Sunday, June 25, 2017

- A Word On College

Over the last 20 years I’ve hired a lot of recent college grads. Some were really spectacular, and others, not so much. And speaking from the perspective of my role as a hiring decision maker in the private sector - one who has spent his career at some of the most elite and highly selective institutions in the country (all of them much more exclusive and far harder to get into than Harvard), I have something important to say for those of you who are looking to obtain employment after school. By far the most important thing I have to say is this:

Learning about the myriad ways that cis-gendered white males have historically used the patriarchy to oppress, women, minorities, LGBTQ people, and ‘people of color’ simply isn’t that useful in the real world.

Toward that end I can’t give you precise percentages, but many of your college courses are a sham. They are nothing but platforms for your instructors to have a good time imparting their personal political beliefs to you, and will grade you on the degree to which you agree with them at the end of the course. That’s a shame, especially for you who may be paying a lot of money to receive this ‘instruction’. But it’s a fact.

Which courses? It’s hard to say. And it may vary from institution to institution. But certainly anything that casts an otherwise serious topic in a ‘Feminist’, ‘deconstructionist’, ‘post-modernist’, ‘post-colonial’ or ‘critical thinking’ light applies. On those classes you have wasted both your money and your time. Take too many of them, or heaven forbid, choose one of them as your major, and you have sent a signal to potential employers, that you are not to be taken seriously as a job applicant under any circumstances. You announce that your ideas are not your own, and you have no interest in, or are in fact capable of, thinking for yourself.

But before I get too deeply into that, let’s talk about the college you choose.

The Ivy League opens doors, but for people without family connections, it doesn’t keep them open. A degree from Harvard will get you an interview absolutely anywhere, but the Ivy League has been producing over-entitled candidates for long enough that an interview is all it buys you. This isn’t just my personal view. A great many other top tier employers share it. You need to be able to demonstrate in interview that you were at a top tier institution for sound reasons of aptitude and character. And with what’s happened in the last decade in US Academia, that’s going to be harder than it looks.

With the possible exception of the Princeton Physics department, I would take a candidate from the next tier of schools much more seriously out of the box than almost any Ivy League Candidate. MIT, Cal-Tech, Stanford, and the best of the big State schools would always be my first choice. Those applicants don’t expect the world to be handed to them, and are generally more humble than the Ivy Leaguers. I personally have also had great luck hiring from more conservative ‘Catholic’ institutions, like Seton Hall and Notre Dame. Though others mileage may vary.

Those students all seem to learn humility. And there is a lot to be said for humility because, to quote the film Good Will hunting, when you graduate college “you’ve dropped 150K on an education you could’ve gotten on $1.50 in late charges at the public library’. If your education has been about anything but the absolute basics, then you really know less think you think you do. College is really only a proving ground; an elaborate and expensive sorting mechanism. At it’s best it only gives you the credibility to begin your ‘real’ education.

And that’s what it’s about – like so many other things. It’s about credibility. A serious degree from a good institution buys you credibility. It proves you can take on a big and enduring set of tasks and see them through to fruition. Nothing else. It may teach you some basics skills as well, or familiarize you with the things underlying some businesses. But for the most part it teaches you nothing useful about the industry you’ll be working in. And that doesn’t change no matter which school you go to.

The playing field for University selection levels out very quickly just below the Ivy League regardless of what the institutions will tell you about themselves. I’d rather have a candidate with a good attitude, and a sharp mind from Kansas State or Texas A&M than an average candidate from Duke or Georgetown, even though the latter are slightly more prestigious. But the difference can be made up in course selection. So let’s get back to that.

If you take serious courses that teach serious things, and that teach the basics of the real world, you will be favored over those that don’t. Accounting is a good one. Finance is a good one. They are useful for any industry. English composition is better than Art History. Stem course are better than all of the above. Give me someone who knows the undergraduate basics of Statistics and Probability and I can teach them how to do basic data science (Which you cannot learn correctly in any undergraduate program, no matter what they tell you.) And there is no field in 21st century America more important than that one.

But other applied science course will help too, as will any course of study where math is applied to a non-mathematics discipline. Geologists are in very high demand these days, particularly those who know their way around the data world. At the moment I’m looking to hire someone to work in computational linguistics, which is a blend of science, math, and language, with a window on psychology. (Though I’m looking for a senior candidate with a PHD or graduate level knowledge, so don’t get too worked up about this specific job.)

And here’s a fact that must be obvious to you, especially given the format of this missive. A basic understanding of how computers work is essential in any 21st century job. Any programming course teaches you to think in ways that are useful. Garbage in, garbage out, isn’t just a phrase for programmers, it’s a microcosm of this entire University discussion. Programming teaches you about logic, causality, and the basics of decision-making. All of those are useful skills that too few college graduates can demonstrate these days.

And here’s a word about Graduate school. A Masters Degree in ‘Feminist’ anything condemns you to a life of asking people if they would like fries with their order, or sweetener in their tea. It is evidence that you are unable to think clearly about anything, including yourself. An ‘ethnic studies’ degree may get you a soul sucking job in the booming racial grievance business, professionally ginning up resentment among minorities. But not so for women’s studies because women are actually a majority, and aren’t actually oppressed by anyone except ‘Feminist Theory’ instructors.

If you want to be taken seriously as a candidate, focus on the classics. A popular ‘hip’ major will make you look unserious to a future employer. Remember that the job market is all about supply and demand. And if a major ‘sounds cool’ then lots of unserious people will choose it.

You are better off as a job applicant, being in the middle percentile in Statistics major at Alabama State, than the top 10% of your class in ‘Earth and Environmental Sciences’ or ‘Psychology’ at American University. ‘Sustainability’ isn’t really a thing apart from ‘sustainability policy’, and that’s only true because government is far too involved in our lives. Take away the massive government subsidies it currently enjoys, and the whole ‘industry’ will blow away on the wind. Yes, it’s booming today. But when the political pendulum swings back (as it inevitably will – one way or another) the economics of that entire industry stops working. In that sense it’s an extension of government spending. And that pier is shorter now than it used to be.

With all this said, I work with numbers so I am probably placing too much emphasis on them. There are areas where you can work with people and words instead of math and things. But learning to write is more useful than learning to read. Composition is a more useful tool than knowledge of medieval literature. Writing helps you think clearly (it certainly does for me.) And thinking clearly is an asset whatever your choice for work. No one loves Shakespeare more than me, but I was reading Hamlet in the third grade. Surely a college undergrad can do better than that.

My brother has a really great way of stating the metric which I think encapsulates what college should be, but all too often isn’t. What you should be doing in college is taking hard course. Learning difficult things. If a course is easy for you, you’re being done a disservice, and paying a lot of money for it.

College should be a lot of things. And I think it can be. But you’ll only be there for 4 years, and you’ll live the rest of your life with the consequences of those decisions. Choose what you love, but think about your future too. How college looks in the rearview mirror will be very different than how you see it now. And there are many ways to have an interesting, meaningful and happy life in any industry. All businesses involve dealing with people. All trade involves talk. You don’t have to be a math guy to make a good living. And you don’t have to work and an NGO to ‘make a difference’.

Also... profit isn’t evil. Apple and Microsoft are both wildly profitable, but have done more to improve the lives of the poor than all the NGO’s that have ever existed. And they aren’t hiring any “Feminist Art History” majors at Apple.

And here is one final thing that almost no one will tell you.

I went to a second rate State school, and still ended up in one of the most prestigious and high paying jobs, at the most prestigious institutions, in one of the most prestigious industries in the whole world. When people draw a line between rich and poor they say the “New York Hedge Fund Manager” at one end, and the “Kalahari bushman” at the other.

I was the former. And it can be done, no matter where you go to school or what you study. So long as you manage to resist "Intersectional Indoctrination", the decision you make about College will not make anything impossible for you. But it was hard for me. Almost unspeakably hard. I had to do several 'impossible' things to make it happen, and I was forced to make real and powerful enemies in the process. Enemies who did me real financial harm, and effected my future in big ways. But it doesn't have to be that way for you. Everyone can be on your side. And you can make that happen right now, with the decisions you make today.

Hard choices now will make the things you want to do later in life, much, much easier. There is something to be said for taking a longer term view. That isn't 'giving up on your dreams'. It's opening the doors to them. Your dreams can be real. They just have to involve looking at the real world.


Lt. Edmund Exley said...

I graduated from William Paterson College in 1990 and I've done O.K.

MikeCLT said...

Excellent advice for high schoolers and their parents. This has been my experience as well. Many of the graduates I encountered from elite law schools, (particularly the Ivies), thought that getting into and graduating from an elite law school entitled them to success. Reality bites hard. School demonstrates your ability to work hard not really how much you know.

In the 30+ years since I graduated from college I have found that success is dependent on two things: intellect and energy. While there are some fields that require actual brilliance, for most you need a certain amount of mental firepower but once you get there I have found that a person's energy, their capacity for work, was the biggest factor in their success.

I agree that people who graduate from the top of second tier or mid level institutions can be great employees and have great professional success. You want to chose a field where you can be in the top 10-15% in terms of intellect and energy. Then you will be successful.

Reviewing the previous two paragraphs I would add one thing that enables success: courage.

As an English major, I agree that learning to write effectively is extremely important. Clear, correct writing indicates clear, correct thinking. I would slightly disagree in that I think reading is important in that it increases your vocabulary and your knowledge base. We think in language and the larger your vocabulary the more nuanced your thoughts can be. Additionally, reading imparts information and (hopefully) knowledge which we can use to formulate ideas and solutions. Steve Jobs said that his study of calligraphy was crucial to his design of the Apple computer. Go figure.

An excellent post.