For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about school and careers lately. Reading this post by one of my favorite authors, Robert Greene, I was struck by what he says about allowing ourselves to be cornered. In his opinion, “what you want is to aim for something that increases your options for power and mobility.” I don’t see many graduates aiming for this.
Right after school, many former students take the opposite approach. They are told that specializing in a field and receiving further education via graduate school is an intelligent career choice. In many cases, going to graduate school is not even presented as a choice (history majors go to law school, science majors go to medical school). If it were, there’s a chance more people would carefully weigh their options before doing something so limiting.
There are two major reasons why graduate school scares me, and why I think it should be examined more closely before individuals commit. The first is the crippling debt. There’s nothing new to say on this subject other than it severely limits one’s freedoms. With thousands of dollars of student loan payments due each month, such debt can severely limit your career options. Rather grow your skills at a small company for less pay, you are forced to fill a smaller role at a large corporation. In return for larger compensation, you lose out on the chance to improve your skills and advance your knowledge. Paul Graham nails this idea when he talks about “working upwind” on large problems.
Though limiting, debt isn’t what worries me most about graduate school. Technology is advancing more rapidly right now than at any point in human history. Advances in medicine, computation, communications… the list goes on. Just think, the iPhone is less than 6 years old. WordPress, a blogging platform that millions of individuals use to communicate on the internet, is less than 10 years old. Streaming internet video, Skype, and Gmail are all relatively new technologies. Now, more than any time in history, people are being trained for jobs that we aren’t sure will exist in 10 years. There are thousands of people going through school right now training to become a teacher. In 10 years, who knows how Khan Academy (or a similar service) will have changed how we learn? The same goes for those training to become professors. Higher education is most certainly about to undergo a radical change. Not only financially (see this post), but structurally. Given an age of limited attention spans and engaging ways we can learn, the model of a professor lecturing to a class of hundreds may shift drastically.
This is part of what make startups so appealing to me. There is an extremely rapid learning curve, you are exposed to brilliant people and innovative technologies, and you develop a skill set that will likely be valuable in the next 3-5 years. I know that I’ve been offered several jobs at this point that I never would have been offered simply because I graduated college.
Of course, it’s natural that I have this opinion given that I am involved in startups. If I wasn’t, I’d probably have a different take on careers.