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Below is an email I received which makes some interesting assertions, among others that I’ve judged my alma mater too harshly, since it is but a part of a broader American problem of churning out high-dollar, useless degrees. My responses (in bold) follow each section.

“Dear Clayton,

Your blog is a great revelation, and I agree with much of what you wrote. However, you are being unduly harsh on Duke. The biggest problem with Duke is the exorbitant cost, which was explicitly stated and accepted by you. Duke is known as a school for rich kids. If the price puts a financial strain on your family, then you shouldn’t go there. This is certainly not unique to Duke, and unremarkable private universities charge a similar amount for a vastly inferior education. It appears that Duke gave you what it promised—a great education. Furthermore, many other universities provide an awful, unpleasant, difficult undergraduate experience.”

I agree with you on the financial side of things – the trouble with private education in general is the enormous cost and potential debt incurred. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good choice for a middle-class family like mine, but my parents encouraged it. And since there are an awful lot of Americans willing to gamble $200,000+ on an education these days, I didn’t think to question this. I didn’t have an appreciation for the value of these assets at the time, either. Now that I’ve worked in industry for a while, to spend such an amount on a degree is almost unthinkable.

I’m not sure what you mean by “a great education.” Neither was my degree marketable, nor were my 4 years at Duke particularly pleasant. I’ve yet to attend any of the reunions or yearly events as a result. I did make some good friends, though. I suppose that’s the silver lining to an otherwise depressing educational experience.

There are definitely far worse schools, and I don’t dedicate enough time on the blog to these lesser private schools, which provide even less value for money than their top-rated counterparts. But the reason I focus my frustrations on top-tier universities is that they hold the promise of something better than 4 years of mundane study just to attain a bachelor’s degree, and everyone seems to believe in this promise. It almost goes without saying that a little-known school with poor ratings won’t offer much. If one chooses to attend such a school even though it’s expensive, then it begs the question, what motivated that decision? But if a student opts to attend Yale or Stanford, no one questions their logic – they just assume it will be a positive and worthwhile experience with a great ROI… but this isn’t really a safe assumption. I’ve tried to bring this to light by sharing stories of hardship from graduates of these top universities.

“A better target for your ire would be Biology. Of all the worthless majors, Biology requires the greatest amount of time and effort. The other natural sciences provide a modicum of market value, but a bachelor’s degree in Bio is as useless as most of the other liberal arts. Bio is especially painful when you compare it to other worthless majors that are less demanding and allow for some enjoyment and sanity. I am curious whether your horrible experience with Bio was due to the fact that you were a bad match for the curriculum in Biology. Most of the material in Biology requires rote memorization by brute force. Even in courses such as organic chemistry or biochemistry that come from other departments, the amount of memorization is overwhelming. Are you bad at memorization, or is memorization your weakest ability? The fact that you could readily switch to computer science indicates that your abilities lie elsewhere, not in memorization.”

In hindsight (and hindsight’s 20/20, as they say), Biology is indeed a worthless degree. I get the impression that pure chemistry and physics degrees also aren’t much good, and also require a lot of effort to complete. Virtually any core science requires a graduate degree (and likely a PhD) to be put to productive use, but my advisors never bothered to share that detail with me, so I learned this lesson the hard way.

Was I a bad match for bio? Yes, but I think not for the reasons you suggested. My memory is actually quite good, and learning to program requires plenty of memorization as well. I also study a lot of foreign languages, which is largely memorization of vocabulary, declensions, verb conjugations, etc. once you’ve mastered the grammar.

The problem for me was that I lacked passion for the material, and I couldn’t really see the point in what I was learning. I voiced this complaint to both my parents and advisers, but was basically told by both, “Don’t worry, this is how it is. You just need to complete the work and then things will be fine.” In hindsight, my gut feeling unfortunately proved to be correct: I was spinning my wheels, memorizing huge volumes of information that had almost no applicability outside the classes for which I was learning it. Oh, if only I could get that time back to spend on virtually anything else…

“Finally, Duke is somewhat innocent because much larger forces are playing a role. In the U.S., the entire university system and society are putting graduates into a terrible situation. For much of the last century, your situation would have never occurred. At that time, college was only for smart, talented, studious kids that were serious about education. A bachelor’s degree virtually guaranteed good employment because there weren’t many graduates, and a degree symbolized intelligence, perseverance, and the ability to learn. That entire framework has been utterly destroyed. All of society and every family push kids into college, regardless of ability or desire. Feckless idiots go to college because some school will accept them, and some organization will lend the money. The bachelor’s degree has lost its value. Far too many people have a degree, and a degree does not guarantee competence or intelligence. It is hard to blame Duke for modern, pervasive forces that Duke does not control.”

I totally agree with you that there are larger forces at work, and Duke is only a participant in this problem. And the problem is by no means confined to Duke – far from it – which is why I’ve made an effort to document the pattern at other universities as well.

But should we not hold schools accountable for the problems of which they are a part? To give a different example: If a society has a culture which encourages or tolerates criminal behavior, that will likely lead to more individuals committing crimes… but does that mean the individuals aren’t culpable? Should we not still judge the individuals committing those crimes, and hold them responsible for their actions? Or do we let them off the hook, and say, “It’s not their fault – their culture is to blame”? How do we fix the culture if we don’t fix the individuals who contribute to that culture?

In the case of universities, I think it’s the same thing. To address this phenomenon of expensive, useless degrees requires actions by the individual universities. It seems to me that the logical first step in this process is to hold universities accountable for the educations they provide.

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An Ivy grad in a dead-end job asked for some advice. This is the second part of the email thread (you can view the first part here):

“Hey Clayton,
Thank you so much for your answer. I had the impression that you were much to busy to answer me so in depth, so I really appreciate that.

As for further questions… I’m assuming you’ve experienced this as well.

It’s the crushing guilt that comes with seeing what other ivy leaguers have accomplished only a couple of years after graduation, and feeling so so far behind. I have a sense of inferiority and put so much pressure on myself. Now that I feel like I’m not learning any real transferrable skills at my current job I’ve been itching to get out. If you’ve dealt with this, how do you cope? I want to drop the job and pursue skills that are in high demand and that will lead to a comfortable pay. Since I’m still living at home with my parents, rent cost isn’t an issue. But at the same time, if I don’t hold a job I’ll feel like a failure, and I won’t have the courage to face anyone and say that I don’t have a job. So I’m basically questioning every decision I’ve made in the past few years so far.  I feel like I should be much farther ahead than where I am right now.

Again, any advice would be appreciated!

Best,
[redacted]”

My response:

“Hey [redacted],
I know exactly what you mean – the guilt and sense of failure can be really painful, especially since you attended a prestigious school. Friends, family, advisers, and society in general set the expectation that an Ivy League degree must lead to success, and that if you fail, it must be your fault. But this expectation is fundamentally unreasonable, and reflects a profound disconnect between academia and the “real world.” In the end, what matters most in industry (i.e. when you apply for a job) is what you studied, not where you studied it. Contrary to what your academic advisers might have said, if there are no jobs available in the field you studied, then you’re not going to find a job, end of story. A Harvard diploma is not a “get out of jail free” card and it won’t cause job openings to materialize out of thin air. In the ten years since I graduated from Duke, I’ve been through dozens if not hundreds of job interviews for various types of positions, and the prestige of my alma mater has almost never come up, and it certainly never landed me a job where I wouldn’t have been hired otherwise. Most people simply don’t care, or at least don’t care enough to mention it. I’m guessing that your peers who have been successful post-graduation studied a more marketable degree like computer science. All of my classmates at Duke who studied CS found good jobs and are well off today; some are now running their own companies. But many others who studied less practical subjects have been left to wallow in unemployment, disappointment, and debt.

I coped with the same frustration and sense of failure for years, but the best thing you can do is let it go. Try not to obsess over your current circumstances (a mistake that I made) because it will only stand in the way of making a change. I struggled for a long time to find work in biology research, not because I was passionate about the work (it’s tedious and pays about as much as delivering pizzas), but because it’s about the only thing you can do with a biology degree and I was bent on making use of my education. It took me years to accept that this was a dead-end career path, and I wish I had changed gears sooner.

It’s also important not to blame yourself for circumstances which are out of your control. As a student, you presumably tried to make responsible decisions about your future, and the reason it hasn’t gone according to plan is probably that you didn’t have enough information when you made these decisions. You didn’t really know what to expect in the long run (and no one told you), and now you’re being punished for your ignorance. In my view, universities have a responsibility to make their students aware of the reality that lies ahead, and to help them make decisions that they won’t regret later. This advice could be relatively simple details that anyone who’s worked in industry would know – what sorts of jobs you’ll be able to apply for with a given degree, what they pay, and how stiff the competition is. But in my experience, this sort of information typically isn’t provided to students. Instead, graduates are simply thrown to the wolves and forced to figure everything out the hard way. By this point, many grads have exhausted their financial resources (and may be afraid of borrowing more money) and have no easy way to recover. And after investing a lot of time and effort in a line of study, it can be difficult to bring oneself to abandon it.

In my case, I chose my degree based on personal interests, family pressures, and a notion of how I would apply the knowledge I gained in a future career. My academic advisers always encouraged my decisions and told me biology was a good field of study. They never suggested that a biology degree was impractical or that it might lead to financial difficulties later. The issue of career was rarely mentioned, and I wasn’t encouraged to think about it, but instead was told to focus on choosing courses I thought I’d enjoy, on getting good grades, and on organizing my schedule so that I would finish all required courses and graduate on time. Throughout this whole experience, I had no idea that I was standing on the precipice of a total disaster as soon as I left the university. When I graduated, the reality suddenly hit me, and I felt helpless and totally unprepared. In the midst of unemployment, I went back to my academic and career advisers, and asked what I was doing wrong. Why I couldn’t find a job with a degree from a prestigious school? Were there were other positions or lines of work that I had overlooked which could make use of my knowledge of biology? The most irksome response that I received was simply that “Duke is not a vocational school” – which I interpreted to mean, “We take no responsibility for the professional success of our students or the utility of their degrees.”

This sickening reality is the essence of the “Ivy Lie” and the fundamental reason why I created the blog. In my view, it is the responsibility of universities to equip their students with knowledge and skills which will enable their success not only in the classroom, but for a lifetime. People who have worked in industry know the realities of the adult world and have a responsibility to pass this information onto students, who having spent their lives in the classroom and being supported by their parents can’t possibly know on their own what to expect of life as an independent professional. (And working outside academia should be a prerequisite for career advisers, although I have a feeling it isn’t.) Those who know what lies beyond college ought to communicate this information to students and ought to include considerations of employment when advising students what to study, but in my experience, they don’t. Instead, students are unfairly expected to make major life decisions in a vacuum, and are then held responsible for the consequences later, even though there was no way for them to know that their choices would end in disappointment or even disaster.

This problem is not unique to highly ranked private schools, but in my view they are particularly culpable because they typically require their students to make far greater sacrifices, both financial and personal, than their public university counterparts. If you invest a few thousand dollars in a community college degree and it doesn’t pan out, it’s not the end of the world. But if you’ve had to borrow $200,000 and spent 4 years working your ass off to get your diploma (not to mention potentially another several years of dedicated preparation in high school for the SAT, AP exams, college applications, extracurriculars, etc.) then the sting of failure is far more acute, and it’s much more difficult to come to terms with the reality of post-graduation hardship.

I spent years wallowing in denial, stubbornly insisting that my Duke degree must be worth something, and pointlessly applying for job after job with the expectation that there must be something available, and the sense that I was entitled to a taste of success in exchange for all my efforts. In hindsight, this expectation was stupid, it was arrogant, but it was established externally by my parents, my professors and advisers, my peers, and by general social perceptions of what elite education looks like and of how successful top-tier graduates should be. When the reality finally set in, I felt violated, lied to, let down, and abandoned by a supposedly prestigious institution, and it struck me that the entire draw of elite education – and the competitive mania it induces in many students and their families – was based on a misguided collective assumption that certain universities form a sort of Holy Grail of education, and come with a promise of success. They don’t: they’re just universities, with all the flaws and shortcomings one might expect of a run-of-the-mill public school… but they come with a much higher price tag, and they inspire unreasonable expectations.

The best advice I can give to you is to be proactive and move forward. Try to accept the reality of where you are (without judging yourself for it), and let go of the past as best you can. I can tell you from first-hand experience that the software industry is good, and that you should have no trouble finding a job with a community college degree in computer science. If holding down a job gives you a sense of satisfaction (which is totally understandable), then consider staying in your current position while going back to school in the evenings. Most community colleges have night-time schedules which cater specifically to people working 9-to-5 jobs who aren’t in a position to quit and become full-time students. Once you get your degree, you can even apply for a new job while still doing your old one. When you get an offer – which shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks – you can submit your resignation and start fresh with no gap in employment.

Anyway, best of luck to you, and stay positive.

Cheers,
Clayton”

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An Ivy grad wrote in, asking for advice after not finding a satisfying job that fit with his degree. The first part of the email thread is as follows. This is part of a two-part post; the second part can be read here.

“Hey Clayton,

Thank you for writing that blog. I went through a similar period of doubt and depression and feelings of worthlessness a few years back after I finished my engineering degree at an ivy league school (arguably not the best place for an engineering degree) and couldn’t find employment.

So I figured more education would get me going. After 60k put back into the ivy league for a Master’s, I can say I’m fully employed. But I still feel a sense of worthlessness and still have my debt clinging on to me like a ball and chain.

I sit at a desk all day and punch numbers away in a spreadsheet. Not even doing any fancy cool stuff with it, just punching it in and sending it off. At first I was so insulted that I didn’t even get 50k salary, but now I realize that it’s probably way more than what someone doing these mundane tasks should be paid.

I probably sound like I’m complaining, which I am to some extent. I envisioned a much more meaningful and exciting future. Ah well.

Which brings me to my next point, the inspiration your blog set off in me.

Yes, I have a job and I’m grateful I get a steady paycheck, but it doesn’t do away with the fact that this desk job and its menial tasks are making me feel more empty than ever before.

I spent a couple of weeks learning programming about 2-3 hours/day and challenging myself. I spent a week or two reading (very enthusiastically) about how computer hardware works.

I want to be where you’re at now. I’m looking at a community college for computer science classes and going from there in the hopes that I’d be able to make a good living (six figures isn’t necessary) while being able to travel and having freedom. I feel that software engineering and development will allow me that freedom. I might as well do it soon, while I’m 24, rather than later when I’ll have much more responsibility.

Do you think this is a good idea? I’m just having a lot of trouble accepting that I’m braindead at this job, and an investment now in computer science and programming will pay off tremendously in the end, I would hope.

All advice appreciated!

Best,

[redacted]”

My response:

“Hi [redacted],

Thanks for writing in, and I’m glad the blog resonates with your experiences.

As for your computer science idea, I say go for it. It’s still a vibrant industry with a lot of demand and a lot of high-paying positions that companies struggle to fill. I still get daily emails from recruiters asking if I’d be interested in a new position. If you have an interest in programming, then I don’t think you’ll regret making the change. And having another engineering degree certainly can’t hurt your prospects, either.

If your current job is unfulfilling, then don’t force yourself to keep doing it. Software development is a pretty safe bet so I wouldn’t be worried about losing out financially if you change careers. Depending on where you live, you can probably expect to make $40-60K in an entry-level job, and if you’re motivated and do good work, you can probably expect to break $100K within 2-3 years (virtually anything with “senior” or “architect” in the title will be six figures plus bonus and other benefits). And for future reference, don’t be afraid to jump ship if a better opportunity presents itself – there is surprisingly high turnover in the software industry.

A community college is definitely the most cost-efficient way to get a degree, and I’d venture to say you’ll be able to find a job after getting an associate’s degree in CS, especially since you’ve already got a master’s in something else. If you can continue working in your current position while going back to school, then that may ease the transition; I was mostly unemployed when I re-enrolled and it was a challenge not having much money to spare.

If you’re interested in traveling with work, then the key word is consulting (or consultant). The basic principle of consulting firms is that they provide specialized expertise which isn’t easy learn on the fly, making it impractical to recruit new people locally for new projects. Instead, consulting firms train their staff to be experts in a specific subject area, then fly them to clients around the country (or globe) as temporary contractors, which is costly for clients but often worthwhile for projects that don’t last that long. This is what I do, and it’s nice in the sense that you can continue living wherever you are and travel back and forth to client sites, rather than having to relocate permanently (although you can volunteer to relocate as well). On the flip side, weekly travel can become quite tiring and tedious; some of my coworkers say they feel like they’re living at the airport. If you don’t see yourself as a road warrior but you’re still interested in seeing other parts of the country, you can certainly apply for jobs nationwide and express your willingness to relocate in your application. Many companies recruit nationally, since they may not be able to find enough local talent, and I get emails from recruiters in all parts of the US. Bear in mind that (from what I’ve observed, at least) most companies will expect you to relocate on your own tab, but some do offer reimbursement for relocation expenses (as a taxable benefit).

If you’re looking to live abroad (highly recommended if you’ve not done it before), then I’d suggest looking at major consulting firms as a starting point (Accenture, Ernst & Young, etc.) or else companies with a global market presence (e.g. SAP, IBM, or my company, Guidewire). If you speak another language, that’s helpful as well. In my case, I was surprised when my company offered to send me overseas almost immediately after I joined. As it turned out, many of the older consultants with families didn’t want to move that far away, let alone uproot the wife and kids, so the company had difficulty filling openings with foreign clients. But for me, it was the perfect opportunity, and since the flights, work visas, etc. are all reimbursed as business expenses, I’ve been able to move around without having to make huge financial sacrifices. And thanks to all this business travel, I’ve racked up tons of frequent flyer miles and hotel points at no cost to myself. Over the course of 3.5 years, I’ve lived in four foreign countries (Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and currently, Great Britain), and so far, I haven’t looked back.

Anyway, I hope this info is helpful to you. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions.

Cheers,

Clayton”

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Princeton
A college freshman wrote to me with some questions on Ivy League schools: their merit, their policies, and their preferences. My responses follow.

1. When interviewing my head of school, who attended Penn approximately 20 years ago, he told me “no one graduated without a job”. This obviously has changed, but why do you think that is? Do you think it is the quality of Ivy League schools that has gone down?

That certainly may be part of it, but it’s not the whole story. The first question is, what do we mean by a “quality” education? What makes one school better than another? Is it the practical (i.e. professional) value of the education? The challenge it provides? Perhaps it’s the social experience, or the values the university conveys? I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a dramatic demographic, socioeconomic, and political shift in the Ivies over the past fifty or so years, but that doesn’t necessarily imply anything about the quality of the coursework. My general impression is that many elite private universities have rather academic curricula compared to their public counterparts, in the sense that they aren’t geared to train students for the “real world.” I’m not opposed to taking courses out of personal interest, but I think most students who are fresh out of high school are hoping to gain some vocational skills as part of their education, and in that respect I think many top-rated private schools don’t deliver.

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A pre-med wrote to me with some questions, which I’ve listed in bold, followed by my responses. I hope that this conveys some of the parental pressure and fatigue that is often experienced by students in intense majors.

 

“I can’t tell you how many times others would simply wave off my concerns and give me trite advice such as “no pain, no gain”, and “suck it up, you’re an adult now”.”

That pretty much echoes the feedback that I got as well, from my dad, my profs, and my advisors. I remember once when a student complained to the organic chemistry professor that the exams were obscenely difficult and his grades were jeopardizing his chances of getting into med school. The professor’s response was, “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.”

 

“I’m lucky because I have parental support for my college education (so I’ll be graduating debt free), and also fortunate to have a good amount of financial savings on my own, so I can afford to take time off to travel.”

Awesome! You can at least be glad that your finances are stable. The most brutal stories seem to come from students who are in over their head with debt when they graduate… and then still can’t find work. I was somewhere in the middle – my parents covered my first two years at Duke, and I paid for the remaining two with a trust fund from my grandparents, which at the time had about $100K in it (suffice it to say, I spent the entirety of it on college). So I also graduated debt-free, but I was left with no savings, so when I couldn’t find work after graduating, I was forced to move out of North Carolina and into my mother’s basement on the other side of the country.

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Pyrrhus

A pre-med on a UC campus wrote to me this week (the response follows):

“Dear Clayton,

Thank you so much for writing your blog- I searched all over the internet for a blog that would express the way I felt, and I finally found yours. […] When I was a high school senior, I applied to all the Ivy Leagues (but was rejected from all of them) but was accepted to every campus of the University of California. At the time, I was very disappointed to not have gotten into any Ivy League, because I too had a carefully crafted resume with a 1500/1600 SAT, extra-curriculars with regional awards, and had sacrificed so many of the same things that you gave up to go to an elite college…basic things a lot of people take for granted in life such as a normal childhood and teenage social life. Those precious experiences that we really only get to experience once in life, I gave up because I had tremendous family and also personal pressure to “succeed” and go to an elite college. Because I didn’t get into the Ivies, I decided to go to the pre-med program, believing that the program would allow me to get into professional school a lot more easily and thus alleviating the academic and extracurricular pressure that has plagued me all my life. I also thought the program would be a lot easier than what I would experience at an Ivy League. It turned out to be anything but easy. My classmates were all of similar caliber (most would have attended UC Berkeley or UCLA if they didn’t come here), and grading is extremely rough with average of C. I cannot tell you how much I utterly despise my life here. Your experience really struck a chord with me- the cutthroat-ness of the place, how incredibly hard the classes are, how the work comes in massive waves that I try not to drown in…I spend literally all my time studying and I never feel good enough. My 3.7 GPA is a massive accumulation of pain and stress, and because the program is so accelerated, I will be finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2 years, because I came into college with a lot of AP units and I also took summer classes.

But at least, reading your blog has been a cathartic experience for me. I’m writing right now because its the week before finals, and I’m completely broken down right now. I’m at the end of the 2 years, but I can’t seem to push myself any further.I’m burned out beyond belief, and the worst part is that, I’ve completely lost interest in becoming a doctor. Life has become simply a matter of getting through one more day, and I’ve lost my original vision, goals, and dreams. (more…)

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Today I offer yet another laundry list of stories, this time focused on top-tier grads who face underemployment, some of whom work in minimum-wage positions.

Harvard to Homeless and Other Anecdotal Evidence Not to Go to Law School
http://butidideverythingrightorsoithought.blogspot.com/2010/09/harvard-to-homeless-and-other-anecdotal_21.html

“In April of 2009, almost one year after I had graduated from Ivy League, I began a pretty hardcore job search […] By September, I had my first job in the restaurant industry serving room service at 6 a.m. “
http://underemployedinnyc.blogspot.com/

“So here I am. Eight years of experience, a Master’s degree, and an Ivy League school. You’d think I could at least get an entry-level position.”
http://gawker.com/5992314/unemployment-stories-vol-32-you-are-slowly-erased-from-the-lives-of-your-friends

(more…)

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