Advice for undergraduates and potential undergraduates
Here are some preliminary findings about how to choose an undergraduate course, and what to do once you start studying. It’s based on our general knowledge and the experiences of people we’ve advised. We haven’t yet done in-depth research into this area, so our views could easily change.
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As an undergraduate, you’re right at the start of your career, so it makes sense to focus mainly on exploring promising future career options and building flexible career capital, rather than pursuing any specific option. This is especially true because your undergraduate years are a great time to explore – you have a lot of flexibility over your time, your minor courses, long summer holidays, and the possibility of a year abroad or gap year.
Look to learn things that will be useful in almost any future career path. Write a list of five areas you’d like to explore while an undergraduate, then figure out how you can try them all out. Also consider trying one or two wildcard options – unusual paths outside your main areas of experience that might help you spot new possibilities (see the article on personal fit) for more tips about exploring).
Which degree subject?
Weigh up your options primarily in terms of:
Personal fit – will you be good at the subject? If you’re good at the subject, it’s more likely you’ll be able to pursue work in that area later on, you’ll enjoy it more, you’ll get better grades, and you’ll do the work more quickly.
Flexibility of the programme – does it open up lots of options, both inside and outside academia?
If you’re unsure about personal fit, try out the subject (e.g. through an online course, or in a minor course).
Which subjects offer the most options and flexibility?
- One indicator is earnings prospects. In general, more applied, quantitative subjects lead to the highest earnings, even if you adjust for the intelligence of the people studying different subjects. Read more.
- However, some subjects only improve earnings at the expense of flexibility. Petroleum engineers have among the highest earnings, but their fate is tied to a single (declining?) industry. In general, more “fundamental” subjects provide more flexibility. For instance, you can go from economics into the rest of the social sciences, but the reverse is harder. People with applied maths skills probably have the most flexibility – they can go into biology, physics, economics, computer science, psychology and many other areas. The worst options for flexibility are narrow applied options, such as nursing or education.
- Some subjects are more prestigious than others, especially those perceived as “difficult”, like maths, medicine and philosophy.
- Some majors at certain institutions are more prestigious than the same major at other institutions, e.g. Berkeley is well known for its business major programme, so if you’re at Berkeley, that’s an extra reason in favour of that major.
Some other, less important, factors to consider include:
- Relevance of the option to your longer term plans e.g. if you want to become a medic, you’ll need to study pre-med. Flexibility is more important than relevance, but it’s also worth considering.
Difficulty of learning this subject outside of university – some subjects are hard to study by yourself, either because they require lots of feedback, discipline, or cumulative background knowledge. This is most pronounced with quantitative technical skills, like statistics or mathematical modelling. It also applies to skills like understanding law or accounting, or being good at writing.
Putting all this together, and holding all else equal:
- We think it’s reasonable to aim for the most fundamental, quantitative option you can do i.e. one of these in the following order: mathematics, economics, computer science, physics, engineering, political science / chemistry / biology (the last three are roughly equal).
- If you want to focus on something non-quantitative, then consider focusing on developing great written communication skills in philosophy, history or English.
- If you want to do something more applied, then maybe business or accounting.
- A good combination seems to be a major in a quantitative subject and a minor in a subject that requires great written skills (e.g. major in maths and minor in philosophy). We say this because people who can both understand quantitative topics and communicate clearly seem to be highly in-demand in all kinds of areas.
But don’t forget personal fit. For instance, if you’d be mediocre at mathematics, but great at political science or philosophy, then it’s probably better to go for the subject you’d be great at.
How much time to spend studying?
If you want to keep the option of academia open, and keep open some professional courses like law and medicine, then you need top grades (1st class honours in the UK, or GPA over 3.6 in the US).
However, many employers (e.g. many professional services positions) are satisfied with middling grades (2.1 in the UK, or GPA over 3.0 in the US). Or you might want to be self-employed. In these case, it’s probably more important to do internships and impressive extracurricular activities.
Moreover, in our analysis of which skills are most valuable, “leadership” skills come out top. Your connections are also very important for your later success. This could mean that it’s similarly important to do things like meet people and improve these skills, such as by managing a student society.
You may need to write a thesis towards the end of your degree. The project Effective Thesis tries to help people choose the right question to research to advance their long-term career while hopefully also moving you closer to a socially impactful topic. If you find an opportunity to develop expertise in an important question, that would count in favour of studying more.
What to do outside your degree?
Explore options you’re interested in longer term – learn about other subjects, do internships and summer jobs, volunteer, travel (and also consider exploring some “wildcard” options you know little about).
Build lasting friendships – university is perhaps your single best opportunity to make lifelong friends, and they’re extremely important for your long-term happiness and success. Once you start work, you have far less time to hang out with new people, and you won’t meet as many people similar to you. We know lots of people who regret not spending more time meeting people while at university.
Invest in your career capital – especially in ways that will be useful no matter what career you end up in. You can work through this list of ideas.
Take up extracurricular options that build skills and look good – run a student society; start a microbusiness (read The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau); or do anything you’ll be good at and that allows you to get impressive achievements.
Should you go to college at all?
On average, in financial terms, college is a great investment. Researchers on this topic widely agree that going to college significantly boosts your income, even after you account for (i) lost earnings while studying (ii) the fact that the people who go to college are often more able, which means they’ll earn more anyway.
Our guess is that this boost reflects a general increase in your career capital – not only will you earn more, you’ll also be more productive and influential. Moreover, the boost seems large enough that (i) college is likely to be better than whatever else you could be doing to boost your career capital (ii) it likely to be better to make this investment in yourself rather than try to make a difference sooner.
We don’t know what causes the boost. It’s likely a combination of the skills you learn, the fact that employers value the credential, and the connections you make, but we’re not sure which is most important.
What are the exceptions?
College is unlikely to offer great returns in the following cases:
- If you’re likely to drop out. If you’d struggle with the academic demands, or really not enjoy it, then consider not going. If you think you wouldn’t enjoy college, bear in mind there are lots of different types of college and social scene, which can provide very different experiences. Read more.
If you’ve found a more effective way to build your career capital. These opportunities seem rare, but they do exist. For instance, we’ve met people who learned to program and skipped college. This can work because the technology industry doesn’t care so much about formal credentials (though you’re still betting your career on one industry). Getting a Thiel Fellowship is another example.
If you’ve found an urgent opportunity to do good. In that case, it might be better to delay going to college to do good right away. For instance, if you have a startup project that’s taking off.
However, in most cases, if you think you’ve found something better than going to college, it’s best to start college, do the project on the side, then leave if it takes off (and ideally retain the option to return). This is what famous drop-outs like Bill Gates did.
Which type of university should you go to?
One famous study in the US found that students who were accepted to an “elite” university but turned it down, went on to earn just as much. This suggests that elite universities are selecting more talented people, but not actually helping them be more successful (with the exception of low-income students, who did earn more).1
It could be that the benefits of elite universities are mainly offset by other costs, such as an increased chance of burning out. Or perhaps talented students at non-elite universities get more attention from professors. Given that elite universities also cost more, the choice is not obvious.
On the other hand, it could be that the main benefits of elite universities are not reflected in income.
We find it hard to believe that elite universities don’t offer significant benefits. Attending an elite university is widely seen as a good credential by employers. Most importantly, there are more opportunities to meet other talented students at elite universities, helping you build much better connections.
Overall, we think it’s still better to try to attend an elite university, but we’re not sure.
You can get more information on how to compare different institutions using “value-added” rankings, such as this one provided by the Economist for the U.S.
There’s also evidence that an elite university degree is helpful if you do a liberal arts major or business degree but not if you major in science. This could be because arts subjects are harder to evaluate, so employers resort to credentials to compare candidates. Your network might also be more important outside of science. So, if you want to study science, going to a good value state college is a decent option.
Finally, bear in mind that your choice of major is similarly important to your choice of university, so it could be better to do your preferred major at a less prestigious university.
For some more provocative thoughts on the purpose of education, and how to estimate the returns of college, see Brayn Caplan’s book, Against Education, or our interview with him.