Is it worth it (financially) to go to uni?

6 02 2010

As someone who employs new graduates, I wonder about this question a lot. It’s a popular one for blog posts and media stories; Penelope Trunk is firmly on the “con” side of education for education’s sake. The BBC offers some rather more unconventional reasons (you might meet a spouse with good middle-class earning potential!), but, with costs and graduate unemployment going up both in the US and UK, and places available likely to face a crunch, I think it’s worth considering soberly just what you’re likely to get out of it.

I was prompted to make this post by this Times Online article, which argues that so-called “Mickey Mouse degrees” like golf course management and brewing are in fact a smart bet, leading to profitable careers because they directly prepare you for a particular sector. The article also trots out the “a degree is worth X thousand pounds over a lifetime” figures. As usual, the top-earning degrees are quite comfortably medicine and law, with engineering and modern languages tailing behind by some way.

But I can’t help wondering whether this actually proves anything, really. The single greatest predictive factor of success – both in university and in a career – is intelligence. Medicine and law courses are highly sought-after. They’re immensely challenging careers, intellectually. Universities have enough competition for places to set the entry bar extremely high, and pick and choose who they accept, which makes the degree, in some respects, just a “surrogate marker” for intelligence. If these courses were effectively open entry, I wonder if the graduate earning potential would be somewhat diluted. It certainly helps, though, that vocational courses directly give you the skills you’ll need on graduation, rather than instilling “soft skills”. While I want to hire, and work with, people who can think intelligently and critically, I’m yet to come across a uni that does much, in its courses, to instil the kinds of soft skills that are crucial when first starting work, and one of my key jobs as a graduate manager is to give them a crash course in these skills, and quickly. The social and interpersonal skills tested by any job are very different from the skills imparted by your average undergraduate course.

I suspect that, on top of the vocational nature of some of these “Mickey Mouse courses” (and I don’t agree with that name) also comes from the fact that the graduates on them are determined and focused enough to dedicate themselves to a course in something very specific. I further suspect that this determination and focus starts before the graduate begins the degree. In the absence of a study that controls for intelligence, it’s hard to tell how much is really added by the degree itself. But my advice for seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, based on my experience at work, would be this: If you aren’t sure what you want to do after university, and you aren’t passionate about any particular subject, and you aren’t sure you’ll get into a top university – strongly consider working for a year or two, and thinking about it.

Mind Over Matter

27 01 2010

My article on why it’s so hard to learn science and maths is featured in the 17th issue of BlueSci, Cambridge University’s science magazine.

Download the PDF here.

“There aren’t any stupid people out there”

26 01 2010

Thus spake Ben Goldacre, at his lecture on Risk and the Media at Darwin College, Cambridge last Friday. Check out the talk when it becomes available on iTunes shortly – it’s provocative, informative, and hilarious.

As a practicing NHS doctor, Ben’s argument was that he has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people confronted with weighing complex evidence and making decisions with enormous consequences, and they do, with admirable comprehension, because they are extremely motivated to do so.

Psychology, for the record, backs him up. Motivated adults (and children) do better in IQ tests, in interviews, in jobs, in college.  Sometimes they do better than people who are, objectively speaking, smarter. You’ve probably heard the stories of people, in moments of great stress, displaying superhuman strength, because they’re highly motivated to save themselves or the ones they love.

All this, I can’t help thinking, gives the lie to the idea that we, as practitioners of best practice (which, as I like to say, isn’t always obvious) should simplify things, should dumb down, because we don’t think the people we need to convince can understand it. All that shows is a failing in us – we haven’t sufficiently convinced them that it’s worth understanding.

When people need to chew through complex medical studies which sometimes indicate differing things, potentially-conflicting medical advice, all while dealing with the stresses and strains of a health crisis, they manage it. They’re not stupid. Perhaps our job is less to manage the information flow for the people we secretly think are not-so-bright, and more to convince them it’s worth their while to show how bright they are.

Should the media educate?

1 12 2009

On Thursday I attended a talk run by BlueSci magazine and featuring Michael Claessens, of the European Commission’s Research Directorate, to discuss why it’s continuing to be so hard to communicate science (including psychology) effectively through the media. It has to be said that, in my view, Claessens was pretty pessimistic about the results of thirty years (!) of active engagement with the popular media by science, even though regular checks of the baseline scientific literacy of the population has shown some improvements.

Claessens did point out that the media have no duty to educate anyone – they’re a business and they exist to sell themselves. The BBC are really the only notable exception to this fact, and it should be pointed out that the BBC produces some fantastic science and psychology programming. (Download some of All in the Mind if you have some spare time on your way to work.) They also have to deal with editorial policy, space constraints, sub-editors, the need for eye-grabbing and usually misleading headlines, and, often, a lack of time to find out what the facts actually are before going to press.

That’s why I love blogs. Claessens wasn’t quite so keen, but blogs don’t suffer from space constraints, or publishing deadlines, or subeditors. Blogs are free (normally). Blogs can build a community in and around their readers. Blogs can specialise in any area they choose, and have proved that they can build up huge readerships. Blogs don’t have a responsibility to educate either, but many of them do, or try to, and in most cases they do it for love. They also have the chance to build something over time, which is how you do education. Slowly, in pieces, over time.

Claessens talked about the need to communicate a simple message; something I struggle with – don’t we all? He concluded that sometimes science just isn’t simple. I don’t agree. To communicate something, anything, takes a story. Sometimes stories aren’t particularly simple, but if we can’t break something down into simpler components in order to tell someone else about it, isn’t that a deficiency in us? If science is “un-simple” and therefore can’t be communicated, how did we enlightened types ever manage to learn it in the first place?

That’s what gets me about this whole discussion, I think. Somewhere buried in it all is the assumption that there are the special clever people who understand science, and the other people, who don’t or can’t. I don’t buy it.