How to choose a university degree

One of the most important early career decisions many people face is what to study at university. Although it is far from the be all and end all, 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.

My 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.

There are lots of different systems of university education. In the UK, the system I 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).

What do employers want?

This matters for people interested in Advocacy, Innovation, Improving as well as Earning to Give in non-professional careers. It seems that degrees in more quantitative subjects improve your employment prospects and your flexibility, which is important for making a difference. Picking a degree you expect to do well in is also important.

Employers like Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths

Once again, degree choice is not going to close off most of your options. In the UK, 80% of employers don’t have specific subject requirements for their graduate roles, according to CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2012. But the subject you choose does make a difference to them. 72% say that they are on the lookout for graduates from certain subjects (compared with 46% who say degree class is one of the most important criteria). Fully 50% of employers say that they are looking for graduates from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees. 17% want students with Business degrees. Only 2% want linguists, 2% social scientists, and 1% arts students.

That suggests that quantitative STEM subjects give you far more career flexibility and hiring prospects than other courses. But it is worth remembering that this is only a report of employers’ stated preferences, not a report of their actual behaviour.

Doing more quantitative subjects signals intelligence

There’s also an interesting signalling effect. Many employers want to have intelligent employees. And it turns out that your degree choice does, to an extent, signal the level of intelligence you have. Many of the stereotypes we have here are fairly accurate. This table (part 1 and part 2) shows the average SAT scores of US students by major choice using data from ETS, and maps the SAT scores onto an IQ score. (SAT scores are pretty good proxies for IQ scores.) Subjects like Physics, Math, Engineering and Philosophy lead the pack, with subjects getting less and less quantitative lower down with Social Work at the bottom.

Now this isn’t to say that all people who study Physics are smarter than people who study Social Work. It isn’t actually even saying that you have to be smarter to understand Physics than Social Work. It might just be that smart people tend to go into Physics because they feel like that’s what smart people ought to do. That is, the stereotypes might be self-reinforcing.

But it does suggest that if you know nothing about someone except what their major was, and you then have to guess how bright they are, you can expect that a Physics student is smart. In the case of many potential employers, that’s a relevant consideration. It also means that if you know someone studied, e.g., Physics and they did very well then they are probably very smart. But if you know someone did very well studying Social Work then you still don’t have good evidence that they are very smart (although they might be).

Quantitative subjects lead to more graduate jobs

We also want to look at the employment rates of people who finish various courses. The data table here reformatted from the survey by the Higher Education Career Services Unit here shows the employment profiles of graduates from a range of subjects 6 months after graduation. It assumes that the outcome you want after your degree is to either be doing further study, be employed in a graduate job, or to be doing a combination of study and work. If that is what you want, then a familiar pattern emerges with Medicine- and Engineering-related subjects doing the best, followed by sciences and the harder social sciences like Economics, with Education thrown in there.

That is a little misleading, because not all of the further study is eventually going to lead to a graduate career, and is often not worth it for its own sake. People who study science are more likely to go into graduate degrees than other subjects, and some of those won’t actually end up with graduate jobs.

Looking into the subject-by-subject breakdown, though, you learn that in most artsy degrees about 20-25% of employed graduates are working in Retail, Catering, Waiting and Bar Staff. While that isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s also probably not what you went into the degree to do.

But we have evidence that the average science student is smarter than the average student in other disciplines. That’s a huge confounding factor, since we would expect smarter people to be better at finding jobs (general mental ability is strongly correlated with job performance – for an overview of the evidence see here). That should make us very suspicious about how much of the improved outcome is down to the scientific degree relative to the ability of the student.

All of this is based on data about all people who go to university in the UK. If you are towards the top of the skill distribution, you might have a very different set of outcomes. In the future we’ll look at how this is different for top students.

So although there are some questions about which factors are playing a causal role, it seems that STEM courses and medical courses will help you make a difference more than humanities or arts courses.

A practical step-by-step guide to choosing a degree

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.

The steps you take depend on how sure you already are about what you want to do. I’ve broken down a sensible set of steps that you might use in the UK. You should feel in control of your choice. With the power of the internet and email you can find the best information and advice once you know where to look and shake off your shyness. This decision is important for you and you shouldn’t hesitate in imposing on people in order to get the information you need. It will also teach you some skills that are useful for many activities that are important for making a difference.

1- Take a prospectus from a major university you might apply to. Large universities offer broadly similar sets of courses, so you don’t really have to do this separately for each university. At this point don’t worry too much about which university to apply to, that can come later. It is, however, probably worth applying to at least one university that’s a level higher than most people think you can get into.

2- Make a list of all the courses they offer. Cross out all the ones you know you don’t care about. If there are any where you’re not sure what they involve, read the page in the prospectus about the course. This step shouldn’t take more than a couple hours tops, but it will depend on how much stuff you’re interested in and on how much extra information you need to get. Even though it will take a bit of work, it’s one of the most useful steps you can take. It makes sure you didn’t rule anything out too quickly.

3- Go through your list again and cross out the courses you definitely aren’t qualified for. To get information on this, look at the prospectus. It should have a table of the subjects at A-level that are recommended for the courses. In some cases this is fairly simple – you can’t study mathematics at university if you haven’t done maths at A level. In other cases this is a bit harder. At this stage, be generous to yourself. But put a mark next to all the courses you are not sure you’re qualified for.

4- For every choice, think about why it is on the list. What is it about the course that interests you? Do you already do some things that indicate an interest? For example, do you read around the subject in your spare time? If you do, do you actually enjoy it or do you do it because you felt you ought to? If you don’t, why don’t you? Is it because you like the idea of being interested in the subject but you aren’t actually interested? Or is it just because it never really occurred to you? Do you think you could motivate yourself start reading around it? If not, you might not get that much out of a degree in the subject.

These are just some considerations. You don’t really need to be passionate about your degree when you just get started. Most people haven’t already learned their subject before they go to university. That’s why they’re going to university! But if you are passionate about one thing, that’s a strong vote in its favour. If you aren’t, that’s more than ok. Often it isn’t until you really start working at something that you get interested in it. How passionate you end up being can depend whether you have a clear purpose for your studies. It might also be shaped by the style of the learning.

Important: do this for everything left on your list. Don’t close off your thoughts too soon. And be generous. You might not be thinking about studying, for example, chemistry. But when you think about it, you do really enjoy classes and you are always a little interested when you see news articles about it. That’s worth noticing about yourself.

5- Now go back to all the items that had a mark against them because you weren’t sure if you were qualified for them. Are you passionate about them? Are you willing to do some extra work to make the stuff you have already studied relevant to the course? Could you explain to someone why it is that you didn’t choose the A levels that would have been most helpful? Have your interests changed since you chose them? Have you demonstrated that through actions?

Universities make recommendations about requirements for a reason. In their experience people who don’t meet the requirements have a hard time. You should tend to follow their advice. But, and this is important, if it matters at all to you don’t hesitate for a second in emailing the university admissions department and explaining your situation. This will cost you less than an hour of time and will let you stop worrying about whether or not you’re qualified. If you’re lucky you’ll get the answer you want. If you’re lucky in the other direction, you’ll be able to avoid wasting time and an application choice on a spot you weren’t going to get offered.

6- By now, you should have a short-list of 1-4 possible degrees to study. You’ve narrowed it down to choices you’d probably enjoy – now you want to try to get an outside view on whether or not you’d be good at them. Which subjects that you do at school are relevant to the course – how well do you tend to do at them? Make a note of the sorts of marks you get on relevant tests. If you can, try to work out what percentile you score in standardised tests like GCSE’s or AS. If you’re in the top 10% nationally in something then that’s worth knowing.

7- Ask your parents and teachers if they think you would be good at each choice. Listen to what they say, but don’t just accept what they say completely. Parents don’t always have a good picture of what you are capable of at school and they might have a lot of preconceptions. For example, they might always think you’re amazing at everything when less biased evidence disagrees. Or they might not think you’re university material, but only think that because they didn’t go to university and so they don’t really think university is something the family does. Or they might have hated university and assume you would too even though you’re a different person. So you should take their advice into consideration – but don’t just accept it. If your school doesn’t often send students to university, teachers might have a bad picture of what sort of person you have to be in order to go to university. Alternatively, they might not know very much about what it takes to go to university. It’s actually, startlingly, not really their job to advise you on university choices. Even if your school does have a full-time university advisor they can be badly misinformed. I have heard of some who got application deadlines badly wrong, or who gave practice interviews to students that were bizarrely aggressive and unrelated to the subjects being studied just because the advisor though that was how it was done.

8- Ask your friends and look at student forums. This is something you’ll almost inevitably want to do. But you should basically totally ignore what they say. They don’t really know anything about which degrees are good. They don’t really know anything about how to apply to universities. Treat any information you get here with a heap of salt and always refer back to original sources for any information that you’d expect a university to have published, like course requirements or deadlines.

Your friends will know a bit about you, but unless they are way more perceptive than a typical person they probably won’t know you as well as you do. It’s also not particularly important to make your university plans similar to your friends’. My impression is that most people underestimate how easy it will be to make friends at university, and overestimate how long their school relationships will last once they go to university.

9- Ask the universities. These guys are much more trustworthy than your parents and teachers. That’s because they are the only ones who have an incentive to get all the best pupils they can and they don’t have (as many) preconceptions about you. And it’s because they tend to know the contents of their own courses much better. They know much better which parts of the course people struggle with.

It’s here where most people don’t put in as much work as they should. This is usually because it just doesn’t occur to them, they are shy, or they are lazy. This is actually really easy and it is definitely worth it.

Emailing the admissions department about the qualities that tend to make a successful applicant is ok. But the real gold comes from actually speaking to a professor who teaches the courses. But, you’re saying, you don’t know the professor. Of course you don’t! But it’s not hard to change that.

For example, suppose I want to apply for Physics at Oxford. I google “oxford physics undergraduate professor”. The first hit is the page for undergraduates studying physics at Merton College, Oxford. That might not be a college I want to apply to but that doesn’t matter and might even be a good thing. The page lists a bunch of professors and tutors. Three are listed as “Tutors” rather than “Other Merton academics in Physics” so they are probably more involved in the teaching. They all have links to their profiles and those profiles list their teaching interests. The first two tutors list lots of teaching interests, so they are probably doing more teaching. The third doesn’t list any, so he’s either lazy about filling in the form or doesn’t care much about teaching. Either way, he’s low priority. In the absence of anything else to go by, I’m going to email the first guy. His email address is at the bottom of his profile page.

This doesn’t just work for Physics at Oxford. Trying History at Bristol – “bristol history undergraduate professor”. The first hit is the page for the Department of History at Bristol. That gives you a link for prospective applicants. You can go there too, and quickly find an email address for the admissions department and guidelines on requirements, but we’re going to be sneakier. You click on the link for current students. That takes you to a page which includes the course handbook. The course handbook has, after a quick skim of the table of contents, a section titled “Key Department and School Personnel”. It’s not obvious who the best person to ask here is. I’d be tempted by the Director of Student Progress – that title suggests a good understanding of what holds people back in being successful at the course. But you can take your pick.

If that format doesn’t work for you, you can try other keywords. For example, you can search for a course outline, find the introductory lecture course that 1st year students take and email the lecturer who runs that course.

I’ve demonstrated how easy it is to get the email address of the people who don’t normally get admissions questions. But what’s the point? Surely they’ll just ignore my email or tell me to talk to the admissions department. Well, maybe they will. And if they do you have to respect that and then email the next best person. They might be very busy, or on sabbatical or holiday. They might genuinely just think they aren’t well placed to answer your question. But on the other hand they are often helpful and friendly and interested in helping out.

Keep your emails to them short and to the point. Explain that you are thinking about studying x, and you want to work out how good you would be at it. Ask them what they think are the best predictors of success in undergraduates. Ask them if they have any advice on how to judge if you would get a lot out of the course. Ask them questions you have about the teaching style, but only if you have genuine questions which are not covered by published material. Don’t be overly formal, but be respectful. They are doing you a favour, but you don’t want to make it sound like they’re doing you a big favour.

It might be possible to turn that into a really useful and interesting conversation. Or not. Respect the fact that they do have other priorities. You also might have other priorities.

10- Find graduate employment data. A good source for this data is the HECSU survey on where graduates are 6m after graduation. Note down what percentage of graduates get employed in jobs that use the degree’s skills, and the percentage that are unemployed after 6m. Remember that this data is for the whole of the UK and that it doesn’t necessarily apply to you. You’ll want to look at your percentile scores at, e.g., GCSEs to work out where you stand relative to the distribution. (Bearing in mind that 10th percentile at GCSE is not the same as 10th percentile of graduates, because more academically talented people are more likely to graduate.)

Putting it together

Working out exactly how to bring together all of the different bits of information is hard and there is no formula for it. Talking through this with someone you trust to make good decisions is often useful. Look especially for people who gave you advice before that turned out to be good. But remember that they might be biased. If they disagree with you about something ask yourself why. Do they have information you don’t have? Maybe they have valuable life experience you’re missing, don’t neglect that. Or they might just care about different things because they are a different person.

As always, respect the opinions of others and try to understand why they believe what they do. Then try to see what your beliefs are once you’ve taken account of the reasons they had.
But even though there’s no formula, I’m going to suggest a way to use a scoring system to structure your thoughts. The results of this scoring system won’t always be better than your gut instinct. But using a system helps you make sure you don’t miss some of your evidence and makes it more likely that you treat your evidence consistently.

It’s time for a new table. For each degree course you’re still considering, you’ll want a score to reflect the following:
– How qualified am I?
– How passionate am I?
– How good are my scores (e.g. relevant tests and GCSEs, AS)?
– How well do my parents/teachers think I’ll do?
– How well does the university think I’ll do?
– How well do I think I’ll do?
– What intelligence does the degree signal?
– What is the average salary of graduates?
– What percentage of graduates are using their degree after 6m?
– How flexible is the degree?
– Does the degree lead easily to careers that make a difference?

Now you need to assign a score for each degree for each point. This is tricky, but it doesn’t matter too much what your scoring looks like. I could go into details about exactly what sorts of distributions you should use, but it wouldn’t help too much. I’d be tempted to assign each a score between 1 and 5 (you don’t need more levels). In each case, a 3 means “this aspect of the degree gives me no reason to prefer it or not”. A 2 means “this is a reason to not choose the degree”. 1 means “this is a strong reason to not choose this degree”. 4 and 5 are the mirror of 1 and 2.

Now you want to weight each of your points. For example, I might clump the first 6 together and say they are all indicators that I’ll be successful at the degree. The next three are indicators of how much the degree is worth to society. The last two are indicators of how good the degree is for an ethical career. Suppose I care about as much about all three of those ideas. Then I should weigh each of the second clump twice as heavily as each of the first six (so that the total weight of each clump is the same). And each of the third clump should be worth three times as much as each of the first 6. So I add up the first 6, plus two times each of the next three, plus three times each of the next two. That gives me a total score for each subject.

Then I would look at all those scores and see how they strike me. Odds are that the scores do represent what’s been unfolding in your head as your best choice. But maybe they don’t. If they don’t, try to work out why. Is it, perhaps, because you actually value something more highly than it is represented in your formula? Is it because the formula only lets you go up to 5, and you think one of the reasons was so strong it should be a 6 or a 7? Whatever the issue, don’t necessarily just go with your table. The table is a tool for thinking things through carefully, it doesn’t always give the right answer.

Also remember that you should feel free to add in your own indicators if there’s something that applies to you that I’ve left out. And, if you found this useful, share it with friends who are making similar decisions.

Using these 10 steps you should be able to systematically work out which degrees you are likely to do well at. Doing well at a degree is an important step towards doing good after your degree. It is probably more important than doing a degree that seems to lead directly towards making a difference.

Originally posted on the 80,000 Hours blog.

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