Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Universities have to stop this nonsense about research and majors; Southern Utah?

As it happens I spent last week at a resort in Southern Utah (my wife’s choice.) We did various outdoor activities, sometimes with guides in a place that looked like this.

I spoke at length with one of the guides about his life. He is a young kid and I was wondering what his plans were. I assumed he wanted to continue to live in the area. He said he did. I asked him what else he was doing. He told me he was student at Southern Utah University and that he was majoring in botany.
I know universities pretty well, but I had managed to miss this one. What I didn’t miss was the idea that he was majoring in botany. Really?
I looked up SUU and found their botany major page which includes the following testimonial from a successful graduate.

Name: Vicki Tyler
Graduated: 2002 Double Major
Biology/Zoology & Communications/Public Relations
Current job: Natural Resources Specialist,
Bureau of Land Management
"I would put my education at SUU up against almost anyone’s! I loved the undergraduate research opportunities and feel I had the opportunity to do some research that most students only get to do at a graduate level. If I could pinpoint one thing that I really learned from ALL the professors in the SUU biology department, it was “application” - putting those things we learned to use in the real world. This alone has benefited me more than you will ever know, and has enabled me to compete for a variety of wildlife/biology related jobs. Keep up the good work SUU!"

Apart from the fact that this woman wasn’t actually a botany major, I couldn’t help but wonder how many jobs there are with the Bureau of Land Management. But what caught my eye is what she said about research. This is consistent message from all the top universities. Research is what they teach, not job skills. But SUU? Surely this isn’t a hotbed of research nor is that what their students should be learning.

When I questioned our guide about the wisdom of being a botany major if you want to continue to live in Southern Utah, he told me that his friends thought he would be better off as a chemistry major.
So I checked the SUU successful graduate page for chemistry majors. Here is the man they have up there:

Name: Joseph E. Carpenter
Graduated: Class of 2005
Current job: Graduate Research Assistant
Princeton University
"The diverse opportunities for research and rigorous academic requirements at Southern Utah University provided the training and knowledge base that have enabled me to achieve my highest academic goals."

Now, as a professor, I recognize this version of success. He got to go to Princeton so he is the best they can even think about producing. (The fact that he is still a graduate student 8 years after graduation I will ignore.)
Note again the emphasis on research. I guess SUU is just a research mecca. Somehow I missed it.
But my guide didn’t want to be a chemistry major to do research. He heard he could get a job in pharmaceuticals. Is there is pharmaceutical company in Southern Utah?  
Universities around the world are doing their students a serious disservice. They act as if the most likely and best job a graduate will get will be in research and that students go to a university in order to become researchers. This is very sad, a waste of money and a waste of human talent. There relay aren’t that many researchers, but there are a lot of unemployed graduates.
There aren’t that many employed art historians either, another possible major at SUU:

Name: Kari Elizabeth Lowell
Class of: 2010 Southern Utah University
"My experience with the art history program at SUU has opened my eyes to a new way of viewing and interpreting art from past decades. The professors in the art history department are very knowledgeable, inspiring, and personal."

Notice that this art history graduate is not employed. Why is there an art history major at SUU?
I checked one more, economics. Another success story:

Name: Jeff Dotson
Class of: 2002 Southern Utah University
Current job: Assistant Professor of Marketing, Owen
Graduate School of Management,
Vanderbilt University
"I loved my experience in the Economics department at SUU! The quality of instruction and personal attention provided by the faculty was excellent. Not only did they help me gain a solid understanding of the fundamentals of economics, they helped me develop a passion for the subject that ultimately led me to graduate school. As a graduate student I was as well, if not better prepared for advanced studies than the majority of my peers."

When I was at Yale I used to remark that Yale was in the professor training business. That is not so terrible because professors have to be created somewhere and Yale is one of those places. Occasionally, I suppose, SUU creates a professor as well. And, that is seen as a great success of the system. However there are 7000 students at SUU and there will not be very many professors produced out of that group.
Now, I know nothing about SUU. Never heard of it before. And that is precisely my point. Take a look at any university and you will hear about its excellent track record in research and how it teaches students to do research. They can’t all be excellent research places and research is not all that important to the average student. 

SUU ought to try counseling its students about job opportunities before they select a major. All schools ought to do that, but believe me they don’t. 

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