Case study: should I finish my degree?


Martin is taking a year out from an applied science degree at a Russell group university to work in industry. He came to us very undecided about his path after graduation and wondering whether he should finish his degree at all.

The following is our notes on what was discussed and the results that followed.

Lessons learned

  • We discovered there is fairly strong academic evidence for high financial returns from doing a degree.
  • Career capital, earnings potential and keeping your options open have been highly relevant factors for assessing entry level jobs for most students who have come to us so far, who don’t already have several strong options on the table.
  • We want to prepare an overview of the options in finance, since lots of people have asked us about this.

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Should you do a degree?


As university fees have continued to increase, there has been debate in the press over whether doing a degree is still worth it: the Telegraph asks ”University: was it worth it?” and a Daily Mail headline reads: “Degree earning power falls 22% in a decade – and top graduates are working in pubs”. The same debate is raging in the US, and has received excellent in-depth analysis by Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post.

The question of whether or not to do a university degree has arisen in our careers coaching. In a recent case study, we were asked by our coachee whether they should finish their degree. We’ve previously been asked by a member whether they should start a degree, and we’ve discussed career decisions with Joey and Xio, who decided to put their degree on hold in order to start Effective Fundraising. So, we decided to write up our thoughts.

This article is aimed at the UK, though we think many of the ideas apply in other countries.

In summary:

  • If you have the option of doing a degree, it’s normally best to take it. There are several good reasons to think it’s one of the best ways to boost your career capital.
  • We’re open to the idea that there can be better paths, but our guess is that they’re relatively rare, because they would need to offer unusually high social returns or be unusually good for building career capital.
  • If you’re not going to do a degree, some alternatives that we guess might be particularly promising include learning a high-earning trade, learning to program, working at a small company, and founding a new project.

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The Value of a Degree


Many of our readers are students, and some have come to us wondering whether they should start a university degree or complete one they have already started. One thing to consider in making this decision is what effect getting a degree will have on your lifetime earnings. So in this post we summarise our reading of some of the empirical literature on this question, mostly focused on the UK.


  • There appears to be a consensus in the empirical literature that getting a degree provides a large financial return on the costs in increased lifetime earnings (generally better than an investment with a 10% return and maybe closer to 15%).

  • The most common way of studying the question of economic returns is to use correlations in data containing information on education, earnings and other variables (performing “ordinary least square regression” on it).

  • The obvious worry with this method is that the same abilities that help earn a higher income might cause people to go to university rather than the other way around. This is called ability bias. The standard view in the literature, however, is that this issue only has as minor effect on estimates of the return to education.

  • The literature here supports the common sense position that an undergraduate degree is generally a good investment in your career.

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Summary of our thoughts on how to pick a degree


I recently came across this post, which prompted me to summarise our current thoughts on how to pick an undergraduate degree.

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), 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.

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.

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Career Advice for High-Impact Activism

Nick Cooney is the Founder and Director of The Humane League –
[Effective Animal Activism’s](
charities) top recommended charity – and the Compassionate Communitites
Manager at Farm Sanctuary. He’s also the author of [Change of Heart](http://, which is about how we
can use an understanding of psychology to make social advocacy more effective
(we recommend it!). As a member of 80,000 Hours, we asked him to share his thoughts on how to create
impact with your career.


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10 steps to choosing your degree

I talked earlier about how at university you should probably pick more mathematical ‘hard’ subjects over more artsy ones and focus on getting a good degree class. This is pretty similar to conventional advice on choosing a degree. But I found a lack of practical step-by-step guides to picking the right degree for you. This guide gives you a structured way to gather all the relevant information and to make a decision on your degree. Without a structured process it’s easy to narrow down your options too fast, to ignore important evidence, and to apply your evidence inconsistently.

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How to choose a degree – what do employers want?

In my last post I looked at the role of degree choice for professional and academic careers. Now let’s branch out and look at the more general role of degree choice. This matters for people interested in Advocacy, Innovation, Improving as well as Earning to Give in non-professional careers. At this stage in our research, it seems that degrees in more quantitative subjects improve your employment prospects and your flexibility, which is important for making a difference. The next most important thing is to pick a degree you expect to do well in. But, again, we’ll be refining that view as we explore more of the evidence.


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How to choose a degree for Earning to Give and Research

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.


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