What You Get From A Business Degree
Right now there are a lot of students choosing what they will do after high school – some people got huge scores and have lots of choice, some people missed their first few preferences and are scrambling to find plan C.
A lot of people misunderstand business and commerce degrees.
These faulty assumptions mean they either miss out on a good opportunity, or they choose business as a “safe option” that they’ll quickly regret.
Ten years on, here’s a ruthlessly honest summary of what you get from a business or commerce degree.
Business is not actually one topic
Business is a broad heading, and there are actually 8-10 smaller niches within the course.
Some universities give you a year before you pick a major, whereas others force you to make the choice upfront.
Think very carefully.
Be honest with yourself, which of these areas are of genuine interest to you?
Here’s a great trick – read one well regarded book on a topic to see if you like it.
If you can’t get through a book, then you can save yourself over $1,000 per unit on a subject that you wouldn’t have enjoyed.
If you like the book, try two more – if you like them then you’ve found a great study area.
You don’t need a piece of paper (generally)
Some jobs require a “piece of paper”, a qualification that entitles you to take on paid clients.
These include primary/secondary teaching (but not university), law, engineering, architecture, even bartending.
Business and commerce are not on this list – you can either do the work or you can’t.
An idiot with a degree will always lose to a talented, motivated person who never studied.
There are a few exceptions like accounting (CPA), but for most topics you either know your stuff or you don’t.
This is both liberating and daunting, you can’t be complacent and you can’t fake talent.
Universities are safe places to learn, but are dangerously gentle
The challenge with being a comfortable academic environment is that you stay in a misleadingly safe bubble.
This is critical for fields like entrepreneurship, where a university will potentially give you a high distinction without ever making you start or test a business.
You’re essentially a housecat who gets released into the wild, and you suddenly realise you’ve never had to
hunt for your own food.
Testing ideas takes guts, but it’s not as scary as you’d think.
Better still, the theory they teach you become much more relevant and valuable if you’re simultaneously experimenting in the real world.
Your future employer will not know what your degree actually means
This might not be a popular thing to point out, but most employers will be primarily interested in you and not your degree.
They would take a likeable person with a credit average, over an unlikeable person with a distinction average.
Do you know what the difference is between a degree in Business vs Commerce vs Economics vs Finance?
Neither does anyone else.
There’s no standardisation in content or assessment, so people will be more interested in the projects you’ve worked on, rather than the wording on your certificate.
The other unpopular truth is that you’ll see a lot of idiots somehow scrape through the course with a lot of conceded passes and scores of 51/100.
They graduate with the same title as the top students, but they won’t fool people out in the real world – a poor work ethic become clearer over time.
Work placements are valuable for surprising reasons
Between my second and third years, I won an Industry Based Learning placement at ANZ, one of Australia’s largest banks.
The entry process was competitive, a lot of people encouraged me to apply/accept the role, on the grounds that it paid well and would look good on a CV.
It turned out to be a very valuable year for one major reason: I was good at the work and I hated it.
That combination is important – a lot of people are unhappy when doing work they’re not good at.
I won the “Employee of the Quarter” award and was miserable.
It turns out, all of the things I loved about business had nothing to do with banks, bureaucracy and buildings with 7,000 staff members.
And I got that realisation at the age of 20.
If you’ve guessed wrong about your future work (as I had), you want to find that out as early as possible.
Fortunately, I was able to pivot, which led me to the field I’ve been in ever since.
By taking up a work placement, the worst case scenario (you hate it) actually plays to your advantage.
In a degree that opens a wide range of doors, shutting a bunch of wrong doors makes your choices clearer.
Business degrees are a balance of numbers, stories and practice
You’ll spend your time on a combination of these three elements; doing a bit of everything and then more of the one you like the most.
Numbers are subjects like accounting and quantitative analysis, essentials for every degree.
Stories are subjects like management, HR, marketing, law and international business, examples of people who have been successful, and people who made severe mistakes.
Practice is the chance to do your first version in a safe place – writing recommendations for other businesses, creating a brand, launching a startup, starting an internship.
You want to find a balance that naturally interests you, then do enough in the other areas to pass.
T-Shaped degrees are powerful
Some universities talk about “T Shaped” courses; a shallow understanding of a broad range of topics, plus a deep understanding of one specific topic.
Business/commerce degrees are well designed for this theory, giving you the chance to learn a little bit about all of the core components of your industry, then allowing you to specialise in a field that could lead to employment.
John Leach said “There are four areas: Sales/Marketing, Finance, HR and the Product. A CEO needs to be an expert in one of those fields, and know enough about the other three to not have the wool pulled over their eyes”.
Everyone in business should know the basics of the law.
Everyone in business should know how the company makes money.
Everyone in business should know the rights and entitlements of an employee.
You’ll probably dislike a lot of these subjects, but by understanding the essentials you’ll avoid embarrassment and difficulties in the future.
It also gives you the chance to find your first specialisation – not your only specialisation, the one that gets your foot in the door of your first job.
The ability to spot good people
You’ll encounter a lot of people over the course of your degree, from the lecturers, tutors, classmates and group assignment partners.
Not all of them will be nice to you, and not all of them will treat you fairly.
Some people are mean, some people are lazy, some people are overly critical, some people are delusional – including the faculty.
You will probably receive some unfair treatment, and some very fair criticism.
You’ll be let down by some teammates, and become good friends with others.
This develops your radar for genuine, helpful people – the kind of people you should surround yourself with in the future.
Some of your favourite people will be much older than you.
Some of your future favourite people are still in school.
By learning how to detect these traits now, you’ll identify good jobs and bad jobs, good colleagues and bad colleagues, good cultures and bad cultures.
Whilst you will never show anyone your reports or presentations, business degrees build the habit of writing reports and giving presentations.
The idea is that after writing 50 bad reports, the 51st one will be half-decent.
After giving 50 presentations, the 51st won’t make you quite so nervous.
The topics you work on might not yet exist (like how Instagram ads and crypto projects didn’t exist ten years ago), but the people who are using them effectively learned their skills a long time ago.
The same goes for other disciplines, people with engineering degrees often make for good businesspeople because of the mindset and discipline they learned from their studies.
This means is that getting good marks is less important than doing a good job.
If you speak with clarity and authority, but aren’t an expert on the subject, you’ll probably do better than the students who learn the right answers but can’t keep the audience’s attention.
Textbooks don’t really work for the field of business, for a few reasons:
1. They use old case studies, or have an absence of relevant case studies.
2. They’re written by academics rather than practitioners, so they don’t match reality.
3. They are so dull, you won’t remember what you read.
My recommendation is to read the best business book on each subject, available in most bookstores and probably $25 instead of $140.
You’ll enjoy it more, remember more and might even re-read it in the future.
They say that the most honest reviews are those that give three or for stars.
One star reviews feel like attacks, five star reviews feel like ads, but a 3 ½ star review has the ring of truth to it.
That’s my view on business degrees, they’re a 3 ½ to 4 star option – good but not perfect.
I completely understand the entrepreneurs who say that everyone should drop out and start a business – clearly that worked for them – but there’s a survivorship bias in play; they’re the ones who were able to succeed, and not everyone shares their talent and luck.
Writing off the entire concept of business degrees is short sighted, but it’s also delusional to think that an institution can spark a fire within you.
If you find business interesting, you’ll get a lot from the process, and even more if you read books and build prototypes.
If you’re doing the degree because “you’re supposed to” or because it’s the only one that made you an offer, my suggestion is to work full time whilst trying a range of personal projects.