Occasionally, people ask me for career advice, either my opinion on particular fields or on how they should approach choosing a career. The focus is generally on what kind of degree to choose. In this post, I present a brief summary of the problem.
A general issue is that people are almost myopically focused on going to university. True, there has been a dramatic expansion of the tertiary sector in recent decades and many jobs you used to be able to get straight out of high school nowadays require a degree in a soft field like business studies. It’s an educational arms race. Nonetheless, a degree is a means to an end. There is all this bullshit around “educating” people, “forming their minds”, and “building leaders”, but in the
Also, if you’re a smart guy, you’ll likely do well in many fields, even in manual labor. In fact, if you, say, run your own plumbing business, chances are that you will out-earn the vast majority of white-collar workers. True, they may snub you socially, but they will pay through the nose for your services. Let them believe they are better than you — you’re still making out like a bandit. I happen to know a guy who left school at 16, learned a trade, got into business for himself, and now, in his 30s, owns a house (and a very nice car), and by that I mean owning outright as opposed to having a 30-year mortgage that results in paying for two or three houses. But, sure, feel free to look down on such an uneducated brute with all your sophistication while you wonder how you’re going to make ends meet.
Status is a trap. You should first ask yourself if you are eyeing certain degrees merely for the supposed status they convey. To burst your bubble right away: most people don’t give a shit about your degree. In some circles, attending a top school, and by that I mean a school in the top 25 or so in the world in terms of reputation, some people will be impressed by it, and doors will open for you. Yet, in those circles, your social background and upbringing may play a much bigger role. For instance, I recently read that, now that there are fewer positions available in banking, candidates may be filtered out based on the high school they attended. Thus, attending an elite prep school like Andover is a plus, as it signals that you come from money, but attending a regular school
Vying for status is a giant trap. There are countless students at elite schools who pay good money for their coveted degree. Yet, prestige only goes that far. If you are in a field in which employment prospects are generally a bit dubious, then getting a Bachelor’s in English from Oxford may send you straight to the unemployment queue regardless. I’m not making this up. There are plenty of Ivy League and Oxbridge grads who have a hard time finding employment. Yet, with a degree that is more closely tied to employment prospects, such as engineering, the reputation of your alma mater matters a good deal less. There will be very few employers who will turn a young engineer down because he merely went to a good school as to a supposedly elite one.
There have been studies that show that attending university leads to little increase in general skills. Attending a four-year institution won’t make you smarter. If you were dumbass before, you’ll be a dumbass afterward, and if you had a sky-high IQ before, it surely won’t have dropped, assuming you didn’t play beer pong every day. Thus, with a tiered system of higher education as in the United Kingdom or the United States, the better schools merely act as a filter. Employers assume that if you went to MIT, you must be smarter than someone who went to a lower-ranked tech school. They would be right if two conditions held: First, everybody goes to the best school they can get in. This does not work because a lack of money or a pronounced debt-aversion may keep a prospective student from doing so. Second, admission is based on merit. This is no longer true. For instance, based on SAT scores, blacks and Jews are dramatically overrepresented at the better US schools due to affirmative action or bias, while Asians get discriminated against. Few schools don’t practice affirmative action, the most prominent one is arguably Caltech, where there is nary a black student or a Jew around.
For smarter students, the temptation to go into the most difficult field is high. There are people who study theoretical physics or mathematics not just because they have the aptitude to go into those fields but also because they want to be at the top of the intellectual totem pole at university. I think this is severely misguided if your goal is to get a job in a certain field. Instead, explore the field you want to go into, and then pick one of the degrees many people in it have. With LinkedIn, such data is relatively easy to get. Thus, if you find that there are some people with a background in theoretical physics in some field, but plenty have a degree in IT, which is certainly less demanding, then going down the IT route will lead to the same outcome with a lot less effort. If you now want to bring up an argument based on “
It is the case that students segregate themselves by IQ. Looking back at my graduating high school class, the few very smart students went into notoriously difficult fields (physics, mathematics, also theoretical philosophy), the good-but-not-great ones went into engineering, and the more middling ones into accounting. (The bottom-tier went into teaching or the social sciences.) Yet, if you see someone with a
The previous point leads to the academic rabbit hole. At the end of your bachelor’s, the system may push you towards getting a Master’s, which is of course only a stopgap because you’ll only be truly educated if you get your
You should get the least amount of education you need to reach your goals because you’ll only waste time and money otherwise. Sure, you can now talk about those Deep Learning PhDs who supposedly pull down one million bucks a year at Google. Yet, those people, if this is even true, got lucky as they entered a market that was requesting their specialized knowledge. If you got into computer science today, hoping to have your
Cost is a big problem in some countries. In the United States, a bachelor’s degree may cost you more than a house, if you take opportunity costs into account. There probably is no good reason to go into that much debt. If you could attend a school with a lot of “prestige”, but it would set you back 50k/year for four years, you’re probably better off attending a good state school instead, and for a fraction of the money. If you don’t have the money to afford an expensive school, compound interest on your loans will mess up your finances for years to come, and if you have the money
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