Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Highschool Senior's Perspective

In 1996, I (Lenny Teytelman) got accepted to Columbia and Stanford.  My brother was a graduate student in Stanford, I was dying to go to California, and Stanford was ranked far above Columbia in any of the majors that I was considering.  There was no contest.  My only problem was that I fell in love half a year before I had to decide between these schools.

I did realize that first-time love, at the age of 18, before starting college, was most likely doomed as a relationship.  But whatever the chance of failure, I knew that if I moved to Stanford, there was absolute certainty that the relationship would end.  I decided to "sacrifice my education" for the infinitely low odds of the relationship succeeding.

I was right to choose love - we got married two years later and have been together since.  I was wrong to think that Columbia was a sacrifice.  Now I know that for undergraduate studies, it is irrelevant whether one goes to Columbia or Stanford.  Back then, the sacrifice felt monumental.

Sure, a high school senior, under the influence of love, seldom has the perspective on college choice of a tenured professor or a CEO of a big corporation.  The goal of this blog is to share exactly these perspectives on how to choose a college.

The initial e-mail that started this blog is in this post.


  •  Joseph Duncan, CEO and founder of Geotext Translations (100+ person multinational company)
As an employer, we would hire the best person based on how the candidate handled the pressure of the interview process, stellar references, experience, proven ability to commit (wish-washy isn’t good for us), etc.  We always hire the person we believe would be best for the job.  Frankly, what school the person attended wouldn’t be an overriding consideration for us. Having graduated from a great university doesn’t hurt of course, but for us it is not the deciding factor.  Our perception of how well the person would fit in and perform is far more important.
We’ve hired many people from top universities.  But we’ve also turned down candidates from prestigious institutions in favor of others who graduated from less recognized schools.  Several of our best long-term employees, as well as several of the most promising up-and-comers we’ve ever had, received their undergraduate degrees from places I didn’t know much about.  I have no idea how those schools rank, and I don’t care.
By the way, during interviews I often ask, Tell me about college?  What did you like? What didn’t you like?  Too many negative answers is not a good sign.  Is she happy at UMass?  To me that seems to be an important consideration.
I hope this helps.
  • Dr. Vint Cerf, president of Association for Computing Machinery (Dr. Cerf is recognized as one of "the fathers of the internet") 
I was a Stanford undergraduate and formed a lifelong attraction to the university. I taught there, later in my career, and return to campus to teach a few times a year. There is something exhilarating about the place - smart, enthusiastic and creative people and facilities of extraordinary quality. Later in life you discover how good your classmates were as they ascend to significant positions in the world: Senators, heads of state or ministers or secretaries, ceos, brilliant researchers. So the kinds of people you meet at the top undergraduate schools may well determine opportunities for you later on.
  • Senior partner at a top US accounting firm
They are both good schools and in the end it will not make much of a difference in the hiring process.  What will make a difference is the person herself, what she has accomplished outside of education, and how she presents herself !
  • Dr. Marc Cluzel, founder C&F Consulting (previously head of R&D at Sanofi) 
Fench are still old "regime" despite the revolution, except that education has replaced God and the King. So the dream is to be accepted at École Polytechnique if you are an engineer or  École Normale Supérieure if mathematician or philosopher. If you add the cartesian mind, ranking is very important.  To your point I think that they are clusters (would you ask the same questions if it was Princeton rather than Boston U?). Within these clusters, I fully agree with you, the more important in my eyes is to find the environment that is the best for our kids. Might be some specificity in teaching, ratio male/female ( I suppose my son would love NY!).... 
  • Isaak Karaev, Senior Vice President at EPAM (previously, CEO and co-founder of Multex and InfoNgen) 
As far as jobs prospects I frankly don't see any difference between the two below. This is the quick answer and that's the only one I have time for today). I can of course elaborate and should, maybe over the weekend. I was actually thinking about it recently. College education and jobs opportunities is a very interesting subject. It's actually multidimensional and very much depends on a lot of parameters, like type of profession, level of education, type of education, etc. When and if :) I'll have time I'll try to think about it systematically and write.
[continued, next day]
I didn't have time to write a proper response to your post, so I just plagiarized someone's else's post :), see below. It reasonably well represents what I see in my market, computer science and software development. I am sure it's very different in fields like medicine, law and others science intensive disciplines. But from a "job" perspective knowledge of a good set of popular tools and capabilities is much more important than a college degree. Although as the article below points out there are specific areas in our field as well where a
deep scientific background and/or advanced degree is necessary.
So anyway this is a very large subject and I'll still try to expand on it at some point. In the meantime enjoy the the article below.
Article: College DegreesMore and MoreThey're Just a Piece of Paper
  • Partner at one of the top NYC lawfirms
While I agree with your analysis, and the schools would be viewed as equals in our hiring decision, you cannot analytically measure the subjective and the emotional benefits, e.g. self worth, a student and their parent will derive from one but not necessarily the other school. Unless you can make a clear analytical case for one school over the other, the subjective case makes the decision. 
But that's my "5 cents".... (I like how your Columbia v Stanford analogy is qualified by 15 years!)
  • Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google
I agree that for a given applicant, I would look at what they had done, and would not differentiate between BU and Umass Amherst.
Now, if it were between the local community college and MIT, it would be a different story: the community college student would have to have an exceptional record of accomplishment to avoid being dismissed summarily.
  • Andrea Carfi, Head of Protein Biochem. USA, Novartis Vaccines
I think this is a complex topic and that's why I did not want to reply by e-mail (by the way I wrote all this with iPhone.... Getting good at it!).
In general I agree with you and I think that the questions she should ask herself are the right ones (see below for 1-2 exceptions in the answers). What matters is not the name/ranking (also here the difference is small/marginal) but what the place can offer you. However, I have to say that at that age those are difficult questions to answer as there is a lot of confusion / uncertainty in a young person's mind.
From a job perspective, if my opinion matters here, I care where people have done their Ph.D. and postdoc, but most important what they have done during that time. For non-Ph.D. I care most about their lab experience/studies and life experience. I do not know well the 2 universities (I had a tech. from BU) but I guess that each of them may be better than the other one on certain topics as you say in your example.
In general for a very bright person having very good teachers may be less critical and studying/living in an intellectually stimulating environment may be more useful. People surrounding you may have a profound effect on where you go with your life. Also, connections are important and so being in the "right" place may help (eg if you want to do research next). On the other hand, in some cases, having good teachers may be key to future success.  Certainly does not hurt.
I think it is a difficult decision. I would not transfer unless I did not like where I am, as transferring can be disruptive. But again the way you frame it in terms of questions that may help her to decide is a good one.
And final 2 comments.
1) I had a pretty bad high school training and ok undergraduate studies (however with an impact on my next steps) and I have a reasonable job. So the school is not everything. Of course, perhaps by  now I could have had the CSO job if I had gone to a better school. We will never know.
2) There is one thing that I will never forget from my first days at the university (Chemistry). My professor at that time started the first-class  by saying that the only thing that mattered to succeed in his course was to have attended a good daycare/preschool when we were children. From that time I knew that I was in the right place. I think it is probably true for everybody/everything.
I hope it helps in some way,

  • Seth Hemley, EVP at Brandon Associates
Lenny, as always your thoughts are erudite and passionate for your sincere hope to make sure, she chooses the best choice.

Choosing a college is clearly a very personal choice. It is very common for people to choose colleges for all the wrong reasons and have it work out as a fantastic and perhaps even the best choice with the benefit of hindsight. The same is true with people, who research and agonize over all the details and look at it analytically, choose the best choice and have it work out poorly.

 I would be the first person to agree, you must be very careful about how you view statistics and take them with a grain of salt. One last thought before, I give some viewpoints, I have learned that the idea of the right choice or the wrong choice when comparing two clearly "exceptional choices" can be a silly notion. Each choice yields challenges and opportunities for success, learning and failure. So a person with a certain level of gifts can and frequently will manage through any choice. In other words, they will adjust to ultimately make the choice the best choice possible for them given the path they have walked down.

My perspective may be a little different. As an employer, I look for what I have come to refer to as emotional intelligence, the moniker being a reference to a number of works by Malcolm Gladwell on the subject which has tended to align with the way I view the world.

I am in business not research or academia. Our goal is to have enjoyment, make money, operate ethically and build something we can be proud of.  By the way as a result of this view, I do not necessarily feel, I have the opportunity to express my highest degree of intellect or achieve satisfaction that comes with knowledge and higher learning.

In any event, this is the direction, I chose - so my view is going to be slanted. The attributes I look for as an "employer" are based in upbringing (background or really parents’ philosophy), presence, people skills,  communication skills, confidence, articulation, maturity and then lastly do the set of skills meet the job.

So the questions, I would ask for my child are:

a) What is the social setting dynamic and how does this align with my child's maturity and how will this help my child achieve emotional intelligence. Is my child similar in background to the typical student, is this relevant, do they understand what difference or similarities in people can mean in the way they interact, prejudices, social alignments.
b) I would choose the undergraduate with this in mind and then choose graduate school based on "reputation", "exceptional education" and ability to get a job.
c) What are the negatives of each school and can my child cope with those negatives. People, tend to maximize what they view as positive and minimize what they view as negative.
d) As someone not at all familiar with Amherst (except that it is known to be a great school), I happen to love the city of Boston, the people and the culture. Boston does seem like a great place to study journalism. I like cities, because they give people an opportunity to expand the interaction outside the school/campus.
Hope this is at all helpful. Also, consider that some of my worst choices have caused me to work harder to be successful and toughened  me the most.  So, is it even relevant to choose "The best choice among great choices"?  This does not mean, she should not have lots of views and really work to understand the facts as they are best available. In the end, make a choice and don't look back. Hindsight is frequently 20/20.


  • Jasper Rine, Professor at UC Berkeley.
Dear Lenny,

I think the analysis that you have done on the situation is pretty much identical to what I would offer someone in that position.  Not knowing the intended major I would have a hard time offering comparative advice regarding the two options, and even knowing the major, that would be only a small part of the consideration.   I agree that at the undergraduate level, job prospects are pretty much as secondary if not tertiary consideration, with the rare exception, such as if you want to be in the entertainment business, USC is better than UCLA because their alumni are in professions with few measures of merit and tend to be tribal.

The single graduate student that I took the most pride in recruiting to Berkeley when I was on the admissions committee was a student from Wichita State named Owen Fields.   I knew nothing about Wichita State's program at all, but I could see that he took a hard course curriculum, and his statement of interest was so compelling that it transcended all others.  Indeed he turned out to be a star.

Going back to BU versus UMass Amherst, BU is in the shadow of much better known places, whereas U Mass has its own identity and at least in the biological sciences is becoming a real powerhouse.  I would also presume it to be substantially less expensive for resident than BU, and I find it hard to justify the price of private schools, unless there is some super-compelling reason.   My experience with a step-daughter's choice to go to NYU is that it had the high cost of private schools, but a much worse educational experience than the SUNY schools.  It was really a way to have an apartment in NYC masquerading as an educational experience.
  • Fred Winston, Professor at Harvard Medical School
I agree with everything you wrote, including the important questions at the bottom of your message.

As a professor, I can say that we have had excellent grad students who did their undergrad work at both places, but that's a pretty small sample size.  One of my star grad students was a UMass undergrad and she is now a PI in Seattle.   I don't think the undergrad institution is generally a strong predictor of future success as a grad student or independent investigator in biology.

As a parent, we tried to let our daughter make her own decision without too much influence from us (although she somehow managed to figure out our preferences).   UMass and BU are very different environments as you point out.  That plus the particular academic interests should probably be the most important factors.  I agree that relative ranking probably doesn't matter.
  • Victoria Chernyak, Professor at Dept. of Radiology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
I completely agree pretty much with everything you have said. I can only add one thing. If the girl is interested in going for Med School, she should try to get to the school with the higher rating. I feel like college ratings are pretty important when it comes to med school decisions.
  • Ting Wu, Professor at Harvard Medical School
This IS such a complicated problem, and I think you are wonderful to have taken the time to consider the issue so carefully for others. In addition to the sage advice from Jasper Rine and Joseph Duncan, I would add that a single thoughtful letter of reference coming from someone who knows the candidate well and can offer true insights (not just the usual words of praise) can make all the difference.  So, it is not just 'where you are' but also 'who you are'. What is most important is the person, what s/he thinks, has done, and wants to do and the motivation behind the energy. For example, I would rank a candidate without a single diploma (preschool, middle school, high school, college, or graduate school) who has demonstrated drive, know-how, creativity, willingness to take risks, stellar morality, and citizenship far, far above a straight-A student with diplomas from the most prestigious educational institutions who, in spite of all that schooling (or perhaps because of it) has not yet untangled self-worth and purpose from institutional judgement. 
Am looking forward to what others say!  
  • Kristen DeAngelis, Professor at UMass Amherst
How is she doing here now, and what is her major?  If she is MCB, this is a great major and the consensus among the faculty is that these are the best students.  We have some great honors programs, and the students I've met who are in honors are some of the smartest and most mature I've ever met.  If she were inclined to get into a great lab, and get a good letter or two, maybe a thesis, maybe a coauthor on a paper, she'll be miles ahead of her peers at any institution.  

In many ways this is a great school, and probably comparable to BU.  As for networking, there are twice as many postgraduates at BU compared to UMass, so this would theoretically help in the networking department in terms of connecting with other alums who are in successful careers.  One big reason students love UMass is the price: for a great education you pay a fraction of the price of a private school like BU.  Debt burden is huge and ignored, and can really hamper a "successful"-feeling life even a couple years down the road, in terms of not being able to take a vacation, or buy a car.  

I feel like there are two aspects to this issue of whether one or the other will give your niece better job prospects.  One is abstract and difficult to quantify: the name recognition.  I expect that this would be quite subjective on the part of whoever is reading the application.  As an employer, I also look for honors distinctions, thesis, and other awards and accolades like publications.  This says more to me than reputation of the school.  The second is actual assistance in finding a job.  I'm sure both schools have career services, but maybe one is better than the other.  Things to look for would be number of full-time counselors, availability of services after graduation, assistance with resume and the too-often underestimated cover letter, prep for interviewing including mock interviews.  Even then, the quality of the career counseling depends on the field.  Harvard did nothing to help me find a job in biology, but I'd have been all set if I'd chosen banking instead.  It didn't matter; I learned a lot in looking and made a lot of contacts for myself without the help of the career center.

I know there are a lot of transfers both in and out.  She should talk to her advisor here, and if she doesn't have one yet, she should get one.  

At the end of the day, I still believe that getting a good education is paramount.  It may be true that reputation of the school will nudge an application in one direction or the other, but she will succeed based on how much she learns.  If she is doing well at UMass, and is happy here, I'd suggest she stay.  If she is frustrated or unhappy here, she will not learn well and should probably move.  
  • Angela DePace, Professor at Harvard Medical School
I think you're right on the money with your response.  Frankly, most people assessing her will never have seen the rankings and will see UMass Amherst and BU in very similar bins - good schools, not the best.  If she's a good student, that's fine.  If she's a mediocre student, it will keep her out of top notch grad programs.

I would say the single most important thing that you can do as an undergraduate is identify a faculty mentor - one person who cares what happens to you, gets to know you well, and will be your advocate.  Much more important than rankings.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

High School Senior, 15 years later

[This is the initial e-mail that started this blog.]

A week ago, I chatted with relatives whose daughter at UMass Amherst just finished her freshman year.  She has the option to transfer to Boston University.  The parents would prefer for her to transfer because of higher ranking and better job prospects for BU.  I wrote the e-mail below to share my thoughts.  I then forwarded my message to friends and acquaintances, asking for their feeling about this topic.

Hi Josh and Marisa!

I just wanted to follow up on our discussion at the bar-mitzvah.

Naturally, you should take everything that I say with a grain of salt - I have not gone to Umass or to BU.  So, all of my thoughts are completely generic and abstract.

Josh, you graduated from the BU law school, right?  However, you know a lot more about the law school than any other department.  NYU is stellar in math and horrible in biology.  Moreover, you know BU, but not the undergraduate training there.  For a molecular biology Ph.D. program, I would avoid NYU like the plague, but I would instantly choose NYU over Berkeley for an undergraduate in pre-med or biology.

And even if you do know about the undergraduate experience at BU, you don't have the proper alternative experience at UMass Amherst to make a comparison.

Since few people get undergraduate degrees simultaneously at two different colleges, no one can reasonably compare the undergraduate experience of Amherst to BU.  That's why we rely on rankings.  And this is something that I have a huge issue with.  The rankings are indicative of very little.  Yes, the number 1 school is better than the school ranked #500.  But comparing US News rankings of BU at 53 and UMass Amherst at 94 - the difference in ranking here is completely meaningless.  I can write pages on this, but luckily, Malcom Gladwell already did.  Please read his essay "The Order of Things (What college rankings really tell us)".

If we ignore the rankings, there is still the argument of "job prospects."  Here, I think the statistics truly do not tell us anything.  There may be more unemployed Amherst graduates, but that does not mean anything for Mia's prospects.  The proper question is not how many graduates from this or that school get jobs in a particular field.  The proper question is whether  a given student, after Amherst or BU has different job prospects.  This is a much tougher question to answer in a proper study.  If you could do the study well, correcting for all socio-economic factors, I bet you would find that there is zero difference for a similar student in their life/career prospects.  I am positive that Mia, as a graduate of either college, would achieve the exact same success.

I do agree that the network of alumni matters.  Although, I think it matters little out of undergraduate, compared to MBA, law, or other graduate training.  Furthermore, I think Mia might have a better network out of Amherst, because everyone is on campus in a community, rather than the urban setting of BU.  Speaking of network and lifestyle, UMass Amherst has a 50-50 male/female split.  BU has an enormous gender bias with only 40% males.  That is a horrible setup.  I don't mean with respect to finding a husband.  I mean for everything.  It's awful.  NYC has a slight female majority, and it has dramatic  consequences for women in the city.  The BU female majority is insane and probably has a hugely negative impact on friendships and competition between females.  If I had a son, I'd have nothing against him going to BU.  For Eeva, I would strongly advise her against BU.

I repeat, I don't know BU or UMass Amherst per se.  I am just sharing what I think are the wrong metrics.  We all use the wrong metrics because they are so accessible and easy to compare.  They are wrong.

The questions that Mia should be asking in deciding between BU and Amherst are:

1) Given the majors that I am likely to be interested in, which school has better teachers/professors?  Are the professors teaching (you don't want teaching assistants, most of the time)?  Does the school value teaching when it hires?  Columbia math department couldn't care less about teaching skills.  I've been on the Berkeley hiring committee of faculty - no one asks about teaching; it's all about research and ability to bring in millions of NIH dollars.  Some professors are spectacular teachers, most mediocre, and some atrocious.  A school that cares about the teaching talents when it hires can have most of its professors as stellar.
2) Are both schools equally stimulating environments, intellectually?  Are the people next to me better than me?  If you think you are smarter than most, you are in the wrong place.  You should always feel inferior (at least slightly worse than most people in your class).
3) Which lifestyle, campus, surrounding activity appeals to me more?  Where will I enjoy myself more?  It's four years of your life.  You are working hard.  It should not be miserable.  These should be some of the best years of one's life.
4) Given the majors that I am thinking of, what are the required courses?  Are they interesting to me?  How much flexibility is there in the curriculum?
5) Which place will inspire me more and keep me interested in learning and discovering myself and the world?

I have no doubt that Mia will do well, regardless of the school.  Worrying about BU or Umass Amherst on the undergraduate level is like me worrying about Columbia versus Stanford, 15 years ago.