I recently came across this post, which prompted me to summarise our current thoughts on how to pick an undergraduate degree, particularly aimed at the UK and US university systems. This isn’t as carefully backed up with evidence as I would like, but instead mainly aims to explain our key bottom lines as they currently stand. Follow the links to our further posts for more detailed references.
I’d like to caveat that most of the following is just a judgement call, based on listening to what thoughtful, successful people have said about the topic (e.g. see here, here for two examples), my experiences of coaching, and thinking through the issues. Where there is further research on the claims, I’ve linked to it. Otherwise, assume it’s just my judgement call. Note that I don’t think I’m going to say anything that’s particularly controversial or against common sense.
What’s important in degree choice?
Because you’re at the start of your career, and are preparing yourself for jobs in 4+ years time, I think you should prioritise keeping your options open very highly. So, I think the most important aim is to build flexible career capital – skills, connections and credentials that will help you find opportunities in the future.
Learning a subject matter is less important. 80% of jobs in the UK don’t require a specific degree. You’ll learn more about what’s best to do. The exception is when you’ve already decided you want to enter a particular field, especially in academia, or a particular professional job, which requires a specific degree. But I’d caution against putting much weight on this kind of judgement at this stage.
How can a degree maximise flexible career capital?
To answer this, I break down the 5 most useful things a degree can give you for building flexible career capital, and our thoughts on how to maximise each of these.
These factors are mainly inspired by our career capital framework, though adapted for degree choice. Additional reasons for inclusion are noted within.
1) Gain a strong signal of your ability to future collaborators and employers
Why? Your early employers will use degree subject and grades as a major indicator of ability.
- Many people and employers seem to use the prestige of the university you went to as a quick indicator of ability, so we think it’s worth aiming at the highest prestige university you can
- Getting high grades can also be a useful signal (especially for academic careers, though it’s probably less important than the prestige of the university in general), which suggests doing something that you find motivating and think you can succeed in
- Study something that’s widely perceived as difficult. In particular, difficult technical subjects and not more applied subjects like business. There’s also evidence that employers prefer STEM.
2) Gain connections with people who’ll be influential in the future
- Because people believe that high prestige schools help your career, our impression is that the most ambitious people tend to go to the most prestigious universities. It can help a lot to be classmates with these people, so again, we think it’s worth aiming for the most prestigious university you can (for a little more on this point, see this advice from Nick Cooney, our evidence that if you want to be classmates with a future politician, go to Oxford)
- Do something you’re good at, so that you have time for extracurricular activities
3) Learn how to learn something difficult
Why? You probably won’t use your subject knowledge (80% of jobs don’t require any specific degree), but you will need to learn things!
- Do something deep and difficult that motivates you
- Take the time to practice general learning skills (e.g. see Cal Newport’s books)
4) Gain valuable, transferable skills
How? Two skills stand out to me, as being widely applicable, impressive and in-demand.
- Learn to program. This gives you easy access to pretty high paying work in software, either full or part-time. It’s also one of the best steps for getting into start-ups (see our upcoming research on how to become an entrepreneur), and is highly in demand in lots of areas e.g. medical research. The best way to do this is probably learning Computer Science plus doing more programming the side. Engineering and Physics are other options.
- Skills in applied maths or statistics. Again, this opens up lots of jobs that require modelling skills (e.g. in finance, software), and keeps your options open in academia (most applied fields need people with stats skills, for instance).
There are other useful skills you could go after. One rule of thumb to bear in mind is aim to learn basic principles over specific applications.
Another rule of thumb some impressive people have advanced is aiming to gain an unusual portfolio of 2-3 useful skills through your first 1-2 years of work, undergraduate degree, part-time work and graduate degree. For instance, learn programming but also be very good at writing or marketing. Combine Physics with design and sales skills. And so on.
Subject matter knowledge is much less important in the scheme of things, because it doesn’t broaden your options so much as these more transferable skills. Pre-med, however, stands out as more useful than most, since it keeps your options open for medicine, which is a very high paying career and opens up other interesting jobs in medical research, public health, pharma and biotech. Economics is another potentially good one, since Economics seems like a great PhD from a lot of perspectives (here, here). On the other hand, strong applied maths skills seem more important for getting into an Economics PhD than Economics itself, and it’s possible to enter from a mathematical background.
5) Find free time to learn other skills, gain experience and do something impressive
Why? Work experience is highly important to employers, on a par with degree subject and grades. Doing something unusual and impressive can make you stand out (especially if explainable in one sentence) and is a great way to meet interesting people, and once you start working you’ll have much less flexibility and potential collaborators.
- Again, do something that won’t take up all of your time
- Go to the most prestigious university possible, so you can get the best work experience opportunities
In summary – what’s best?
It’s highly important to go to a prestigious university, do something you’re good at (which probably means picking something enjoyable and motivating) and use free time to meet people and learn useful skills.
With this constraint in mind, and if you broadly want to keep your options open, try to do the most impressive subject you can, ideally one which gives you skills in applied maths, statistics or programming. Top subjects would be things like: Maths (especially if combined with applied courses), Physics, CompSci, Engineering, Economics and Pre-Med. If you’ll hate these subjects or find them really hard, however, it’s probably best not to do them!
Note that there’s a tension between academic success and gaining connections, work experience and other skills. If you’re interested in a research career, then go for academic success. Otherwise, concentrate on getting ‘good enough’ grades (a 2.1 in the UK or a GPA around 3.4 in the US), and use the rest of your time to meet interesting people, get useful skills and do something impressive. That’s because our impression is that most employers value these traits more than good grades.
Next steps: How do you work out what you’re good at and so on, and put all the factors together? It’s difficult, but this decision process for degree choice might help.