Help for a fifteen-year-old deciding on their educational options
October 2, 2022 1:45 PM   Subscribe

My niece will have to decide on their A-Levels soon. They have no idea what they want to do at university or for a career. Do you have any advice about how to narrow down career choices?

This is in the UK so children who are planning to attend university have to choose A-Levels at fifteen or sixteen to study from age 16 to 18, and then apply to university for one subject (occasionally two or three in the case of joint degrees). So it's a considerable narrowing down of choice from the eight to ten subjects studied at GCSE.

My niece, who is writing this with me, is finding it very difficult to decide on A-Levels because they don't know what their university or career goals are. They enjoy science and are considering Chemistry and Biology at A-Level, but also like arts and humanities and are thinking about History, Geography, Sociology. They are creative too but so far have preferred to keep art and craft as hobbies. They do know that they want to attend university.

They have done an online career suggestion tool recommended by their school, which suggested podiatrist for no obvious reason.

How do you decide on career goals? How did you, or young people you know who are at that stage, narrow down their choices?

We understand of course that choices don't have to be final and that a lot of people end up in jobs that are not connected to their degree subject.
posted by paduasoy to Education (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is well worth a small investment in the Jackson Vocational Inventory. The results are very detailed and clearly explained and at this age they're actually actionable.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:00 PM on October 2, 2022

I am from the US. I got a history degree, and then they kicked me out with the degree before I could really sink my teeth into the sciences.

Based on my experience, I would recommend that if they're interested in Chemistry or Biology, do that. It's a lot easier to pick up history by, e.g., reading metafilter than it is to pick a basic background in chemistry (if you ask me).
posted by aniola at 2:30 PM on October 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Personally if I had to do it again, I'd go for a joint degree with one in the sciences and one in the humanities. For balance.
posted by aniola at 2:31 PM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

If their goal is to keep their options open and they are planning to go to university in the UK then, for better or worse, the most useful A Level by far (in the sense that it’s strictly required by the most undergraduate admissions requirements, and it covers material that comes up in some form in any science degree) is maths.
posted by caek at 2:54 PM on October 2, 2022 [11 favorites]

It's hard as a teen to connect academic subjects and interest/aptitude in them with actual careers. If they enjoy science, I'd say that is a gift and possibly more immediately translatable to a career than the humanities. But inclusion of the humanities is also important to becoming a good thinker and problem-solver.

One thing that would have helped me a lot (coming from a blue collar/working class background) would have been to see more careers in action to help shape my thinking about how my educational choices might play out as a career. There were no "professions" in my family, as I was the first generation to attend uni. I really couldn't visualise what it meant to work in different professional fields, and how do you choose what you can't see/imagine?

When you are a young person, careers tend to be very abstract, so could you introduce your niece to some adults in your network to better understand different career options and the studies required? At 15, my understanding of the range of possible careers was extremely limited. There's certainly a lot to be said for following the subjects you like and that come more easily to you, but might you be willing to stretch yourself a bit if you knew what that might make possible?
posted by amusebuche at 3:11 PM on October 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

The first and most adult question your niece should to answer is, "do I want to work for pleasure or am I willing to work just for a living?"
posted by Stuka at 3:36 PM on October 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

In the same vein as what caek said and work backwards from what their degrees they can imagine applying to require. You want to avoid closing a door you later want open. I'm in the US so have no practical experience (there's probably still an unsubmitted UCAS form in my mother's filing cabinet), but my cousins who ended up doing English and History did a number of "irrelevant" subjects at A-Level. I got the impression that was common for more academically able students who weren't interested in degrees with highly specific subject requirements. (IIRC, one did Chemistry and dropped the "Higher" part of Higher Maths after a year (just sitting the Maths A-Level) and she was someone who was pretty clearly heading into the humanities all along.)
posted by hoyland at 3:47 PM on October 2, 2022

I wish a question that was posited to me as a youth looking at their future was "what do you want your life to look like, as a whole?". Thinking about your whole life, the whole of your time, can help provide context to how you want to earn to support that life (and how much you need to earn).
posted by vividvoltage at 3:58 PM on October 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

Sure, an education is supposed to be well rounded but you can always learn more about stuff that interests you. When I was doing an MSc in economics, most of the books I checked out of the library were German and English literature. I am now a finance professional and any non work related reading I do is about history, art, cooking and sewing as well as a bunch of fiction. There is no age limit when it comes to learning. You can also always re-evaluate your career choices and pivot in another direction. Her A-level subjects will make it easier to go in certain directions but they are not determining the next four decades of her life. Remind her that she can always change direction. It gets more difficult to start again after you’ve been on a path for a long time, but it’s not impossible by any means, even in the UK.

That being said, what does she enjoy doing and what does she find easy to do? What plays to her strengths? There is no reason to make your life harder by not playing to your strengths, be it in obtaining an education or in working.

Of course it’s good to challenge yourself and to get out of your comfort zone every now and then. But if you have to spend the bulk of your time doing things that don’t play to your strengths that is simply exhausting and not sustainable. And a lot of careers that require higher education will require sustained effort for many years after graduation. So playing to your strengths is often the difference between enjoying your job or not and between having the energy to pursue various other interests outside work or not. So I always recommend people play to their strengths.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:42 PM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Stuka and vividvoltage expressed more succinctly what I'd been mulling and hadn't formed into a clear enough thought to post. So here's my long, waffly version!

Actually, deciding how she wants to make these kinds of decisions for her life might be a useful exercise in itself. Is she the kind of person who wants and needs a long-term plan, or is she someone who feels hemmed in by long-term plans, and would be happier following her nose, and hoping that results in some nice surprises along the way? Will she be happier knowing for sure early on (as sure as one can) that she'll have financial security, or be able to afford her own home some day, or would she rather not think about those things until later in life? Would she be happy doing the most interesting job available to her throughout her life, even if it meant having less money than her friends and peers?

I definitely took the route of studying the stuff I found most interesting (arts and social sciences) through my A-Levels and then degree. Even when I graduated I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I finally found a career - journalism - but have very much been someone who felt like a long-term plan sucked the joy out of life. I've been lucky enough to trip over some incredible adventures that I could never have planned for. I earn a lot less than my university peers and sometimes feel sad that I can't afford a house with a garden, or expensive holidays. But I wouldn't have been a management consultant for any amount of money and I think I probably made the best decisions for myself overall.

I will say that while not screamingly wealthy, I absolutely had a level of privilege in terms of a supportive and financially secure family as a safety net, that made that kind of approach more doable for me than it would be for some other people. One of my oldest school friends who came from precariously self-employed parents became an accountant because she saw what her parents had and didn't want that precarity for herself. It's not just the knowledge of a spare room to go back to if you need it, it's the sheer innocence of not knowing how it feels when a yawning financial black hole opens up underneath you. That comfort and innocence can embolden you to take more risks, just follow your interests without fixing on a specific career path etc. So that's one thing to take into account.

That said, my friend's 16 year old daughter who is from a financially secure family, already has a long-term financial plan stretching through to her late 20s, several part time jobs, is zeroing in on jobs that pay well, plans a lifetime full of skiing holidays, and I'm in awe of her focus and planning. Horses for courses.

Now, I'm not saying that all the interesting jobs pay badly and all the well-paid jobs are boring (though maybe I am a bit - ha!). There are, I assume, some people who are fascinated by the kinds of jobs that also pay great money and hoo wouldn't we all like to be them?! :)

But I think what I am saying, is that if you don't care as much about the long term plan or the money, you can proceed with less certainty, hop around a little more, just study what interests you even if it's unconventional, and make decisions based on the short-term, not long-term. So working out where she falls on this spectrum might help guide her decision-making process a bit.

if she contemplates this kind of thing and realises she wants a certain level of income and a predictable career path, and to be planning well ahead, that probably points towards A-Levels that will get her onto degrees that will have more obvious vocational applications and outcomes (let's face it, that's more likely to be STEM rather than arts); if she's more of a wanderer, that frees her up a bit more to just pick whatever lights her fire right now and figure if it doesn't work out she'll steer a new course later.

Also: Those career questionnaires! I swear I got podiatrist and prison warden! Are they just set up to try and funnel kids into under-subscribed professions?
posted by penguin pie at 5:37 PM on October 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: How many A levels will she be doing? I'm way out of touch, but in my day it might be three or it might be four (or, as for us, it might be four with a strong expectation one will be dropped after a term).

And here I'm going for the 'future view' of how useful they might be, but she has to balance that with the 'present view' of whether she can get good grades in the subject (which means maintaining a level of interest in it for the next two years, among other things).

If she is considering taking her chemistry and biology forward into STEM (and those two lead into a wide range of subjects, as diverse as medicine and geology) then maths would be a really good fit, if she feels she can handle the course. It's also the most widely applicable for a lot of other subjects and keeps her options wide open.

I'd also think about A levels that aren't widely taught. I doubt all sixth forms teach sociology, so universities are not that likely to make it a prerequisite for their courses. So that one is good if it's a subject she can do well in, but it's not so useful in terms of keeping options open until she's ready to choose a university subject.

If it were me, I would probably be a bit methodical about this: first just do a hot/cold test on subjects that she might consider at university (yay psychology, no maths, hell no Anglo-Saxon) - perhaps even look at universities at roughly the level of grades she might get and browse their prospectuses to see if that triggers a gut feeling. She does not need to know the career she is going for - I certainly didn't at that age - but she might have a sense, however vague, for whether she could specialise in a given subject for three years without getting frustrated. That should make it a bit more clear which A level courses will help the most.

Bear in mind, course does not necessarily dictate career. I know many people in software engineering with a different degree, and it was legend at our university that most chemistry graduates ended up as accountants. Of the management consultants I've met, I don't think a single one of them did undergraduate business or accountancy.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 6:55 PM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

(Also, I got astronomer. That would have been a terrible idea. I thought of it like that trick where you flip a coin to answer a question and the answer you're really looking for is whether you want to flip the coin again...)
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 7:00 PM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I like the book What Color is Your Parachut?
posted by NotLost at 7:06 PM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've only taken the equivalent but actual A-levels are also still pursued here for many reasons, but considering her inclination, I'll agree with everyone else on Maths. On the more humanities-inclined track, I recommend either Geography (Definitely something to this subject -- studying the science of places should expose her to sociological, anthropological, and political dimensions, not to mention some history and it might give her a taste on focusing on something a bit rigorous methodologically while also getting into that study of human civilization) or Philosophy (I'd rather this over English, and you'll need some intro-level courses anyway should she branch into politics or similar disciplines anyway).

In any case, if she does have the aptitude for both general tracks (sciences and humanities), there is plenty of need for good science communicators (and that basic family of skillsets) down the line in terms of careers.
posted by cendawanita at 7:18 PM on October 2, 2022

If I could do it again I'd become an industrial designer (medical instruments, chairs, tools, objects, physical interfaces), it's a bit like (some) fine arts degrees in that you get to learn a whole stack of ways of making things. A degree like that would be expected to be very interdisciplinary and is also an opportunity to find something that really gels and switch to that

I have a few friends who are licensed Surveyors and that too has a good mix of indoors, and out, and teaches a lot of practical skills, as well as theoretical.
posted by unearthed at 8:12 PM on October 2, 2022

Best answer: I'm going to go against the grain here and suggest that this girl NOT think about this decision in terms of shaping The Entire Rest of Her Life.

She already has a goal for the next 5-7 years: attend university.
In order to make her A-level choice meaningful she needs to narrow down that goal.

- Where does she want to study? Does she have any ideas for universities already? Or a type of university e.g. campus vs. city? Russell Group? Does she want to go to Oxford or Cambridge?

She can be aided in thinking about this by looking at prospectuses, doing online tours/open days, talking to people she might know about the university they attend. Reading prospectuses is useful because it gives a picture of the kinds of courses on offer and what their requirements are, and will give an idea of the kind of graduate employment options available as well.

- What areas of her GCSEs does she most enjoy? Does she prefer coursework or exams? Which of her teachers did she get on best with? Can she have a chat with them about her strengths and weaknesses, where they think she might be heading?

For me, the university experience and the course itself are more important than just the subject area.
I went to a London university for a History degree, which turned out to be too stressful of an environment for me, and too boring of a course. So I dropped out.

When I reapplied, I went to a campus university in a small city to do Eng Lit and made sure the course modules covered areas that I was interested in.

If she can get an idea of the kind of course she might want to do then she can work backwards to make sure her A-levels aren't actively going to rule out her application.
For some courses they might not even need specific subjects, just grades.

For example, Geography at UCL requires AAA but no specific subjects (other than UCL's preferred A-levels, though I imagine Geography would be helpful).

But Biochemistry requires AAA with mandatory Maths, Chemistry and Biology.

In general humanities courses are looser in their subject requirements, while STEM are very specific. If she can decide on STEM vs humanities this will really help.

If she's able to do 4 A-levels rather than 3 this will obviously give her more flexibility. For example, she could keep a humanities subject in her pocket even if she focuses on STEM.

Another anecdote: my friend from my BA days initially applied for Biology, transferred courses in his first term to History, and now 10 years on works in forestry in Canada!

Overall, the second most important thing is getting a good-quality degree from a respectable university, and the MOST important thing is that she has a good time at university. Getting a first or 2:1 from a good university, which is what will open doors for her future career, is only possible if she enjoys her degree :)

For me and my friends, feeling like our degrees defined our lives and potential careers was really stressful and stifling, and really hasn't been true in the long run. This applies even more for A-levels! If she picks subjects she enjoys, which keep her options reasonably open, and which don't rule out something she might end up wanting to do, she will be fine!

Also, EVEN IF she ends up doing all humanities A-levels and a humanities degree, and then decides she wants to become a doctor, there are postgraduate options that she could pursue to do that.
posted by Balthamos at 12:23 AM on October 3, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, this is helpful. The question is less "what should niece do?" and more "how does one decide?", given the usual suggestions of "do what you enjoy" and "do what you are best at" have not helped them to narrow it down, so the answers about different ways of thinking about this are most useful. I will note though that the only A-Levels which are definitely off the table are maths, physics, philosophy and foreign languages, and yes, niece is likely to choose three subjects rather than four. So part of the problem is that if they keep options open for science degrees by selecting biology and chemistry, that feels like it is closing down other options as they would only have one slot left for another subject.
posted by paduasoy at 12:28 AM on October 3, 2022

I'm only going to gently push back on maths being off the table only because she seems dead set on science. But nothing more complicated than the basic maths (no need for pure or further maths in my mind), unless she's arguing she'll be picking up sufficient applied maths in those two subjects? I didn't bring this up but there are going to be concepts that would invaluable for her especially in the social sciences subjects she seems keen on -- i'm thinking of sociology but definitely also politics (based on my time there though mine is at graduate level), or even economics (god forbid). I'm basically talking about statistics, but also network theory and understanding how to present data will be invaluable, imo. But who knows, maybe by the time she's picked her university degree, those subjects will be offered in the first year (certainly, statistics was a 'recommended elective' when I did politics) as remedial.

my background at the equivalent level of education was in the 'science' track, and while I don't know how her GCSEs were like, my only comment about the two science subjects she's narrowed down is that they're also quite different conceptually, especially when taught at that level. So I get the amount of effort she would be needing to spend. I'm trying to not let my bias for biology show, so if she has to drop one, I'd say to stick with chemistry. But seriously, if she wants to keep her options open to also include the social sciences, maths will be a necessary evil at her level.

The other thing that's worth considering (maybe not by her directly, unless you think she's got the mental fortitude for it and/or define themselves as an academic high-achiever) is that once she gets in uni, she'll be meeting not just British kids, but British Commonwealth kids. To a child, they probably will already have an O-Level grounding (or the IB equivalent) in maths. At least. And they're there to have fun too, so I'm not saying my fellow c'wealthers will be joyless nerds.
posted by cendawanita at 12:53 AM on October 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

Realistically, regardless of how you or I or anyone else feels, tertiary education is very much vocational training at this point (see: war on Phil and anthro degree funding.) I'd look into what biologists and chemists actually do in making this decision, and because it is the Year of Our Lord 2022, I would do this by following women in theses STEM fields on TikTok.

Would I be gender-specific? HELL yes. There is zero point in pretending gender is not an issue in STEM because it is. The drop rate for women in astro is like 50%, I would imagine chem is better and bio better still, but not on par with the drop rate for men. I don't know anything about geography or sociology but this is stuff that really matters on a personal practice level.

(The good news is that the misogyny and harassment is even worse in art so yay sciences?)
posted by DarlingBri at 1:33 AM on October 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

I R retire, and I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.
In the 80s, I was the Schools Liaison Officer for my [science] department, running the Open Days each year, and distilled that to write an article for New Scientist "So you think you're going to university". Two ideas from that
1) Don't do joint honours - both the departments will sideline you to concentrate their attention on "fully committed" students
2) Don't overthink it. You'll rock up to fresher's week with a random collection of peers over whom you have no control and from them you'll probably find your life partner and they will certainly have more influence on your health and happiness than the course work.
If your nibling is reasonably academic, she'll succeed in whatever course. Never trudge through the process of paper qualifications in order to do something else. It's gotta to be either fun or easy.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:20 AM on October 3, 2022

The way the UK system is set up is really prone to inducing tunnel vision at this age ; the next 2 years of education are really important in and of themselves, alongside everything else that changes between being 15 and being 18.

Are any of the subjects more likely to put her in classes with teachers she already finds engaging and inspiring?

Does the A-level syllabus on offer for any of them cover areas that spark a particular interest?

Are any friends she works / studies particularly well with choosing any of them?
posted by protorp at 3:06 AM on October 3, 2022

If she does not take mathematics, she will find it harder to pursue Chemistry and Biology at degree level.

All the sciences need a level of basic mathematics (which I would classify A level mathematics as), see this rather excellent article indicating what subjects get ruled out by different A level choices.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 3:23 AM on October 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

echoing what some others have said - if she's undecided on what she wants to do, then it makes sense to keep her options open by choosing subjects that will allow her to apply to a wide range of Uni degrees so she at least has 2 more years to decide/narrow her focus.

when I was picking A Level subjects years ago I think the most "flexible" combination in this sense was something like Biology, Chemistry, Economics and Math (for a 4-subject courseload). I understand your niece doesn't want to do Math, but Math is one of those subjects that should probably be taken if you don't want to close off a lot of options prematurely.
Balthamos also makes a good point that taking STEM A Level subjects tends to keep humanities degree options open, but not the other way around. I think as a general rule - if your niece is very sure she doesn't want to do a STEM degree, then go for more humanities A Level subjects - but if there are particular STEM degrees she might still want to do in future, then make sure her A Level subjects keep her eligible for them.
posted by aielen at 4:02 AM on October 3, 2022

Response by poster: To head off the maths discussion, not wanting to thread-sit. We've just gone through this with another family member. Maths is not a requirement for all Biology and Chemistry degrees. Picking two RG universities at random, Exeter for Biological Sciences does not require maths, and nor does Southampton for Chemistry. Much of the excellent advice above is that niece should look at A-Levels that they would either enjoy, or be confident that they can achieve in - they don't think either of these apply for maths. I agree of course that sciences and social sciences do need maths competence, but niece does not want to spend one of their three A-Level slots on the subject.

Thanks, everyone, though, this is giving us lots to think about.
posted by paduasoy at 4:37 AM on October 3, 2022

I am in the US, which has a very different educational structure than the UK, but I effectively decided on a career track at 14 when I entered a magnet STEM high school. So I can speak at least a little to the "how does one decide?" angle.

I had a vague sense at 14 that I either wanted to become a physician or work in a research lab; in my case this was heavily influenced by both my grandfathers, one of whom had died of cancer the year before (fuck cancer) and the other of whom was a retired biochemist. There was also a fair amount of parental soft pressure; I am the oldest child of immigrants and doing something "practical" (i.e. where I can support myself, i.e. not arts) was a requirement. However in high school I took advanced placement (college-level) courses in both sciences and humanities, and I always found the humanities subjects to come more naturally. So in college, I double-majored in both Chemistry and Comparative Literature (thesis in complit). I also had the opportunity in college to work in a research lab, which further solidified my desire to work with people not mice.

So I guess in my case you might say that the ways I decided on my career were a combination of personal/family exposure to certain fields and then spending a little time ruling out specific options, like the research lab job. Is there a way your niece could do a little job shadowing in areas that interest her? That is highly encouraged for certain careers in the US (it's basically an unwritten requirement for medicine, for instance) but I'm not sure about the UK.

EVEN IF she ends up doing all humanities A-levels and a humanities degree, and then decides she wants to become a doctor
Yup. This is basically me. I would not recommend coming to the US to study medicine -- the tuition rate is extortion, in large part because the medical school is keeping the hospital solvent in our extremely broken system -- but the one good thing about our system is that a broad undergraduate education is strongly encouraged, and humanities students are more likely to get into med school than STEM students. (And then we spend the next 7-10 years beating all the humanity out of them.)
posted by basalganglia at 4:37 AM on October 3, 2022

I've worked in IT and software development fields for over 20 years in the UK, including spells hiring people in different roles.

Hiring people, especially grads, often comes down to things which can't be shown in a degree certificate unless that degree is very vocational (you wouldn't hire a vet who didn't have a veterinary degree, but a project manager can have any background at all). One of the best IT people I know has a Philosophy degree from a red brick. One of the worst developers I ever met had a 2:1 in Comp Sci from a Russell Group uni.

Now that I know how hiring works, I wish I'd done the subjects that interested me at A level instead of the ones my parents and teachers thought I should do. Then I might have enjoyed them and remembered things, instead of hating it and forgetting everything as soon as I left school and went to uni.

If she doesn't want to do maths, that's cool, it closes off a lot of doors but right now they're doors she doesn't want to go through. She'll have to learn some maths if she does a Chemistry or Biology degree but she'll be motivated to learn that because she enjoys the subject and can see the application. She won't get that from A level maths.

Life is too short to spend time learning things you don't care about and don't want a career in. A levels just get you to a university, a degree just gets you onto the job ladder (and a uni experience can be amazing regardless of jobs because it turns you into an adult and can give you friends for life if you're lucky).

Please tell her it's totally fine to do what she enjoys!
posted by underclocked at 5:34 AM on October 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing no one's mentioned - if your niece starts an A Level and then realises "oh no, this isn't for me" they can change their mind. At least, I was able to (35 years ago!) when I started Economics A Level but a few weeks in realised it was so very boring, and I dropped it for Art. So see how it goes.

Also, in case this also helps take some pressure off - even what you do at university doesn't have to dictate the rest of your life. I did illustration and design at university but, despite having barely used computers on my degree, have worked in web development, writing code, for most of the years since.

Similarly, my nephew did philosophy at university, had no idea what to do next, did a "coding boot camp", and is now also, coincidentally, enjoying web development.

With flexibility, and a supportive family, none of this has to dictate the rest their life. Good luck!
posted by fabius at 6:06 AM on October 3, 2022

The basis on which I chose my A-levels isn't going to be helpful (I absolutely loved Maths, so I knew that was what I wanted to do at university, and I knew which universities I was aiming for too), but for a different approach, here are some reasons people in my year came to regret their A-level choices, other than just not enjoying the subject after all:
  • Course not what they were expecting - intellectually rigorous where they were expecting something more relaxed, or vice versa
  • On a similar note: too much coursework, or too much dependence on exams
  • Course cancelled by the school(!) because someone dropped it after a couple of weeks, and that left the class size smaller than they were willing to support
  • Took on too much (the school insisted that everyone should do more than three A-levels, and that wasn't a good fit for everyone)
  • Realised too late that their course combination reduced their degree options too much. (We didn't get any advice to speak of when we made our choices, and there were some consequences.)

posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:07 AM on October 3, 2022

One other thought - it might be helpful for your niece to know that there's probably no perfect combo. So if she ends up feeling like she's missing out a subject that she really wanted to take, that doesn't mean she's made the wrong decision, it's just a side-effect of the way our system makes kids specialise so early.

I started out taking Theatre Studies A-Level, dropped it for a few reasons, and a chunk of me has always regretted that. But as its replacement, I took Sociology, and that was one of the most life-changing, scales-from-the-eyes-realising-how-the-world-and-humans-work experiences of my life. Me and one of my pals still talk about it 30 years later, about the thunderbolt revelation that the world is the way it is because people made it that way, and if they really want to, people can make it a different way. And I couldn't have had both. They clashed on the timetable so I could only have taken one or the other.

Being 16 and having so many possible paths before you is all at once a tremendously exciting luxury, and also a bit gutting, because in the end you have to choose one path, and that means missing out on the others (at least until you're a bit older and you have the chance to try out other paths out of sheer curiosity... I later went back and educated myself about a lot of theatre stuff in my 30s and 40s and that was another super-exciting time of life!)
posted by penguin pie at 6:23 AM on October 3, 2022

I'm going to add a perspective here that I haven't seen in previous replies regarding your niece: that she isn't male.

I was someone who was deeply interested in both the sciences and the humanities, and since I studied in the US, I had the privilege to major in both and then pursue science long term.

If I didn't have that choice, I would absolutely tell my younger self to choose science as a career and keep room in my life for independent study of the humanities. This is true even if something had changed along the way and I decided to pursue humanities as a career.

People are right that it is much, much easier to switch from a science education to a humanities career than the other way around. It isn't politically correct to say so -- and don't get me wrong, I wish the humanities were more valued -- but that's a fact. I can prove it with anecdotes of hundreds of bright classmates.

Of the ones who did the opposite switch, the overwhelming majority, almost 100%, were male. Women/NBs with science PhDs from MIT are scrutinized and their abilities minimized in science jobs. Can you imagine how much harder it is for their friends with humanities degrees? It is a mountain. I've seen ONE person climb it and she's much stronger and brighter than anyone I know, and she still isn't at the top of her field as she might have been with a traditional science education.

I'm going to go as far as saying that anyone recommending that your niece give up sciences because she can always do it later and employers value liberal arts, etc. is speaking from a position of male privilege or wealth privilege.
posted by redlines at 7:28 AM on October 3, 2022 [4 favorites]

(oops, I see DarlingBri pointed out the gender angle as well.)
posted by redlines at 7:45 AM on October 3, 2022

Fields of study have a way of morphing into something new as you advance. The big changes tend to come, in the US, at the first two years of college. That is the 13-14th of education. Examples of what I mean: history changes from "what happened " to "how do we know what happened ", math changes from calculation to mostly description. Also, all STEM subjects become more mathematical, and math for the sciences and engineering is different from math for mathematicians.

I believe if you poll US college students about expected choice of major at matriculation, and compare that to eventual major, you would find at least 50% change.

The lesson I draw is when undecided choose the most fundamental. Someone above nominated math for the sciences. I would nominate history for the humanities, and psychology for the social sciences. And your niece's reaction to the way of looking at things might give a tiny bit of insight in itself.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:08 AM on October 4, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers, we've just been through them as a family and they have given niece some different ways of thinking about it.
posted by paduasoy at 1:18 PM on October 9, 2022

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