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The books punched through the plaster and lathe boards and utilities recessed in the ceiling, through the rafters and sheathing and shingles, sending splinters flying and pipes bursting. Roofing materials exploded into a thousand lethal projectiles as the book pile …...

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masters degree, 3D rendering, triple flags

Filed Under , on March 24th, 2018

Just Like Howard

By Seth Kabala

The books punched through the plaster and lathe boards and utilities recessed in the ceiling, through the rafters and sheathing and shingles, sending splinters flying and pipes bursting. Roofing materials exploded into a thousand lethal projectiles as the book pile launched into the atmosphere. With each mile the pile climbed, it shed pages, showering them below in a dome shape, like the bottom half of a literary wedding dress. But it retained enough core mass to concentrate its energy and continue to rise.

It never stopped. But it didn’t matter, because the student had exhausted his further need of the books, and he awoke from this nightmare, content in the knowledge that he had finished his masters degree, if only a masters degree.

* * *

“You’ll be just like Howard. You’ll have just a masters degree,” Will, my 12-year-old, said on my decision to complete my MBA. Thanks, kid. If you’re familiar with the show The Big Bang Theory, you can hear the comic disdain in Will’s quip, the feigned innocence belying harsh criticism, the insinuation of superiority drawn from within a youth whose father has influenced him to the point of creating a near duplicate human.

Sarcastic perfection.

In The Big Bang Theory, Howard is an engineer who works at the same college as his compatriots Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, experimental physicist; Dr. Sheldon Cooper, theoretical physicist; and Dr. Raj Koothrappali, astrophysicist. Despite Howard’s many accomplishments–building a space toilet, piloting the Mars Rover, becoming an astronaut–his colleagues, namely Sheldon, regularly deride him for having just a masters degree.

In one vicious repartee, Sheldon and Howard have the following exchange:

Howard: Give me a compliment. … I want you to tell me I’m good at what I do.

Sheldon: You’re obviously good at what you do.

Howard: Well, then, why are you always ripping on me?

Sheldon: Oh, I understand the confusion. I have never said that you are not good at what you do. It’s just that what you do is not worth doing.


Looking past the condescension, behind the weather climate circulating the noses jutting high into the atmosphere, lies the truth. The truth is this: people with masters degrees leverage greater financial benefits in their professional careers than those without. This is not a debate about the merits of a quote-unquote professional job versus a trade or a calling or a passion. Those terms are subjective. Individual stories vary as often as the weather changes from sun to rain here in Oregon: often and with little predictability. I’m interested only in the connection between education and earnings.

Looking at larger macro studies, patterns emerge. Again and again, these studies (see Georgetown and the Social Security Administration, among many others) show that the higher the level of formal education a person obtains, the greater, on average, that person’s lifetime earnings.

I am a student of accounting, probability, risk management, and risk aversion. The success I have achieved is the product of avoiding bets with a low perceived expected value. I didn’t design experiments to overlay equations onto my life, but I did look at the macro picture and weigh the odds, if only in my gut.

Those odds told me it was financially smarter to pursue an accounting degree than a career as a professional musician. Smarter to go to work as a public servant than to roll the dice in industry. To earn my CPA credential, rather than send off article queries and troll for music gigs on the weekend.

My internal analytics were right. I’m up nearly 400% in earnings since I completed my undergrad nearly 12 years ago, and things are trending upwards. Is there time for feeding my soul, for catharsis? Of course, but without a solid financial base, of what use is passion? I’ll take undeveloped passion over an empty bank account any day of the week.

I can endure condescension, real or perceived, so long as the material facts of my financial house are in order, i.e., I’m making what I intended to make, and things are looking up. Will I someday get a PhD? Probably. That’s on my before-I-turn-50 list. But for now, just a masters degree suits me fine.

Worse ways exist to inspire your children and build a good life than to earn and leverage a masters degree.

I’m okay with being just like Howard.


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Seth Kabala

About: Seth Kabala
Seth is an entrepreneur, writer, and musician. He lives with his wife and three children in Portland, OR.

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