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In 2010, at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Social Studies concentration, Amy Gutmann ’71, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and an alumna of the program, reflected on its inception.
“By a simple act of naming, the founders made it a safe bet that students would not concentrate in Social Studies for its market value,” she argued.
Gutmann believed that such a superficial detail, a mere unsexy label, was a “genius” move, one that ensured that the concentration attracted only the students who embraced its “intrinsic, intellectual value” above more career-focused objectives.
As I enter my final semester at Harvard, I have found myself reflecting on her words and my own reasons for choosing Social Studies. More broadly, I’ve wondered why Harvard students study what they study.
Of course, Harvard students have diverse motives and ambitions. Nevertheless, the prospect of postgraduate success certainly looms large over our student body. I doubt I’m the only student with friends whose professional aspirations guided their concentration choice.
To what extent do we choose our concentrations based on what might happen after, rather than at, Harvard?
Throughout this series, I will reflect on my own experiences at Harvard and try to elucidate what I’ve really learned from these four years — and how other students see things differently. Questions like “what should I have done differently?” inevitably accompany our reflections at the tail end of our time here. That question is an animating theme of this column.
I turned to students first. Each person I talked to had a different set of interests and a different field of focus — and, as expected, mixed motives when selecting their concentrations.
“I think, for me, I was looking for the path of least resistance,” said Meredith E. Kent ’24, an Economics concentrator with a History secondary who will work in investment banking after graduation.
Kent has always found economics “very intriguing” on a personal level, in part because she learned when she was young that money played a crucial role in “why things were happening.” But her interest in working in finance, too, induced her to look for a related field of study.
“It’s kind of a thing in the industry of, like, ‘Are you an Econ major?’” she told me. “And if not, ‘Do you have an Econ secondary?’”
To get a banking job with, say, a History degree, Kent said, students would need to demonstrate interest in finance in other ways, perhaps by joining pre-professional clubs or trading stocks on their own time.
Economics, though, was “the general path that everyone tells you about,” Kent said. Coupled with a finance-related club, she thought it would set her up well for job opportunities on Wall Street.
I asked Kent whether she would have chosen a different concentration if her professional aspirations were less aligned with economics.
“I would probably study History and get an Econ secondary,” she responded. “I think history is the most important topic that people should be studying.”
But not all students choose concentrations that align with their professional goals.
I spoke with Paurakh Rijal ’25, a Crimson Business associate, about his double concentration in Government and Computer Science. Rijal aspires to work in business and is considering finance, product management, or strategy. Why not study something more related to those fields?
Rijal cited “the security of having a Harvard degree” as a factor that has enabled him to look for careers outside of his concentrations.
“In some aspects, I feel like the Gov part of my double major is more of intellectual curiosity, but I also think it’s actually made me better in my pre-professional clubs,” he said, referring to writing and organizational skills.
Interestingly, Hans Bach-Nguyen ’26, who is on the pre-med track, had selected the concentration that seemed least congruent with his professional ambitions: Anthropology.
In explaining his academic path, Bach-Nguyen referenced medical anthropology, which he described as the belief that “to understand someone’s medical condition, you must understand their social environments.”
“I personally don’t feel behind other STEM students,” Bach-Nguyen said. He suggested that medical schools care more about an applicant’s STEM grades and overall GPA than the concentration they choose.
Bach-Nguyen told me that although a degree in the hard sciences is not a requirement for medical school admission, many pre-med students believe that a hard science degree can provide “some sort of fallback” if they happen not to get into medical school. In that case, he said, they might go back to school and conduct more research, which could help them land “a corporate job or some sort of stable job that would be maybe less attainable with a degree in a social science or humanities field.”
Students clearly have varied motivations for their concentration choices. In some cases, they seek to study what will prepare them most for their careers. Other times, because they know they can supplement their skills with pre-professional clubs, they select concentrations that are not natural feeders into their intended career fields. Regardless, it’s clear that professional ambitions exercise at least some effect on those choices.
While students may weigh future careers as they select their concentration, it is less clear that the firms they apply to value subject matter expertise. So what do firms actually look for when recent graduates apply for a job?
According to Manny Contomanolis, director of Harvard’s Mignone Center for Career Success, employers treat a Harvard degree as a proxy measure for intelligence.
“In general, employers look for what I refer to as ‘GSPs,’ which are good, smart, people,” he said.
In the current job market, “the undergraduate degree is less and less tightly tied to a specific industry or a specific job,” Contomanolis told me. “The fact of the matter is that it’s the combination of experiences supporting the kinds of skills that you’re developing that really paint that picture” of a student’s candidacy.
GSPs can study anything — even a subject that “sounds like what they did when they were in third grade,” to quote Nicole Newendorp, the interim director of undergraduate studies for Social Studies.
Social Studies students “are all over the place,” said Newendorp, with graduates entering fields as diverse as law, investment banking, architecture school, urban planning, education, consulting, and technology.
And except for careers in the hard sciences, where Contomanolis and Newendorp agreed that concentration might be a more direct prerequisite, Newendorp was “not aware of any situations” in which “having a degree in Social Studies prevented somebody from consideration of the kind of job that they want.”
Instead, it’s skills that matter.
“The real focus” in hiring is on transferable “analytical skills, writing skills, communication skills, critical thinking skills,” Contomanolis told me.
“If you have a keen analytical mind, and you’ve taken some courses in data analytics or mathematics, there’s no reason why, without a concentration in that area, you wouldn’t be a candidate for certain positions,” he said.
Indeed, according to Contomanolis, most organizations hire students based on their potential success, not what they can do at graduation. Subject-specific skills like financial modeling are helpful but certainly not required in most cases.
If Contomanolis and Newendorp are correct, it means that students possess the freedom to choose their concentrations without the specter of the post-graduation job search hanging over their heads.
It’s simply not possible to take advantage of all this school has to offer. Nor is it likely that any student possesses a fixed perception of their professional aspirations at the moment they enter its gates.
We students tend to be forward-looking. We treat our time at Harvard as a segue to get from point A to point B, however ill-defined point B might be. I worry, as a result, we fail to relish everything that happens between the two.
Our time on campus is fleeting in the grand scheme of things, and in turn, our concentration matters a lot — simply because degree requirements take up a large chunk of that brief time. Any choice about how we spend our time involves constraint — we can only take so many courses, join so many clubs, and concentrate in two fields at most. Our choices are our best guess for what will give us the most fulfillment, however we construe that term.
But we shouldn’t let our desire to reach point B prevent us from embracing the near-limitless freedom we enjoy at this moment — flexibility to explore intellectually and think a little less practically than we’ll be able to once we graduate. And even when we do think about our career ambitions, we should consider the full suite of opportunities we have to develop skills and passions, without worrying that every single part of our journey has to aim at one goal.
College is inherently preparatory, and it makes sense why we think ahead. We should. But given all that Harvard has to offer, we should also be wary of the mindset that the future comes before the present. We’ll get the most out of this place if our concentration choices don’t become mere declarations of our professional interests.
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.
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