Sunday, June 13, 2010

Relevance of "Social Studies" as a college major to product management

Whenever people ask me what I majored in at college, I always hesitate a bit before answering. The real answer is Social Studies, though I typically don't give this answer anymore. People would either give me a puzzled look or a snide comment, such as "Oh, I took that in 5th grade." So I started answering that I majored in sociology. Not many people really know what sociology is either, but at least it doesn't sound like a 5th grade subject.

Here's a good explanation of what the Social Studies program is about:
Social Studies is a unique program of study at Harvard College. ...It reflects the belief that the study of the social world requires an integration of the disciplines of history and political science, sociology and economics, anthropology and philosophy. Concerned with the fragmentation caused by increasing disciplinary specialization, the faculty and students of Social Studies seek an integrated approach to the study of social phenomena that synthesizes the findings as well as the methods of various modes of social inquiry.
So it's basically a multidisciplinary version of sociology, but much more than that.

I was asked by the university a few months ago to provide some reflections on how majoring in Social Studies has affected my career path as a business person. My contributions were combined with those of people in other fields such as law, medicine, entertainment, journalism, etc.

You can view the completed guide here, titled Life After Social Studies: Careers

I enjoyed writing down my thoughts and wanted to put them here. The questions are in bold and my answers follow.

In what ways, if any, did your experience in Social Studies affect your professional choices?

I was always interested in entering the technology industry after graduation but I wanted to get a solid liberal arts education while I was in college. I had heard that this type of education develops skills in critical thinking, writing, and information gathering. It can be difficult to build these skills in a work environment, so I wanted to do this as an undergraduate.

Social Studies has the reputation as the "quintessential" liberal arts education, so I was attracted to this concentration. I knew that majoring in liberal arts would make it more difficult to enter the technology industry because new college hires in technology typically have Computer Science or Engineering backgrounds. I believed, however, that I could develop my technology background on my own, either via self-learning or various internships.

Did Social Studies provide you with particular skills or experiences that prepared you for your profession? If so, which ones?

The most valuable skills I learned from Social Studies were:

  1. Being able to process large amounts of information fairly quickly and glean the trends and patterns
  2. Writing clearly and quickly.
I do a significant amount of research regarding new technologies or competitive analysis. I need to sift through large amounts of articles or technical manuals to learn what I need to know. Also, I'm constantly writing different types of documents such as product requirement documents, internal communications, marketing descriptions, etc. All those papers I had to write in college, especially the senior thesis, taught me how to quickly get the material out of my head and on to a piece of paper (or computer).

What career advice do you have for current Social Studies students?

Don't limit your career horizons to what is offered at Harvard. Your skillset is broadly applicable to many different industries. Follow what you are most interested in, as opposed to what is being promoted most visibly on campus. The recruiting process at Harvard is somewhat overrepresented by banking and consulting firms. Harvard students naturally think that these are the only professional opportunities available to them outside of grad school, or that these are somehow the best opportunities. It is true that banking and consulting firms do an impressive job of recruiting at Harvard. But there is a world of opportunities outside of these industries.

Don't be afraid to offer your services for free in summer internships, if you can afford this. As a college student without any work experience, one of your biggest competitive advantages will be what you can get on your resume between school years. Many companies may be willing to bring you on as an unpaid intern where they would otherwise not be interested if they had to pay you. As one example, I was able to break into the technology industry because I worked for a company for free during the summer before my senior year.

One final tip: don't overthink the career process. Your first job is a first step in one direction, but it is difficult to know which direction to go in without actually being in the workforce. Be prepared to make many course corrections over time, and this is a standard part of developing a career.