What Undergrad Should I Pursue?
January 7, 2012 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Hey fellow Meta Filter users i seek some advice and help regarding a few undergraduate degrees: Economics, International Development and Commerce. I feel these are three promising undergraduate programs but struggle in which to pursue. Any advice and information on these degrees and career paths would be greatly appreciated.

Further Information: I am 18 years old living in Ontario Canada and about to start the next chapter in my life University. I seek some advice as i am very interested in World issues(Economic, Political, social, Environmental) currently i enjoy World Issues a unique course in my High school, which I believe represents characteristics similar to the Undergraduate degree international development. I deeply love business: further more economics as i believe it helps examines the world through its macro perspective. Always having a love for business, I feel that economics is a proper fit, possibly to minor in rather than major as i hear economics is math heavy for an undergrad. As i am not the strongest in math and do not enjoy it very much i wonder if economics will be difficult, I feel my decision making and logic will greatly aid me in this field but not entirely sure what to expect at the same time.

I currently face a dilemma as the dead line for my application approaches and face the difficult decision between

These three undergraduate degrees:

International Development

I am desperately seeking some guidance as to which Degree i should pursue:
As i am currently leaning towards International Development

This would mean a great deal to me.

Sincerely, Mike
posted by KillerHand10 to Education (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, your particular undergrad major doesn't matter TOO much.

Take a few courses in each and see what you like best is my primary advice.

But, economics will provide you the most opportunities in the future.

International development (a field that I've worked in) by no means requires a degree in it. An economics degree will help you as you say.
posted by k8t at 9:47 AM on January 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

To be honest it probably doesn't matter which of these you do in terms of your long-term prospects although economics degrees are generally considered to be more rigorous and thus can help with any fields requiring that. What does matter is if you enjoy your curriculum and thus are wiling to do the work.... As to the degree of maths required in economics, it varies between courses and the reading lists for the classes should give you an indication.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:50 AM on January 7, 2012

When you say you have a degree in "Economics," everyone will know what that means. "Commerce" and "International Development" will take some more explaining (I don't even know what "Commerce" is as a major--is that like majoring in "Business"?) and might hamstring you when applying to jobs and graduate programs. I assume that Economics will also be the most quantitatively rigorous. I might also add that those who have the "sexiest" jobs in international development, in my experience, are economists.

Essentially, as an undergrad, you want a broad-based education in which you use electives to "go deep" in areas you're interested in (eg, by taking electives in International Development). Then you would get a job in your specific field of choice, leveraging your degree in economics with your knowledge about international development (which you should also be supplementing through summer jobs and internships).
posted by deanc at 9:50 AM on January 7, 2012

If you must choose now, before letting coursework in each major inform your decision, pick based on the department's overall reputation and/or the prominence of the professors with whom you will study. IMHO you will be headed to graduate school anyway and Economics will probably give you the most flexibility.
posted by carmicha at 9:51 AM on January 7, 2012

OTOH, International Development might lead to the most interesting internship/semester abroad opportunities if that's important to you.
posted by carmicha at 9:51 AM on January 7, 2012

I may be biased being an econ prof, but I think econ will allow you to do almost anything the other two do, and, by exposing you to meaningful analytic and quantitative content, a great deal more as well. Business degrees are, frankly, amazingly fluffy. You will be better prepared to enter the business world with an economics degree and the analytical skills it signals than a business degree.
posted by deadweightloss at 9:52 AM on January 7, 2012

Another vote for Economics. Your university will have math tutoring available, surely.
posted by desjardins at 9:56 AM on January 7, 2012

I agree with deadweightloss re doing an economics degree, even though I am not an economics professor or even a professor.

It will expose you to statistics, calculus, possibly finance and accounting, and other areas of inquiry that have practical applications after college, even if you decide to go straight into the work world as opposed to continuing on to grad school.
posted by dfriedman at 9:57 AM on January 7, 2012

Econ is by far the most flexible of these. It's the only one where the typical response from someone who you've just told what you're studying will not be "what's that?".
posted by mr_roboto at 9:58 AM on January 7, 2012

Last comment inspired by deadweightloss' observation about the surprisingly fluffy nature of business degrees... the caliber of your fellow students will also be important to your experience and the ranks of business degree majors seem to include quite a few future salesmen and empty suits without much passion for the content.
posted by carmicha at 9:59 AM on January 7, 2012

Economics has helped my fellow alumni far more than my degree (Political Science and International Studies) ever has, in the sense that we all got to where we are because of having a degree at all, but econ got people better stuff specifically because of their degree field. People are mostly really surprised I actually got a job in government with a poli sci degree - econ is rare in that people tend to actually get jobs related to their field when they graduate.

Just be aware that majoring in econ almost certainly means a heck of a lot more difficult math. This is why employers love it and why students major in business instead.
posted by SMPA at 10:01 AM on January 7, 2012

Almost everyone's interest changes in college, as it really is the first time you learn anything deep about a subject. Because of that, if you have to choose one thing now, I would suggest picking the broadest and most rigorous course of study. It is far easier to turn off towards something more specific or with less math, especially as math builds on itself much more directly than most subjects. Econ definitely fits that bill best, but international relations would probably work well if the department is good and the connections they have are good. Do try to invest in a solid quantitative background, either way — it will make you stand out in the future and it will give you a different insight into whatever material you study.
posted by Schismatic at 10:22 AM on January 7, 2012

International development and commerce are soft degrees, like polysci.

Please ignore the advice that says your undergraduate degree does not matter, it absolutely matters. You may need to get a job with it as your pedigree.
posted by rr at 10:28 AM on January 7, 2012

I greatly appreciate the insight so far and I am just wondering if there is a huge difference between Mathematical Economics and Theoretical Economics. I am assuming theoretical requires less math? But are they still similar Degrees?
posted by KillerHand10 at 10:30 AM on January 7, 2012

Economics can involve a lot of math, and can also get very theoretical. You're probably not going to be able to directly apply much of what you learn in an econ class to real-world situations.* However, it gives you a strong framework which will help you better understand policy and business. I would guess that both the International Development and Commerce degrees would have some basic econ courses as requirements.

*My personal experience, but certainly YMMV.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 10:34 AM on January 7, 2012

I am ON-based and in the university sphere. I would recommend not picking a major until first year. In fact in my undergrad we didn't get to "declare" our major until the end of first year, when we had taken a number of varying courses. It made me add another major to my intended one, so I like to think it helped :)
posted by hepta at 10:43 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

My experience with International Development (at a top-ranked Canadian university) was that it was mostly vaguely activist-flavored fluff. I switched out of it. There are hardly any classes in "International Development"; rather, students dabble in other fields - economics, sociology, anthropology, poli sci, etc. - without getting good at any of them or developing real skills. It's a "jack of all trades, master of none" thing.

Although, carmicha is right that ID students do the coolest internships.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:56 AM on January 7, 2012

KillerHand, those terms you use are probably specific to one university, but my best guess is theoretical economics is "normal" economics that most students take, and mathematical economics is more advanced, using more rigorous math, and probably requiring some courses from the math department. All else equal, the latter will be a more rigorous major, and if you can get through it, will signal that you are hard-working and intelligent, but will also be more difficult (intended for perhaps the best 15% of econ majors) and you should tread cautiously if you're not interested in learning lots of math.
posted by deadweightloss at 11:32 AM on January 7, 2012

The amount of math required by an undergraduate econ program is going to vary a lot. The best thing to do is to look at the actual course requirements for the programs you're looking at- do the upper level required courses have advanced calculus as a prereq? Does the major require that you take courses in the math department? You need to get a recent copy of the course catalog or look at their online course listings. Check out the department website, they might have a guide to the question of how much math you need for their program.

For example, my liberal arts college in the US requires that you've taken at least AP calc or equivalent (~2 semesters of college calc, I think) for the intermediate sequence of micro/macro, plus a little multivariable calc you can pick up in the class. You also have to take an intro stat course and econometrics, which is basically applying stat to econ. We have significant flexibility in our elective choices, so you can avoid the mathier classes if you want to. I've taken public economics, an advanced seminar in health economics, an intro class on economic development, stuff like that, and basically avoided heavy duty math. This is not the course to follow if you want to go on to a grad program in Economics, however- they almost all want significant math, and generally the more math you take, the more options you have within econ.
posted by MadamM at 11:45 AM on January 7, 2012

Not to de-rail the conversation, but I'm really not loving the thinly veiled condescension towards "soft degrees" in this thread. There are ways of thinking other than heavily analytical/mathematical that are valid and important.

While possibly not appearing as attractive to some potential employers, an interdisciplinary degree in a field like International Development, by bringing together different disciplines, including economics, would allow you a way to consider the world issues that you find interesting in a broad, macro way. That way of thinking -- drawing connections, considering different perspectives -- seems just as important, if not more so, in our current world.
posted by kylej at 12:08 PM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Is a double major an option?
posted by logicpunk at 12:53 PM on January 7, 2012

That way of thinking -- drawing connections, considering different perspectives -- seems just as important, if not more so, in our current world.

While those skills are important, I think the best solution is to have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of a field (and in International Development, that foundation is economics), and then branch out into other fields in an interdisciplinary manner later. Given that undergraduate education is taught in the liberal arts model (your major being only a fraction of the classes you will take over a wide breadth of fields), a lot of the interdisciplinary ideas are already being taught.

College is one of the only times some people get a chance to learn those fundamentals, and immediately jumping into an interdisciplinary field right away is very intellectually limiting. And employers will always be more interested in economists who can think in an interdisciplinary way than interdisciplinists who have some economics in their background.
posted by deanc at 12:55 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

While possibly not appearing as attractive to some potential employers, an interdisciplinary degree in a field like International Development, by bringing together different disciplines, including economics, would allow you a way to consider the world issues that you find interesting in a broad, macro way. That way of thinking -- drawing connections, considering different perspectives -- seems just as important, if not more so, in our current world.

I think deadweightloss is right. Unfortunately these things trade off. Big-picture programs end up with poorly focused ideas and a lack of detailed knowledge or analysis skills. They are sometimes used as a safe haven by those unable or unwilling to acquire the latter. The signaling associated with fuzzy degrees like commerce (from institutions where it is not competitive) is quite negative.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:23 PM on January 7, 2012

I work in International Development, don't have a degree in it, and usually advise people against getting a degree in it. The people who can contribute the most to International Development are those with specific technical skills (in which I would include economics). If you can do a double major or double degree, you could have International Development as one of those. Furthermore, although some International Development classes are taught by people who know what they are doing, there is a lot of theory/philosophy which becomes a bit laughable when you have actually worked in the field.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:25 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey there, it sure can be a tough decision, choosing what to major in, but just remember you can almost always change your major around the one year mark, and get credit for what you've done previously as electives - this isn't a make-or-break decision yet, I majored in four different things in my own undergrad before I settled down (just be sure to get good marks in your first year, it will make switching around a lot easier).

Secondly, there's a lotta arm chair experts in this thread, I would recommend trying to listen to people who actually work in the fields the respective degrees are in; what Joe Public thinks of a Commerce or Economics degree is largely irrelevant.

Thirdly - and this is really important and not highlighted to students enough in my opinion - degree is really truly not the be-all and end-all; in terms of shaping your career, it can sometimes matter the least. Remember all through your degree. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people with that degree, just like you. And upon graduation you are all going to be applying for the same jobs. How are you gonna be different to those hundreds of thousands of people? What are you doing, outside of your degree to set yourself apart and make you the no-brainer choice for employers? Cause it'll be competitive I guarantee. A lot of universities promulgate this view that a degree is like a piece of paper that is essentially a job license; that couldn't be further from the truth. Don't be fooled into relying on your degree - any degree - for a job, you need to think outside that square and think internships, volunteer work, paid work, and additional skillsets that will make you valuable. That's at least as important as major, imho.
posted by smoke at 2:14 PM on January 7, 2012

I'm an economist. I also support our small organization as our de-facto corporate strategist because of my ability to both think critically and analyze information.

Before I worked here, I worked for two provincial level government departments, health and education, as a non-economist (more of a policy wonk) and can safely say that the economist's toolkit is highly regarded in virtually every public or private sector business institution. It's a flexible way of analyzing inputs and outputs that really allows you to pick up any subject and create a methodology to understand it better.

If you can hack it, a math-heavy economics degree with electives in political science/history and enough english to make a good technical writer out of you would open a zillion future doors to you.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 4:14 PM on January 7, 2012

"International Development"; rather, students dabble in other fields - economics, sociology, anthropology, poli sci, etc. - without getting good at any of them or developing real skills. It's a "jack of all trades, master of none" thing."

The International Development program at The University Of Guelph offers an Area of emphasis Economic and Business Development this interests me, but since a pure Economic Degree is more recognized, I am considering possibly minoring in international development instead as Ootandaboot states it is rather a dabbling major, would it be a useless minor? ......Or should I pursue another minor that interest's me?
posted by KillerHand10 at 8:14 PM on January 7, 2012

Between Economics and Commerce, pick economics unless you either can't manage economics or you are really interested in studying business. Between Economics and ID, it depends on whether you want to specialise in 1 discipline or have a general background, and also whether the particular ID degree is a coherent programme with actual faculty or just cobbled together.

Less sensibly, pick whichever of the 3 you find most interesting for its own sake. Enjoying the study of something will probably lead to better grades than picking something because you think you should. But I still think that interdisciplinary programmes are problematic unless the university has actual faculty in that area (and not just in its constituent parts).
posted by plonkee at 6:04 AM on January 8, 2012

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