My Investments: Education

For every hour I've spent learning about and carrying out the act of financial investment, I've probably spent 100 hours in classrooms, doing homework, reading textbooks, and taking notes.

I just entered 20th grade: 12 years up through highschool, 5 years of undergraduate, and now I've just begun my third year of graduate school.  However much I've accumulated in mutual funds, my education has been by far my most sizable investment in terms of time, money, and personal effort.

(I built both lab websites)

Had I been working all of those years instead, I could have amassed quite a bit of money by now.  Getting a good return on this massive investment has always been a high priority.

Years 1–12: Building The Arsenal

For those first twelve years, we didn't have a choice: school is mandatory, and you had to spend seven hours a day there whether you like it or not.  I was fortunate to grow up in a family where hard work and a good education were valued at the highest level, and my parents helped reinforce good habits long before I was capable of making my own decisions.

The second half of high school did begin to offer some choices: how many classes to take?  Which electives to pursue?  Advanced or regular section?  The 'soft' decisions—the decisions we didn't always realize that we were making—were coming into play too: what do I want to pursue outside of the classroom?  What sorts of people am I going to spend my time with?  What habits and ways of thinking will I incorporate into my personal identity?

So many of these things seemed like minor details at the time.  Oh, how little did we know!  If you were going to get good at the learning process, this is when it happened.

Years 13-17: Deploy All Units

College offered the first major education decisions: what school to go to and what to major in?  As it turns out, these were nontrivial choices.  The friends we made, the activities we were involved in, the degrees we received, and the jobs, networks, and debts we have now all started there.

Looking back, I can't believe we made those decisions with as little information as we had at the time.  It was all 'follow your dreams' and 'do what interests you', and no serious discussion of the real prospects these degrees offered.  Yes, plenty of people get low-demand degrees and go on to have excellent careers... but many do not.  Meanwhile, the wages in neglected trades outstrip many of these degrees in earnings by 50% or more.  I had it easy, because chemistry, physics, math, and biology were clearly my thing and chemical engineers are in huge demand.  Regardless, I think it could prevent a lot of heartbreak and misallocated resources if everyone took a close look at the employment statistics—wages, unemployment, loan repayment durations, etcetera—before jumping in.  This is an especially critical consideration if you're staring down the barrel of education debts that could potentially take many years to pay off.

"Would you complete a less pleasant degree just because it's more employable?"  Would you set aside all of your hobbies to work a hypothetical ultra-exhausting marathon job if it meant you could save a million dollars and attain financial independence in one year?  If you would consider that, then all we're really haggling over is your price.  If not, then perhaps you find other factors to be more compelling than money, or perhaps you did not or could not do the due diligence described above, or perhaps you entirely reject the desirability or attainability of financial independence.  These are topics for another article, but they often come up when discussing education in a financial context.

A college degree is, at the most basic level, a certification: a stamp of approval, indicating that you have accomplished the tasks and met the requirements set before you.  The prestige of the stamp-giver, combined with the relative placement among your peers (e.g. your GPA, your transcript), is a large component in the hiring process.  I don't have any particular desire to collect merit badges for the prestige of it, but I think it would be naive not to consider the impact of these standings.  The more strategic your decisions, the shorter your financially-compelled working career and the sooner you can leave all meaningless window dressing behind.

The factors influencing how well we did in college were established well before we moved into our first dorms.  You passed your highschool classes... but did you learn how to self-manage and take the initiative?  Some of my friends, jet-propelled through the first twelve years by overzealous parents, found themselves faltering when left to fly under their own power.  There was no longer someone there to hold your hand and tell you what to do, and the proactive thrived while everyone else struggled.

The soft decisions continued: what sorts of people will I spend time around?  What will I do with all of that time between classes, and how will I divide it between work and fun?  Everyone who passes the classes gets the same degree, but it's these lifestyle decisions that came to define how we think, how we live, and what we strive for.  Without much conscious thinking about it, we formed many of the habits that will come to define us.

Years 18-??: Good Practice (At A Price)

Imagine an incredibly disorganized, underfunded company in which the hours are long and the pay is poor, none of the managers have any management training, interviews are rare and firings are rarer, the safety culture is lax to nonexistent, and no one has ever worked anywhere else before.  This is graduate school.

Why would anyone volunteer for such an experience?

The best undergraduates are often under a lot of pressure from the faculty (and their graduate school-bound peers) to continue on 'to the next level', and I don't believe that most have any idea what they're signing up for when they apply.  For some, it's a way to preserve a sense of productivity and forward motion in the face of the unsettling fact that they still don't know what they want to do with their lives; for others, a PhD is the only way, a golden key to the vaunted halls of academia.

For me?  I know that I can complete a PhD, and that it will (to some degree) qualify me as top talent in the field.  While it's debatable whether the time, effort, and lost income are worth it, a graduate degree does open the door to certain jobs that are otherwise difficult or impossible to attain.  There will be challenging situations and challenging people wherever I go, and this is a prime opportunity to develop constructive ways of dealing with them.  The work itself is interesting on a bad day and downright fun on a good one, and the flexibility, the intellectual freedom, and the networking opportunities are second to none.

(sometimes you also get to meet Sanjay Gupta)

That being said, graduate school is likely to have a better financial payoff for those at the top schools.  If I hadn't gotten into a top school, I would almost certainly be working somewhere else.

But if I hadn't gone to grad school, I would not have been as motivated by the low pay to find ways to save money.  I might not have stumbled across the financial independence community, and this site might not exist!  So, I'd say things are going just fine.

Years ??-??: That Distant Future

Learning can and should be a lifelong habit, but my time in the institutional education system may be drawing to a close.  More and more, my most effective learning is happening in the context of my work and home projects.  Project-based learning, regardless of scale, is self-defining and self-motivating.  Like the research I do for this site, the scope and the application are obvious.  In the best cases, a project might even make money instead of costing tuition.

I've learned a lot from textbooks and lectures.  Now it's time to change the world.