哥大教授:如果有人在留学前告诉我这10件事,我将少走很多弯路

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哥伦比亚大学教授Christopher Blattman这篇文章红遍全球。他说,“希望在上大学前,有人曾告诉我这10件事” 。而这10件事,不仅仅适用于名牌大学的学生,也适用于每一个孩子。

作者: Christopher Blattman,加州大学伯克利分校经济学博士,哈佛大学公共管理硕士,现任哥伦比亚大学教授。

我是一名大学教授,有在哥伦比亚大学、耶鲁大学、芝加哥大学教学的经验。今天说的这10件事,我已经给所有到过我办公室的学生建议过。我不认为这些建议只适用于名牌大学,我希望我的建议适用于每个孩子。

这些建议我自己大部分没有遵从,所以我把这些建议叫做“我希望有人曾经告诉我的10件事情”。

我是教经济学、政治学的。我的大部分学生都是社会科学类专业,计划毕业后进入商业、法律或公共服务领域。所以这个列表对这些学生帮助很大。虽然我不懂怎样才能成为一名物理学家或艺术家,但我敢打赌,这些建议对大部分学生是有意义的。

一、找到适合自己的专业

你的职业生涯将是你生命中巨大的一部分,它如果适合你的强项,你会感觉充实,你会更快乐。有些人很幸运在他们的第一次尝试就找到。我却花了三四次尝试去摸索。

不要等到你完成法学院或医学院才发现你不喜欢你的专业工作。尽量及早并经常测试。在暑期尝试不同的职业:研究员、记者、医疗助理、非营利性工作者、国会助理等。

我个人开始了学习会计和商业。幸运的是,我去了一所大学,帮助大一的学生在他们的专业机构工作。当我读完大三的时候,我有12个月的税收和审计经验,但我知道,我不仅讨厌它,而且我在这些方面真的很不擅长。

于是我转向主修经济学,并尝试了咨询管理。这对我来说更有趣,我做得更好,但它仍然不是我心底里的欲望。

我修完了我的学位,并且知道这两个职业我不想做了,我想到了第三个:国际发展。过了好几年,我才有了这样一份工作。但是比起我之前的工作,努力起来要快很多。

二、掌握那些在校外很难获得的技能

进入大学,我们的日程表将会填满诱人的学科课程。我的一些美好的回忆来自于历史和心理学课程,它们打开了我的心灵,为我带来了新的思想。但不要忘了还要用大学的时间来建立你的技术技能。

技术技能,我指的是很难自学的专业知识。我把数学、统计、法律、会计归于这一类。这些课程都需要一个经验丰富的导师指导,加上学分的压力,才能学会这些难的课程。通常情况下,这些技能也是许多工作中的基本构建块。

对于任何有兴趣在法律、公共政策、商业、经济、医学谋职的学生,我建议至少用两个学期学统计。数据在这些领域变得越来越重要,统计是你要学会理解的语言。无论是作为管理顾问,还是担任研究员, 我希望自己当初学过更多统计学知识。

即使你不用在工作中使用它,你也将在生活中用到统计数据。如果不懂统计,你很难充分体会纽约时报的文章。比如当你二三十岁的时候,你可能在意对妊娠的研究,而当你60岁时,要明白疾病和药物的研究……

三、学会写作

认真对待写作这件事。不管你从事什么职业,你都需要写作。能够将复杂的想法用简洁、直接、平实的句子表达出来,这是非常有用的技能。无论未来的你是一名律师、营业员、博主或医生,你都要学会思维清晰,然后像说话一样写下来。

你会惊奇地发现生活中居然有那么多建议、报告和信件要写,写电子邮件可能是你与你的老板、同事、朋友及顾客联系的主要途径。

怎样才能写得更好?简单的答案是练习。在过去8年中,博客和论文写作提高了我的写作能力。你也可以考虑在创意写作、非虚构写作、新闻写作或商务写作修一门课。我没有修过,但我希望我修过。

相反,我读了许多写作的书。于是,每次我写一篇论文、信件或博客文章时,我联想书中内容,尝试怎样写得更好。通常我每周只记住一个要点,这周在这一方面提高,然后下周转到另一个。这样对写作能力确实提高了很多。

四、注重老师而不是教学大纲

根据我的经验,你从好的老师那儿能收获更多, 而不是从教学大纲里。我上过太多教得很枯燥的课,我没有去上课, 即便去了也没有听, 我没有学到多少。

当我回想我收益最大的课,我觉得是社会理论家教授的加拿大历史课。加拿大历史的适用性不大,但这个教授是一位大师, 经常参与我们学生之间充满激情的辩论。从中我学会了思考,并尝试去挑战一些我对社会的基本假设。

我告诉我自己的学生,根据教学大纲挑选八九门课,其余四五门就去选择最吸引人的教授的课吧!

五、不确定时,走能带来更多选择的那条路

如果你像大多数人一样,不知道你长大后想要什么。在这样的情况下,尽量不要缩小你的选择。当然了,要修学校里的精品课程,不过也要去学那些毕业后有大量选择的专业,比如科学、历史、经济、政治等等。

要了解社会科学和自然科学的基础:统计和数学。大量的人文课也是最基本的课程,有了好的教授和教学大纲,历史或政治理论课将教你学会辩论、思考和写作。其他基本课程可能是计算机科学,还有我上面提到的——写作。

六、不要在外语课上花太多时间

这是我最有争议的忠告之一。很多人不同意。

语言是非常重要的。除了英语,你应该多学一种(或多种)外语。但我认为最好是在你的暑假,或大学前,或毕业后。也许可以修两个入门课程,帮助你开始这门语言的学习,或者修两门高级课程,来巩固你的语言能力,仅此而已。

统计数据并不比语言更重要。但跳过统计课程的机会成本是很高的,因为离开学校很难找到学习统计的机会。毕竟,我们在大学只能修30或40门课程。在校园外,我们还有很多其他的机会可以学习一门语言。

七、到不熟悉的地方去

趁暑假或间隔年(gap year)到国外生活,一个与家乡完全不同的地方,在那里你会了解当地的人和文化。

当我还是一个学生的时候,有一天我意识到我在地图上找不到葡萄牙,这个羞辱使我阅读一些历史并且来了一次欧洲之旅。

我希望我能在一个地方呆更长的时间。短期的旅行,住青年旅馆、穷游一周,并不会教给你另一种生活。直到我开始我的研究项目,在印度、肯尼亚和乌干达待了很长时间,我才开始了解更多的世界(和我自己)。

我鼓励人们离开他们的舒适区。当我21岁去欧洲,我是那么缺乏经验,我发现东欧乃至西班牙太吓人,因为我太依恋熟悉的区域……

十年后,我意外地发现自己在非洲一处被战争蹂躏的角落里工作,这就是我今天的事业。我不推荐给大家。不过,我鼓励美国学生离开英语国家,多出去看看。因此,学习语言更有必要。

八、上小班课,便于教授写推荐信

如果你对读研究生不感兴趣,可以直接跳到下一个忠告。但是,如果想读一个硕士或博士学位,你至少需要两三封高品质的推荐信。

要做到这一点,你需要与教授保持良好的关系。多上小班课,多和老师交流,也许可以获得一个助研、助教的职位,或者直接问他是否可以做你的论文或独立研究的顾问。

九、除非你必须写论文,否则写前要三思

一个独立的研究项目可以是你的大学时光完美的顶峰。遗憾的是,我经常看到学生花大量的时间和精力投入到写论文中,很不值得。这些时间可以更好地用于获得技术技能。

我曾经建议大四学生可以选择不写毕业论文。在我的博客获得了大量的争议后,我决定改变我的看法:毕业论文是很重要,但最好是专注于自己感兴趣的话题,试着把论文研究和职业选择联系起来。

十、更新你的思想

在每年大学课程结束时,你应该回顾梳理一下自己的想法, 是否发现12个月前的想法已经过时了。如果没有,可能你的探索和努力还不够。

即便在大学毕业后,这也是个好习惯。虽然很难让自己惊喜,或改变自己的世界观,但这世界上仍然有非常多新的东西可以学习。最简单的方法是看书,尤其是超出了我们专业范围的书。

我看不同寻常的书籍。我也试着不同领域的报纸和杂志。我几乎每隔一段时间换些期刊,而不是坚持多年看同一个期刊。在过去的一年,我一直在阅读“纽约书评”(New York Review of Books),该书评评论有几百种科目。在此前,它一直是外交政策或时事杂志,或者艺术家的选择。我还阅读网络上不同来源的新闻条目。

另一种方法是,设法在新的地方度过有意义的时间。我很幸运,我的工作把我带到另一个发展中国家。每隔一段时间,一个新的地方改变了我思考发展的方式。同样,过去我做管理顾问时,在新兴产业的工作和公司让我挑战旧的信仰,或想出新的。志愿者工作也是如此。无论你走到哪里,你需要融入当地,即使只有几个星期或几个月。

以下为英文原文:

I’m a university professor, with teaching experience at University of Chicago, Columbia, and Yale. These are the 10 things I’ve suggested to pretty much all the students who’ve ever walked through my door for office hours. I don’t think the advice applies just to the elite colleges. I went to a large but fairly good state school in Canada, the University of Waterloo. My hope is this applies to students of every stripe.

As it happens, I didn’t follow most of this advice myself, and I could have called this list “the 10 things I wish someone had told me.” This is probably the hidden subtitle to every advice column you will ever read.

I teach mostly economics, political science, and international development. Most of my students are in the social sciences and plan to go into business, law, or public service. So this list makes the most sense for people like them. I don’t really know what it takes to be a physicist or an art historian. Even so, I’m willing to bet a lot of these suggestions make sense for most students.

I won’t dwell on what you’ve probably heard already: Get a well-rounded education and enjoy yourself. That’s good advice, and your first and best rules. Here are some other suggestions to help make the most of college.

1) Try careers on for size

Your career is going to be a huge part of your life, and you’ll be happier if it suits your strengths and you find it fulfilling. Some people are lucky on their first try. It took me three or four tries to get close.

Don’t wait until you finish law or medical school to discover you hate working in your specialty. Try early and often. Test out different careers in the summer — researcher, journalist, medical assistant, nonprofit worker, congressional aide, and so on.

I started out studying accounting and business. Fortunately, I went to a university that helped students work in firms in their specialty as early as their first year. By the time I finished my junior year, I had 12 months of experience in tax and audit, and I knew that not only did I hate it, but I was really, really bad at it.

So I switched my major to economics and tried a summer in management consulting. It was more interesting to me, and I was better at it, but it still wasn’t my heart’s desire. I finished my BA knowing there were two careers I didn’t want to do, and I had a third in mind: international development, possibly within academia. It was a few more years before I got there. But it was faster than if I’d taken my first job at 22.

2) Develop skills that are hard to get outside the university

Your first temptation will be to fill your schedule with courses on fascinating subjects. Do this. Some of my fondest memories are of history or psychology classes that opened my mind to new places and ideas. But don’t forget to also use university to build your technical skills.

By technical skills, I mean specialized knowledge that is hard to teach yourself on your own. I put things like math, statistics, ethnography, law, or accounting in this category. These are topics where you need a knowledgeable guide plus the hard commitments of a course to get you through hard material. Often, these skills are also basic building blocks for many lines of work.

For anyone interested in law, public policy, business, economics, medicine — or really any profession — I suggest at least two semesters of statistics, if not more. Data is a bigger and bigger part of the work in these fields, and statistics is the language you need to learn to understand it. I wish I’d had more, both as a management consultant and then as a researcher.

Even if you don’t use it in your job, you’ll use statistics in life. It’s hard to fully appreciate the average New York Times (or Vox) article without knowing that language. And, frankly, when you’re 30 you might care about the research on pregnancy, or the research on diseases and drugs when you’re 60. It would be nice to have a basic understanding. Once you learn it, you’ll be surprised how much of what is written on data is wrong.

3) Learn how to write well

Take writing seriously. You will use it no matter your career. Being able to take complex ideas and explain them in short, straightforward, plain sentences is a skill you will use, whether you’re a lawyer, a salesperson, a blogger, or a doctor. You want to learn to think clearly and then write like you speak.

You’ll be surprised how many proposals, pitches, reports, and letters you’ll write in life. Even if you’re not in that line of work, until they put microchips in our brains (which, admittedly, might not be so far off) writing emails will probably be the main way you connect with your bosses, colleagues, friends, and customers.

So how to get better? The short answer is practice. In the last eight years, blogging and paper writing has changed my voice and transformed my writing ability. You might also consider a course in creative, nonfiction, journalism, or business writing.

I didn’t, but I wish I had. Instead, I readbooks on writing. Then, every time I wrote a paper, letter, or blog post, I thought about how I’d become better. Usually I kept just one lesson in mind each week, got better at it, then moved to the next. It helped a lot.

4) Focus on the teacher, not the topic

In my experience, you learn more from great teachers than from great syllabuses. I had too many classes taught by droning bores. I didn’t show up, even when I was sitting in the chair. I didn’t learn much.

When I think about the classes that shaped me the most, I think about my Marxist Canadian history class, taught by a socialist ideologue. There is not a lot of demand for Canadian history outside of Canada, whatever version you learn, so I can’t imagine a situation where I’d apply any of the facts I learned. But the professor was a master at engaging us students in vigorous, often passionate debate. I learned to think, and to challenge some of the basic assumptions I had about my own society.

I tell my own students to pick eight or nine classes based on the syllabus, to go to them all, and then keep the four or five classes with the most engaging professors.

5) When in doubt, choose the path that keeps the most doors open

If you’re like most students, including me at that age, you have no idea what you want to be when you grow up. In cases like this, try not to narrow your options. Sure, take the boutique courses. But stick to mainstream majors, ones with plenty of options at the end: the sciences, history, economics, politics, and so forth.

Take the classes that are the basis of social and natural science: statistics and math.

Plenty of courses in the humanities are also building blocks. With the right professor and syllabus, a history or political theory class will teach you to argue, think, and write. These take more searching, but they are there at every university.

Other basic building blocks might be computer science and, as I mentioned above, writing.

6) Do the minimum foreign language classes

This is one of my most controversial pieces of advice. A lot of people disagree.

Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they’re better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.

Statistics are not more important than languages. But the opportunity cost of skipping a statistics course is high because it’s hard to find ways to learn statistics outside the university. Remember you only get 30 or 40 courses at university. There are a dozen other times and places you can learn a language. Arguably they’re better places to learn it too.

I feel the same way about most business and management skills. They are critical to a lot of professions (even academia), but classrooms are poor places to learn them given the alternatives. Exceptions might be more technical skills like finance and accounting.

Note that I say all this as someone who doesn’t really speak another language well. I can travel in French and Spanish (barely), and I regret not being any better. But I don’t think taking more classes in college would have helped this. I should have made other life choices, like living abroad. This brings me to my next point…

7) Go to places that are unfamiliar to you

Use a summer or a school year to live abroad, ideally a place completely different from home, where you’ll come to know local people (and not just the expatriate community).

When I was a student, I didn’t leave Canada or the US until I was about 21. One day I realized I couldn’t find Portugal on a map, and this shamed me into reading some history and taking a trip to Europe.

I wish I’d spent more than 12 weeks abroad, and I wish I’d stayed longer in one place. Coasting through youth hostels at the pace of one country a week does not really teach you about another life. It wasn’t until I started working on research projects in India, Kenya, and Uganda that I started to learn a great deal about the world (and myself).

I’d also encourage people to get outside their comfort zones. When I got to Europe as a 21-year-old, I was so anxious and inexperienced that I found Eastern Europe and even Spain too intimidating and scary. I stuck to more familiar territory.

Ten years later, I unexpectedly found myself working in a war-torn corner of Africa. And that’s my career today. I don’t recommend it to everyone. It’s not necessary to be worldly, by any measure. But I encourage American students to get away from English-speaking countries and Western Europe. Here’s where it also makes sense to learn the language.

8) Take some small classes with professors who can write recommendations

If you’re not interested in graduate school, skip to the next piece of advice. But if a master’s or a PhD is an option, you will want at least two or three high-quality recommendations from faculty.

To do this, you’ll need good relationships with professors. This means one or two small classes with the same faculty member, and several visits to office hours. Maybe a research or teaching assistant position. Or ask the professor to be your thesis or independent study adviser.

If these topics interest you, see my more detailed advice onerecommendation letterrequests, onhow to write to your professors. My blogalso has lots of advice on choosing PhD programs and being successful.

9) Unless you’re required to write a thesis, think twice before committing to one

An independent research project can be the perfect capstone to your college years. Sadly, I often see theses that weren’t worth the students’ investment of time and energy. Some people’s time would be better spent acquiring technical skills.

I used to advise students against a senior thesis if they had the choice. After getting lots of disagreement on my blog, I revised my view. A senior thesis can be a great investment if you are dedicated to a question of interest, or if you want to learn how to research, strengthen a relationship with a professor, practice for graduate school, or try out research and writing as a career option.

10) Blow your mind

At the end of each year of college, you should look back at your thoughts and opinions 12 months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn’t read or explore or work hard enough.

I know I’ve succeeded when I read a blog post or paper I wrote a year ago and see three points I should have made and one I shouldn’t have. I know I’ve succeeded when I change my opinions because the facts I know changed. Better yet, I really know I’ve succeeded when I can see how a handful of new ideas have reshaped the way I understand the world.

Come to think of it, this is not a bad rule for life after college, too. It gets harder to surprise yourself and change your worldview, but there are an awful lot of new facts to learn. The simplest way I do this is reading, especially outside my discipline. I pick up books on unusual people or places.

I also try to read newspapers and magazines that survey a wide range of areas. And I switch up the periodicals I read every so often rather than stick with the same one for years. For the past year I’ve been reading theNew York Review of Books, which discusses books on a hundred subjects. In the past it’s been a selection of foreign policy or current affairs journals, or ones about the arts. Or just a diverse Twitter feed of news items.

The other way is finding ways to spend meaningful time and relationships in new places. I’m fortunate that my work brings me to another developing country every so often, and each new place changes the way I think about development. Likewise, back when I was a management consultant, working in new industries and firms made me challenge old beliefs or come up with new ones. Volunteering in organizations did it too. Wherever you go, being a “tourist” doesn’t cut it. You need local embedding, even if only for a few weeks or months.

Christopher Blattman is the Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago’s Haris School of Public Policy. He also blogs about higher education, addressing topics such aschoosing between master’s programs, how to get aPhD and save the world,and ifyou’re ever too old for a PhD.

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