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School leavers: Don’t get sucked into the left brain/right brain fallacy, you need all of yours to be successful

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22 August 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitOn the next edition of TechRadio we have an interview Prof Mick Morris with of the Amber Centre for Materials Research in Trinity College that should be of interest to the 50,000-odd students who got their CAO offers this week. I asked him about his career to date, expecting something of a road trip from the UK to Ireland via hotter climbs and plenty of conferences and papers in illustrious journals. Instead, Prof Morris spoke highly of time he spent working in industry before coming back to academia, in particular how working in a commercial environment added discipline to his innate curiosity.

Similarly, I put it to him that the continued interest in STEM courses brought with it the possibility that candidates are applying for courses on the basis of how likely there were to get a job afterwards rather than having a passion for learning and experimentation. Again I was surprised at his reply. Instead of agreeing that finding the right people was preferable filling lecture theatres, Prof Morris argued that the skills picked up in a STEM degree – attention to detail, evidence-based decision making etc – transfer across many sectors and the important thing is people learn them at all. There is a lot to be said for having a scientific mindset, even if you decide not to pursue a STEM career.

A similar point is made by Sharon Florentine of CIO.com last week in a piece on the importance of the kind of ‘soft skills’ nurtured by liberal arts degrees. Florentine takes four examples from the tech world where executives said the kind of ‘design thinking’ (the application of novel strategies to solve problems) at the heart of the humanities was essential for fostering a culture of innovation.

“I would argue that soft skills, like communication, empathy, teamwork and negotiation are almost more important than technical skills, especially in leadership or executive roles. Technologists who have these soft skills are better able to understand and accurately convey the business value of IT projects to other, non-technical stakeholders, get their buy-in and support and deliver more successful projects,” Matt Brosseau, director of IT at Instant Alliance told Florentine.

PK Agarwal, CEO and regional Dean, Northeastern University Silicon Valley went even further, arguing that soft skills should become a part of every employees’ tool kit: “Computer science is mainly focused on problem solving, creating efficiencies and allowing mundane, repetitive tasks to be performed by machines. There are elements of math and statistics and engineering, for sure, but you need people who use their left brain and right brain thinking to pull everything together.

“We don’t want to create factory workers, we want to develop students and graduates who can go out and apply the full depth and breadth of knowledge to solving critical problems in society. That means we’re trying to fundamentally restructure how we educate future generations.”

What this boils down to for school leavers – or candidates for next year’s Leaving Certificate – is that it’s nice to find your career path at the first attempt but there’s a lot to be said for taking a more circuitous route. Whether it’s the English grad who ends up developing Web apps, the physicist who gets fintech, or the cognitive scientist who decides marketing is more their thing, there’s a lot to be said for treating your primary degree, as a springboard instead of a funnel to finding your ideal job.

So to students responding to their first round CAO offers, remember: just as the Leaving Cert does not define you, neither does your first turn on the third level merry-go-round. Come to think of it, nor does your second or third. So long as you pick up something along the way, that’s just fine.

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