The Glamorous Geek's Guide to Surviving the Real World
Winning Money, Success, and Love on a Planet Full of Jocks and Charmers

What's This?

Some truthy things to say to nerds.

Recent Thoughts

Oct 22, 2015   [permalink]

Education, Part III

How little is too little?

Obviously there's also such a thing as not enough education. People like Gates and Zuckerberg are the exception; most college dropouts don't end up as billionaires, and indeed if you're forced to drop out of school and get a job for economic or family reasons, it can be really hard to go back, and the majority of employers will see you as uneducated no matter how much you actually know. There are meritocracies out there that really only care about your ability to get things done, but even these places are likely to underpay you if they think your outside options are limited. That's a simple matter of supply and demand.

Gates and Zuckerberg

Billy and the Zuck. Note: most college dropouts are not as successful as these guys. (Wikimedia)

Therefore, you should definitely get an associate's degree at the very least, and most tech professionals really should have a bachelor's. What you do beyond that depends on your ambitions; the problems and benefits of a PhD are very real, but a master's degree will often split the difference. I personally have a job as Chief Technology Officer at a tech company valued in the tens of millions of dollars, but on paper there is no way I would have qualified for that position if I hadn't co-founded the company and (literally) written the book on the subject. That book got the company funded and taken seriously.

For better or worse, I'm a grad-school dropout. I worked my way through the undergrad years, carrying 17+ credit hours per semester and working 3 jobs to pay the bills. Then I went to work for a major defense contractor, where a bachelor's degree was the ticket to a solidly middle-class existence. The transition was abrupt and left me with a lot of free time, though, and most of my friends had gone on to graduate school (in part, I think, because they hadn't gotten hired right out of undergrad), so after a year I started taking courses on the side. At age 23 I was halfway to a master's degree, right at the point where the work was starting to get difficult, when my personal life fell apart and I just couldn't finish out the semester while still holding a job. So, I dropped out of school and never went back.

For most of my career this really didn't affect me, and seemed in retrospect like the right choice. I've published papers in peer-reviewed journals, held intelligent conversations with Nobel prize winners, and done some fairly serious work with heavy duty quantum mechanicy stuff, and had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else. Yeah, right. Founding a startup meant I had to look credible to potential investors, and many of them -- perhaps even most -- wanted to see at least an M.S. beside my name. Suddenly, that bachelor's degree was an anchor weighing me down. Worse than that: it was weighing down the whole organization, including the early investors who had believed in my skinny bachelor ass.

These days, it's mostly back to not mattering again. With a bunch of patents to my name, and my inventions (and co-inventions) rendered as actual products in the hands of actual real-world customers, I'm sufficiently credentialed that the subject of school rarely comes up anymore. But that's after ten years of ridiculously hard work, and it's fair to say I almost didn't make it across the gap. If I had it to do over again, I would definitely have gotten that master's degree, and you, dear reader, should consider doing the same.

On the other hand, my wife dropped out of school three separate times through no fault of her own, and never did get a degree, and she's been responsible for billions of dollars in payouts and millions of database records and up to a dozen direct-report employees, so maybe it's not such a critical thing after all. Even in today's world, the undereducated still have options that don't involve selling off a kidney or starving to death in the gutter.

More Anon.

[ comments | add a comment ]