Advice for College

I created the above video some six years ago when I was playing around with Xtranormal, the text-to-animated-video thing that was a thing back then.

But over the years, I’ve reposted this video over and over again, because the advice in it remains valid in 2017 as it does in 2011. So I figured, I might as well post it here and then actually explain the advice a bit more in words.

Why I Offered Unsolicited Advice

The motivation for the above video is David Brin’s advice to graduating high school seniors:

It wasn’t that I disagreed with Brin precisely. In fact, I agreed with him, as I said in the video.

It was that his advice was the standard “be passionate, pursue what you love, be engaged” trope that has served Millennials so poorly. All this “be ferocious” and “be intense” all that jazz turns out to be utterly useless for life in the real world.

Follow David Brin’s advice, by all means, if you’re lacking motivation. But if you’re more interested in what to do in those four short years to set yourself up for the rest of your life, follow my advice. Also, I’ve added on a couple of sections that have become far more important in the years since I created the original video.

Advice 1: Get to Know A Professor

Prof. Rogers Smith, my rabbi….

If you do not form a personal relationship with a professor, you will experience very little of the whole “expand your mind” and “be true to yourself” advice that everyone gives.

My experience and my views are that for most students, college is a time when they either (a) party for four years and try to have as much sex as possible, or (b) stack up credentials to get a job.

For those who don’t know, I went to Yale University. It’s pretty much the greatest university in the known universe, no matter what those kids from Harvard say. :) And walking in, I figured that other Yalies were surely engaged, surely ferocious, surely interested in expanding their minds, and all that. I figured wrong.

Yalies aren’t that different from college kids anywhere in the country. Most of them are interested in stacking up credentials so they can get that cool Wall Street job or whatever, and then partying and having as much consequence-free sex as possible.

The only thing that made my four years different was that I did form a personal relationship with a professor. Prof. Rogers Smith taught a class on Constitutional law to undergraduates, which was and is highly unusual. I took it, along with hundreds of other kids — most of whom were aspiring lawyers, while I was not, at least then. But what really changed my Yale experience was that I started going to Prof. Smith’s office hours.

I didn’t go religiously, because I was like 19 years old and just as interested in partying and having consequence-free sex like any other 19 year old male. But I did go often enough that it made a difference. It is impossible to explain what it’s like to sit with one of the most brilliant minds in the world on the subject of public law, legal philosophy, and political theory for an hour and just talk. Like many a Yalie, I was intellectually arrogant and thought I knew all kinds of stuff and saw all kinds of things that others simply missed. Well, Prof. Smith quickly showed me in our first meeting that I didn’t know jackshit and I had a looooong way to go and needed to read whole libraries of books before I knew even half of what he had mastered.

That experience of being able to meet with him one-on-one and discuss things changed my life.

I imagine the experience is even more profound for people in the sciences where there are hard answers and right-and-wrong. And any professor at any reasonable college is a world-class expert in her/his subject. If that subject is scientific and/or technology, major companies pay tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees just to have the hour of discussion that you can have for absolutely free, just by showing up for office hours.

Advice 2: Major in Physics

This is the piece of advice most kids simply can’t wrap their heads around, but it might be the most important.

Brin says that your passion, your hobbies — those things might end up being your career. That may be true, in the long run. But if you need a job when you graduate from college, you need someone to hire you. If you need someone else to give you a job, then you need to understand how the hiring process works.

When a company needs to hire people, they get hundreds, if not thousands, of resumes from all kinds of bright, driven, ambitious young people. Nobody has the time to read through each and every resume to find the special snowflake that is you. No, they all immediately filter resumes using shortcuts — and these days, much of that is automated with computers scanning for specific keywords.

Once they’ve narrowed things down to a more manageable number of resumes, then they do short interviews where they try to make snap judgments. Then and only then maybe you go through the full interview process.

Here’s the thing that I’ve learned over the years: whatever else is on your resume, you will always have your school and your major on it. For the rest of your life. Even if you become a corporate executive, with 20 years of experience as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, at the end of your bio, there will be a sentence that goes something like, “Mr. Jones is a graduate of XYZ University with a B.S. in Computer Science.”

And it turns out that your major will influence what career choices are and are not open to you. Let me give you an example from my personal life. Until I got to Yale, I was fantastic in math and science. Advanced Placement Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics all the way. Even at Yale, I took real courses in Chemistry, Physics and Calculus. I never once thought I wasn’t good at math/technical subjects.

Well, during law school, I get interested in possibly pursuing intellectual property as a specialty. That’s when I get told that I won’t be allowed to, because my major is in a non-STEM field (I’m a Philosophy major) and because patent law requires understanding complex math and science topics. Meanwhile, I know people in my school who are doing patent and intellectual property law and I know that I’m better at math and science than they are. Doesn’t matter — my choice of major foreclosed that path for me.

And this happens all the time. You could be a wizard at math, but if your major is in English, nobody will take the time to find out that you’re a wizard at math. Your resume just ends up in the round filing cabinet.

Why Physics?

So, why physics? Why not just a STEM degree, like Computer Science or Engineering?

Two reasons why.

First, no major commands more respect than Physics. Period, end of story. It’s not even debatable. If you’re a Physics major, everyone around you who finds out assumes that you’re a genius. Computer Science guys and engineers look at you with a mix of fear and awe. It’s because the one subject they all avoided while in college was… you guessed it, physics. Even for smart STEM people, physics is that next level above because it’s just so freakin’ hard.

Second, Physics gives you the most options for your actual career. If you’re a Computer Science guy, it’s harder for you to get a career as a biologist, because the assumption is that you know computer science, but you don’t really know cells and such. If your degree is in mechanical engineering, it’s harder to pursue a career in chemistry. But Physics majors? They can pursue any field, any career, because their expertise is assumed to be far more general. Plus, see point #1 above about everyone assuming you’re freakin’ brilliant because they all remember how they avoided physics classes like the plague.

Advice 3: Your Grades Don’t Matter Nearly As Much As You Think

Closely related to Advice #2 is this one: don’t sweat your grades that much.

Far too many college students are so concerned about their grades. Hard to blame them, really, since that’s how they’ve been raised and trained since elementary school. Your grades are a reflection of you in many respects. So people work hard, study, etc. to get good grades. Your mom and dad probably drilled that into you, and your teachers and your school reinforced it with report cards sent home and so on.

Thing is, in the real world, nobody ever asks you what your grades were in college. There are only two circumstances where your grades come up: your first job out of college, and if you’re applying to graduate school. That’s it. And for your first job, people look at your grades to see if you’re a hard worker.

Your second job, the interviewer isn’t interested in what your GPA was, because you have job experience you can discuss. By the time you’re ten years out of school, nobody and I mean nobody even brings up your grades.

You know what they do bring up? That’s right — your major. So see #2 above and major in Physics.

Advice 4: Do Not Get Into Debt

It may not be possible to follow this particular piece of advice. After all, unless your parents are loaded, chances are that you’re going to have to take out some student loans to pay for the exorbitantly expensive tuition and housing and so on.

At the very least, do everything possible to minimize your debt. Pick a cheaper school. Work while you’re in school. Take five years to graduate. Work summer jobs, while other kids are doing tours of Italy. Apply for every scholarship you can. Do whatever you can to graduate with the absolute minimum in student loans.

I did not do this. I took on well over $300,000 in student loans between college and law school. I’m still paying for that decision lo these many years later.

Having student loans limits your options. And the larger the loan, the smaller your options. Say you’ve borrowed $30,000 at 5% for a ten year term. Your monthly payment will be about $318. You can take a variety of jobs, including some your passion and hobbies suggest you should pursue, and afford an extra $318 a month in payments.

If, on the other hand, you’ve borrowed $130,000 at the same interest rate and term, you’re looking at $1,379 per month in student loan payments. Now, you have to get a job that pays you enough so you can make your loan payments, while affording rent, car, insurance, cellphone bill, groceries, and going out. Now your range of choices shrinks dramatically.

That job in a nonprofit that inspires you and fires up your imagination? No can do. Off to the bank or big corporate job you go, hating every minute ot if, because you have to make enough money to pay your loans.

That’s called being a “debt slave” in golden handcuffs.

Advice 5: Do Not Take Gut Courses

My final piece of advice is to avoid so-called “gut courses”. These are easy courses designed to help people inflate their GPA. Many schools have core course requirements, so you have to take a certain number of classes in STEM, certain number in the arts, and so on. So they come up with these stupid-easy classes where everybody gets an A. You know them as classes like “Rocks for Jocks” or “Mummies for Dummies”.

Well, if you’re following Advice #3, you know that grades don’t matter as much as you think they do. So why waste your time and money on gut courses that you could learn about from a book off of Amazon? Take real classes that really challenge you, where there is the possibility of learning something — even if that something is, “Boy, I really suck at literary analysis.”

Addendum 1: Learn A Skilled Trade

Now, let me offer an addendum to the original five pieces of advice. I came up with this in the past six years, and have realized that it is more and more critical. I know my own two sons will be following this path if I have any influence on them.

Even if you are dead-set on going to college to become a doctor, learn a skilled trade. These are jobs like plumbing, electrician, HVAC technician, carpentry, machinist, etc. that get no respect in our society. Yet, these are precisely the kinds of jobs that you can “fall back on” should your original plan to be a doctor not work out.

Trade schools are so much cheaper than college that you should be able to afford paying for it out of pocket if you’ve been working and minimizing your college debt. Or given how cheap they are comparatively, maybe your parents will help you with welding school whereas they really can’t do much for your degree from Princeton.

The one thing that really struck me about the skilled trades in 2017, and why my two boys will be learning some kind of a skilled trade, is that they are extremely resistant to two trends that will change the work landscape in the near future: outsourcing and automation.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, outsourcing is a big fucking deal. And it’s not just telephone call centers and IT support desks that are being outsourced now. Today, it’s lawyers and accountants and other ‘safe’ white-collar professionals who are facing outsourcing threats. All that Computer Science you took to become a web developer? There’s a guy in Slovenia who can do your job for 20% of your salary, and he’s just as good as you are. What now?

The other major trend is automation and robotics. Advances in AI (see, e.g., IBM’s Watson) and robotics mean that quite a few jobs beyond welding cars together or taking fast food orders are at risk of being automated away.

You know what job is really, really hard to outsource or automate? Your plumber. When your pipes burst at two in the morning, you’re not calling someone in India. You need somebody to show up at your house as soon as possible.

It’s also very, very difficult to automate the skilled trades because… well, that “skilled” part of the “skilled trades”. Maybe one day, they’ll come out with a robot that can assess the situation with your broken HVAC, climb on the roof, check around the ventilation system, diagnose the problem, and fix it. But chances are, by then, we’ll have settled a human colony on Alpha Centauri and so on. Until then, a human being who knows what he’s doing is invaluable and very, very difficult to automate.

So the way I see it, even if you’re dead-set on becoming a lawyer or something, get a certification in HVAC maintenance or something just in case. At least you’ll be able to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head.

And who knows? Once you start exploring the skilled trades, you might actually find it to be a rewarding career with mad cash potential. Think about this:

  • The median salary for an Electrical Engineer I in Houston is $66,291.
  • The median salary for an Electrician I in Houston is $45,759.

The difference between the two works out to less than $1,000 per month. As you advance in your career, the engineer starts to outpace the electrician, of course. But which job you think gives you more time at home with your family, or working on your novel, or whatever? Plus, an electrician can start his own company; a lot harder to start an electrical engineering firm….

In Closing…

College is a wonderful time. My official alma mater is called “Bright College Years” and the first few lines are these:

Bright College years, with pleasure rife,
The shortest, gladdest years of life;
How swiftly are ye gliding by!
Oh, why doth time so quickly fly?

Those four years are the most care-free you will ever be. You’ll form amazing friendships, fall in love, fall out of love, learn things, get wasted, do all kinds of things you’ll look back on with a mixture of horror and nostalgia, and so on. And yes, you can and should follow David Brin’s advice about being ferocious and intense and all of that.

But… after those shortest, gladdest years of life, you’ve got decades of living left to do. To set yourself up with the most options, most freedom, and the best possible outcome, I’d recommend thinking real hard about the above advice.