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I'm currently working on my PPL, still in high school. I should get my PPL almost exactly on my 17th birthday. Instrument comes after, then complex, etc, etc. Should I still consider a college or go right into time building jobs after I graduate? I could instruct for a year or so until I have the hours to apply at a Part 135 operation. Then its all hours until I'm 23 and eligible for my ATP. At a mainline carrier, will they actually consider me if I don't go the 4 year degree path? Part of me is a little uneasy about spending 4 years and 100K+ on a degree I'm not really interested in and won't ever use.

I could also do an online degree while flying for a 135 or flight school.

Any advice?

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    $\begingroup$ A four year degree will help when you are inevitably furloughed. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding $100K+ for a degree, I'll assume you're in the US. Consider looking for reputable state-subsidized options, including possibly community colleges with a transfer to a more reputable school to finish the degree. You can also save a lot on living expenses if you're able/willing to stay with your parents and commute to school. Ultimately you just need to be able to say you have a degree to check various boxes on automated filters, so look for the most cost effective option that still checks those boxes. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Bryant
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall In that case, why not start the degree when furloughed? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @RodrigodeAzevedo Because you’ll be unemployed and have bills to pay. A full-time college student can live in a dorm on student loans if needed; a furloughed pilot (who can be recalled at any time) with a house and family cannot. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ If you don't get a degree, what happens if between now and when you are 23, for some reason, you can no longer fly (a sight related illness for example). If you are already 2 years into a 4 year degree, you still come out with a degree that may be useful elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 20:47

2 Answers 2

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Airlines in North America are starting to waive degree requirements but they will compensate for that by demanding much higher flying experience, or at least graduation from one of the aviation colleges.

The degree demonstrates intelligence and a the ability to absorb massive amounts of information in a hurry, which is what will happen when you take a jet type course (known as "drinking from a firehose").

As far as your own career path goes, if you go into flying and work up the ladder with only a high school education, and you "medical out" at 30 years old (it happens), you are back to square one, switching careers with no education other than your flying experience, which is useful to absolutely nobody.

If the opportunity is available to finish high school, get all your ratings, AND go on to university to get a STEM degree, you would be insane not to take advantage of it. Don't let the impatience of youth get in the way of maximizing your career potential. As you get older, time will fly past faster and faster, and you will regret not taking the time off for the advanced education.

Meanwhile, get an instructor rating and instruct part time as you complete your education.

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    $\begingroup$ Aside from the medical risk, there's the risk of a downturn and layoffs. Get laid off in your 40s and be forced to change employers, you could lose 10-15 years seniority and have to start over at entry-level wages. Hard to do if you're married with kids at that point. Have a backup career plan. A marketable degree is just good sense. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry I don't disagree that having a backup plan which includes a STEM degree is a good idea, but realistically falling back on a qualification you earned 10+ years ago in a field you've never practiced in is unlikely to get you a non-entry-level job. At that point whatever fraction you remember is going to be out-of-date, and potential employers can see that. $\endgroup$
    – brhans
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ Not much to add except consider aviation related degree, like focusing on aerodynamics or similar. That will also open other opportunities in the field. $\endgroup$
    – vhu
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ @brhans While that's true, entry level for engineers is better than a lot of options including many flying jobs. As an engineering manager I personally hired two ex-pilots in their 40s who not interested in continuing as pilots. They were both very good and came up to speed quickly. While some STEM jobs require specialized and current skills, many don't. You may have to learn new tools, but the physics hasn't changed. I also know a number of pilots that have side gigs that help keep their skills up. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ There's also opportunities like flying for a manufacturer in production or possibly even experimental test, if you have the right credentials and several thousand hours of jet time. Production test is a fraction of the hours of a line pilot, but way more interesting and fun, and you're home most nights. It's hard to have a life when you spend half the month in hotel rooms. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 19:43
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I will preface this by saying that I am a university educator. When I was at the Singapore Air Show in 2014 (I think it was), I spoke to the HR manager for Singapore Airlines, and he said their requirement was not only a 4-year degree, but one from a top 200 ranked university on the QS ranking scale. I will add that I do not think this was enforced, because I did eventually have graduates from our 3-year degree and top 300 university that became pilots for them.

What Qantas and others would regularly say to us (every year I would have CEOs from airlines and airports come in and talk to the graduating class as part of their final year thesis class) was that a degree showed a commitment and ability to learn. Given being a pilot is a lifelong learning process (you are forever going to be doing new training and being tested and checked), a degree suggests you have no issues with this, and you were a good investment.

From what I have seen, if you can build a career by just flying, that is a good idea. I think the future pilot shortage is going to make it likely that a degree or not is an insignificant dimension for companies to look at. This is likely a time where you could easily just fly and then once with an airline, if a promotion etc requires a degree, you can get one part time.

I would encourage you to reach out to your dream companies HR department. You will find they are happy to hear from you, and willing to provide advice. When I was in year twelve, I got a graduate recruitment pack (for uni students) from BAe Systems and DERA (the former DSTL+QinetiQ). Their response is the most important. In fact, I would reach out to them on LinkedIn.

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    $\begingroup$ A more blunt way to put it is, a degree is a substitute for an IQ test, companies not being able to do that any more, and also demonstrates ability to absorb vast volumes of information rapidly, which is what will happen on a type course. The degree category is irrelevant, as long as it's not in a soft topic like humanities. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK, excellent comment, but I don’t totally agree with the last sentence. An engineering degree will help you understand more detail about the inner workings of the aircraft systems, but a big part of the job, (most jobs really) is dealing with people. Crew, dispatch, ATC, pax…. A little “soft topic” college psych, comm, and soc are a must in my opinion for success in any meaningful career. (Maybe prereqs already for Engineering?) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I've known capts who were on selection boards and they used to tell me the degree category isn't that important. It's just a marker that shows you can handle vast amounts of information. Once you're flying, your world narrows down to the knowledge required to do the job and the knowledge beyond that my come in handy is some circumstance, but it's not critical during selection. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the "future pilot shortage", keep in mind that there are companies working on self-flying aircraft. While that's not for tomorrow or several years down the road, given the exponential growth of technology you do need a backup plan. You don't have to do the 4 year degree in 4 years. You could do it part time over the course of 6 or 8, and have learned solid analytical skills and have something marketable. Mechanical / Aero engineering, or business/marketing if math/calculus is too hard. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 5:34

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