By Stephanie Blochinger

01 June 2015 - 08:30

'Leaders take opportunities outside the classroom to build networks and become culturally savvy.' Photo (c) Flazingo Photos under CC-BY-SA-2.0 licence.
'Leaders take opportunities outside the classroom to build networks and become culturally savvy.' Photo ©

Flazingo Photos, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0, adapted from the original.

What sort of degree do you need to be a leader? Does your experience at university affect your success after graduation? Stephanie Blochinger presents findings from our latest research.

We compared the educational backgrounds of 1,700 people from 30 countries, who had a mix of corporate, non-profit and government backgrounds. We also interviewed ten leaders to find out what role higher education played in helping them reach the top of their respective fields.

The research defined success from a professional standpoint – achieving a certain level of responsibility in one’s career. Of course, there are plenty of successful people who didn't follow a traditional academic path – Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson are two of the most powerful businessmen in the world, and neither of them have a university degree. This research doesn't imply that the only route to success is through higher education. Instead, we looked at leaders who did complete their degrees, and examined how their higher education experience contributed to their success.

More than half of the leaders studied social sciences or humanities

The research found that more than half of the leaders studied (55 per cent) had either a social sciences (44 per cent) or humanities bachelor’s degree (11 per cent). Those in government jobs were more likely to have studied social sciences, while those in non-profits favoured the humanities. Younger leaders (aged under 45) were more likely to have a social science or humanities background, while those over 45 were more likely to have studied science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM).

But: There's no single subject that equals career success

Our research findings don't suggest that a particular academic discipline leads to greater career success. What they do show is that - perhaps unsurprisingly - leaders in more technical fields such as health, energy and environment, or security and defence, are more likely to have a STEM background. Those in government are more likely to have a social sciences background, while those in non-profits are most likely to have a degree in the humanities. There are exceptions within the study, however, so the takeaway should be that you can achieve professional success with a humanities, social sciences, or a STEM degree.

Extracurricular activities at university can boost your career success

Higher education provides more than just direct learning. Many students find they learn new skills from activities and experiences outside their academic study. We asked our ten interviewees to consider which extracurricular activities at university they felt had boosted their careers. They cited the discipline and competitive drive they'd developed through sport (e.g., rowing), the exposure to different cultures at university, and a study environment that encouraged entrepreneurship and creativity. All of them took advantage of opportunities outside the classroom to build their networks, which continue to be beneficial to their professional lives, and become more culturally savvy.

International experience is important

Nearly half of the leaders studied (46 per cent) had some sort of international experience – either overseas study or international work experience. The higher their level of degree, the more likely they were to have studied overseas. People were more likely to obtain a master’s degree, professional degree or PhD abroad. The US was the most popular study destination, followed by the UK.

International experience, whether through work or study, seemed to help people develop important 'soft skills', such as communication skills, cultural understanding, flexibility, and the ability to solve problems.

Canada, the UK and the US had the highest proportion of humanities graduates

The highest percentages of humanities graduates came from Canada, the UK and the US (19 per cent); Poland, Russia, and Ukraine (18 per cent); and China, Japan and South Korea (16 per cent). Given the focus on science and technology in countries like China, it is interesting to note that the leaders surveyed from Asian countries did not necessarily study STEM disciplines.

Leaders from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were most likely to study abroad

We also found that nearly three quarters of the leaders from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey (71 per cent) had international experience, compared with a quarter of those from Canada, the UK and the US. They were also most likely to study overseas, closely followed by the leaders from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

But leaders in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands (96 per cent) and Argentina, Brazil and Mexico (91 per cent) were overwhelmingly more likely to stay at home to study.

There's more to be done

These findings only skim the surface of the data we collected. To put the research into richer context, we need to do more analysis of specific sectors, degrees obtained overseas, and delve deeper into the education experiences of emerging and established leaders. This will help us find out more about how higher education contributes to professional success.

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