Not long ago, the Duke Trinity Class of 2006 held its 10-year reunion. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since I graduated. I wasn’t able to attend the event, since I was working abroad, but I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on where life has taken me in this decade, and particularly on the ROI of my Duke education.
So where am I, ten years on? Here’s a breakdown of what I invested in my Duke degree, and what I earned as a result of it.
Educational investment: approx. $200,000 (4 years * $50,000 / year)
Total pre-tax earnings from first lab job (summer job while attending Duke): $4160 (13 weeks * 40 hours/week * $8/hour)
Second lab job (a summer job at Duke, which got extended): $23,400 (1.5 years * 52 weeks = 78 weeks * 30 hrs. / week (avg.) * $10/hour avg.)
Third lab job (also while still an undergrad) – Jan-Apr 2005: $2720 (17 weeks * 20 hours/week * $8/hour)
Fourth lab job (the only research position I was ever able to find after graduating): $19,829 (8 / 12 months * $29,744 annual salary)
Total pre-tax income earned: $50,109
Approximate after-tax income, assuming 20% tax: $40,087
Total ROI (after-tax income minus cost of education): -$159,913
ROI per year: -$39,978 (-$159,913 / 4 years in industry)
That’s one hell of a figure, and sadly, it’s unlikely it will ever change. Mind you, these are not my total earnings over that period, but I’ve excluded jobs which had nothing to do with my degree, like waiting tables and delivering pizzas. In fact, pizza delivery paid about as much as my highest-paying lab position, and constituted a very large part of my income for a couple of years.
Fortunately, I decided to change industries back in 2010, following an extended bout of unemployment. I went back to school, got a 2-year Associate’s Degree in Computer science from a community college, and I now work as a software consultant. Here’s what my ROI looks like for my second degree:
Educational investment: approx. $5000 (2 years * $2500 / year)
First programming job: $6,667 (2 / 12 months * $40,000 / year)
Second job: $23,025 (6 / 12 months * $46,050 / year)
Third job (current job): $400,000 (4 years * approx. $100,000 / year)
Total income earned (pre-tax): $429,692
Approx. after-tax income, assuming 30% tax: $300,784
Total ROI (after-tax income minus cost of education): +$295,784
ROI per year: +$59,156 ($295,784 / 5 years in industry thus far).
Now, that’s more like it.
As of now, I’ve spent roughly equal amounts of time working as a genetics researcher and a software developer. In the research industry, I had the advantage of getting started professionally while I was still an undergrad, and had three summer jobs under my belt by the time I graduated from Duke. At the time, I figured this would ensure I’d land a good job post-graduation, but in reality, it did little for my employment opportunities. From 2006, when I graduated, to 2010, when I formally abandoned the research industry, I spent most of my time unemployed, underemployed, and working side jobs (like pizza delivery) to supplement my income.
In computer science, by contrast, I attended a school with little name recognition, and didn’t have the benefit of summer jobs to pad my resume before graduating. I also had only a 2-year degree in CS, compared to a 4-year degree in biology. I figured I’d be up against some serious challenges, and I was fully expecting that I’d need to re-enroll to finish a second bachelor’s degree in CS before I’d find a decent position. Fortunately, this was a non-issue: I was hired straightaway, and although the first couple jobs were fairly short-lived and didn’t pay particularly well, I soon landed a position at a Silicon Valley firm with high pay scales, good benefits, and ample job security, and I’ve remained there to this day.
So what’s to take away from all this? That what matters most is what you study, not where you study it. I realize this is hardly a new message on this blog, but it helps to put some hard figures on the table as proof of what works and what doesn’t. For me, at least, a minimal investment in the right field paid for itself many times over, while a much larger investment in the wrong field never paid off, and ten years on, still remains a huge loss.
As I see it, I’m not only $160,000 poorer for having attended a private university; I’ve actually lost an additional $100,000 per year by not getting into the right industry earlier on. In hind sight, had I studied CS at a state school as my first degree, I not only would have reduced my educational costs by at least $150,000, but I would also would have entered into the software industry in 2006, rather than 2011. Had I done that, I’d probably be around $600K wealthier, and I wouldn’t have the trail of bitter memories, either.
Then again, what’s done is done. Today, I’m grateful that I’ve finally found a good line of work, but still, no thanks to my private education.