The aviation degree

It is pretty much accepted and realized now that a college degree is required if you want to make it in aviation. But should you get an aviation degree? Specifically, should you spend a lot of money to go to an aviation-centric school such as Embry-Riddle?

I come at this from a different angle than most, but I believe my advice to be sound nevertheless. I grew up wearing hearing aids, and in high school, I had corrective surgery on both of my kidneys. I have also had a number of other normal kid maladies that give me a medical file a football player would be proud of. Because of the hearing aids, my success in aviation was very much in doubt, and even though I was fascinated by all things aviation, I had to hedge my bets. I started off pre-med, and when I realized that wasn’t going to pan out, I became an economics major. I did all of my flight training at the local FBO, paying as I went.

In hindsight, I’m glad I did this. The problems with pursuing such a tailored degree as aviation are threefold. First, it may not do much good outside of aviation, especially if the degree is essentially the acquisition of pilot certificates or in something as narrow as air traffic control. Getting an A&P is different, as there are some options for other types of maintenance work that is applicable (cars, boats, et cetera). Flying airplanes is flying airplanes. You can’t use that training to go into, say, advertising.

The second problem is the issue of not liking your job. Flying airplanes is not for everyone. I love it, and I don’t regret it. I may never fly for a major airline, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. But the truth is there are those who come to realize that they don’t like living out of a suitcase; or they don’t like the low pay that may dog them for years; or they may not like having to start over in terms of seniority or pay to change jobs; or they don’t like the crazy hours; or they may not like being away from their kids for days at a time; or they don’t like waking and not knowing where they are.

For women (and a few men), a decision may need to be made to give up flying for the opportunity to have a family. Such stress is even worse when a pregnancy is unplanned, and too often one love must be given up for another. There are any number of reasons why people choose to opt out of aviation, and having a degree that is so specific can severely limit your options for entering other fields. It doesn’t mean it will, but it can. There is little worse than feeling trapped and slowly coming to hate your job.

The third reason–and perhaps the most important to consider when it comes to choosing an education track–is the possibility that you may lose your medical or that you may have a condition that makes companies gun-shy about hiring you. That was the reality that I was facing, and so my degree was intended to be a fallback. In my 15 years of airline flying, I have known two pilots who lost their careers to diabetes, at least two to heart attacks (including one in flight), one to HIV, and several to injuries suffered in car accidents. Several more have been grounded for long periods of time because of illnesses or medical treatment plans that the FAA has strict guidelines on, or even something as simple as broken bones or knee injuries that require extensive rehab. Back and shoulder injuries are also very common because of the weight of our flight bags and the confines of the cockpits. While the smart pilots have insurance policies (usually available through the airline and/or their union) to help them through lean times, not all do, and even the insurance can leave you struggling to make ends meet. Many need to work, and some do so to stave off boredom while they recover.

I have nothing against an aviation-specific degree, but for my money, the smart way to go is to get a degree in something that you enjoy and that has some career potential while flying on the side–either as a minor, or at the local FBO, as I did. You will have more options, better marketability, and a sound fallback if your flying career does not meet your expectations.–By Chip Wright

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  • Thomas

    I disagree with your conclusion that the “smart” way to go is to have a fall back degree. Why spend/waste the money if you are unsure? If one is unsure if they will enjoy an aviation career, how are they to know if they will enjoy their fall back degree? We shouldn’t be dissuading people from following their dreams, but rather, encouraging them to obtain internships and the like to determine, before spending their money, if that is a career they wish to pursue.

    I think the worst advice we can give young people is to spend money on something they are unsure about. It’s poor life advice and certainly poor economic advice.

  • Manny

    I couldn’t agree with Chip more! I’ve been in law enforcement for over 13 years now. As in aviation certain “life changes” can affect our careers in the long or often times short term. Having a “fall back” degree is important as having a commuter car along with a gas guzzling suv for the family. Having a “back up” plan is not “DISSUADING” people but, ensuring survival when reality hits you at 2 in the morning when you’re trying to figure out your next move in between jobs. Some of us aren’t smart enough for a degree (speaking for myself of course) however, having a different vocation can come in handy when times turn sour. History repeats itself, the problem is we don’t know when it’s going to repeat itself and being ready is the point that Chip makes here.

    I will always fly as long as the good Lord says I can. In the mean time I will enjoy what I have, count my blessings, and keep my dream of flying alive.

    I would bet you Thomas that over half of all pilots that read this would agree that they moonlight as business owners or other jobs not aviation related, while keeping to their true craft….flying.

  • Mark McCormick

    I concur with the conclusion that an aviation degree is not a good idea. I would also add the observation that an individual with an aviation degree has less education than someone else. That degree carved out approximately 40 credit hours of coursework in order to accommodate the flying time. Besides, why spend an extra $40,000 for a job that pays maybe $25000?

  • Eamonn Powers

    I respectfully disagree with your take on an aviation degree, for one reason in particular. I am unaware of any college that offer’s just a pilot degree. Embry Riddle, Florida Tech, University of North Dakota and nearly ever college I am familiar with offer’s an Aviation specific major that comes along with a flight option. The college’s already provide the “fall back” options you speak of in majors in Aviation Management, Science, Meteorology, Airport Design etc. with a flight option. I have two Aviation specific degrees, I do not like spending time away from family, or working for a regional airline, so I have gone into FBO management. My degree in Aviation Management with flight along with Maintenance Technology has positioned me to have a job that I love and I can fly professionally. Ultimately, I feel your sentiment Chip, much like the sentiment in much of GA is one of misinformation, no disrespect. If you want to be in Aviation, if you like airports, if you like airplanes, if you like the thought of being part of the world of flight I would highly recommend getting an Aviation specific degree and running with it. I am sure there where some doubts about those bike building brothers 100 or so years ago.

  • Glenn

    It depends where you get your “Aviation” degree, schools like Embry-Riddle offer a much better option because the courses in their degree programs covers a little bit of everything from business to management in addition to flight, giving you a better option in case you should fail your medical and need a new career. I have seen several of their pilots go from being a pilot to becoming a senior executive making six figures not because of their knowledge of flight but because their degrees also prepared them for business. So I would disagree that an “Aviation” degree is a narrow degree (or one that has less education or can’t go into advertising) when you look at everything that is directly and indirectly related to Aviation/Aeronautics. All you have to do is go to a NBAA conference and you will see the windows of opportunities in front of you. Besides the future is changing, my son’s generation will be traveling in space like we do today on the airlines, also with commercialization of space/aeronautics how can one not find a career that is even remotely related!! I can also tell you that no university or degree can guarantee you a job; the best that one can hope for is that they impress their interviewer enough to get the job. So your conclusion has many flaws to it, you might want to determine what your real goals are and plan accordingly. Cheers! USN(Ret)

  • Tom

    Agree with the above; I would only offer that like everything else–it is what you make it–even if it is just a foot in the door.

    Got my BS in “Air Commerce/Flight Technology’ from Florida Institute of Technology WAY back in the day; I also worked up thru my CFI there and taught in the school’s Part 141 program until I graduated.

    My first job as a college grad was with a medium sized, multi-discipline engineering/architecture/planning firm in Seattle called TRA. They had an aviation division that did projects like SEATAC, McCarran, Salt Lake and several others overseas and in Alaska. They hired me (as a planner with my non-technical degree) because they had never seen a degree program with the words “aviation”, “airplane”, or “airport’ in it. In my 3 years there, I worked on airports, air service studies, master plans, systems plans, the USN’s first LCAC bases and a bunch of other short-term projects unrelated to flying. My aviation degree actually gave me more flexibility to work different projects then a lot of the engineers that dealt with the same four square feet of metal the entire time I was there.

    My second “job” was a USAF pilot–their only requirement when I joined was to have at least a Bachelor’s degree; they do not care what flavor it is.

  • john

    I agree somewhat, but just WHAT does an AVIATION Degree mean? Embry Riddle , whom he cited, has much more than just one degree program TAILORED to aviation with Business or technical background.

  • John C

    I can say without a doubt that my aviation degree (double-major with a minor in Military Science) was exactly what I wanted to do and that I enjoyed it very much. I have been in the aviation industry since 1995 and in my current job for 13 years. I do think that a course or two in planning or basic airport engineering would have helped, but I had no clue that those were options in aviation.

    That said, my first job out of college wasn’t in aviation at all…that’s where that Military Science minor that paid for college and most of my flight training came in.

    While I hope I don’t have to put it to the test, I believe that even if I were to leave aviation, my skills and experiences combined with a bachelor’s degree, will be sufficient to get another job that I enjoy or failing that, one that will pay the bills.

  • Chip Wright

    First of all folks, thanks for the feedback.

    Second, I would like to clarify something. It is my fault that I didn’t make myself as clear as I should have.

    When I said “Aviation Degree,” what I meant was extremely specific, specifically one that was only geared towards a flying degree, and to a lesser degree, one in air traffic control. Several of you make a great point about have a degree in flying with double-majors or minors in management/administration. This is very close to what I had in mind.

    Further, while I did discuss the possiblity that someone may simply want to change careers because of personal reasons–pay, they don’t like it, time away from home–the more important things to consider are those things truly beyond your control: losing your medical being the biggest, followed by an economic calamity, such as a your company failing, furloughing, etc. It is in these cases that having another option is so helpful. This doesn’t hit home until you see it up close and personal.

    I know a number of pilots, as one of you touched on, that have owned businesses on the side, and I’ve known others that have had to make the transition to the “real world” for one reason or another. While the flying experience helps to an extent, every one of them said it was something else in their background that made the difference, be it a degree in another field or work experience in the same.

  • Shannon Forrest

    My concern with these aviation degrees is the “fluff” factor and the perception of course requirements and difficulty in the “real” world.
    It is interesting to note that any “aviation” degree (aviation technology, etc.) will not qualify you for the astronaut corp at NASA. They place very low credibility in the curriculum- and before you say they only want engineering and math, an experimental psychology degree will qualify you.

    Interesting to note many of these aviation degrees can be completed online without ever setting foot on the campus (including Masters level) which again, goes directly to the quality of the educational instruction. It’s a pain showing up for class, lab, etc. but there’s a lot more validity to that style of education then getting a web-based aviation degree.

  • Jim Libenow

    Nicely written article. Very accurate and timely. Indeed the modern plight of the airline hopeful requires that one to develop a profession outside of aviation first and hold aviation as a thin secondary hope. There are many perils that can derail an airline dream. Having a solid plan A is a great idea.

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