Posts Tagged ‘biology’

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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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.

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