What Jobs Come to Mind? Stereotypes About Fields

John Conlon, Harvard University
Fri, Jan 13 2023, 3:30pm - 5:00pm PST

Co-author: Dev Patel

How do students form beliefs about how their future career will depend on their choice of college major? Using both nationally representative survey data and surveys that we administered among undergraduates at the Ohio State University, we document that U.S. freshmen hold systematically incorrect beliefs about the relationship between majors and occupations. Students appear to stereotype majors, greatly exaggerating the likelihood that they lead to their most distinctive jobs (e.g., counselor for psychology, journalist for journalism, teacher for education). A stylized model of major choice suggests that stereotyping boosts demand for “risky” majors: ones with rare stereotypical careers and low-paying alternative jobs. In a field experiment among the same Ohio State sample, providing statistical information on career frequencies to first-year college students has significant effects on their intended majors (and, less precisely, on their choices of which classes to enroll in), with larger effects on students considering risky majors. Finally, we present a model of belief formation in which stereotyping arises as a product of associative memory. The same model predicts—and the survey data confirm—that students also overestimate rare non-stereotypical careers and careers that are concentrated within particular majors. The model also generates predictions regarding role model effects, with students exaggerating the frequency of career-major combinations held by people they are personally close to.