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The Carletonian

Too many CS majors: A symptom of a bigger problem

The bachelor’s degree has come under more scrutiny in recent years. A four-year institution is not a guarantee of a career like it was in the past. If a graduate’s job search goes poorly, people say it’s their own fault for picking a “useless” major. As a result, college students are planning for their future accordingly. 60% of Carleton’s juniors and seniors are majoring in a STEM field, and the computer science major has surged to 11% of students with declared majors, which is a problem due to the motivations behind the trend. I argue that these motivations do not consist of a sudden collective fascination toward STEM, but rather an  intense pressure on individuals to sell themselves for a higher price.

The shift in subject engagement away from the humanities and toward technologies is happening nationwide, even globally; it is not limited to Carleton. If there exists a visible trend of punishment towards humanities graduates, then prospective scholars will think twice before becoming one. This punishment exists in the form of driven job displacement. Artificial intelligence (AI) is all the rage: for the first time, long and advanced compositions do not necessarily have to come from human beings. The possibility of outsourcing much of our human effort in thinking and writing is appealing, despite the novelty and pitfalls of current advances in automation. Although we may eventually reach a point where we realize that humans are indispensable, short-term efforts to cut costs will get us into a lot of trouble before we are forced to confront that fact. 

Generally, even if a person is better than a computer at performing a task, they are at risk of being fired if the computer proves more cost-effective. You don’t have to pay a text-generator a living wage. It’s no wonder our CS department is so crowded: to be in the field is to better avoid the danger of falling victim to structural upheaval perpetrated by short-sighted management. It’s better to be the steamroller than the steamrolled. Individuals must perpetuate the ideas and demands of their environment, or else they are more likely to face financial insecurity.

This is not to say that something like a philosophy major won’t augment, even transform, a career in other fields. However, it’s harder to justify an undervalued major by itself, or a single, standalone bachelor’s of arts. These achievements are seen as more of a stepping stone for further pursuits in education. While this isn’t necessarily bad, many people simply cannot afford to stay in education for years after college.

Only a few decades ago, college-goers didn’t have to wonder if their experience was a worthwhile investment. Non-marginalized members of previous generations were able to get pensions for long-term work, and eventually land 2,000 square foot houses and afford to have multiple children as secretaries or janitors. Nowadays, the practice of changing jobs can actually increase one’s salary. This is because the long-lived concept of employee loyalty has evolved into a way for company owners to squeeze more profit from workers for less compensation. Due to this, wages have stagnated, and jobs in STEM have started to be viewed as the only ones that pay decently. Humanities majors are unsurprisingly on the decline, and humanities students indicate regret about their choice of major at a much higher rate than students in STEM. 

While two-year trade schools and research universities focus on streamlining students into stable careers which reflect the desires of today’s employers, liberal arts colleges continue to preach the intangible value of being “well-rounded” in a world that is increasingly oriented towards specialization. It’s not that certain professions on the chopping block aren’t valuable anymore, so much as they aren’t valued as much as they should be. Our world would benefit if a wide variety of subjects were paid well.

An argument can be made that if new fields come about with required skills that are beyond what was received in a formal technical education, a liberal arts education may allow one to pick up on the unfamiliar more quickly. However, employers are notorious for demanding experience. A humorous example frequently given is the requirement of five years experience in a field that’s only been mainstream for two. To this end, you have the “well-rounded,” inexperienced prospect that only starts to learn in a job field once it is explicitly in demand, and then there is the “single-minded” prospect who racked up three years experience by working in the field while it was developing. The pressure to foresee the skills that employers may or may not desire is especially pertinent for a student who is pursuing a bachelor’s of arts. This increases the odds of one’s choice of major being based on financial stability rather than enjoyment. The CS major is a means to dive deeper into a field in demand in order to compensate for the potential inadequacy of a liberal arts education.

We do require breadth in knowledge to flourish as scholars as well as human beings. Unfortunately, this experience is not definitively rewarded in the hard-and-fast, distressing job market we currently face. Employers, especially for large companies, require more and more internships, projects and work experience for “entry-level” jobs. This trend, coupled with the reluctance of employers to train new recruits, demonstrates that you are valued by how early you plunge into a narrow field.

Right now, I’m looking to go into math or physics, yet the urge to drop my current plans and declare a major in CS constantly pulls at me. Not because I enjoy the subject (although I do), but because I feel like if I don’t, I’ll be shunted aside later on like the human computers of the ‘60s before the profession was destroyed. Except, this time around, I’m not sure that enough new job fields will manifest themselves like they did in the past. It seems like a wild gamble that future developments won’t exacerbate the inequalities we already have.

The range of decently-paying careers is narrowing with higher living costs, and there’s less certainty around housing and other basic necessities. If students felt free to learn what they wanted to without the impending need to eat something and live somewhere, then there wouldn’t be congestion in a major where students feel like they have to specialize in order to live.

Then again, maybe there really is just a disproportionate amount of students nowadays who very much enjoy computer science. Maybe it’s some combination. All things considered, CS is a fascinating and exciting subject with limitless possibilities. I understand that I am not an expert on the job market, and am very much misguided in some of my remarks. If you’ve read this far, I hope that you succeed in whatever you happen to enjoy.

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    JosephApr 18, 2024 at 11:49 am

    Fantastic work! I think this is a very humble, very unique take on the CS job market. Thank you.