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WHAT WOULD BILL GATES STUDY?

When I arrived at Harvard to begin my doctoral degree (more years ago than I'm willing to admit), my adviser sat me down for an introductory one-on-one. The chair of the department and one of the top academic psychologists in the country, his office on the top floor of William James Hall was impressive. Intimidating might be the better word. The ceilings soared to 20 feet, and his balcony offered the best view of the Cambridge campus from anywhere in town.

My erstwhile mentor began our encounter that day not with a question. He showed little interest in who I was nor in what had brought me to that hallowed hall. Rather, he launched immediately into his monologue, wherein he reminisced on the beginnings of his personal, academic journey.

"When I started graduate school - soon after World War II and following the failed promises of Freud's psychoanalytic theory of the mind - my cohort of young psychologists believed we would crack the secrets of the human psyche. We were certain we were on the cusp of solving important problems of mankind. Beyond all doubt, we believed modern science and the new, experimental approach to studying human behavior held the promise of fundamental improvements in the human condition."

With an attitude of assuredness only tenure at Harvard can impart, he continued, "We now know that promise was a pipe dream. Since I obtained my Ph.D., we have not cracked the code of human behavior. What’s more, today, those who are similarly driven to solve mankind’s problems are going into the biological sciences. That is where the breakthroughs of the coming decades lie! That is where students determined to see an impact of their work are turning! That is where the smart students go!!”

I sat speechless though out his adjuration. Silence was my argument. I did not say it then, but I share with you now the words that reverberated in my mind.

What am I? Chopped liver?

And so began the beginning of the end of my path toward the professoriate. It took a few years and an abundance of grit, but I did obtain my graduate degree. And, while I left the academic bench soon thereafter, holding a Ph.D. from Harvard has never hampered my progress toward "success." The degree has opened many doors, if the subject of my study has not mattered much to what I have been hired to do.

Were I to get a do-over from the great Admissions Office in the Sky, I'm certain I would study something different than what is inscribed on the degree hanging above my desk. Interestingly, it turns out Bill Gates too would study something different than he had, were he beginning college as a freshman today. In a Twitter thread posted earlier this week, Gates called out artificial intelligence, energy, and bioscience as "promising fields where you can make a huge impact."

There it is again! Like my adviser before him, Bill Gates appears to measure the relative value of a discipline in terms of how well it prepares a student to effect humankind's most pressing problems. Not everyone would agree with this algorithm of impact. Not everyone is a problem solver. Some would argue one should pursue one’s passion, regardless of utility. Others point out that what one studies is less important than the skills one acquires along the way - learning to learn, critical thinking, formulating questions, prioritizing effort, analytic thinking, synthesizing information, solving problems, and communicating.

So, take a few minutes to consider this valuation of college major. Let us know what you think of it. If you finished school a while back, I bet you’ll find yourself reminiscing, as I have here. Good stuff. If you are on the brink of your college career, I bet you're wondering already what direction is best for you. It's an age old question.

"There's more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine."

~ "Closer to Fine" by the Indigo Girls

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