One of the most important early career decisions many people face is what to study at university. This is the first of a series of posts on degree choice intended for people who mean to go to university. Degree choice plays an important role in your ability to make a difference later in life. People probably don’t put enough effort into systematically thinking about degree choice. In this post I’ll look at the importance of degree choice for professional careers and academic careers. In the next post I look at the importance for general career choice.

Our overview of the question so far suggests that, unless you hope to enter certain professional careers, you should bias your choice in favour of more mathematical/technical subjects and pick a degree you can expect to do well in. That opinion is based on an overview of recent graduate employment and employer surveys, interviews, personal experiences, and other cited sources. We’ll be updating that recommendation as we explore more of the evidence.

There are lots of different systems of university education. In the UK, the system we have the most experience with, students pick a three or four year degree at roughly 17. In the US, students pick courses, building to a selection of majors some years later. Other countries have other systems.

Thinking through your degree carefully matters more if you’re following a UK model, where you can’t easily experiment. But regardless of the model, the tendency is to put less thought into the choice than you ought to.

There are a number of reasons for that – some are good and some aren’t. Bad reasons first. People tend to think in the short term. That means that the unpleasantness of having to do research and think carefully about degree choice is more obvious to you than the massive benefits that come later to your ability to make a difference as well as your lifestyle.

It also seems like a really complicated problem. Our natural tendency is to shy away from complicated problems and just do what feels best. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, our instincts can be surprisingly good, but things sometimes get better when you structure the problem. Structuring the problem means generating a very broad list, breaking your reasons into steps and then eliminating options systematically before comparing your final options with a consistent framework. I’ll outline a structure for this problem in later posts. Even if thinking everything through carefully only improves things by 1%, which this decision seems like it could, it might be worth spending hundreds of hours on it because of the size of the effect.

But there is a good reason people have to avoid thinking this stuff through. Degree choice is hugely chaotic. Your choice doesn’t only affect how future employers see you. It changes who you get to know, what sort of culture you adopt, and ultimately who you become. But the way in which it does this is really unpredictable. When decisions with big impacts have chaotic consequences, it usually isn’t worth putting much effort into the decision. But while degree choice is chaotic on some levels, there are consistent and important patterns that you can use to decide. I’ll pick out and focus on those so that we can get the best possible decision with a reasonable amount of effort.

How important is your degree as a job requirement?

Degree choice is not decisive. It’s relatively easy to move into new areas after the completion of your degree. Particularly in the UK, employers are aware of the fact that you had to make your choice without much life experience. In the US, students change majors fairly often. “The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (3rd ed)” reports that 75% of US students change their majors.

According to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2012 80% of graduate jobs in the UK don’t require a specific degree. While it helps to pick the right degree from the start, you shouldn’t let that choice overwhelm you. Equally, if you’ve already made your choice, and regret it, it isn’t the end of the line. But there are some careers where degrees matter a lot.

In particular, degree choice is important for professional careers (like law and medicine) and academic careers. These are important for people interested in making a difference. Professional careers are often high-earning, although statistics here can be misleading. That makes them good for earning to give. Academic careers can lead to extremely high impact research.

I’ll cover the importance of subject choice for careers that are neither professional nor academic in my next post.

Professional careers

Several careers typically require special qualifications that build on your university course. The exact way this works depends a lot on your country. Some careers have specific undergraduate courses that cater to them (e.g. medicine in the UK and Australia) whereas others are mostly dependent on post-graduate training with some undergraduate requirements (e.g. medicine in the US and Canada, architecture most places or accountancy in most US states). Some jobs require rigorous and expensive training courses (e.g. pilots in the UK) but not university qualifications.

Careers that often depend heavily on specific courses (although not for all roles and not in all jurisdiction) include:
– Accountancy
– Air piloting
– Architecture
– Engineering
– Law
– Medicine (and related professions)

Because of the regional variation of the requirements for licensing in these professions, it isn’t helpful for me to consolidate the data here. I recommend the search phrase “what do I need to qualify as a ____ in ____”.

If you are thinking about these careers, which are (not coincidentally) quite high-earning, be aware of the local job requirements from a relatively early point in time. For example, if you want to be a doctor in the UK, it’s often worth trying to arrange some work-experience in a hospital while you’re in sixth form, to make it easier to get onto a good undergraduate medicine course.

For people who aren’t right at the very top of the talent distribution we suspect that medicine (particularly in the US) has one of the highest expected life-time earnings. It has very high median earnings and relatively low drop-out rates compared with some other high earning careers. We’ll be looking into this more in the future. Some specialisations are even better. (Incidentally, as a doctor, you won’t be saving that many lives directly)

Academic Careers

Unsurprisingly, if you want to be a professional physicist it’s helpful to study physics as an undergraduate. But it isn’t always important to be studying the ‘right’ option. Most top universities are fairly flexible for a number of their postgraduate degree requirements. For example, a Physics PhD at Oxford requires Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry or ‘a related subject’ and similarly their Chemistry PhDs accept students from any sciences. Often, in the UK, a taught masters course accepts students from a wide range of courses (for example, an Economics Masters course requires only “strong quantitative background”) and might lead to a PhD. So doing an undergraduate course in the ‘wrong’ subject might cost you a year or two (plus a good bit of money) but not be as problematic as you’d guess.
It’s much harder to move from an artsy undergraduate course to a mathematical or scientific graduate programme. No one will take you on a physics masters course if you haven’t learned any mathematics since high-school. So, when picking majors/degrees, if you are interested in an academic career, it can be worth biasing your choices in favour of mathematical or scientific courses in order to stay flexible.

Flexibility is valuable because the best opportunities change. Sometimes you’ll get an opportunity you wouldn’t have anticipated. It is good to be able to seize it. The world is also constantly changing, so what seems like a good subject now might be less useful in the future. Your evidence about the world is also always changing. It is valuable to be able to react to changing evidence about the best courses of action.

If you want a research career you should look at suggestions of high impact research topics while you choose your undergraduate study. Clearly, there are some years between you and your high impact research, but finding out the sorts of questions that excite you is worthwhile. If you can identify a high impact research area that you care about, doing a degree in a relevant subject is a good move.

Do something you’ll do well in

It’s valuable to choose a degree you’ll do well in. That will give future employers or business partners confidence that they’re dealing with someone who knows how to excel.

If you’re doing well, it makes it easier to be happy. Happiness is worthwhile in itself and is vital for your ability to be productive, motivated, and make friends. That starts all sorts of positive feedback cycles.

You also leave with a good degree class or GPA. That signals intelligence and the ability to work hard to future employers. According to the CBI/Pearson report, 46% of employers listed degree class as one of the most important criteria in deciding to hire someone making it the 4th most significant criterion. (Ahead of it were “Employability skills”, degree subject, and relevant work experience.)

That doesn’t mean you choose the easiest of easy degrees. For one, future employers will pay attention to the brand your university choice represents. They will also pay attention to what your subject is. You’ll probably find the easiest of easy degrees quite boring.

Having said that, some people suggest doing an easier degree which takes less of your time so that you can focus on career advancing activities in the spare time you free up (this guy takes this thought to its logical extreme). I suspect that for the vast majority of people this is a very bad idea. It requires strong internal sources of motivation. It seems far too likely that you’ll just end up doing your very easy degree and not taking advantage of the time to do productive work. I think you would need extremely good evidence that you’re highly internally motivated before you should do this (and most people are unlikely to get that evidence if they have only done schooling).

Wrapping up

Degree choice matters no matter what you want to do, but it seems especially important for earning to give along a professional route and for research careers. In the former case, there are pretty clear paths set out that take little decision-making to pursue. In the latter case, it is also fairly clear but you should bias towards more mathematical ‘hard’ subjects and avoid artsy subjects in order to preserve flexibility.

In my next post I’ll discuss the role of degree choice for more general careers.

You might be interested in:
How to choose a research topic
How many lives does a doctor save?
Should you go into research?