Does Your Degree Matter?

GingerGuy's picture
Rank: Gorilla | 579

I found this interesting Forbes article that outlined 6 reasons why your major doesn't matter.

  1. Your degree is a prerequisite for the competitive workforce; the topic is irrelevant
  2. Certain fields yield higher incomes, but your major does not need to align with the industry
  3. Your experience, be it on the job or off the job, is what people notice
  4. Soft Skills > Topics you'd learn in school
  5. Happiness drives success, not skills
  6. Your network matters way more than your college major

There is definitely merit in a lot of those points, however in the job market for entry level positions in finance (Investment Banking, Consulting, Sales&Trading, etc) the applicant pool is so competitive that good performance in a relevant major from a top school is not even a differentiating factor anymore. Everyone's got an Applied Math/Economics/Statistics Degree from a Top 20 school these days.

With that being said, how much is your degree relevant these days, both from an entry level job perspective and later in your career? Those of you later in your careers, how relevant is what you studied to what you're doing today?

Comments (31)

Nov 23, 2018

It helps you clear the gatekeeper but other than that it's pretty irrelevant. My cofounder is a communications major (lol) but was the CEO of a well known company with a 3 letter domain @ 25.

The main issue with most programs is that they are full of irrelevant content that doesn't actually help you in any way fwiw.

Now that I think about it, not a single cmo or even I've hired has had a relevant degree. One was an ex mutual fund trader and the other a dropout with a really sexy GitHub.

I would still recommend going to school though because it makes things easier in general later.

Nov 23, 2018

It absolutely should. But for far too long there's been a rampant trend of just going after GPA + School name.

I have a B.Sc + M.Sc in Engineering (EE + Applied Math and Physics), and a BBA + MBA. Getting a 3.5 GPA in BBA required almost no effort, other than showing up and not being comatose during your finals. The average (class) grade in EE was just below 3.0, and the workload easily felt like double.

Not once did I see any Business students stay late at school - meeting people around midnight at the EE Labs were usually a weekly occurrence. During crunch time (before finals, large projects, etc.) those rooms were sometimes packed with students, in the middle of the night.

My biggest problem with the BBA degree, that I took at least, was that it was so full of laughably easy electives. Objectively easy classes with minimal work required. We had one "entrepreneurship" class where we just had to brainstorm for ideas, write a business plan, and do a presentation - the whole duration was 7 days. 80% of the class got A, and the groups were so large that some didn't even bother showing up, while still getting credit for other peoples work. It was insane.

Of course, students COULD take "hard" classes, like econometrics, advanced macro or micro, advanced economic math (basically lin alg + Calc 1-3 condensed into one class) - but almost no-one did. Why would they? The only thing people cared about was getting good grades, because that's what the recruiters were looking at, and what other schools were looking at - if you wanted to transfer, or apply for a more prestigious graduate school.

Some students had made, and annually updated a list of classes with highest avg. grades, which professors handed out most A's, what classes had least workload, etc. It was all about playing the system to your best advantage.

Maybe it's more a recruiting problem than anything else. If you present me with a 3.9 student that only took easy peasy chickenshit classes, vs a 3.1 STEM student that busted his/her ass, I'd probably root for the latter student.

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Nov 23, 2018

It sounds good in theory to take the 3.1 STEM over the almost perfect grades student but there are so many people to pick through in some industries that it isn't feasible to objectively break down everyone like that. It is definitely about gaming the system now.

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Nov 23, 2018

Yes, that is true. Many top jobs (Finance, Consulting, etc.) get tens to hundreds of good applicants for each spot - so it's easier to just introduce GPA thresholds, and other filter parameters to cut down the lists.

If you ask me, GPA is a pretty useless measure. It's almost only good when comparing students from the same schools and programs, but even then there's too much variance. (One year the class could be very easy, next almost impossible - depending on how rigorous your professor is).

Comparing GPA of student X from school X, to student Y from school Y is like comparing apples and oranges - yes, some patterns will arise (drive, work ethic, intellect), but it's still poor. It works well around the boundaries (i.e a 2.0 student will most likely perform poorly when it comes to things like picking up new skills, self-learning, etc. while a 4.0 will most likely perform well), but it's pretty much hit and miss for random people sampled in the middle.

Nov 27, 2018

I agree with you to a point. Difficult course work is obviously a sign of intelligence, but if they are putting in massive hours for a sub 3.5 that doesn't exactly ring the bell of brilliance in my book. I've known some people who have 3.5+ gpa's in stem fields that are not too quick on the uptake.

Nov 28, 2018
Ehmerica:

I agree with you to a point. Difficult course work is obviously a sign of intelligence, but if they are putting in massive hours for a sub 3.5 that doesn't exactly ring the bell of brilliance in my book. I've known some people who have 3.5+ gpa's in stem fields that are not too quick on the uptake.

As I've said, comparing grades from one school to another is useless. Even within the schools, classes can be very different from one year to another. STEM classes are also quite objective classes, so their grading is predictable - in many softer sciences, where grading 100% comes down to the interpretation and opinions of the person grading, it can be much tougher. I've read about students going from D and C to A, after appealing their their finals, and getting new/external sensors to look at their exam.

I think that if you're going to use a point system to differentiate between candidates, they all need to be on the same scale - which in turn either means

A) Only use of standardized tests

B) Some weighting system, based on grade inflation / deflation, and other statistics (completely unfeasible)

(Also, in general, not saying that STEM students are smarter than non-STEM students - you have smart people in all fields )

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Nov 23, 2018

There are lots of circumstances that make something matter or not, For instance...

-A 4.0 STEM major from a non-target is more desirable than a 3.0 STEM major from a non-target. However, a 3.8 STEM graduate from H/Y/P is more desirable than both of those two put together.

-A 4.0 Finance degree from a community college with no internships means nothing against a 4.0 Finance degree from a state school. However, a 3.8 finance degree from a semi-target with one internship is a lot better than the previous ones. And a 3.6 art history major from H/Y/P (for whatever fucked up reason) is better than everyone else.

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Nov 23, 2018

I've noticed the art history major trend as well, and have yet to figure it out either.

Nov 23, 2018

Glad I'm not the only one - and I don't think I'll ever get it

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Nov 23, 2018
GingerGuy:

I found this interesting Forbes article that outlined 6 reasons why your major doesn't matter.

  1. Your degree is a prerequisite for the competitive workforce; the topic is irrelevant
  2. Certain fields yield higher incomes, but your major does not need to align with the industry
  3. Your experience, be it on the job or off the job, is what people notice
  4. Soft Skills > Topics you'd learn in school
  5. Happiness drives success, not skills
  6. Your network matters way more than your college major

There is definitely merit in a lot of those points, however in the job market for entry level positions in finance (Investment Banking, Consulting, Sales&Trading, etc) the applicant pool is so competitive that good performance in a relevant major from a top school is not even a differentiating factor anymore. Everyone's got an Applied Math/Economics/Statistics Degree from a Top 20 school these days.

With that being said, how much is your degree relevant these days, both from an entry level job perspective and later in your career? Those of you later in your careers, how relevant is what you studied to what you're doing today?

Just proof that prestige is the only delimiter, if you're trying to pick a school and have no traditional contacts.

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Nov 24, 2018

This has always been the case.. Degrees were meant to be academic pursuits that led on to a life in academia or they were simply checkboxes/finishing schools for bright folks to transition from teenage life to adulthood in a safe environment with very little responsibilites.

Apart from a few fields that are regulated (architecture, engineering etc), most jobs undergrads graduate into can be done by largely anyone with any type of degree given that they're smart.

Some jobs that require a more technical mindset (quantitative jobs using data, non-front end software engineering etc) will tend to draw on talent from specific majors (CS, Physics, Engineering, Math etc) because it rationally makes sense that people who do those subjects tend to exhibit the traits and mental thought processes to be successful in one of those roles. Ditto careers in design and design/art degrees etc. But there's absolutely nothing stopping someone who has the capability to do those jobs from getting into them with a different major - if you sift through Berkeley's or Penn's career destinations reports there are several examples of history, sociology, politics, econ etc majors going into technical jobs over a few years.

Business/finance/political jobs? you learn everything through osmosis of being in the field. There is no "required training" to become a "qualified" banker or politician or consultant or HR professional. The model we tend to use in the UK (and the model most consulting/banking etc employers use) is to pick up bright kids regardless of major from good universities place them into a graduate training program (often rotational) then stick them into an area of a business. This model also works pretty well if you're at a good university in the states as far as I'm aware.

The idea that the only worthwhile majors are STEM majors is, frankly, ridiculous. So long as the major you do is "academic" you will be learning skills (critical thinking, writing, analysis etc) that are valuable in a multitude of white collar environments. (sidebar: I personally don't see the point in having undergrad business degrees.. they're not academic in anyway and largely are just 3-4 years of common sense + recruiting).

I'd caveat all the above with: it depends on the school you go to.. if your school isn't a "good school" and you major in sociology or history - your direct options (teaching, academia, med/law/dent school) are limited unless you network your ass off and/or build tangible hard skills. Which is why STEM majors have an easier time from those types of schools: their skillset is more readily proven and/or they're going into a regulated profession.

All in all, the formula of "good school" + "good academic subject" + "good grades" + " good ECs/internships" will always yield healthy results in resume screens - if one of those components falls short, it's on you to make up for it.

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Nov 24, 2018

I feel like investment banks should start giving liberal arts majors from top schools more credit. They're generally more interesting and communicative. Why? Because they spend their time in the classroom discussing, debating, and listening to their peers rather than doing math equations that are a dozen times harder than anything you'd have do in investment banking. Investment banking isn't rocket science, so as long as you can work with numbers, and it's ultimately, as with anything, a relationships business once you move up the ranks.

Nov 26, 2018

edited - wrong comment.

Nov 26, 2018

Does your major ACTUALLY matter in terms of performing the job? No.

Does your major matter to recruiters/HR in getting the initial interview? Yes.

Unless Daddy can put you in touch with all of his banker friends, good luck breaking into high finance with a degree in History.

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Nov 26, 2018

Plenty of bankers have history degrees..

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Nov 27, 2018

From non-targets? Doubt it.

Nov 26, 2018

I dont get it.

I use IRR, yield curves, discount rates, or make amortization tables, etc. every day. Shore, I could have learned it on the job, but I would have had a lot of awkward meetings to learn that I needed to learn that. On top of that, if I didnt know all that stuff and how it related to my job and knew I would be doing it everyday, why would the interviewer take me seriously when they try to figure out what I know about the day to day of the job/if I would even be interested after a week? "Oh, hi, so what do you think you will be doing as an analyst?" "No clue, but I have a lot of soft skills", "Oh, why do you want to be in this industry?" "I read a cool article on it this morning."

I guess that is me coming from a semi-target and living in the real world. Maybe the Ivy leaguer's spend their entire life in an alternate universe floating from one entitlement to the next.

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Nov 26, 2018

As someone going into IB from a liberal arts college and studying a mix of politics, philosophy, and econ... I can assure you that it is not as easy as "I read a cool article on it this morning." In addition to our normal studies, we have to teach ourselves the same stuff you do for interviews.

Nov 26, 2018

I think the more "non-target" your school is the more the major matters. If you go to southwest bumfuckville state you'd better major in something competitive (like accounting or computer science) otherwise you might find yourself working retail after college. Then there are the fields where you can't practice without the major. You (generally) can't be an engineer without some sort of engineering (or related) degree. A literature major from Harvard isn't getting hired as a chemical engineer over a chemical engineering major from Non-target U.

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Nov 26, 2018

I actually think that what you major in, i.e. what you repetitively study over the course of 4 years, plays a major role in what kind of person you become. I've come to notice that how folks i) carry themselves and view the world ii) form values and iii) think (analytical vs. emotional) are greatly influenced by their undergraduate background. Albeit this could somewhat, but not totally, be an effect of self-selection.

Whatever the ratio is, I wouldn't go around telling high-schoolers that major doesn't matter. That would just exacerbate the student debt crisis.

Nov 26, 2018

I think the conversation about 'degrees not mattering, do what you're interested in' is a great stance.. with the caveat that you actually research career paths based on your likely post-high school trajectory.

If you're heading to a good school with solid recruiting for top entry-level "generalist" jobs in business/law/politics etc, then sure do what you want - just build a good profile and prep for interviews.

If you're most likely heading to podunkU, tame your expectations: i.e. if you're doing a liberal arts degree focus more effort on academia/teaching/getting into a top professional program/transferring or do something with a more direct path like engineering, CS, accounting, architecture, nursing, pre-med/med etc. It's either that or just accept that you'll have to kiss a lot of ass (aka networking) and/or start from the bottom and work up.

Nov 27, 2018

Mind expanding on that a bit more? I think this is really interesting, because I usually never assumed someone's major in all seriousness influences his or her behavior. What kind of person does a History major become?

Nov 27, 2018

Honestly, if you're gunning for IB, just do finance or the easiest degree you can given it has good recruitment prospect.

I made the mistake of doing EE. Worked my ass off for a 3.5 gpa and it never played much in recruitment. The extra time in school could've been used to build more useful skills like programming, or doing more social activities in school to develop soft skills, or prepare for interview.

Even for CS, I think you can get pretty far with just a minor. Just make sure you master data structure and algo and have some side projects to show. Most of the stuff you learn in class is useless shit.

Having a good GPA doesn't guarantee much but at least it won't work against you. A signaling tool if you will.

Most people from my circle who ended up in IB knew how to play the "game" early. There's exceptions but they could've done well for themselves, IB or not.

I understood the game early on and tried switching out but it didn't work out. Imagine how frustrating my whole college experience was. I ended up competing with these business student who had a high gpa but lackluster experience. And lost to them on most occasions despite having a much more difficult major and front office experience. It's not a fair process that you have to learn to accept. I m pivoting away from finance to tech instead of this bullshit

Nov 27, 2018

Keep your head up man. I don't have much advice because we're at different career points but all of the effort you've put in will help you no matter where you go. I think that's the most underrated part of IB in general tbh. Don't let yourself get down. Just continue to better yourself until all of your abilities and credentials are a tidal wave that they can't ignore :)

Nov 27, 2018
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Nov 28, 2018