I’m not convinced there’s any value in an undergraduate minor degree.
I remember very few theories, facts or general themes from my five courses in Political Science. And given the natural overlap between the two, it’s unclear whether exposure to Political Science complemented my Economics major or merely stole hours away from a deeper exploration of my main focus.
That’s not to say my Political Science courses weren’t interesting, because several were. But while glossing over case studies on national sovereignty and political legitimacy, I was forgoing classes that were more different, more expansionary, and potentially more useful in the long run.
In hindsight, this opportunity cost* has become crystal clear.
What would I have done differently?
- Forget the minor. Maybe still take the one-off Political Science class that truly piqued my interest, but on the whole, taking an array of five survey courses added up to nothing.
- Math. Unfortunately no one told my 20 year old self that if you really want to study economics, linear algebra probably trumps almost any senior seminar in the catalogue. I’m also fairly confident that more math classes never made anyone dumber.
- Computer Science. It didn’t seem obvious at the time, but it hopefully does today: no matter what you do professionally and personally for the rest of your life, you will spend an overwhelming amount of time working and playing on or with computers. A familiarity with how these machines work will never hurt you. Furthermore, for young, smart, driven students, right now there’s no better guarantee of a stimulating and well-compensated first job than a foundation in software development.
- And probably more Economics. Those are the classes I really loved. Should have done more of that.
But that’s just what I would have done differently myself. What would I encourage my younger cousins to do?
- Major in the topic that interests you most. Full stop. Set aside any professional ambitions you think you have – either real or suggested – and just consider what topic you best enjoying thinking about in your spare time. How do you view the world around you? When you read the newspaper, what narratives and angles are you drawn to? Major in the subject that best complements these interests and perspectives. For me that was economics. While I’ll never become a real economist, my coursework has informed how I think about the world around me, and for that I am deeply grateful.
- Once you’ve locked in your primary focus, expose yourself to skills that might help you land an actual job. Given my current position, I’m biased towards computer programming – I’m convinced it’ll never hurt. That being said, courses in statistics, communications, teaching, etc. all probably fill this bucket. One caveat to this: I haven’t heard much recently on the benefit generalist programs in “Business Administration” or the like. Concrete, hard-skills that align with employers’ demands are obviously ideal.
- Don’t take bad classes. And never, ever, take a bad class to fulfill a requirement for some bullshit minor (see above). In your entire life, you’ll probably only get to take ~32 college classes, don’t waste a single one of them.
The truism throughout all of this is that a liberal arts degree is not about academic knowledge gained, but rather learning how to observe, analyze, and communicate in the world around us. You’ll probably get all that just by showing up. But you probably only get fours years of college, might as well make the most of it.
* As someone who views the world through the lens of economics, if you don’t understand opportunity costs, please do at least take intro micro. Thanks.
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