How to Choose Your College Degree

$ when December 2021

One of my siblings is now facing an important moment: he needs to decide what to study during college.

In Europe, your college degree subject is a decision made during High School, with a lot of weight and expectations. Usually, it results in a lot of stress and drama.

Until recently, college management and students’ career planning was my core professional focus: I had the privilege to notice first-hand how students approach decision-making, what works, what doesn’t, and how wrong sometimes it can get.

I have a few ideas to share that might make the decision easier. This piece is primarily for my brother, but if you happen to be in High School — or know someone who is — you might find it interesting too.

School is passive, life is active

You’re not wrong: picking what to do in college is hard indeed. It’s because you’ve been taught a method to make decisions opposite to the one you need.

Until today, you’ve lived a passive life. School is passive, as childhood is. You essentially do what you’re told, trusting the grown-ups, studying what the education system pre-baked for you without having a say. Elementary School, Middle School, High School, eventually college, then maybe grad school, possibly even a PhD… It’s like a set of staircases: get good grades, move from one education stage to the next, rinse and repeat until you’ll magically figure it all out and get the job of your lifetime.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that.

See, your first job will certainly not be granted by a rigorous following of any academic path. At some point, we all discover that it’s all on us to make our future happen — which is actually a beautiful thing. You have the opportunity and the right to self-determine yourself. At some point, you can and need to take ownership of our life, and be in charge of your future-making.

Adult life, in essence, is active.

I’m sure you see the problem. Actively acting on the world and passively receiving what the world has to offer are two opposing ways of approaching life. You’re now expected to commit to a college major after having spent all your life learning the wrong mindset to make this decision. You’re not properly equipped. No wonder it’s stressing you!

The most important concept that school taught you and that you must unlearn is that school subjects matter. They don’t. There’s virtually no direct relationship between school subjects and real-life jobs, and college planning is all about the latter.

The school system, well into college, is fond of seeing imaginary connections, like Arts and marketing, or Maths and computer programming. In reality, marketing is one of the most quantitative fields I know, whereas computer science is full of creative thinking. To our school, subjects and topics matter because that’s how the whole education system today is structured. However, that’s not how real jobs in real life are organized.

Don’t think “My Maths professor says I’m good with numbers, so I guess I will go study Statistics”. Don’t think “I liked this class about Statistics: I guess I’ll join a Master’s on this”. The job market doesn’t care about Maths, nor about Statistics. It cares about traders, risk analysts, machine learning developers, growth hackers, product managers… all of whom happen to use Statistics — among many other things. It’s a second-order connection! Subjects are tools. Statistics is a tool, as Business, Design, and Psychology are. In the current fast-paced job environment, you’ll need many of them to thrive. It’s not at all about subjects. It’s all about solving problems.

As you start thinking about what to major in, start pondering this very scary question: what professional area do you want to get in?

I know it’s hard to even process. But you must start dipping your toes in the water if you wish to make an informed decision. Leave your subject-based thinking behind. There’s no Computer Science: there’s web development. There’s no Economics and Finance: there’s trading behind a monitor until later hours. There’s no Psychology: there’s fundraising during fancy dinners with people you may or may not personally like. There’s no Pharmacology: there’s selling vitamins behind a counter to the elderly.

You don’t have to decide what to do for the rest of your life. Ironically, you’ll never really know. You’ll weave your career as you live through it. But the mistake you absolutely cannot make is to assume that after you picked a particular subject to focus your attention on, and you studied it for a few years, your future profession will automatically be clear. It won’t. If you leave this question unanswered, you’ll end up with a decision that won’t really be yours, and a lot of regrets.

Act, don’t wait

Now that you see why the problem you face is hard, we can turn our attention to how to solve it.

Since the root of the issue is an extreme reliance of the school system on passivity and follow-the-orders, what you have to do is to balance the scale with a lot of activity and I-do-what-I-want. In other words, what you need is to start producing.

The easiest way to start actively producing is to intern. The summer break is your best shot. An internship will allow you to get a feel of what your professional environment of choice looks like. If you want to be really bold, you can have a gap year between High School and college and fill it with 2-3 internships.

Interning is tough because it’s not expected. Neither traditional companies with traditional jobs, nor the traditional school system, expect you to get an internship at this point of your path. So you have to fight to earn it.

The ideal case is to target very young companies, possibly startups. They don’t care about credentials, they only look at what you can do or are willing to do. Learn how to write cold emails, prove that you’re worth it, and make it very clear that your goal is getting familiar with how the company’s industry operates: many doors will open for you.

If traditional internships are not your thing, the closest alternative is doing side projects. Interestingly, side projects are also the perfect getaway to internships and serious jobs themselves, as they prove what you’re capable of. I did so many projects during my High School years that I arrived in college with an already sizable working experience, well ahead of my peers. This allowed me to found a company during my freshman year, and get funding from professional VCs.

The great thing about side projects is that you don't have anyone's permission. Just your imagination, and a lot of goodwill (and time — which you already have). Do you want to become a software developer? Code a website. Dreaming of becoming a journalist? Start blogging and let the world know about it. Thinking of building robots for NASA? Buy an Arduino board and start tinkering.

Side projects are crazy powerful. All it takes is to produce something and to share it. That’s all. And yet, they’ll let you develop skills, they’ll teach you how to aggressively self-learn, they’ll get you used to goal-setting and to getting things done — all the while providing visibility over the professional area you’re interested in.

The best-case scenario is to talk your professors into accepting your side projects as “official school stuff”. When I was 14, my Maths professor allowed me to overtake his class for a few lectures in order to teach programming to my classmates. He then graded my effort, as if it was an official test. When I was 15, after visiting NY, I studied the 9/11 Commission Report and held a lecture about it to my class, asking my English teacher to consider it as a test to be graded. The next year I built my own rocket at home: it took me 3 months and counted as a graded test for my Chemistry class.

During the years I joined a lot of extra-curriculum competitions: one time, it was a national Physics competition where our team developed a rudimental language-detection model. All this helped me immensely. It arguably contributed to making me the person I am today. You cannot imagine how supportive your teachers can get.

Act, don’t be idle. You have a computer. It’s enough. Go out there, and make stuff.

Pick your experts

Sometimes projects are not that easy to come by. Let’s imagine you want to become a doctor: it’s not like you can perform surgery in your bedroom.

The easiest way to solve this issue is to actively go out there, and speak with as many doctors as you can. Incidentally, this is also one of the least followed pieces of advice. In school, there’s this mentality that you need to raise your hand and wait for grown-ups’ approval to speak, so students generally don’t ask strangers for help. You should. Go find people that are working in the field of your interest, and ask them for 20 minutes of their time. You have no idea how many will say yes.

You might be thinking that it's too late to start working on a side project (it never is), but you cannot argue against talking with people: it's fast, useful, and effective.

You can find experts everywhere, but the two best options are your second-degree connections and the Internet.

First, go ask Mom, Dad, and your professors whether they know someone. Or whether they know someone who knows someone. They usually do. This is what grown-ups call “warm introduction”: it essentially means that you don’t have to spend time convincing the person on the other side to offer you advice because there’s a common contact vouching for you.

If your closest adults don’t know anyone, go online. The quickest way is to search on LinkedIn, but Twitter can be effective as well. Research companies active in the space you’re interested in, find their employees, and write them asking for a chat. Cold messages are not easy to write, but everyone has been in your shoes at some point, so you can count on empathy. I answered every single student cold writing to me to inquire about their career. Many others do the same.

An important aspect of chatting with people active in your field of interest is that you get to ask about super boring stuff that happens to be also super important. Like, for instance, unemployment rates. How hard is it to find a job after having picked a major in Film? Is it a good idea to go to a State School to study Law? How much does it take to get a decent salary?

Sure, you can Google this stuff, but asking directly is much more effective. And so easy! Many big mistakes can be avoided by just chatting with the right person.

Don’t overestimate formal education — but don’t underestimate it either

One of the issues with seeing your life as a set of staircases to climb is to believe that you need a college degree to thrive. Sometimes you don’t.

There are some industries where it’s more effective to spend the 4 years of a Bachelor’s to learn directly on the job. This usually happens in new industries, where college hasn't caught up yet. Mostly, it’s in tech: if you wish to become a developer, a designer, or a growth marketer, you might very well be better off skipping college, and joining a 6-months bootcamp.

However, don’t underestimate the need for a degree either. In the labor market, an HR manager can’t know in advance if you’re a good professional, so they use the have-a-degree criteria to filter people out. They’re minimizing false positives. It’s a strategy.

This means, for you, that even if you know for a fact that a certain degree won’t teach you a single thing about the job you want, you still have to get it. It’s usually the case of Business-related degrees, like Management, Administration, Marketing, and sometimes even Finance. In other instances, the degree is very much needed from a substantial standpoint as well — think of Medicine, Law, or Architecture.

Again, you can discover all these important details by speaking with those who went through it already. Find your experts, and chat with them. They’ll easily say whether a degree is worth it or not — and if it is, how to tackle it.

Aim for the good enough

Picking what to major in is hard, but with the right mindset, you can make a great decision that is good enough.

A dangerous mental model that school instils in us is that we need to be perfect: scores, lectures followed by finals, GPAs, graduation rates. Life doesn’t understand ‘perfect’, nor ‘final’. Life is iterative: you have to make a great first attempt, knowing that you can constantly adjust moving forward.

All your attention should be focused on keeping away from macroscopic errors, like picking a major in Medicine just because you want to make Dad proud. These mistakes are easy to avoid if you tackle this decision as actively as you can: interning, working on side projects, speaking with relevant people, thinking deeply about what professional area you want to start exploring when you'll eventually stop studying.

Everything else can easily be fixed. You’ll miss important clues, you’ll pick the wrong classes, and won’t pick important ones. You’ll screw many job interviews. You’ll get carried away by baseless hype, and won’t see interesting trends just because they’re not cool yet. That’s ok. We all did and we all do — all the time.

Trust yourself and be sure that since nobody knows what they’re doing… you can’t really fuck it all up too bad, can you?


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Thanks to Dani, Tiziana, and Cam for reviewing earlier drafts of this post.
© Gianluca Segato 2024