A Quick Guide to Picking a University Degree

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 end you want a job. Therefore, it may well be that foregoing university is the better choice. I realized this when I came across people who launched pretty impressive careers out of high schools. Concretely, I’m thinking of a few guys I’ve come across who taught themselves programming, which got them a job right away. Others dropped out of technical degrees when they got job offers during an internship. Then there are guys who build a product that gets acquired (I know two people who now work in big companies as a result of that; one has a PhD, the other dropped out). Granted, this may be an exception, but if that option is open to you, you should at least explore it. At worst, if you realize that it isn’t really working out, you put it down as a gap year or work experience.

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 may be a knock-out criterion. Of course, if you’re a one-percenter, you don’t need that kind of advice anyway.

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 “muh intelligence”, then keep in mind that if your IQ is underutilized in your classes, you can always do some side projects or get a part-time job, which will take you much further.

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 PhD in mathematics not getting a job in academia and then transitioning into a field they could have gone in right away, you do wonder whether all that wasted time was worth it. They could instead have blazed through a degree in IT or Accounting and outperformed at work. Instead, they chased some nonsensical dream.

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 PhD. Of course, getting a real job then, all the education would be wasted so you should go into academia, do a post-doc, and get on the tenure ladder that leads from assistant to associate to full professor. It’s complete bullshit, though. There are plenty of fields in which you out-earn a full professor right after graduation. In the book Liars’ Poker, Michael Lewis has an amusing anecdote about his time at the London School of Economics, where he realized that he made a lot more money at the beginning of his career than his professors at the very top of theirs.

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 PhD in Machine Learning in about ten years (4 years Bachelor’s plus around six years for your PhD), then demand may not be all that great for that speciality anymore. Of course, if you’re smart enough to get a PhD, you certainly would be smart enough to get a job at your dream employer without it. For instance, Big Tech slots PhD holders a bit higher in their progression ladder, yet a software engineer with a PhD will work besides or even under people with just a Bachelor’s degree who were already making good money while he was still writing papers at university.

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 laying around, invest it and make it grow. Really, a difference in reputation is not going to be worth six figures for jobs that are based on quantifiable skills. In the end, it’s about numbers. Don’t let the well-paid stooges in the industrial-educational complex tell you otherwise.

Did you enjoy this article? Excellent! If you want to read more by Aaron, check out his excellent books, the latest of which is Meditation Without Bullshit.
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4 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Picking a University Degree

  1. Well I know a self employed janitor who is making 6 figures profit a year. He dropped out of school and has about 2 dozens of typos on his company’s website… His business is so established even if he stops working completely, his team would still earn him 5k a month on “autopilot”

  2. Aaron what would you say about a marketing career? (in comparison to the various stem careers)

    Also, as getting education for that career, what about getting through a communication degree VS an economic degree in terms of cost opportunity? Given that the first is much easier to get done but less valuable than the latter etc…

    I have nowday already made my choice (we even had a consultation about that), i cant change now what i have done but, I am just curious to know if in your opinion i well played my cards

    1. If you get your foot in the door, marketing is a pretty solid career. However, the issue is that the competition is tough. From what I know, it is not uncommon that people do lowly paid internships after getting their business degrees. At least in Germany that seems to be fairly common.

      With Economics, you will probably have more options than with a Communications degree.

  3. STEM degrees earn more than Humanities. I don’t have talent in Math or Physics, I am doing alright in History and Linguistics. I pick Linguistics as my major in college and that leads me to work in Hospitality for a few years. In general, I think someone whose ability is geared more towards Humanities will suffer much more than in Natural Sciences.

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