbert
Graduate student, Yale University

‘From telemedicine to online universities, a lot is changing. Technology tends to disrupt fields and can often lead to highly stratified outcomes’, Hurlbert said. ‘In terms of response, that's more complicated. I think we need to be honest about the end game for professional education. It's nice to have people more educated, but when they are taking on significant amounts of non-dischargeable debt, employment outcomes are hugely important. The issue with technological disruption is that it's almost impossible to predict.

‘My advice would be to exercise optionality, that is, never put all our eggs in one basket. Mastering a distinct professional knowledge base is necessary to enter fields, but we can also teach skills applicable outside those fields. Most importantly, we can be clear about how all fields are open to rapid disruption by technology’, he said.

Culture and Attitudes towards Higher Education in the US

Alongside the misalignment between the expectations that students have and the future realties they face in their chosen careers, the wider issue of attitudes toward higher education, particularly in the context of culture and sociology, is also being explored at the conference. Amy Binder, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of California, San Diego, gave a keynote address entitled ‘What Is Missing when We Overlook Culture in the Sociology of Education?’

According to Prof. Binder, there are many debates swirling around higher education these days. In the United States, one set of issues concerns the rise of college cost and the related problem of heavy student debt. A related set of issues concerns the politics of higher education, including government retrenchment from funding public higher education, which has caused tuition at public universities to rise. In the US, there is also concern with the increased presence of for-profit universities, which are often ‘diploma mills’ that prey on less informed and vulnerable student populations, such as returning veterans, low-income students, and non-traditional students. Equally disruptive has been the rise of online learning, both in the form of MOOCs, which have very high attrition rates, and university-based course offerings, which can be isolating for students.

Incredibly intense structured recruitment systems run through career services centres for finance and consulting jobs at Harvard and Stanford universities, which bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to these campuses, which then leads to an enormous amount of talk on campus about these jobs, and a sense among many students that these are the best jobs you can get, even if they have aspects that students admit are absolutely terrible now

Amy Binder
Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies, University of California

There is a fascinating debate in the US about whether the national goal should be to enrol a higher proportion of students in higher education, or if it is necessary to move beyond the ideology of ‘college for all.’ On an array of topics, there is debate about the representation of poor and non-white students in college and their ability to do as well as their more affluent peers. There is higher concern than ever about sexual assault, which has been handled very poorly in the past. Finally, there is a deeply troubling trend in which political conservatives, in particular, are sceptical about academic elites, including those who study climate change and other pressing global issues. 

Career Aspirations of Elite University Students

The research project of Prof Binder centres around the question, ‘Why do so many students at elite universities end up in such a narrow band of first jobs—investment banking and other financial services, management consulting, and high tech—particularly very well-known Silicon Valley social media firms?’ In their comparative case study at Harvard and Stanford, the researchers discovered that students don’t come to college wanting jobs in these three sectors (in fact, they don’t even know what investment banking and management consulting are), but over the course of their time in college, they come to view jobs in these sectors as being highly prestigious. Using a cultural-organizational analysis, Prof Binder and her team explored the mechanisms for shaping students’ interpretations and aspirations for these occupations.

‘In brief, we found that incredibly intense structured recruitment systems run through career services centres for finance and consulting jobs at both universities, which bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to these campuses, which then leads to an enormous amount of talk on campus about these jobs, and a sense among many students that these are the best jobs you can get, even if they have aspects that students admit are absolutely terriblenow. Firms such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, which don’t sell products so much as symbolic value, link their fates to elite universities by promising to hire hundreds of students each year, which allows them to brag to their clients that they hire ‘the best of the best’.’

We also found that high tech jobs compete with finance and consulting jobs for prestige as first jobs and enjoy much more of a halo effect as excellent jobs because there is almost a mythology around Google or Facebook or Twitter in the United States. And while we found that there is some level of start-up fever on these campuses, students who talk about high tech are much more likely to grant prestige to gigantic established social media companies. We think the huge pull toward these sectors has many deleterious effects, among them a loss of talent for jobs in other sectors, such as clean energy, education, academia, and corporations that actually produce things rather than services, as well as a sense among students that if they don’t get one of these jobs, they are not living up to their universities’ reputation.

Some students have the impression that it is important to succeed alone—that independence in achievement is the most academically honourable route. In my experience, that is totally, utterly false

Amy Binder
Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies, University of California

We were surprised that a lot of students at Harvard and Stanford were not excited about the jobs they were marching off to. They felt like they ‘had’ to take them, because they are the jobs that continued to signal the ‘best of the best’ aura that these students had come to compete for.’

The research team has done a bit of preliminary work using LinkedIn data to look at elite universities in England. They found that Oxford and Cambridge seem to have the same sending patterns to banks and consulting that Harvard and Stanford do.

Ability to Ask Questions and Build Ties Makes Good Researchers

As Prof Binder notes, she has been incredibly fortunate educationally, finding mentors and advisors at every juncture along the way. ‘Neither of my parents finished college, and no one in my family pursued education beyond the bachelor’s degree, so sociologically speaking, there wasn’t a great chance that I’d have my PhD today.’

She believes that one of her greatest strengths is knowing the limits of her current knowledge and having no problem asking ‘dumb questions’, whether the topic posed to teachers and professors was ‘What does this reading mean?’ to ‘How did you become a professor?’ ‘Some people don’t like to appear naïve or unschooled, but I asked all the questions I could, and it allowed me to access information that I wasn’t even aware existed. Incidentally, the lack of self-consciousness in asking questions is probably also what makes me a reasonably good qualitative researcher and interviewer. Often the most naïve questions elicit the best responses from interviewees.’ 

For both undergraduate and graduate students pursuing their PhD, Prof. Binder emphasizes the benefits of building strong ties with professors (and classmates). ‘Some students have the impression that it is important to succeed alone—that independence in achievement is the most academically honourable route. In my experience, that is totally, utterly false.’ 

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service 

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