Chris Blattman

It’s that time of year…

The school year is now upon us. In anticipation of the advising comments I will give undergraduates during office hours, I have seven tips I give all my undergraduate advisees in a new Advising section on my web page:

  1. Acquire skills that are hard to get outside school. Use university to tech up. For anyone interested in international development, I strongly suggest at least two semesters of statistics and two semesters of economics. Other technical skills may come in handy, depending on your interests: international law, tropical medicine, accounting, etc. Now, once you’ve teched up…
  2. Learn how to write well. Take writing seriously. Consider a course in creative, prose, journalism, or business writing. Read books on writing. You won’t regret it.
  3. Focus on the teacher, not the topic. You will learn more from great teachers than great syllabi.
  4. When in doubt, choose the path that keeps the most doors open. Stick to large majors, seek out the ones with more job options at the end, and get your core mathematics training.
  5. Minimize languages and management classes. Languages are hugely valuable, but better learned in immersion, during your summers and holidays. Business and management skills are critical, but classrooms are poor places to get these skills. Again, use your summers to work in an NGO or the private sector.
  6. Take some small classes with professors who can write recommendations. If you are uninterested in grants or grad school, this advice is less relevant. If either interests you, however, you will need at least three high quality recommendations.
  7. If you don’t have to write a senior essay, don’t. That’s my personal opinion, not department policy. I seldom see senior essays that I think were worth the investment, and I think students’ time would be better spent acquiring technical skills (see point 1). If you do have to write a senior essay, here are my advising requirements.

Any disagreements? Or sage course advice I’m missing?

Update: Based on some of the responses below (especially to 7) I’ve reconsidered and adjusted my advising page.

20 Responses

  1. #1 is so important, even if it is obvious. one of my biggest regrets is not having taken econ or stats as an undergrad. these are not subjects that are easily self-taught.

  2. Some excellent advice, but I disagree slightly with point 7 regarding foreign languages.

    Immersion during summers can get you up to intermediate knowledge of a foreign language. However, if you want to work in Francophone Africa or Latin America you will need to learn to read and write French or Spanish at a professional level. Taking foreign language literature courses will allow you to do this.

    In theory students can read Cervantes or Garcia Marquez on their own and write 20-page papers on them, but it seems unlikely. It’s also theoretically possible to teach yourself measure theory during the summer, but few people do it. Once students have an intermediate grasp of a language, there is a large return on a semester or two of an advanced foreign language course.

    If you’re running low on electives, first drop international relations, poli sci, sociology, or anthropology courses. Those subjects are fascinating and extremely important, but it is much more feasible to learn about them on your own than to learn to read and write a foreign language at a professional level.

  3. I would also disagree with the point about languages. I agree with all the comments here that studying a language for a year before going abroad makes one’s limited time in the foreign country much more useful. You then do not have to waste time learning how to count or how to say “Hello, I am a student from X university. Do you have any rooms available?” — you can get to more meaningful conversations.

    1. My experience is that you can get to that point in about three weeks in country. I’m not saying language classes have no value, I’m saying they have a high opportunity cost when you can only take 30 credits (and maybe 10 electives) as an undergrad.

  4. This is great. I wish I had this when I started my undergrad degree in 2002. Having graduated with a BA and no math courses (or economics…) of any kind, I’m feeling the pain now when I see positions of interest but notice that I am unqualified for them.

  5. 7)
    Doing a thesis and teching up aren’t mutually exlusive!
    I had to study econometrics harder in order to do my thesis well.

  6. I think you offer excellent advice but I think that a language course is helpful for helping with giving structure and understanding the basic rules of grammar that is essential to any language.

    Second, I first learned Spanish while in the field as a Peacecorp volunteer and am quite fluent now but my Spanish is anything but scholarly. Instead, it tends to sound more campesino or street which has its pluses and minuses. In addition, my work was focused in far flung communities where I was participating with communities on agro-forestry and elementary community development projects. Many people I worked with were illiterate so my written Spanish never had a real chance to be develop in a meaningful way. I think having the ability to write in another language is advantageous.

    Remember at the root of our work is sharing ideas and that cannot happen without understanding.

  7. 5 and 7 are probably the most contentious one.
    I definitely disagree about 7 – I find that my students (who are on a quarters system) have too little time to ever engage seriously and deeply with one subject matter. I think that type of immersion – and the ability to go beyond scratching the surface of a topic – is incredibly valuable and writing a senior thesis is a great way of doing that. This may depend somewhat on your major, though.

    I think on language I’m with Chris – I’ve been amazed at how well some of our students do after a 1 year language sequence – they can fully function language-wise in the country they go to in the summer or for their study abroad (which, to my mind, is the biggest omission in the list: Spend at least 6months, preferably a year in a different country.)

  8. Spot on list of recommendations, though I’ll offer one perhaps brainless one that I still think warrants some attention and focus: Network, network, network. Reach out to that famous (or up and coming) prof on campus that you never thought would give you the time of day – you’d be surprised at how many will find the time to offer a word of advice to a promising undergrad. Join clubs, study groups, scholarship programs, etc- not only will you learn skills, but you’ll also likely interact with the future leaders of your respective field. There’s certainly some truth to the saying that the most energetic among us (NOT necessarily the most talented) avail of the most interesting opportunities – dont be so lost in books that you forget to build those networks from the start.

  9. I think no. 2 on writing well is spot on. After my undergrad I did a journalism course and then a couple of years as a journalist. Returning to uni for a Masters in African studies I found it so much easier to get top marks in essays, even above students that were clearly more intelligent. Such advice might also eventually lead to academic journals that aren’t needlessly opaque for non-specialists.

  10. I think these are all great points, except for the one about language. I think immersion is the way to go, but only once students have at least two semesters or so in the language. Without that foundation, I don’t see students doing much more than spinning their wheels while abroad.

  11. I’m starting an MsC in International Development in a couple weeks, so this was very interesting for me. I wasn’t the most conscientious student before, and I’d really like to make this one count (i.e. GET A JOB when I finish). I wonder if you or your readers could share some advice.

    A quick background: After undergrad I did Peace Corps in Turkmenistan, then moved to Kyrgyzstan in search of a job. Despite making many good contacts there, it seemed that every job in the region required either REALLY good Russian, or a master’s degree (the closest I got was a temporary, part-time gig proofreading English translations for a local NGO; last I looked, ACTED Tajikistan was still be trying to fill intern the position I repeatedly applied for without so much as a “thanks for the CV”) So I went back to old Sallie Mae, begging cup in hand…

    I get the sense that my best bets employability-wise are to either A) focus hard on one program area, B) go for project management, theory, and methodology, or C) statistics and economics.

    I feel like I should do A, but there is really no one area that fascinates me to the exclusion of all others — I consider water to be one of the most important issues, but I’m not an engineer; I care a lot about gender issues, but I’m not sure I have the right personality for that kind of work (and frankly being male limits my options); urban planning/housing issues interest me, but again, I don’t have the specialist background and it’s not exactly a trendy topic. Other areas where I have some experience, like media and technology, don’t seem quite as compelling nor as well-funded as the big ones.

    B is probably what I am best suited for academically, but “generic project manager” — or “manager” of anything, really — seems the least likely sort of job to get out of school. And C, well, I’ve always loved statistics and have a lot of experience working with data, but I am just not that good at the underlying math (never taken calculus). There is a very good chance that my thesis would be invalidated by a basic arithmetic error.

    I did notice that a lot of my professors have done work that sounds really fascinating and a lot like what I’d like to do, so I wonder if it’s not better to stay in academia and just do consulting/temporary jobs. The stability is compelling, the loans, not so much…

    So if anyone has some sage advice, I’d be grateful; I know my situation is a bit unique, but hopefully it will be of value to others as well.

  12. I have to disagree with point 7 (about the senior essay). Even if the end product isn’t so great, it can nonetheless be an incredibly meaningful undertaking. The pressure to produce that *one* culminating essay pushes students, and in the end, isn’t that what an undergraduate education is all about? Besides, not to be a total stickler, but have you already read so many senior essays that you feel confident making this cynical assessment?

    1. I agree that, for a subset of committed students, a senior essay can be a good idea, especially as practice for grad school or other endeavors. Unfortunately, these are the exception. But others make the same (reasonable) point below and I’ve updated the advice in my Advising section to reflect that.

  13. Me first reaction to #7 was “god I wish I had thought of that in undergrad,” but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced a senior thesis is more beneficial for learning to write well. It may come out as a lot of jumbled trollop (as did mine), but it was the first time I ever had to deal with writing a serious-length research paper, which was invaluable experience for tackling my master’s thesis.

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