A few days back, I received a call from a friend whom I had not met for a few years.

“I wanted your advice on what subjects my daughter should choose after completing her 12th grade,’’ he said.

“It was a challenging question for me; I did not have easy answer”. I told him what subjects to study depends on a range of factors, such as “your daughter’s interests, preferred career destinations (Nepal or abroad), her academic track records, your family’s financial capacity to pay for tuition and other educational costs, and so on.

This was not the first time I faced such education related questions from friends and relatives. But most of the time I responded them vaguely. This time I was prompted to explore a little more on issues of academic choices, so I would be in a better position to explain if others turn me for suggestions.

After all, the task of career choice is a critical challenge everywhere. Just look at this report from the Guardain (22 Jan 2013, by Tristram Hooley):

“Learning how to manage your career is a lifelong process which needs to start early on in secondary school. But government policy is leading to less rather than more career support for young people. Career management is not just something that those in danger of slipping into unemployment need to be good at – all young people are presented with a host of difficult decisions. What subjects to choose? Sixth form, college, apprenticeship or work? Which university will be best? Stay at home or live away? All of these choices have huge implications and young people are likely to need help to navigate them”.

Does your degree best fit into the job market?

Only a small proportion of educational institutions, degrees and courses are serving students well by actually providing them relevant skills to perform at the job market. A survey of 1000 industry leaders and academic managers published in Forbes magazine in 2015 shows that only half of the graduates were deemed fit to take job at the time of graduation in the United States. This proportion is even worse in the developing world.

This means graduation does not guarantee your job as all the universities are not producing job-oriented graduates. As a consequence, employers ask fresh graduates to work as interns, mostly without pay for some time before they decide to offer new graduates paid jobs. A professional media writer has written in the Guardain: “As a young professional, I undertook no fewer than five unpaid internships or work experience placements before securing a permanent job”. Likewise, for many graduates, higher degrees also seem to be a waste of time and resources, as graduates end up doing things not related to their formal degrees.

What subjects to choose?

In the article entitled what business needs and what education provides, Josh Bersin writes in the Forbes: “We don’t have a job crisis in the world, we have a skills crisis.” This is a real pathetic situation meaning that our education system is not in accordance with the skills required in the job market. Such mismatch adds difficulties for students while choosing Universities/collages, locations, degrees, and subject areas.

Education is also linked closely to students’ aspirations for migration and mobility. These days, a large number of students of the developing world want to pursue higher education in the Western world. If a student wants to work and live in a Western country after completing education, studying abroad seems a reasonable route to choose. Remember, all degrees you achieved in the Western universities are not equally good in the job market even in the country you studied. The case of developing world is different – a lot of what you learn in the Western universities may not work for you when you return your home country.

Does your degree match with the skill requirement of your country?

When the supply of educational degree and the demand for job skills does not match, the degree you get can only add more misery and challenge to your life.

A few years back, one of my colleagues who did a PhD in biotechnology returned to Nepal. After a year of failed effort in trying to find a job that could match his skills and degree, he left Nepal. It was also not possible for him to initiate a private venture either, the way medical doctors set up the private clinics on their own. The thing here is biotechnology was a subject offered by the Western Universities, a Nepali student picked up without knowing the job prospects at home.

The problem with Western education for returning students is simply a technical misfit. For instance, students of forestry in a US University are usually asked to focus on trees and forests. This is not unreasonable for an ecology focused course. Some courses are more interdisciplinary, providing students to look at how communities interact with forests. However, these courses do not contain information about the kind of poverty and poor people who live in and around forests in the developing world and how vital are there forests for their everyday livelihoods. In this case, students are not trained to tackle interconnected problem of poverty and forests. Returning home (developing country) with the knowledge not relevant to their home country can turn into a nightmare in relation to finding an appropriate job.

Problem starts from home

Education in many developing countries has its own problems that are even more serious.

My recent interaction with dozens of students studying in Nepalese and Indian universities (including those doing Masters and PhDs) confirm that there is very limited amount of critical thinking and analysis students are required to pursue. Western educational institutions far much better in terms of critical pedagogy, but the context misfit outweighs any benefit accruing from pedagogical benefits.

The most revealing case through which I learnt such pedagogical difference is from my own daughter’s reflection. After she completed the last two years of primary school in Melbourne, Australia, I asked her what differences she noticed in Australian and Nepalese education system.

“In Nepal’s math course, I just memorized a math formula without knowing what it meant, and here I understood how that formula works,” she replied.

This also reminds me of the Indian movie ‘Three Idiots” which exposes the problems of rote learning practice in India. This is problematic but has been a norm in South Asia. The schools include quite tough study materials in the curricula, but invest too little in making teaching methods effective and learning oriented. As a result of this, students ended up getting a degree rather than acquiring most out of their school education. Remember, the quality of education is the key to determine your future career and personal development.

The situation is not same everywhere. Even within the developed country such as the UK, studies show that geographical inequality significantly determines educational attainment, as per the report published by Guardain. Same is true in South Asia. Students living in and around New Delhi have access to much higher quality education than those living in Assam. This is one of the reasons why young people think of moving away from home town while choosing a University.

What subjects to study?

Besides location and University pedagogies, what subjects to study in the University is important while deciding the right educational institute.

Although there is still an intense pressure on students to choose highly acclaimed subjects such as medicine and engineering, this has reduced significantly with the introduction of new subjects and a range of new specialization areas where students can excel.

It is also important to note that a subject is not good or bad in itself; most subjects have good prospects in the job market, especially if you are among the top twenty percent.

For the majority, a careful subject choice becomes even more critical. This is where students and parents need guidance and specialist advice. My advice here is to use a clear navigational framework before you make your decision.

How to choose a right course?

In my view, the navigational framework can be seen as one consisting of a range of questions that need to be tackled in choosing locations, institutions, degrees, and subjects. These are as follows.

First, there are questions related to career: what kind of career a student enjoys – such as outdoor (like a civil engineer), lab-based (like a pathologist), community based (like a social worker), exotic context (like an astronomer or pilot) and so on. A person who recently joined civil engineering in the University of Sydney said to me: he joined the course because he liked outdoor jobs that involved moving from place to place.

Second set of questions involve ascertaining student’s competency level as per the requirements of the prospective academic institutions. These cover a wide range of areas such as choice of subject, language skills, and computational and numeracy skills. Often these determine a student’s likelihood of securing admissions with scholarships in universities abroad.

Third question is about your financial ability to invest your University fees. Many students go abroad on loans and are hard pressed to work to pay the loan back. This undermines educational achievement and subsequent employ-ability.

The four question is what is the job prospects of the subjects that you may choose to study. For instance, is the job prospect for a particular subject likely to change by the graduation time? This is probably the hardest question, but with some expert consultations on a narrow range of subjects, it is possible to arrive at some sense of how job markets are likely to evolve.

Finally, questions about which subjects to study and where have no simple answers. It is important to look at the prospects, competencies, career preferences, and the ability to finance. A simple approach is to think, explore, and consult knowledgeable people before making a final choice on the University education that will have lasting impact on your life. This is the age of internet which you can utilize to select and use information for a best possible career plan.