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The best and highest paying careers: Do students really know what they want to study?

How much will I earn? What is the starting salary?
What will others think of me? How prestigious is the profession? These are just some of the questions that many students ask as they sit down to select a course to study and pursue later on in life. It is often an understated fact that students rarely know what they want to study. Ask any group of teenagers and the list of careers that they want to pursue are likely to be the same. Studying medicine, engineering and law is seen as the apex of the intellectual and academic journey. Of course, this trend is slowly changing, as other role models such as musicians, radio presenters, TV and news anchors enter the picture.

For most schools, students select their course choices in Form Four, and many of them are ill equipped to know what courses are best suited for them. By then, the brightest students will have set themselves apart and will be actively encouraged by their teachers to pursue the lucrative courses. If one is in a good school, there will be a career counselor to guide them through the process, but few schools have such luxuries. The situation is even worse if one is in an ill equipped school, where there are few teachers to teach the basic subjects let alone act as career counselors to the students.
When the KCSE results are announced, the students who will have passed highly enough will wait for the Joint admissions Board (JAB), to sit and select the cut off points for university entry. As the performance has gotten better over the years, so too has the Jab cut off points increased. Currently, the JAB cut off points to universities hovers at around grade B. For the 2010 KCSE students, the cut off points were 63 points for the male students and 61 points for the female students, and also students from the marginalized areas.
These days, being admitted to your dream course through JAB is a lottery of sorts. Consider for example that in the 2011 KCSE, about 1900 students attained straight As. One is pretty sure that a majority of such students have selected medicine as their first choice. However, since there are only about 200 or so places in our medical schools, then there are bound to be over 1700 students who will not be picked to pursue medicine. If we consider that for example, the top performing school, Maranda High school, had 97 straight As, then the statistics look grim. If we just picked Alliance and Maranda alone, then they would fill almost all the places in our medical schools. Those are just two schools alone. We haven’t even taken account of the top ten schools.

When JAB meets to select students for the regular program, it sets the cut off points for each course. The courses with the highest cut off points are usually Law, medicine and electrical/computer engineering. Even though the admission process is on merit alone, in some instances, at least implicitly, some diversity and affirmative action may be undertaken. For instance, for a medical class to be truly representative there will have to be sprinkles of students from some marginalized areas even if they may have scored a point or two lower.
Many JAB students are routinely frustrated as they fail to get their first degree choice. In fact, sometimes, it seems as though the board is shrouded in mystery, with students being thrown into courses they sometimes never even selected in the first place. For some students, they do recover and embrace their new courses, whereas for others, the downward trend in the academic charts begins.

In this, the parallel degree students and those who join private universities are lucky. Once they meet the basic minimum requirements of a C+, and a C in English and Math, then they can pretty much be selected to pursue any course. However, some of the professional courses may have a higher cut off point than the minimum C+.

One remedy that has been proposed to meet the student’s career dilemma is allowing the students to sit for a variety of courses in their first two years before they finally select their degree specialization in the third year. Whereas it looks impractical for some, it actually is quite practical when looked at in detail. In this new dispensation, a student that has been selected to pursue electrical engineering could in the same breath take history, sociology, and business management classes and so on. Apart from making the student unearth her innate talents and inclinations, the student will also come out all round. One might argue that a science student has no business sitting in arts classes and vice versa, but the benefits largely outweigh the negatives. For instance, the student will be more rounded and appreciate many disciplines and thus gain an insightful knowledge and even change the course mid way. This system is applied in many leading American universities, where students are admitted without any designation of the degree they are going to pursue. The students are then left on their own to chart their way forward.

One aspect that has been overlooked is that courses are rapidly merging. For instance, courses such as engineering, business and computer Science/ Information Technology share many aspects. It is perhaps with this realization that companies are now hiring from a variety of courses. It is not uncommon these days to find biotechnology graduates working as bankers, engineering graduates working as bankers, teachers working as human resources professionals etc.

For many companies, the basic degree or diploma enables one to work in many disciplines. What the employers are saying in effect is that the skills that they seek in potential hires can be acquired from a variety of disciplines. Such skills as communication skills, problem solving, hard work and creativity can be acquired from many disciplines. What employers would consider more is how highly the students passed. They can also unearth such skills by administering aptitude and personality tests.  

In fact, one problem that has made many students change professions is their unsuitability to certain professions. For example, it is a well known fact that even though you can get great grades, but you do not love assembling and dissembling objects or being generally curious, then you might not make a very good engineer. Similarly, if one doesn’t have the flexibility of their fingers and have a sharp visual sense, they might not make good surgeons. Equally, if one doesn’t have the strategic flare to make effective judgments, then they

might not make great managers even if they got great qualifications in business management. In the same breath, if one isn’t highly creative and artistic, then they might not make the best architects even if they graduated at the top of their class. With this realization, many companies and career coaches are now conducting personality tests so as to know where to post their would be workers. 
The rise in popularity of the management trainee recruits or graduate trainees is partly born out of this fact. Many leading companies administer graduate recruitment programs. This are in principle put in place to hire the Fresh graduates. They are then put in training, where they are taught several aspects of business and then posted to departments where the company feels that their talents match. In many such companies, the programs usually take about two years. It is not unusual to find a biochemist being sent to the marketing department and so on. Such companies have been visiting campuses as they try to recruit students fresh out of university. They usually organize with the career counseling department.   

The career counseling department in universities and colleges has often been laid back. Apart from the one or two guest speakers that are often invited to speak to students, many of the departments do not have much in the calendar. In the proper sense, the career counseling would have started right from the day the student enters college up to the day they leave, even better when they leave with a job in hand. It has been argued that many college and university students do not have the requisite communication skills.

 Drafting a CV, a key requirement for anyone applying for a job, is a matter that is rarely emphasized by many universities. This is in spite of the CV being such an important tool in the job application process. Equally, carrying out of mock interviews is something that is not given much priority, leaving many students to certainly fend for themselves. Some universities have instituted measures to track the career path of their former students, but they are few and far between. Such universities and colleges are at least able to modify their programs to ensure that all their graduates are employable.

Still, one of the reasons that graduates change their career paths is the relative pay of the professions. In this, engineering graduates have been among the worst affected. Many have abandoned the profession and now work in banks and other financial institutions. According to a research done by the Pricewaterhousecoopers in 2009, the highest paying professions were in the Finance industry. It is for this reason that this sector tends to draw in the best and brightest graduates from all the other professions. One of the reasons for the rapid rise of the Master in Business Administration (MBA) course is that many students want to change to the highly lucrative but fluid financial sector. For such graduates, the fact that they spent four or five years on something they are not practicing does not hold water.

The money rules, the money is king. And who is to blame them, when all of us are chasing the big money.
However, some parents are enlightened and have realized that there are many ways that their kids can excel apart from the mainstream professions. Take today’s Kenyan musicians for example. They are not the struggling Hardstone and Kalamashaka that were able to just get by on their music. They roll on the fastest cars, and live on the fast lane, hardly the kind of lifestyle one would have expected them to live ten years ago. Nameless, Redsan, Amani, Wahu, Jua Cali and others are showing the way. And they have proved that school doesn’t have to be the only way one earns a living. Okay, some do have degrees of course. Nameless for instance has a degree in architecture, while Wahu has a basic degree in Mathematics and a masters in communication. For them, they were able to combine their education together with their talents and passions. Nameless for instance once stated that music and his architecture degree complement each other as they both require some extensive creative abilities. For such professionals, their academic experiences complement their passions and talents.

In the same breath, news anchors and radio presenters have also become the new celebrities, and taken off the shine of traditional professions. In fact, many youngsters
these days mention such media personalities as Julie Gichuru, Munene Nyagah, Caroline Mutoko, Shaffie Weru amongst others as their role models. While some may bemoan them for taking over the journalism profession at the expense of the journalism graduates, they have managed to stay at the top of the game and help their stations soar to great heights. The high pay for such professionals has effectively shattered the myth that one has to enroll in the glamorous professions
to excel in life. It should however be noted that many of the news anchors possess qualifications in other areas, although not necessarily related to journalism. The ability to connect with the audience and the in depth knowledge required to stay ahead of the pack and stay relevant has made journalism one of the most competitive careers in the country. Like Finance, many graduates are also trooping to the profession, partly due to the high pay and partly for the need to become easily recognizable, be a public figure and even a celebrity for some.

Even for those that feel they didn’t enroll in the courses they deemed were suitable for them, all is not lost. The parallel degree option as well as the opening of places in Private universities and middle level colleges has spawned many opportunities for students who would have otherwise had very few alternatives. For those already working, many leading companies now do not pay a high regard to the degree or diploma, as long as they possess the basic skills for the job.

Follow me on twitter at @cmabinda

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  1. its time kenyan varsity bloggers came together
    this might just be the solution

  2. hi,which are the most marketable courses at jkuat nairobi campus

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