Choose Your Major Carefully

My sister and I are very close, but in many ways we are as different as chalk and cheese. In no respect is this more true than in our choices of colleges and majors, and in our post-college careers. Speaking with her earlier today, I came to realise that Aaron Clarey- better known to you and me as Captain Capitalism- should have published his book, Worthless, nearly 4 years earlier than he did. It might have saved my sister some considerable future angst and self-doubt.

The Didact's Story

Let's go into my particular case first. In a lot of ways the good Captain and I see very much eye-to-eye on the subject of what to study in university. I'd started out with only the vaguest idea of what I wanted to study- "something to do with business", because my father was a businessman and, well, he hadn't done all that badly for himself. It took a few false starts but I quickly came to realise that if I really wanted to study business, I could always finish up school and do an MBA afterwards (a horrible idea, as it turns out, for reasons I shall go into shortly). I knew that I was very, very good at several subjects in particular- mathematics (my favourite subject and by far my best), English, history, and economics. When it came time to really get serious and apply to universities, I knew what I wanted to do. I didn't want to faff around for 2 years doing some absurd "core curriculum" trying to "discover myself", I wanted to get down to work, learn what I needed to learn, and then GTFO into the real world to earn a real wage. I never forgot that I was spending my father's money- a fact that has always bothered me, which is why I literally couldn't wait to leave university and become independent.

I chose to study in the UK, where you choose your major straight away and then focus on coursework related only to that major for 3 years (for most subjects other than Medicine). I chose to study Mathematics and Economics at the LSE, and after 2 years I knew that I wanted to do a Master's in Mathematics of some kind or another. I considered applying to various places within the US and the UK, mostly to do applied mathematics of some sort, but a conversation with my father about doing something more "real-world" pointed me in the direction of a Master's in quantitative finance. I applied to a couple of places stateside, was accepted into a very good program, finished it in 9 months, and found a job with what in hindsight was actually not very much difficulty.

I worked hard in university, I came out with good grades, and I learned a hell of a lot from some very good teachers. I can still remember much of the material I was taught in discrete mathematics, advanced calculus, advanced statistics, and mathematical finance- but the single most important skill that I learned was problem-solving. To this day, I believe that my innate, almost instinctive ability to take apart a technical problem and figure it out quickly comes from the training I received in doing precisely that with difficult, complex problems in mathematics- and from putting in the endless hours of drillwork that are needed to become really good at maths. The single most important skill that I learned outside of my Master's program- computer programming- actually came from learning how to use MATLAB and R in my studies; today, I am a skilled programmer in 3 different programming languages, and I am very, very good with R in particular.

What No One Told You About Working Life

I didn't write anything up above to brag. I wrote it to point out the value of the Captain's advice in his book: study something that you can do quickly and that will get you a decent job quickly. Don't futz about thinking that just any old college degree will be your ticket into the real world. Believe me, it won't be, and you are very likely to discover that you have made an extremely costly and extremely painful mistake when you graduate from your degree.

This is particularly true of women, and especially for those in liberal arts programs. My own sister is currently taking a number of arts courses from a small liberal arts college. She just got home a few days ago from a study-abroad program in Europe, where she had an absolute blast. She's a good kid, very smart and, like me, very well read. Yet for all of her native intelligence, I really do wonder what she's going to do after she leaves university.

See, here is the reality of a liberal arts degree that college counsellors never tell you: it isn't worth very much. You have no demonstrated track record of problem-solving, no quantifiable skills in any useful realm, no track record of presenting information in any format other than written essays (and anyone who has read a modern college-level essay can attest to just how poor the average college student's writing skills truly are). If you are close to graduation, you are entering a workforce where the youth unemployment rate is north of 25%. You are going to have to work extremely hard indeed to differentiate yourself from everyone else.

Here's something else that no one told you about working life. For the first six months to two years of your working life, you are going to cost more to employ than the value that you bring to your employer. This is just a fact. The reason for it is that you don't know what the hell you're doing, so people have to spend a lot of time and effort training you so that you don't blow up something important by accident. Companies with strategic vision will recognise this and plan accordingly, because they know that their future success depends on having a solid pipeline of good people within the ranks, but the fact is that most companies today are focused on the bottom line, not on the future 5 years from now. So you have to be able to demonstrate value immediately, almost from the first day you start working. And you're going to have a very hard time doing that with a BA in Psychology or Fine Arts or Theatre or (God forbid) English or Comparative Literature.

A Master's Degree Won't Solve Your Problem

My sister is now facing this exact reality. She doesn't have any internship experience, and she doesn't really know what she wants to do after she graduates. So she's thinking of doing a Master's degree. Except... she has no real idea what she wants to do.

Here's the problem with thinking that going to grad school will solve your problems: either you do a dedicated Master's program that spits you out in a year with a piece of paper that says you supposedly know something, or you go and do a PhD. If you take the former course, choose your program very, very carefully. There are plenty of useless Master's programs out there; the point of a Master's degree should be to demonstrate to people that you know more about a particular economically useful subject than the average bear. In my case, my Master's degree immediately signals to potential employers that I know how complex financial products work; my actual work history then serves to reassure them that, in fact, I do know what I'm talking about.

If you choose to do a PhD, you damn well better expect to teach afterwards as a college professor. Doing a PhD for any other reason is idiotic. There is no other way to put it. Why would anyone go through the pain, misery, and cost of a PhD if the goal is not to teach in university?

Here, again, you had better choose very carefully. There is currently a massive glut of PhDs on the market, and it's getting worse every year because once a professor achieves tenure at university, he is harder to dislodge than a limpet, and he answers to no one short of God. This is a very simple problem in economics: limited supply of tenured positions, extremely high demand, you do the maths. This is especially true of PhDs in the humanities, so you need to be very good indeed even to have a shot these days. I knew grad students back in my college days who had been post-docs for like 5 years without getting a single associate professor post; they were in their mid-30s, without any work experience outside of university, swimming in debt, and reduced to joking with each other about how horrible their lives were.

The MBA: Master's in Bulls***ting Arrangements

Some among you might think that an MBA offers the way out. And at first, you might have good reason to think so. An MBA from a good school is supposedly the best way to become a Master of the Universe, because in theory you know enough to walk into any business and start managing it from day one.

It's all a lot of bollocks.

I used to sit next to the B-school students back in my Master's program at the university library. Not one of them was smarter than me; in fact, listening to them discussing their coursework, I quickly realised that I could do everything that they could, and I could do it faster and better. The true value of the MBA is not in what it teaches you- much of that information is outdated, irrelevant, and even completely useless. Its value is in the networking and contacts that it gives you.

Here, again, you need to perform some simple cost-benefit analysis. A good MBA program these days costs upwards of $150,000 for two years. Yes, you read that right. Where is the economic return that will justify this expenditure? Every MBA I have ever met, with exactly one exception, has not ended up where he thought he would be after his program. The MBA did not return anything like the kinds of rewards that such a price-tag should justify. My parents have been trying to get me to do my MBA for years, and they've even told me not to worry about the cost; my response has always been something along the lines of, "how the hell do you justify spending that much money on something that doesn't return what it's worth?"

Moreover, the MBA is basically just a crash course in the very basics of management- much of which cannot be taught anyway. If you've ever had to work with a freshly minted MBA, you'll quickly realise that most of them couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag. Some of them are indeed exceptional and rise quickly on the basis of talent, hard work, and luck- the way things should be- but the majority of MBAs will never really achieve the kind of career success that this sort of price tag should provide.

In reality, as the Captain makes clear in his book, you would actually be far better off doing a CPA or CFA, at a fraction of the cost, and combining it with real work experience that shows other people that you know how to manage teams, deliver projects on time and on budget, and navigate the ever-growing maze of regulations that businesses have to deal with every day. Prove that, and it won't really matter what you studied in university; all that matters is how good you are at delivering what your employer wants from you.

Choose Wisely, Choose Well

University education has gone from something reserved for the rich and the highly skilled to a commoditised product that is widely available for everyone- yet the cost of that education keeps going up while the quality keeps going down. This is an economically unsustainable situation, and sooner or later the massive education bubble in this country- inflated in very large part by easy government money and student loan guarantees- will collapse. When it does, alternative forms of learning- most of them Web-based at a fraction of the cost of traditional learning methods- will completely wipe out the educational establishment, and these absurdly overpriced exercises in post-teenage solipsism will be seen as the unjustifiable expenses that they truly are.

If you're young enough to be wondering what to do with your life after college, then pay heed to the lessons noted above. Choose your major carefully, and choose something that you can use to generate a reasonably comfortable living for yourself after you leave college. Don't mess about- you're not going to be paid by anyone to live your dreams, you're going to be paid to work, and work hard. The sooner you get used to this reality, the faster you'll be able to avoid a lot of unnecessary heartache and soul-searching.

Comments

  1. Very sensible advice. I'm an applied math major at a top 25 university in the U.S. and have seen too many of my humanities friends graduate with no job offers or practical skills to show for it.

    I am currently debating between becoming an actuary and an investment banker. The earnings ceiling as an investment banker is much higher (though by no means do actuaries make a meager living), but I value balance and having time for hobbies and women. The hours in the Wall Street world sound brutal (upwards of 80/week) whereas actuaries hear work around 40-50. It's a bit of a dilemma for me and I would really appreciate your thoughts on it.

    Thanks

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  2. This is a good article.

    Just wanted to give a heads up on the CPA thing. In public accounting, they work you like a dog and starting pay is usually UNDER what other technical bachelor business degrees (e.g. supply chain) get even though you usually now need your masters to get hired.

    The private sector (like being a CPA at Google, Walmart, any fortune 500 company, or even a mid-sized company) isn't an option until you get a few years of public accounting under your belt.

    Good news with public accounting is your pay increases every year. Bad news is if you don't get promoted each year you get fired.

    Not to mention a lot of the public accounting jobs are going to India. This is causing a lot of areas in the US to be over saturated with recent graduates who can't find a job. That was about two years ago. Maybe things have changed.

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