Paul Graham shared something recently, which I feel is an excellent heuristic for considering the relevance of degrees.
“Avoid getting degrees in subjects whose best practitioners rarely have such degrees. E.g. many mathematicians have degrees in math, but an MFA seems to be distinctly optional for writing.”
Apart from writing, another example of ‘distinctly optional’ degrees is those in entrepreneurship. As if the controlled environment of the classroom can teach us what we must learn by doing! What we must learn through the direct experience of swimming in the complexity of the real world and its subtleties. Subtleties, which are industry and location specific. Copper mining in Chile is very different to running a hip café in East London.
Strictly necessary vs. signalling
Sometimes, degrees are strictly necessary. There is little hope of practising as a doctor if you don’t go to medical school. Sadly, it is much more common place for degrees nowadays simply to be a means of signalling. One needs them only to gain entry to some in-group (usually white-collar employment). But, how high is the cost of entry and is it worth it? Is it worth spending £40,000 to get a hocus-pocus degree like Business Administration or worse Economics (my own)? And, for what, to be able to “get a job” in some mundane, corporate bureaucracy?
A friend was talking to me about his daughter who was thinking about going to university to study Philosophy. My reflection was that if he can easily afford 40k, it is a very nice option to get such a degree. And, I really do mean option in the finance sense — something that may be useful, which you can call upon if necessary. So, a piece of paper from a good university may open some doors. If not, hopefully she will have some fun and learn something along the way. It’s a different ball game altogether if she has to go 40k into debt (plus interest). The price of the option becomes very high!
If there is one thing that makes university worthwhile when not strictly necessary for the field, it is self-edification. Being immersed in an amazing learning environment with other bright minds, where there is a network effect at play. But, in the internet age, with the ability to connect with people anywhere, how often does this actually apply? How necessary is it in your field to be resident at a university? Perhaps, you can learn from and connect with more relevant people online?
What’s more, perhaps network effects usually come into play in a few disciplines in the hard sciences that need research and lab facilities? Facilities that lead to the best and the brightest naturally congregating around them.
Relevance of degrees in a different world
The world is very different today and the relevance of degrees is certainly in question. While degrees are sometimes strictly necessary, going £40k into debt is a heavy burden to bear when it is distinctly optional. Particularly, when there are alternative, perhaps better means of learning and gaining skills, whether through vocational training, apprenticeships, online courses or self-study
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.