Advice for undergraduate students
Work in progress, comments and questions welcome...
There's an old saying: free advice is worth what you paid for it. There's something to that, and in any case you should make your own decisions. But we (meaning myself and several of my faculty colleagues) have put together a FAQ sheet giving you some things to think about as you plan your undergraduate career and beyond. None of this reflects official Stern or department policy, but we nevertheless believe it to be good advice.
Q1. What courses should I take?
NYU offers what you might call "the curse of choice": there are so many courses to choose from that it's hard to know where to start. We think you should take lots of things while you're here, expose yourself to a broad range of perspectives. But while you're doing that, leave some time to take courses that (i) have lasting value and (ii) develop skills that you can’t pick up yourself, either on the job or on your own. That’s the beauty of courses, they provide the structure for you to learn effectively.
We think quantitative courses would head the list. If you have a particular talent for math, you might want to take lots of them, but we think every student would benefit from taking a few. Developing your quantitative skills will increase your market value and prepare you for almost anything you might do in the future. If that doesn't persuade you, look at these links.
Q2. Quantitative course options
Here's a quick overview, but if you're interested in information about specific courses, take a look at our guide to quantitative courses and guide to other courses (both works in progress). If you you come up with good ideas on your own, please pass them on.
Mathematics. The Stern School requires one semester of calculus -- but we think you're capable of more than that. We recommend three semesters of calculus and one of linear algebra. (Or the equivalent: there are apparently some combination classes in the works.) They’re the foundation of economics, finance, and data analysis of all kinds. Once you’ve done that, you're well positioned to do lots of things. You might also consider doing more.
Programming and computer science. Everyone uses software in the modern world, but you have a huge advantage if you can do more than Excel. That said, it doesn’t matter as much what programming you do as long as you do some. If you like it, you can always do more. Two good places to start are Introduction to Computer Programming (CSCI-UA.0101, uses Python) and Numerical Analysis (MATH-UA.0252, uses Matlab). Stern may have its own programming courses in the near future, but does not at present.
Data analysis. The modern world generates data by the gigabyte. Whatever you do in the future, it will be extremely helpful to you to develop the skills to make sense of it: probability and statistics, data bases, data mining, and so on. Some people call the emerging area "data science," but whatever you call it, it involves marketable skills. See the guides mentioned above for specific courses.
Q3. What if I plan to go into finance or consulting?
Good question! See Q1 above: quantitative and data skills are invaluable in both fields -- and many more besides. It's no accident that they hire people with math and science backgrounds as well as business students. A business school education is a wonderful starting point, but business school + strong quant skills is an unbeatable combination.
Q4. Are math courses hard?
Grading in math courses tends to be less forgiving than in less quantitative subjects. That's one of the reasons math is so helpful: you learn to think precisely and get clear feedback on whether you have done that.
Could this lower my GPA? Sure it could, although we find that many of our students do well in these courses. But even if your GPA falls a little, you're likely to expand your career options and raise your earning potential.
One last thing: It can be a mistake to take math courses that are too advanced -- and there are always math courses that are too advanced. Take a course that stretches you but doesn't kill you. Once you’ve done that, take another one.
Q5. Anything else?
You can learn a lot outside the classroom -- and usually have some fun doing it. NYU is loaded with active student clubs, but we're more familiar with faculty activities. You have access to 200+ faculty members at Stern and many more throughout the University. Many of them are happy to include students in their work. Whether your interests are economics, finance, marketing, social psychology, or something else, you should be able to find a faculty member with similar interests who could use help in research or course development. Some students find that their experiences in such projects are the highlights of their undergraduate careers.
Q6. How can I find research assistant opportunities?
We suggest you do the following:
Lots of people have found work this way. Often you will have to start by working for free, but once you've established your value you may be able to get paid. But remember: the value here isn't the money, it's the experience.
There are also research opportunities outside NYU. Federal Reserve banks typically have both summer internships and full-time research positions for students who graduate. Fed jobs are an established route to success: students who do this for a couple years often move to good jobs in industry or apply to graduate school.
Q7. Should I take economics courses?
It's up to you, there are many routes to success. But economics provides a solid foundation whether you want to work in consulting, financial services, marketing -- or lots of other areas. NYU is blessed with two unusually strong economics groups, one at Stern, the other in the College of Arts and Science, as well as a world-class finance group. It's a resource you might want to take advantage of, whether you choose it as a concentration or just take a few courses.
Q8. How does the economics concentration work?
I wish I knew! The place to start is your advisor. If that doesn't work to your satisfaction, my recommendation would be to speak to Professors Wachtel and Foudy.
Q9. What if I plan to go to graduate school in economics or finance?
This question and the following one are for those who think they may want to attend a PhD program in economics or finance. We're not recommending you do that, just telling you what's involved if you do. The advice is the same as before, but rachet it up a couple levels: take more math -- as much as you can.
PhD admissions will typically look for a strong math background, research experience, and a clear understanding of what a PhD leads to. Courses in economics and finance are secondary. Lots of people apply (successfully) with majors in mathematics, computer science, and other quantitative fields. Research experience includes working as a research assistant and doing original work on your own. The last step is to take some PhD-quality economics courses. This isn't as important as math skills and research experience, but it will help you once you get the graduate school. Come see me if you're not sure what those are.
Don't let this scare you. We have good students here and the rest of the world understands that. We've sent students to good PhD programs in the recent past, and expect to see more in the coming years. The key is to understand early in your undergraduate career what it will take. If you're a senior now and think it's too late, you might consider masters programs. One of the best is the LSE's MSc program, which has a strong international reputation. The difficulty is that it's a one-year program, so you'd typically apply to PhD programs in the fall before you have a record there to report. If you have another program in mind, let me know and I'll see what I can find out about it.
Q10. Related questions about PhD programs
Should I take graduate courses? Not a bad idea, but it's not necessary. A good math background and research experience are more important. That said, students who begin PhD programs find the first two semesters are easier if they've seen similar material before.
Should I focus on top-ranked programs? Most published rankings are, at best, crude measures of quality. You should speak to people who know the area, including faculty and recent graduates who have gone into similar programs. And ask them about their placement records. Some of the best people have gone to what the uninitiated would regard as second-tier programs.
You might also think about what sub-areas appeal to you. Some programs are better in macroeconomics, others in industrial organization and strategy, etc. It's ok if you don't know, many of us were in that position ourselves, but it's something to keep in mind.
Finally, this is about you. If you know what you're doing, you can get a first-rate education -- and a good job -- at lots of places. It's less about the place than what you do when you're there.
(c) NYU Stern School of Business | Address comments to Dave Backus.