Pick Your Faculty, Not Your Degree

A lot of students agonize over selecting the right university degree. When you’re signing up to spend $50,000 of your parent’s money, or worse, signing yourself up for $50,000 debt to be paid by future-you, the decision is important to you!  A good decision will put you ahead relative to your peers, and a poor decision could set you back tens of thousands of dollars, and waste years of your life.  I had a difficult time with this decision, but there is a strategy that can simplify things. Just pick your faculty and don’t worry too much. Within your chosen faculty, any degree is just fine – the easiest degree, the cheapest, the most interesting, some balance between them, or even just pick one at random.

Your Degree Is Irrelevant

Mark Twain had some good advice for students: “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”  University education is not about learning a specific skill set, nor will it teach you everything you need to know for your future career.  A degree is a starting point, and the actual material you study is of little to no value in itself. In fact, the specific things you study are likely useless, or will be obsolete by the time you reach a point in your career where that knowledge might have been needed in the past.

From my own experience, I worked with a software developer who was actually trained as a hardware engineer. In university during the early 1990s, he learned how to debug and repair transistor circuits by hand in the lab. When a cell phone dies today, no one whips out an oscilloscope, finds the problematic transistors on the microscopic circuit, and then has the tools to fix the problem.  People just throw the phone away and buy a new one. There are many technical reasons why repairing the phone is practically impossible, and buying a new one makes sense. Naturally, my co-worker was a little bitter that he had paid a lot of money to spend years of his life learning obsolete skills. These feelings are understandable, but he’s missing the point completely. Those labs were an exercise that prepared him for an unknown and unknowable future.  Obviously his degree did a good job because he was employed at a modern technology company despite the actual knowledge from his degree being outdated.

It is only possible to study algorithms in class because those algorithms are already known.  Software developers are not hired for their ability to regurgitate known algorithms, which can be easily copied and pasted from a Google search.  Classroom exercises develop your brain, and encourage a habit of identifying, analyzing, and solving problems.  When you go out into the workforce, you may use a few of the algorithms you studied, but the main benefit of your degree is how it shaped your thinking to help you solve problems.

University Is a Brand

Understanding and accepting that the specifics of your university degree are irrelevant takes some serious thinking.  I was very angry about this fact in my fourth year of studies.  At my university, the physics department had removed every second light bulb to save money. This made my fibre optics labs more difficult, as it was hard to properly strip the cladding from an optical fibre without sufficient lighting from the ceiling.  I felt ripped off paying so much money for such substandard treatment. At the same time, my university was considering a multi-million dollar project to demolish and rebuild a building on campus for purely aesthetic reasons, and had wasted almost $100,000 on a logo design that everyone hated.  They can’t afford light bulbs?!  They can, but your labs and your degree are irrelevant details. Universities are selling a brand, and the brand has much more value to you than what you are doing in class.

Recall the previous discussion on the value of the skills learned in class. I have never needed to strip an optical fibre since taking that course.  I have used very little knowledge from fibre optics to do my various jobs. Whether those labs took me 30 or 45 minutes, or whether I brought my own lamp to that room doesn’t matter in the bigger picture of my career. My degree shaped my thinking, and my habits and attitude will make me successful in the long run.

In a co-op program, employers hired me primarily on the basis of my university’s reputation. Employers were attracted by the university’s brand and reputation for training good students.  Many employers were alumni of the same institution, and felt they had a personal connection to the school.  One employer even told me that they only hire co-op students from my school because they have an idea of what to expect in terms of skills and attitude. For me, co-op was quite lucrative. It allowed me to graduate debt free, and with 24 months of work experience ahead of my non co-op peers.  This is the power of reputation and branding. It might even be worth skimping on a few light bulbs along the way.

The university brand also attracts high quality students, and perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophesy of quality.  An appealing brand that promises a quality education attracts good students, who create a good environment for other students.  The old engineering principle garbage-in garbage-out applies here.  If you treat a group of dumb students poorly, they won’t learn anything, and they’ll blame you for not providing a decent education.  However, if you treat a group of intelligent students poorly, they will work together to succeed despite their circumstances, and whine about being mistreated on some blog that no one reads.

Students learn more from each other than from their professors.  Attracting good students with a good reputation is more important than what you do with them after they are enrolled.  Having awesome intelligent roommates more than compensated for any poor professors and textbooks I had to work with.  Some classes were taught by instructors reading verbatim from the textbook. In some lectures, the instructor presented material that was clearly wrong.  I distinctly recall one of my classmates getting up, going to the blackboard (on invitation by the instructor), and teaching the rest of the lecture.  From work experience, my classmate understood software better than the lecturer who had only coded academic exercises.  To be fair, the lecturer was a graduate student, not a professor.  A professor would never be humble enough to allow a student to correct their work like that.

Arrogance and Success

It always puzzled my why my university administration was concerned about feedback from employers that co-op students are too arrogant. What did they expect?  The learning environment that they setup for students breeds arrogance.  Professors are at the top of the arrogance ladder: highly paid for a job that often has little to do with the real world.  Successful students develop confidence to act as experts when they aren’t, work with tools that can barely accomplish the job, and still manage to impress people with their results.

Universities create a learning environment with a culture of success, but this culture is not what you would expect.  A good learning environment has lousy outdated equipment, daunting challenges, little help from experts, and little sympathy from people evaluating your final product.  This is close enough to the real world.  You work with the tools and knowledge you have to find the best solution to the problems you are presented with.  In many cases, the experts aren’t available; you’re all we’ve got.  Shareholders in a real company don’t care why the company is losing money.  They want profits, they evaluate you on results, and they aren’t interested in the process you go through to attain them.

Your Faculty Shapes Your Attitude

To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Everyone views life through a lens of their own personal experience.  Your faculty determines what your overall university experience will be by defining the subset of people you are going to spend years with. The classmates from your faculty are people who you will study and socialize with, take the same courses, and face the same exams. They will share ideas and interests with you, and influence you to behave in a certain way.  Due to scheduling problems alone, it will be difficult to find time to share the same experience with students from other faculties.

When choosing an educational path, you might have an inkling of where you are, and where you want to end up.  Are you financially well off, or do you need to guarantee good employment income in the near future?  Will you be happier in an introverted or extroverted career?  Do you want write books, play with numbers, or tinker with machines?  A faculty is a broad category that’s more understandable than specific degrees.  Making a choice between arts, science, or engineering is a lot easier than choosing between the hundreds of specialized degrees offered under those categories.  Pick your general direction, and don’t worry. You can figure out the details along the way.

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About Zeno

Zeno is an engineering graduate, currently working as software developer in Canada. The alias was adopted in honour of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy in ancient Greece.
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