By Michael Castaneda
Published: November 14th, 2018
“If you produce things that are rare and valuable, good things are likely to follow.”
This is the mantra of Cal Newport – Georgetown University computer science professor, “Study Hacks” writer, and author of five books about academic and career success. This correlates well with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that asserts the 10,000-hour rule to achieve world class expertise. Both conclude that it takes a ton of time and hard work to be good at anything. Those who have succeeded, not through inheritance, have put in the work. It follows what Richard Feynmen said decades earlier: there are no magic people. Everyone can achieve what he did by just working hard and studying.
So what does this have to do with picking a major? Plenty.
Let’s assume that there is a good portion of Brooklyn College students who are not trust-fund babies going to college for fun and that not all students have a Ph.D. program lined up after graduation. That leaves a portion of the student body that just wants to get a good job and move on with life.
This is a relatively hard time to pick a career because the job market is in flux. Many of the people who are supposed to guide us have not been in the job market in its current state. Some of the newer changes include outsourcing – taking jobs away from this country and moving them to lower cost centers in another country. There’s also insourcing – the highly-abused H1B program takes jobs away from US citizens and residents and gives them to people from other countries who work for a lower pay and have little incentive to ever leave a position lest they lose the sponsor of their H1B visa. Then there are full time jobs that have been made into temporary positions. Next is automation. More and more machines now perform the jobs a person used to do. Machine learning and smarter robots will only add to this. We are in the midst of a large scale technological and global shift.
I was watching an executive at Barclays PLC (yes, the same Barclays as Barclays Center) speak about the Barclays Investment Bank’s business model. He described it as a software company. They develop bespoke software products, give it away for free, and make money when it’s used. This is no different than any other technology company. He further went on to tell the audience that less than 10% of global trading of financial products is done by a human. As skillfully described in Michael Lewis’ Flashboys, trading is done electronically and within the milliseconds.
So what kind of skills are needed for these types of jobs? Computer science is an obvious first thought. At this point, no top executive will be able to run a company without at least a baseline understanding on how computer systems work.
So should we all run out and major in computer science? Not necessarily.
If you are interested in computers and like to code, then absolutely. However, there are other skills that might be more useful. The main criticism about CS students when trying to solve a problem is that computer scientists find a solution and stop there. They have very little interest in understanding the underlying issues. In my albeit limited observation of successful people and their college majors, physics has been the winner. Physics majors tend to look at the world with the mindset of “how did that happen?” and with rigorous mathematics, it’s a power discipline. Mathematics, chemistry, and biology majors have the same cache.
It used to be that having a bachelor’s degree from an American University really meant something. Non-western degrees just didn’t count. Now, any college degree counts. Most of these colleges will not even make it on the Shanghai ranking of 1000 colleges. It only has one college from India in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2018. European degrees often don’t have the liberal arts requirements that US colleges do. Sadly, unless you went to a brand-name college, which Brooklyn College is not, then you are thrown in the pile with everyone that says they have college degrees from around the world.
None of this is to say that a college degree is not worth the time and energy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a college education earn more money and are less likely to be unemployed. What I am saying is to major in something that lets an employer know that you have worked hard and can handle difficult material.
Some might say that they want to have a career in what they majored in. Well, according to a 2010 Federal Reserve Bank of New York study, only 27% of college graduates have a career that is closely related to their major.
I had the first interview for my current job while I was studying for my abstract algebra final. It was a phone screening with the Managing Director of the New York office. I was in a pretty secluded spot in the library, so I took the call there. I told him about the class. We spent most of the call talking about group theory. Not too long after that, I began working for that company. Score one for math.