The humor of the title will not have escaped anyone who is parent to a teenager or a young adult. I have two daughters in university and a son who is grappling as I write these lines with program choices for next year, but none of them have ever actually sought my advice on the matter. Be that as it may, questions of education and future employment opportunities have been a staple of dinner conversations at our house for the past four years, as my wife and I navigate the very narrow space that lies between tolerable guidance and annoying meddling. Since my children are likely to be spared ever reading this post, I will allow myself to expand here on the topic more than I normally would.
I am sure there exists troves of data and statistics demonstrating which degrees offer the best prospects for employment. But I am not a statistician, so I prefer to base my remarks on direct observation and personal experience.
I have, over the years, hired people with backgrounds in Genetics and Political Science, in Communications and Engineering. I have colleagues with degrees in Law and Biology, Economics and Literature, Business, Mathematics and many more fields of study. I work for a global financial services organization and while business and finance-related degrees of all kinds are quite common, they represent by no means the full extent of the diverse educational backgrounds that I observe within our workforce.
As someone who has some responsibilities for fostering talent within the organization I work for, I would tell young people that I care less about the specific bits of knowledge that a graduate may have acquired in school and more about the deep ways in which those important formative years have shaped them. My own background is in Law and while I haven’t worked in my original field of studies in well over 20 years and have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned while I was in school, I can trace back to my days in the classroom some very deeply ingrained ideas, beliefs, lessons, skills and competencies that influence to this day the way I go about my job every single day. Here are a few of the most important ones:
- An opinion does not make for a strong case. You have to do your research, understand the rules, get your facts straight and put together a compelling argument. That usually requires a lot of work.
- How you deliver your case – any case – does matter. Good verbal and written communication skills are essential and have to be constantly worked at.
- An adversarial system makes for better decisions. The person arguing the other side vigorously is just doing his or her job and deserves your respect for doing it well.
- Even a good argument can get rejected, as there is rarely just one way of looking at things.
- Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Even good and honest people will sometimes remember the facts wrong.
- Like all people, the person in authority can also be wrong. It’s OK to disagree with someone – even somebody more senior than yourself – as long as it is done respectfully.
- People are more likely to rally around a decision they disagree with if they believe it is the result of a fair and transparent process.
Studying Law did indeed shape the person that I am today, but this has had little to do with any specific bit of knowledge that I thought was so important when I had to sit painful exams – and have long since forgotten. Studying Law made possible the person that I became by shaping me at a much more fundamental level: How I tend to view the world, interact with people and interpret facts and situations.
The outlook that a legal education gave me is not, by any stretch, the only useful one; It is the one I carry with me and while I am thankful for it, I am the first to acknowledge that there are many other, equally valid ways of apprehending reality. A student of Literature may have developed, by living through the eyes of widely different characters, a level of empathy that will make her a great marketer. A Fine Arts major may bring to his employer a unique ability to think creatively in matters of talent management and human resources. A student of biology could offer an employer an affinity to complex systems and how seemingly unrelated matters interact as part of a wider ecosystem. In a global marketplace, an anthropologist could allow an employer to develop products and services uniquely tailored to the needs of diverse populations.
It seems indisputable to me that employers in any field or industry benefit greatly from bringing together people with different outlooks on the world. It is those unique outlooks and ways of apprehending reality that make up the value of the various types of programs and degrees that are offered by colleges and universities around the world. So should my children ever ask me the question: “Dad, what degree should I get?“, my answer will be the following:
As for what young people can expect once they graduate, that is the subject of another post, which you can read by clicking here.