Undergraduate Advice

I just received a copy of the report from the Australian Davos Connection’s 2007 Future Summit. As well as serious-looking photos of prominent Australian bloggers, it contained a neat quote from an Australian expatriate - Harvard Business School Professor Jonathan West.

When you enrol at Harvard College as an undergraduate… the advice you get is twofold – do something that’s (a) completely useless, and (b) very difficult. I feel that in Australia we give students the opposite advice – find the easiest thing you can do that is the most useful in terms of your job prospects.

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9 Responses to Undergraduate Advice

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    I must confess that West’s comments annoy me because they are symptomatic of an attitude that downgrades learning in areas where people can also earn a crust. It implies that study in these areas is somehow less valuable and “easy” than other areas and potentially leads to a reduction in status and scholarship in the socalled “practical” areas. I am always reminded of the status games that the pure mathematicians and applied mathematicians used to (perhaps still do) play.
    My advice would be – do anything that your mentors, peers, and you are passionate about. Anything done well is hard and so (b) is redundant.

  2. Seneca says:

    Isn’t this advice based on serious professional study being done at postgraduate level? I would guess too that “completely useless” might be a jokey way of saying “nteresting”.

    Pure Mathematics might be hard but it isn’t useless…

  3. Christopher says:

    “do something” not “do only”


    engineers want to be physicists

    physicists want to be applied mathematicians

    applied mathematicias want to be pure mathematicians

    pure mathematicians want to be philosophers

    but philosophers want to be engineers…


  4. Leon says:

    Those who go to Harvard have the luxury of their useless qualifications giving them oodles of kudos (and hence job prospects) compared with the useless qualifications from Australian universities.

  5. larry says:

    Yes but how does an ordinary joe afford Harvard or any US institution really?

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Yes but how does an ordinary joe afford Harvard or any US institution really?

    Larry, I used to think this too. But it turns out that the answer is: more easily than they would afford an Australian university. All the top-tier US universities have generous financial aid packages, meaning that poor kids never pay the sticker price. For example, parents with incomes less than US$60,000 are expected to pay nothing if their kids get into Harvard as an undergraduate.

    Of course, poor kids are still underrepresented at US universities (the same holds for all developed countries, from France to Finland). But credit constraints aren’t the main reason.

  7. Andrew,

    Is the claim that university education is really just a signal of ability, or is the claim that these so-called useless degrees actually increase human capital more than the useful ones? While I am prepared to accept that education does play a signalling role, I simply don’t believe that signalling is the dominant role being played for most degrees. Instead, i think that human capital formation is a more important feature of higher education. The mere fact that a degree is not in a “practical’ area does not mean that it is not developing important skills. In fact, I think that an economics degree is much more valuable than a business degree, despite the fact that the latter are viewed as more career oriented (incorrectly in my opinion). Of course, I might be biased on this issue!!!

  8. larry says:

    Thanks for the info Andrew. I do not suppose this would apply for post grad studies as well ;)? I have been looking into studying O/S recently and am prepared to take out a small loan to try to cover it but was scared off by the apparent fee structures. It would be great if you could point me in any direction you think might be of use. Great blog by the way.

  9. Andrew Leigh says:

    Larry, everything I know about financing graduate study at Harvard can be found by going to my academic website and scrolling down to the bottom of the main page.

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