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December 18, 2013


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Since I wrote this post about a month ago, I've read Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath".

In the book, he shows that it's actually better to be a strong student at a good college than an average student at an elite college.

There's much more to it than that, of course, but that's the general idea and it's an important piece of extra info given the post above.

I may do a post on Gladwell's thoughts some day, but for now here's an article that covers the basics:

The biggest piece to success is definitely the student. Not only that but for schooling choice the decision where to go lies in the individual. Some need small classrooms, some need tutors, or just great teachers. You have to know thyself. One interesting other example I have is this, if you are left leaning ideologue and you want to do economics then one must avoid schooling in Chicago even if that is what's local for you because your personal success will be affected in some way. So the decision where to go is important in many aspects but it has to be what's right for you.

When interviewing for grad school, my undergrad combined with grades in my major counted. When searching for a job it seemed to me GPA mattered more than school attended with respect to getting interviews. After two years employment, the degree was a checkmark on the list to get the interview, all they focused on was on job experience. Many years later the degree is a footnote to the experience and not even discussed unless the interviewer is also an alumni or has some connection to the school.

I've never "loved" any of my jobs. I've enjoyed parts of them and disliked other parts. Over many years I've tried various skill discovery courses/tests to find my passion and discovered that I would be very good in many fields and many occupations with no clear standout. I suspect there are many in a similar situation with no revelation or sudden guiding beacon lighting up the night sky. For those who discover a passion that pays lots of money, more power to you.

In the end the major is first step at a general direction. The job you get, what specific field you work in, all hopefully morph over time to something you find yourself both good at and can enjoy more as you move through a career.

Not all school environments are equal. I fall into the category of attending an elite liberal arts school, but working a career that doesn't mandate college attendance at entry level. However, the environment at my college contributed a lot to how I've evolved as a person, character development and increased my learning capacity. This translated to doing well at work, and promotional opportunities specifically ask about higher education. Could I have gone to an average college/university and still do well? Probably, but my overall experience wouldn't be the same.
The only thing I may have changed is attending my local state university where my father taught instead. I never realized until later in life the amount of money I would've saved my parents. This is one of those lessons I've learned on my own since my parents didn't want to burden me with financial stress, but it negated things like budgeting, family finance situations, etc. I'm a first generation Asian immigrant from a traditional and conservative family (both parents taught higher education). My parents always emphasized that my role was to be a good student growing up. I had to fight my parents tooth and nail requesting permission to work a campus job. I ended up working that job for 3 years and can tell you those skills and experience still save my bacon at work.
Even though I ended up with a career not related to my major (common these days), I love my job and make a decent living. Education in relation to future career? Nothing is absolute.

I think it really depends on the school- I went to the Naval Academy because I wanted to serve my country, but also because my parents had very little saved for college. This gave me a guaranteed job after graduating and great experience, despite having a low undergraduate GPA. After that, I got my MBA and work in business now. I have never once been turned down for an interview, and I suspect my choice of school had a lot to do with that.

That being said, it is impossible to be a slacker in the military academy environment so if you graduate, I think people assume you are a high achiever.

I also agree with the second point of this article. Loving your work is a relatively recent expectation and a bit misguided, in my view. I see a lot of people for whom work becomes all encompassing, and then the expectation is that they love it because it is the only thing in their lives. If you have a healthy personal life that you love, it is easier to have a job that you don't love.

You are to be congratulated for being selected to attend the Naval Academy. That's one institution that you cannot buy your way into. One of the very best and most hardworking engineers that I ever worked with was a West Pointer. He served in the Vietnam War, saw a lot of carnage, and rose to become a captain. He finally decided that his real vocation in life was to become a veterinarian. He then was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge University in England, upon graduation he returned to the Bay Area and realized his dream. I visited him on a business trip to England and he had rooms in an old house by the river where they run the annual Oxford vs Cambridge boat race, and was able to row himself to school every day.

I certainly agree with FMF here.

School does come 3rd in my opinion. A student that fails to apply themselves and gets a useless major at Harvard isn't going to do better than a student that applies themselves in a field with good demand at a low raked public school.

I think there is one asterisk on this. Your school opens a lot of doors at your first job.

I'm an engineer who went to a mediocre school by ranking. I was one of the better students at my school, but when it came time to look at jobs, some companies wouldn’t even look at me.

After 5 years at a good company I was able to move to a company that probably wouldn't have looked at me in the beginning.

I will say that I have quickly found that money isn’t everything, but it is something. The difference between not having enough and having enough is huge. After you pass the point of living comfortably, the difference isn’t as big. The difference between $50k/year and $100k/year is minimal as far as quality of life.

As far as loving your job, I have a job I love, but I still have areas I don’t love, primarily working too many hours. I think that there will always be areas of your job that you dislike, no matter how perfect it is.

A colleague was just telling me about David and Goliath today - with two mentions in a few hours, it sounds like I should give it a read!

I took a similar path as FMF - no-name undergrad and was top of the class there, so got many internships, and a couple of really good external study opportunities. Then I went to a pretty strong grad program, not top 5, but definitely top 15-20 in my area.

I'm well compensated for my time at work, but have no desire to be at THE top firms - I like the freedom to have a life outside of work too much. =)

I agree that one's school ranks probably #3 in importance at best.
My undergraduate schooling consisted of going to the local municipal college in England in a town of about 100,000 people. As an engineering apprentice I went one day and 4 evenings/week for 4 years and in the fifth year went to a university about 30 miles way one day/week. The qualification I received was the standard one for apprentices to obtain.

It wasn't until I had In 1992been in N. America for 4 years working as an engineer that I realized that if I wanted to do more difficult and more interesting work that I would need to get an MS degree. My third and final employer had an "early bird" program at a nearby university for which they paid all tuition and allowed me to attend from 7 -10am 4 days/week and make up the time by staying late.

My British degree was not well known outside of the UK so I had to go and have a talk with the Dean of Engineering. He said, "You can sign up and if your grades are good that's all we care about. I signed up and 3 years later graduated with my MS in engineering mechanics and a 3.9/4.0 grade point average. I found out at work that how you appear on paper isn't what employers really care about, however it does help you to get hired. What's most important is how good you are at your job and how good your annual performance reviews are. I worked for a very large aerospace company and also availed myself of their education and training department to take courses that were specialized to the work that I was doing.

Everything worked out well for me, I climbed up the engineering ladder (not the management ladder) and had a very satisfying 32 year career that actually ended with a nice pension and health benefits that my wife & I still receive today.

In 1992, the Cold War had just ended, defense contracts were drying up and the company offered employees a Golden Handshake to retire that year. Since I was planning to retire in 1993 anyway I accepted their offer and used a nice lump sum to pay off our mortgage debt.

Love this post! I wish I had been more sensible when I was in college. I achieved a liberal arts degree in geography. When I graduated, I couldn't find a job no where! I decided I need a more technical base so I went to graduate school (another $20,000), but now I have a good paying and stable job with the state. I like the job enough; I don't LOVE it, but I'm okay with that.

I'm okay with not LOVING my job, because I have another job. One thing that isn't talked about much is having a second job. Now, I know what you're thinking, "I didn't go to college to have to work two jobs." I'm not talking about selling toasters; I'm talking about turning a passion into a little extra something!

Here's my story:
I spent my 20's in college and graduate school about 40-50 lbs overweight. In my late 30's my husband left me and I took on a mission to lose the weight and focus on me. Long story short, after falling in love with fitness, I'm now a fitness instructor at several gyms in my area. This job pays anywhere from $20-$30/1-hour class. The job also provides me and my new (super-amazing) husband with FREE gym memberships & other fitness-related discounts world-wide. AND since this is a "fun" job we don't "need" we contribute 100% of these earnings to our 401k. Monthly, it's about $350! That's really going to add up over the next 20+ years!

So, my point is it's okay if you don't LOVE your job. But, you must LOVE life, so if the job isn't doing it for you, then take some of your free time and turn it into something great. If you love crafting, maybe you should work 8hrs/wk at a craft store just for the discount? If you love animals, volunteer at a shelter; your time spent is tax-deductible. If you don't know where to start, find a local church, they'll put you to work! If you love to teach but can't afford the teacher salary, become a tutor....I think you see where I'm going. Life is as awesome as you make it. A little Jesus goes a long way too ;)

I went to a top private school and graduated with, literally, 1/10 the debt of my younger brother, who went to a state school (in-state). I think a lot of people who speak up on this topic don't really understand how financing an Ivy-level education is done. The best schools are generally the richest and the most able to subsidize costs. E.g., if your family makes less than ~$60K, Harvard requires no parental contribution. And I don't believe their aid packages currently include student loans--it's all grant money.

Sophie...Thanks for sharing your story. I think you advice about loving life and creating a life you love was also spot on!

Sophie --

I agree with Mark. LOVE your advice/story.

I have found that the school matters through the peer group. For graduate school, I attended a top 3 program in my field, and in addition to it being great preparation for my career, the networking opportunities have been tremendous.

I am currently in a job I love doing, and am paid reasonably well. Since I do not plan to seek greener pastures at this time, I concentrate my networking on helping other younger members of the network identify opportunities that match their skills and talents.

My goal is to have a network of future allies who I have helped out in the field the next time I need to make a change. Being invested in the success of others who are highly talented can come back to help you a lot.

The high-powered grad program has two things to offer everyone who gets into it:

1. A chance to learn from the best faculty and hone your skills/mind.

2. A chance to meet other rising stars who could be friends/colleagues for years to come.

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