Our Sloan Foundation grant is titled "Loose Coupling in the Science and Engineering Workforce", and while we're working on a lot of stuff under the auspices of the grant, the major project is to look at science and engineering (S&E) course-taking pathways in school and how they relate to occupational choice and ultimate labor market performance. You often hear about a "leaky pipeline" when it comes to S&E where you have an initial set of promising students that we lose to attrition over the course of high school, college, grad school, and the workforce. It's a great metaphor for calling people to action (everyone wants to fix a leaky pipeline!). Our project is in a lot of ways a less alarmist look at this apparent "loose coupling" between the different stages in the development of the S&E workforce to understand the choices that are made and the potential benefits provided by this loose coupling.
What's interesting is that this is not just a phenomenon going on in the S&E workforce, although that's primarily where you hear about it.
The Washington Post reports today that 42 percent of seminary graduates are working directly in ministry. A seminary degree is in a lot of ways a professional degree like a law degree or a medical degree (probably less so than those examples but more than a lot of other degrees), so these numbers are quite notable - and they were not the norm several decades ago.
Clearly this is a phenomenon that goes beyond S&E education and work.
The most obvious answer for why we see this loose coupling is that the skills you obtain in a degree program are beneficial in a lot of different fields. Indeed being the guy with a seminary degree in some settings can give you unique insights that other people at your place of work wouldn't have. This is usually the explanation that you hear most, and I think that's for good reason - it's probably an important factor in most cases. In the case of seminary students there are other pressures, primarily that it's getting harder to make a living at a church as people become less attached (and therefore less financially attached) to their churches.
Another explanation I'm going to be exploring in my dissertation is the real option value of degree for getting a job in a particular field. If you get a degree in an S&E field you are not guaranteed to get a high paying job in that field, but the likelihood of getting one goes up. Instead of applying to that S&E job with probability A of getting the job, you can exercise the option of applying with probability B - an option that is only available to people with an S&E degree (all others apply with a lower probability A). Ex ante, the availability of that S&E job and its pay relative to the available outside opportunities is uncertain, but an S&E degree offers the opportunity to exercise certain options if the circumstances are right.
Another explanation not particularly appealing to economists (not because it's unrealistic but because it's not an "economic" explanation) is that students just get things wrong. They think they want to do something and then it turns out they don't. None of our economic explanations should be construed to exclude this possibility, but you're also not going to get many economists interested in this.
Are there any other good reasons for "loose coupling" between major choice and occupational choice?
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