Advising the advisor
Auntie Matter on what MIT students should do with their lives
If you have questions for Auntie Matter, please submit them at tinyurl.com/AskAuntieMatter. Questions have been edited for length, clarity, and content.
This week, Auntie will answer a question from yet another professor, this one at length.
Dear Auntie Matter,
My first-year advisees think I am crazy. They all want to be Course 6. I think they should consider other majors. They look at me as if I am crazy because I give them this advice:
Hordes from across the globe are going into coding-related fields. There may not be enough growth to provide employment for them — and certainly not in countries with high cost of living.
You will work in a cubicle for longer than you should. All of the mid-level management jobs are filled with the wave that will precede you. They are roughly the same generation. Your possibilities for promotion will be blocked.
Much of coding and cool AI jobs (at the just-graduated level) are going to be replaced by — you guessed it — AI. What coding there is left will be part of a service economy.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. won't continue to be cool places to work. The parking lot will be filled with family SUVs, middle-aged employees will be covered with out-of-fashion, embarrassing, and passé tattoos. All will be frustrated because their great ideas washed away like tears in the rain.
Imagine yourself 15 years from now. Are you going to be able to maintain an interesting conversation?
So, am I crazy?
— Can’t Convince Kiddos not to Code
There’s a lot to unpack here. First — why are you looking for validation from Auntie Matter, who, for all you know, is just three MIT students inside a trench coat? Perhaps, in reading Auntie’s previous columns, you have come to suspect that she agrees with you. You’re correct to think that Auntie believes not everyone should be Course 6. She recently wrote on this very topic! Auntie likes to picture you as a disgruntled HASS professor, and Auntie is a disgruntled HASS student, so we have a lot in common. However, Auntie cannot agree with your approach. She thinks your advice conflates major and career, which ironically is exactly what you accuse your students of doing. Furthermore, your attitude is very apocalyptic. Do you really think students who learn to code will be both boring and replaced in the job market by AI, or is this just rhetoric?
You have the same flawed view as your students that major is career. Instead of encouraging the freshmen you advise to change their major to avoid a certain career path, you should probably be telling them to explore their intellectual interests. Students should be disabused as quickly as possible of the notion that their major choice determines their career. While of course it has an influence, the idea that major is determines career is simply untrue, and you as a freshman advisor should not perpetuate it. Furthermore, if students actually do partake of a broader education, pursuing their interests, instead of a narrow one focused on one career path, they will have the flexibility to work more than one job, which would resolve your concern about insufficient coding job opportunities.
Speaking of job opportunities, you seem to have conflated a few things in your criticism of future jobs at tech companies and in offices. A lot of MIT students will work in companies, all will hopefully live into middle age and beyond, and many will have families. None of these things — which amount to living a normal life for many people — necessarily make these students corporate drones who will never have an interesting thought in their lives. What do you want MIT students to do if not work in a company? Academia? Government? Organic farming?
There is a valid point underlying your concern about cubicles and corporations. That environment could be stultifying, but many people will work there, and it’s possible to lead an interested and engaged life while working in a corporate environment. There is more than one sort of corporate environment, and even in the worst environments, our inner intellectual resources can be sustaining.
Instead of telling your students not to work a specific kind of job, encourage them to be a specific kind of person — one who is awake in the world. Perhaps they could be interested and engaged with politics, or community service, or the arts. Encouraging your students to develop as people and as citizens might be more effective than discouraging them from studying computer science.
Finally, Auntie notices that for MIT students there is often an expectation that our careers should be creative, lucrative, ethical, and our main source of personal fulfillment. This is an unreasonable expectation, and one that your question seems to reflect. It would be okay if some of your advisees worked tech jobs, went home, loved their families, and led ordinary lives. For many people this is a dream. Not all MIT students need to be billionaires, married to their work, and saving the planet. It is enough that they be good citizens, interested and interesting, and engaged with the world around them.