/ Parenting

Should salary dictate your degree choice?


There’s a wealth of information out there for students thinking about university. But how often do we talk about the impact academic choices will have on life after university? Is it time to give more pragmatic advice to students?

In secondary school students are given a lot of advice about how to choose the ‘right’ uni course. They’re told to think about likes and dislikes, and their strengths and weaknesses. They’re told that university is a time to grow academically and round out their personalities.

However, our 2015 applicant survey, found that the main reason applicants said they were going to university was ‘to improve employment prospects or pursue a specific vocation’ (64%). But only half of applicants aged 19 and under said they felt they had enough advice from their school/college to make an informed choice about courses/ universities.

Learning and earning

I did think about career earnings before attending university. I felt comfortable in academia and had the grades to pursue whatever degree I wanted. In the end, my interests won out and I chose liberal arts and social sciences. I don’t regret this, as I believe that if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, nothing else will follow.

Yesterday the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported on individuals’ income 10 years after graduation. The data showed that those choosing to study medicine and economics have the highest earning potential a decade after graduation.

The median earnings for medical graduates after 10 years is £45,400 for women and £55,300 for men, and for economics graduates it’s £38,200 for women and £42,000 for men. Whereas the median earnings for creative arts graduates is £14,500 for women and £17,900 for men.

On reflection, I would’ve appreciated a bit more pragmatic discussion around what would happen after university. Despite my forethought, I didn’t really feel the full extent of my decision until I entered the workforce. Where once my intellectual capital was highly valued, it now seemed stigmatised by being labelled by a degree.

But for some going to university isn’t about the degree. Recently a friend of mine applied to Stanford Graduate School of Business. I asked him if he felt an MBA would give him knowledge or experience he wouldn’t be able to gain from a workplace. ‘Well,’ he laughed, ‘It’s not about the degree, it’s about the networking’.

The IFS study did highlight that a student’s background or networks appear to also be contributing factors to earnings, as did gender and university attended. A university friend of mine joked that she chose to study engineering because, although she didn’t like it, her future career in sciences would help her make up for the gender pay gap.

The IFS findings, which aren’t necessarily surprising, still surprised me. I had a moment of – Is this still what we’re finding?

Forward planning

The data is clear that these choices affect not just career aspirations, but also career practicalities. However, observing trends won’t necessarily solve the problem – such as when the data emerged that when women break into a traditionally male field, the field is apparently devalued.

So as illuminating as studies such as this are, what can be done about it? How can we help students make more informed decisions about life both during and after university?


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I’m sure some students will worry about the need to be able to pay off student loans after uni. Hence they may be drawn towards degrees that can lead into well paid jobs.

Others however will follow their hearts and pursue the subject that most interests them.

Also, I think, it is hard to really be certain about the salary prospects from any particular degree.

Furthermore, the option of a further degree – such as a more focussed Masters Degree, can dramatically increase the job prospects of many students.

Until you have joined a profession it seems to me that most people will not know whether they will really enjoy the work. A job is not just about the subject you have chosen, but about the environment and structure within which you have to operate. Even work experience is too brief to be a real insight.

So most people have to think about earning a living, and relying on any interest you have developed while at school, through hobbies or from family – science, for science, engineering, medicine for example – is about as good a guide as you can get. Being educated at university then should teach you the ability to use your mind and learn how to apply yourself to problem solving and critical analysis. So a “useful” degree from a decent institution should not tie you to a particular profession, but develop your abilities to give you choice as to where to apply them.

Some may have the luxury of studying a subject for pleasure only, with no need to worry about future job prospects and money. But for most a decent useful degree with potential financial security means they can study and develop other interests after university.

Its a shame this Conversation did not include the most damning information.

“Date: 13 April 2016
Authors: Jack Britton , Lorraine Dearden , Neil Shephard and Anna Vignoles
Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities. This is one of many findings in new research published today which looks at the link between earnings and students’ background, degree subject and university attended.”

Perhaps the choice should begin earlier as in which public school to go to. Eton is very popular and the networking opportunities better than most. Essentially networking is the key component all other things being “equal”.

Pragmatically a lot of people are being deluded that a University education will be key in a financially secure future. This is balderdash. Firstly look at all the current jobs and decide which ones will be replaced or made less job intensive by smart systems . Which jobs can be done overseas at 80% of the cost.

Having ruled these out go for an apprenticeship doing a job that will not be replaced and in a growing area. Electric car mechanics – apparently only 1000 in the UK. Nursing – we have to import staff but of course it is now a degree course. Plumbing will always be safe …..

Incidentally unskilled bricklayers around London get around £200 a day.

And remember after all this that A levels used to be what your degree is worth now in terms of rarity value. Not a lot. With jobs being de-skilled vast swathes open a decade or two ago, the things your parents grew up with are no longer what they were. Bank manager hahhaha!

I’m always dubious about “research”, like “surveys”, and “experts” being totally factual and correct. “Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts”. All graduates from richer families do better, and all graduates from poorer families do worse? Of course in some cases connections and paid-for education helps and although we might envy those who make use of their better-off circumstances should it be condemned. Life is not equal or fair to everybody and never will be. We have to make the best of it.

Once, a degree meant something – a sign of application, hard work and aptitude for thinking things through. Now, with so many universities, poor standard courses, insufficient decent teachers, and everyone thinking it is the only way to be educated, they are devalued. And they might only help get you on the first rung of the ladder; if you haven’t got what it takes to do a job properly, you’ll get no further. As dt intimates, a degree, whether academic or fairly practical, is good for some, but not everyone. We should respect those with practical skills – they will always be in demand.

Personally, I’d expect graduates from better orf backgrounds to have higher expectations of what “reasonable” salaries and life styles were, and thence to be more motivated to attain then.

While it’s true that things have changed a lot since our parents’ time the questions of what constitutes a ‘good’ university, what courses to follow and what the fiscal return on those studies will bring needs examining in more depth.

There are Universities and universities and no two are equal. The top few – Oxbridge, Durham, Warwick, Edinburgh and Bristol, among others – seem to provide their graduates with the best armoury of abilities after graduation. But what seems to be the best determinant for future careers is the subject studied. Medicine, Veterinary Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Dentistry embody the most potential, while Fine Arts, Photography, Literature and History the least.

But it’s a popular misconception to assume A levels are not as ‘hard’ as they once were, and are now only equivalent to the modern degree. Over the past fifty years there has been little change in difficulty in Mathematics, for instance (although, interestingly, the way the questions are posed has changed and is seen as easier) but the most significant changes occurred when units of the previously examination-only A level courses were changed to coursework.

That aside, however, employers now look at two things: the quality of the degree (First, 2:1, Masters, etc.) and the awarding body. Getting a first is still an accomplishment, but where that first was gained is viewed as almost as important.

Youngsters looking to attend University should ask themselves what do they really enjoy? Schools ought to be doing more serious profiling of students to ascertain where their interests (and thus drive) really lie. Students who love solving puzzles, for instance, should consider one of the Sciences – hard or soft – whereas those who enjoy drawing, painting, writing and reading might be better advised to look at one of the Creative subjects, such as History, or Literature. One worrying statistic is the number of students who either drop out or who choose to switch courses.

In the long run, however, students need to understand that University is there primarily to make them think. And nothing is more important.

Ian, i imagine that, as in my day, the better universities are those that are hardest to get into, and thus attract the better (potential) students? I studied engineering – hard work compared to many courses – and satisfying as a career as it suited my practical bent. But not the most financially rewarding.. However money should not be the only ambition; life is too short to spend half your waking hours doing something you don’t really find satisfying simply because it pays better. “Work/life balance” can be overused, but it is not just about time, but also enjoyment. You only live once. (I know one contributor disagrees, and I am not 100% sure either. If we simply kept on returning then the population would be be stable. It isn’t. So new people are being created – four new generations can appear for one person’s lifespan. Perhaps we should have a conversation about this so I can plan ahead).

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And life will never be fair or equal, , thats the way it is

🙂 Engineering is still one of the tougher disciplines, Malcolm, and our youngest has used his Masters’ in that to good effect. He has his own house at 30 and is financially very secure. I agree that having any degree is not a guarantee of a good career but it usually allows someone to take the first step.

I am, and have been concerned about analytical skills for some considerable time. It is evident to me that critical faculties seem to have been suppressed in the media over time. Whether this is due to lower quality journalists, or journalism, or that editors wanting loads of output I am not sure.

Regarding what Ian said, part interesting and part shocking this study of US students:

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities. [ Yep students thinking it is a social life resort DT]

“Arum co-authored the book with Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. The study, conducted with Esther Cho, a researcher with the Social Science Research Council, showed that students learned more when asked to do more.

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

That’s welcome news to liberal arts advocates.

“We do teach analytical reading and writing,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire.

The study used data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a 90-minute essay-type test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach and that more than 400 colleges and universities have used since 2002. The test is voluntary and includes real world problem-solving tasks, such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.
The study’s authors also found that large numbers of students didn’t enroll in courses requiring substantial work. In a typical semester, a third of students took no courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half didn’t take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the semester.”

I have to say that I do not agree that the study of US students quoted by DT (above) is either completely valid or indicative of the situation in US campuses to any degree of certainty.

That’s not to say it’s completely wrong, but the authors are sociologists and not primarily educationalists, and there is significant peer review criticism of the study on several fronts, not least its dependency on the Collegiate Learning Assessment tests, which themselves are open to a number of criticisms.

It also fails to take into account that different disciplines require different amounts of work: the Sciences and Music take most while the Arts and pseudo-sciences, like Sociology (!) take a lot less.

Erin / All,

Where I work, we really do look for graduates strong in both interpersonal skills and technical abilities. I suspect the latter are easier to train for than the former.

When we read CVs, evidence of active participation in extra-curricular activities, like sports, clubs and societies, usually serves as a reliable index for interpersonal skills.

I should have mentioned the book was published in 2011.

For a very good reasoned argument on the importance of reading this from 2001 is highly entertaining. The notion that a huge number of US students avoid reading/writing is depressing. I wonder how we fare in the UK .


I would hate it to be thought that better critical thinking and analytical skills can only be acquired by taking a course of higher education. That is but one method, albeit a most significant one. The converse is also unreliable.

I’m sure my MD would agree with that. He started out as an apprentice electrician – and worked his way up from there.

There are a multitude of reasons why students decide on a particular way forward depending upon their personality type, whether extrovert, who naturally seek external stimulus and the company of others such as politicians (ever watched PM’s Question Time?) sales staff, entertainers etc., and introverts who being naturally overstimulated have a tendency to shy away from too much exterior stimulus and will most likely choose a more academic and in depth analytical scientific approach. There are always exceptions of course according to a greater or lesser degree of both. If parents are able to recognise these traits in their own offsprings at a reasonably early age, they will encourage them to follow their instincts and allow them to choose their own further education and destiny.

Too much critical thinking can undermine a young adolescent whose brain is still developing and can prevent them from getting in touch with both sides of their brains. For example, there are thinking types with an emphasis on the left side and feeling types who are more likely to be caring. creative, passionate and emotional. Finding a balance between the two is an ideal situation which few people ever achieve without a reason to question and pursue the necessary changes triggered by traumatic life experiences such as the loss of a loved one, separation and divorce, serious illness or their own mortality. Studies show interestingly, that when making major decisions, its usually the right emotional side that wins out!

Life is short and when very young there is a tendency to think you are immortal, but all too soon you find yourself either looking back at what might have been or you have learned to live and enjoy life focusing on the present because when all is said and done that is all that exists.

I like your thoughts Beryl.. . . I like to see that some people have taken the time to understand people, , especially the young
Ever read “depression the curse of the strong” by Dr Tim Cantopher??
A slightly different side but a very human side and a great insight into things people are not interested in often until it’s too late

Thanks DK. I am always looking for new recommended reading. I have spent many years working with and reading up on mental health problems. What I find difficult to comprehend is the inability to understand how ones brain chemistry and neurological processes can influence the way people respond to external stimuli (or lack of it).

I think we may be veering a little off topic but an interesting subject nevertheless, very close to my heart and well worthy of debate.

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Right off topic but worth the trouble
A therapist once pushed a little book across the desk at me. . .Depression the curse of the strong. . ..
I took one look at it and told her that not so long ago in the car my son and I had listened to that very man being interviewed on BBC radio and we both thought it would an awful place to be in to need such help. . .
Little did he or I know what was around the corner only a few short months later
In the same session she left me going out the door with the thought that people in my position usually became alcoholics or workaholics. .
I left thinking that a workaholic was the better choice but before I was home I realised that neither was a good choice
Not so long after I realised that I didnt really make the choice nor did I have the opportunity to make conscious a choice. . . .One cannot make such choices at the age of 11 or 12. . . This is when destiny for me was set and I would be 53 before I learned that
Having the need to know everything about everything in and around me and having been given all the information on the chemistry and working of the body and perhaps soul by this lady really helped me
Thank you Mrs Therapist and Mr Cantopher amongst others, , ,for a life after/outside engineering and for that matter for giving me my life back

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Yes Duncan reality only exists in the here and now. The past no longer exists and neither does the future because it never arrives so therefore doesn’t exist. Your mind has been fashioned by past experiences that no longer exist. You can’t enjoy the present if your mind is stuck in the past or is full of fear of what might happen in the future because neither the past nor the future exist as it is always now.

“Inward looking” as you so succinctly put it will provide answers but first you need to clear your mind of all its negative thoughts and allow your wholesome inner self you were born with to shine through.

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I can only live in the present reality Duncan. Anything else is speculative and beyond my comprehension. I am delighted to learn you have your life back DK.

I think we need to get back to topic which is about should salary dictate your degree choice. I feel sorry for young people whose choices are dictated by parents expectations of them often having paid out huge sums for private education fees.

Just one last on the subject but again off topic
Just in case there may be a reader about to enter the abyss or trying to get out of it
Appearances mean nothing especially when you yourself do not know how you appear which many of us dont realise
Some 5 or 6 years before my “breakdown” we were at the Business Xmas dinner
A very smart (a**) fellow lets call him decided he would mimic me. . . .The cool guy who never could be flustered
He made a brilliant job and it was so funny to everyone especially myself. . .I took no offence. .He was very good at what he had just done
But to that evening I did not know the persona/protective wall that surrounded me
Even that evening I continued to wear the same mask
I always said that what you see is what you get but the reality is often far from the truth

That was just a few words of thought to those who may think someone is cool, ,bulletproof, ,untouchable and without emotion
They are not unbreakable

The End

p.s. Thanks Beryl and Duncan

Very sensitive and extremely touching account, DK. In the UK alone 1 in 3 will succumb to a mental illness during their lives, and so little is really understood about the causes that Psychiatrists and Therapists spend all their time trying different approaches based on theories, none of which can be proven in the scientific sense.

This is a timely intervention, in fact, since it’s highly relevant to the topic. I suspect few know about the worryingly high suicide rate amongst final year students in the Russell Group Universities. Many Universities are now reporting a 20% year-on-year rise in the numbers of students seeking counselling and individual Universities, such as Cambridge, report more than 60 suicide attempts per year, with roughly 1 in 8 being fatal. Far from being the idyllic, care-free and idle existence some would have you believe, life at any of the top UK Universities is both demanding academically and highly competitive socially.

Degrees awarded by the top Universities are valued immensely by the major employers and students are keenly aware of this, so the pressure is there to achieve. However, the same Universities are similarly anxious to ensure their degrees are valid throughout the world, so the pressure they apply is also significant and adds to the student’s own already complex emotional make-up, which can include isolation, homesickness, uncertainty, lack of self confidence and pure fear.

In a sense, this topic is predicated on a conceptual misnomer: that potential earnings are the prime consideration for the aspiring student. But NUS research has indicated that the majority of students are still uncertain about what they will eventually do, where they will eventually end up or even to what their own skills and capabilities might be most suited. And the worrying thing is that a substantial mismatch between any of those factors could be instrumental in damaging a student’s mental health.

This is a huge topic and encompasses a great deal more than simply potential earnings. Missteps can affect entire lives, and not just those of the student.

Yes Ian it is so important that students learn the possible outcome of too much critical thinking and especially students who show more prevelant right brain caring and compassionate traits. DK’s “smart (a***)” fellow bears typical psychopathic (or sociopathic if you prefer a softer approach) traits.

It’s estimated that at least 1% of the general population meets the clinical criteria for psychopathy, the prevalence of which is higher in the business world than in the general population. Figures of around 3/4% have been cited for more senior positions in business. Students need to be educated at pre university level as to what to look out for in the corporate world before embarking on career choices.

DK for a more in depth summary, log onto: en.m.wikipedia.org. – Psychopathy in the Workplace. I have a special interest in this subject as I was once married to one of these psychopathic top corporate executives. Thankfully I managed to extricate myself (with the help of a very good solicitor), from his overall dominance.

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Duncan I think the head route was the wiser option. It’s helpful to be able to get inside the head of these people which gives you a far better understanding of their narcissistic and egotistic thinking patterns. For example, having done the homework it made me realise the extent of which they depend upon others to function and survive. They are to be pitied rather than resented I think, or better still avoided if at all possible.

This is the reason why I draw attention to the dangers of too much emphasis on critical thinking without the inclusion of the caring and compassionate side and the ramifications that could follow affecting so many other people unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. To aim for equilibrium when students brains are still developing would be the ideal solution I think.

It seems we are not off topic and what I thought would be my last post has in fact provoked something that in turn brings me back again
Ian, , Duncan and Beryl
Thank you very much for your thoughtful and more importantly kind comments
We took our Motorhome out around the North Coast for the first time this year as we do from time to time. . .I kind of picnic on wheels when we cannot quite get away properly
Even before returning to an additional couple of comments I was left thinking today about this

I did not think my ramblings would spark such comments. . .I actually hadnt seen them as you have and I’m glad I told the little story. . .
I was no fan of the person in question but your comments have provoked thought for me
I did not expect the B*****d, , psychopath or sociopathic comments but I have had first hand experience of narcissism
We here usually reserve the “more to be pitied than scorned” for the village idiot type’s but I do see your point Beryl, , however today I dont suffer the above people lightly or easily. . .They are pushy, ,overbearing and unlike-able nasty pieces of work. .

Thanks again everyone, , ,You have given me food for much thought

DK I do hope your thoughts are now veered towards a more positive approach and you are able to enjoy more picnics in your motor home in the future.

The point I was making was, the people in question are pretty sick individuals who have an overwhelming need to use other people in order to promote their own delusions of power and grandeur, which is their way of escaping from their own “village idiot” image as you put it, mentality, hence the need for pity, but everyone has choice at the end of the day and people owe it to themselves to remove themselves from the situation before developing a victim mentality or worse still a nervous breakdown.

I am an advocate of the old saying “What goes around comes around” and sooner or later these people will reach their come uppance, but I have first hand experience working with the mentally ill and of the terrible effect working and/or living with them can have on the more vulnerable in society.

As Ian says this is a huge topic, but don’t spend too much time with the thoughts DK! Life is for living! Enjoy it while you can 🙂

My thoughts try to stay positive but my ailing father and the cuts in care are hard to handle
He has 2 weeks rest-bite in May and we’ll be off. . Then again in Sept
But try as one may The Black Dog is never far away. . Thats probably why Winston C called it the black dog
We bought the MH to enjoy it and generally do
Been end to end of the UK an intend to enjoy our life a little more
Thanks Beryl

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Anyone planning to go to university has access to a wide range of sources of information and plenty of opportunities to attend open days. Universities compete with each other to market their degree courses. Social media and online forums allow prospective students to gain informal advice from past and present students. The National Student provides useful statistics and written feedback from students, though only the universities get to see the individual comments.

With successive governments pushing more people into higher education, a significant proportion of students
are not motivated, whatever the degree course. Some would get a lot more out of an apprenticeship or other vocational training. Another problem is the introduction of tuition fees has led to students doing paid work when they should be working together with their fellow students, which is an important part of their education. It’s not all negative because work experience can greatly improve interpersonal skills, which will be important during their working life and to perform well when being interviewed for jobs.

I helped out with open days and interviewing prospective students and those thinking about future career prospects were mainly those with parents in education, who had been primed to ask questions. In fact I don’t recall ever being asked about salary prospects.

I remember receiving careers advice from the history teacher at school. His ignorance about degree opportunities in science was matched only by my achievements in his history classes. Fortunately, my uncle, who was principal of a technical college was able to provide me with very useful advice and some books. My top priorities were a career in science and good job opportunities. I don’t remember if prospective salaries were mentioned. In fact money has never been an important consideration in my working life.