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Posts Tagged ‘career

The formula for success

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The world of work is changing. Skills that were valuable only a decade or two ago seem less valuable nowadays, displaced by newer trends and technologies. Every few weeks a news article report on the threat of automation, and how it will destroy millions of jobs, including yours. A YouTube video of a robot jumping over obstacles confirms that the inevitable is only a few months away.

The answer, many seem to think, is to become like computers. Students, in South Africa and elsewhere, are encouraged to pursue STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – careers. Humanities degrees or those in the social sciences, in contrast, are often considered less prestigious. We know that the best-paying jobs are still those where a decent amount of math is required. In South Africa, this is of particular concern, as the gender and racial composition of those enrolling for STEM degrees differ significantly from those enrolling for degrees in the humanities, exacerbating inequality.


But the story is more complicated than that. A new paper by David Deming, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE), suggests that, at least in the United States, STEM graduates are not doing very well. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, STEM jobs shrank by 0.1 percentage points, after growing by 1.3 percentage points in the previous two decades. In contrast, all other ‘cognitive occupations’, jobs like managers, teachers, nurses, physicians, lawyers and economists , grew by 2.9 percentage points between 2000 and 2012, faster than the 2 percentage points in the previous decade. The figure below demonstrates this clearly: only 36% of STEM occupational categories had positive growth, compared to 85% of other professional occupations.

The reason for this, Deming argues, is that managers, teachers and physicians all require significant interpersonal skills. And because of the technological change – the same technological change we all fear! – these social skills are increasingly in demand. Deming explains: ‘The skills and tasks that cannot be substituted away by automation are generally complemented by it, and social interaction has, at least so far, proven difficult to automate. Our ability to read and react to others is based on tacit knowledge, and computers are still very poor substitutes for tasks where programmers don’t know “the rules”.’

Using a wide variety of sources, Deming finds that jobs that require high levels of both cognitive and social skills have fared particularly well, while high math, low social skill jobs (including many STEM occupations) have fared especially poorly. ‘Social skills were a much stronger predictor of employment and wages for young adults age 25 to 33 in the mid-2000s, compared to the 1980s and the 1990s.’ There is a revolution in the job market underway that no-one is talking about.


Where do these social skills come from? Deming speculates that much of it is formed during early childhood development, although this is difficult to prove. The latest research that have followed children from a young age into adulthood have found strong correlations between kids’ socioemotional skills in kindergarten and adult outcomes such as employment and earnings.

The demand for social skills may also have implications for gender imbalances in the workplace. Women often choose careers that require more social interaction. If these jobs are in greater demand, with faster earnings increases, the gender gap may close quicker.

The optimism about the closing of the gender gap, though, is pegged by another study published in the same journal, by authors Matthew Wiswall and Basit Zafar. They test a group of New York University students about their preferences for flexible hours when they enter the job market, and find that students are willing to give up 2.8% of their annual earnings for a job with a centage point lower probability of job dismissal. They also find that students are willing to give up 5.1% of their salary to have a job that offers the option of working part-time hours. But there is a large gender difference: female students have a much higher average preference for flexible hours – 7.3% – compared to men – 1.1%. What the authors then do is to track the students after they graduate, and record their actual earnings four years later. Wiswall and Zafar find that those students with a high preference for work flexibility do actually end up in occupations with greater flexibility. But because women already prefer more flexible work even before they’ve started working, they also tend to earn less once they’ve entered the labour market, choosing jobs with lower pay and greater flexibility. At least a quarter of the gender gap in the labour market, the authors argue, can be explained by just these differences in preference.

These studies show how our social skills and preferences affect our labour market outcomes. Policies that aim to address labour market distortions, like race or gender gaps, should know that the roots of the problem may lie in preferences and skills moulded in the early years of development.

That is not to say that nothing can be done: for those going to university this year, perhaps one thing to keep in mind is that your future earnings depend not only on attending math class, but also on developing your social skills. Here’s one formula to remember: Math + beer = success.

>>> An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 1 February 2018 edition of finweek.


Written by Johan Fourie

March 13, 2018 at 08:00

The future of work: don’t fear the robots, embrace them

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One of the things of being an economist teaching at a university is that parents inevitably think you have a lot of insight about the future of the job market. What is the ‘safest’ programme, parents typically ask, that will guarantee Ryan or Samantha a well-paying job at the end of three years? Translated: How do I maximize the return on my investment?

As with any investment, there are risks. Not all university students graduate; a recent study on higher education pass-through rates – by Stellenbosch University’s Research in Social and Economic Policy (ReSEP)-unit – shows that less than 40% of South African students attain their degree within four years of starting (remember, most degrees are three-year programmes). Only 58% of students complete their degree within 6 years. (The numbers are particularly low at UNISA, a distance-learning university, where only 28% of students complete their degree within six years.) There is a good chance Ryan never completes his degree in the first place, leaving only debt, psychological scars and forgone income in the labour market behind. The researchers also find that, while matric marks are strongly correlated with access to university, they matter less for university success. Samantha may have been a bright spark in school, but that is no guarantee that she will be successful at university.

But what worries most parents about their investment is not so much the internal factors that lead to success (like getting Ryan to attend class, one of the most important determinants of success), but the external threats that may affect his chances of finding a job. The biggest culprit nowadays: robots.

The threat of robots is everywhere, it seems. Autonomous vehicles will soon substitute the most ubiquitous job of the twentieth century – taxi and truck drivers. Blue-collar jobs are first in the firing line, from farm labourers replaced by GPS-coordinated harvesters to postal workers replaced by, well, e-mail. But white collar work – which is often the domain of university graduates – will be soon to follow: lawyers, accountants, and middle-management, to name a few that have been singled out. Basically any job with repetitive tasks run the risk of robotification.

Parents are eager to know which job types are most likely to succumb to the robot overlords. If lawyers are of no use in the future, why study law? This is, of course, a reasonable concern. Several of the standard activities undertaken by lawyers are repetitive, easily-automatable. And artificial intelligence challenges even non-repetitive work: it allows software to search through large volumes of legal texts at a fraction of the time a paralegal would during the ‘discovery’ phase of a case. Not so fast, says Tim Bessen, an economist at the Boston University School of Law. He shows that, in the period that this software has spread through the US, the number of paralegals have increased by 1.1% per year. Because the costs of undertaking these ‘discovery’ services have fallen dramatically as a result of the new technology, the frequency of such services have increased even more, requiring more paralegals, not fewer.

It is not only that robots substitute existing repetitive work, it is that they can do it so much better. Although robots and their algorithms are not entirely objective – because algorithms adjust to human behaviour, they can often reinforce our prejudices – their biases tend to be more transparent and corrigible. A new NBER study shows just how robots could transform one of the oldest human professions – the judge – and in so doing realise huge societal benefits. The five authors, three computer scientists and two economists, want to know the following: can US judges’ decisions be improved by using a machine learning algorithm?

Every year, more than 10 million Americans are arrested. Soon after arrest, a judge must decide where defendants will await trail – at home or in jail. By law, judges should base their decision on the probability of the defendant fleeing or committing another murder. Whether the defendant is guilty or not should not enter this decision.

To investigate whether judges make fair decisions, the authors train a face recognition algorithm on a dataset of 758 027 defendants in New York City. They have detailed information about these defendants: whether they were released, whether they committed new crimes, etc. They then construct an algorithm to process the same information a judge would have at their disposal, and the algorithm then provides a prediction of the crime risk associated with each defendant.

Comparing their results to those of the judges, they find that an algorithm can have large welfare gains: a ‘policy simulation shows crime can be reduced by up to 24.8% with no change in jailing rates, or jail populations can be reduced by 42.0% with no increase in crime rates’. All categories of crime, including violent crimes, decline. The percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics in jail also fall significantly.

Will robots replace judges? Probably not – but the quality of judges’ decisions can be improved significantly by using robots. This will be true in most other skilled professions too, from law to management to academic economists like me.

Matriculants on the cusp of their careers (and their anxious investor-parents) have no reason to fear the coming of the robots. If Ryan and Samantha, regardless of their field-of-study, see them as complements – by learning their language, and how to collaborate with them – the benefits, for themselves and society-at-large, will be greater than the costs.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 4 May.

Written by Johan Fourie

May 26, 2017 at 09:33

Again: What to study in South Africa

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Big shots: Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Edward Glaeser, amongst others, were at the ASSA meetings in San Francisco

Big shots: Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Edward Glaeser, amongst others, were at the ASSA meetings in San Francisco

My most popular post on this blog – by far! – remains the Why and what to study in South Africa entry I wrote in May 2013. My advice was pretty simple: if you can do math, study a degree where you will develop your math skills further. Math and statistics, combined with economics, computer science and/or engineering sciences, will make you an incredibly desirable employee: both in South Africa and abroad.

I was reminded of this advice when I attended the world’s largest gathering of economists last week in San Francisco. The ASSA meetings spanned three days, had more than 500 sessions with more than 12 000 participants. I presented a paper with Dieter von Fintel (on persistence and reversal of fortune) in a session on apartheid – with excellent papers by Johannes Norling (on fertility), Dan de Kadt and Melissa Sands (on voting), and Martine Mariotti and Taryn Dinkelman (on remittances and migration). And there were many other excellent sessions: notable ones I attended was a session on long-run inequality (with a very entertaining Philippe Aghion), a session on writing books (see photo), and a session on early childhood development (where Melissa Kearney presented a paper I reported on here).

But what reminded me about my math advice was a discussion during one session about the need to diversify academia. One commentator mentioned that the reason for the slow diversification of economics faculty is the high level of mathematics required to do a PhD in Economics in the US. (The slow transformation was quite apparent at the conference: the vast majority of attendees were white males.) Much like in South Africa, black students in the US would often opt out of math courses because of poor grades or a bad experience at school. They are thus more likely to end up in the humanities and less likely to study more ‘mathy’ degrees, like economics.

Yet, there is an increasing realisation that the current state of affairs – the white, male bias – is neither fair nor sustainable. Harvard’s chair of the Economics department, David Laibson, confirmed this: he was quite explicit that Harvard will focus on hiring more diverse staff during his tenure. This is likely to increase the demand for female and black economists (and engineers, scientists, actuaries, statisticians) significantly in the foreseeable future. But to suspect that the market will automatically adjust – that the higher demand will induce more black students to study economics – is unlikely. That is why there are several programmes in the US to inform high school students of the possibilities that economics can offer, showing them the wide applicability of economics in their daily lives. (Economists, for example, study how Discovery Vitality can get their members to live healthier lives, they study how to make things like Uber and Airbnb more efficient, they study what’s wrong with the school system and how to improve it, they study how firms compete and grow, they study the minimum wage and its impact and, yes, they also study financial markets and the banking system. Just watch this video).

Economics departments in South Africa are certainly not doing enough to promote the field to young scholars. Prospective students have a very narrow view of what an economist does, if they have a view at all. I know I never thought much about Economics before I arrived in my Economics 1 class. But the truth is that there is a massive demand for good economists, both in South Africa and, as I witnessed for myself in San Francisco, abroad. South Africa’s services industry needs far more graduates with strong mathematical or statistical backgrounds; the industries of the future will require the analyses and interpretation of (big) data, skills for which economists are well-equipped.

So, what should you study? This is an incredibly tough decision to make at a young age, and it almost certainly will have a big impact on the quality of your life. But here goes: if you have the ability, you can narrow the risk that your choice will turn out to be a bad one by developing your math and stats capabilities. And if you really want to enjoy what you’re doing (yes, I’m biased), combine it with Economics.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 13, 2016 at 19:00

Fort Hare deserves a better future

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Two former graduates of the University of Fort Hare: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Two former graduates of the University of Fort Hare: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Imagine a university that trained most of the leaders of the largest political party of a country. A university which educated many past and existing leaders of several other countries. A university which trained thousands of doctors, lawyers and other civil servants. A university which educated a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

This university would be the flagship of any country’s education system, yet in South Africa it is not. Fort Hare, despite its illustrious history, is not ranked in the top 10 universities in South Africa. It barely makes it into the top 100 in Africa.

And, unfortunately, UFH seems poised to remain there.  The university has a R100-million deficit. It has reportedly used National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) money – intended to subsidise students from poor backgrounds – to pay staff salaries. And only last Friday it emerged that the university’s registrar, Prof Mike Somniso‚ was recorded saying to a colleague that he will unleash the ANC’s uMkhonto weSizwe military veterans on DASO, the Democratic Alliance’s Student Organisations that, surprisingly, won the Student Representative Council elections last year. Let’s think carefully about that: a university registrar calling for violence against students.

Here is Max du Preez on Facebook about the recording:

So how come this is not a scandal in South Africa? A senior administrator at a university planning violent attacks on student leaders to make it impossible for groups other than the ANC to operate on campus? Where is the reaction of the minister of Higher Education – this was revealed on Friday morning already. Have we written off Fort Hare as an academic institution? Isn’t it perhaps time to launch an ‪#‎OpenFortHare‬ campaign?

It is difficult not to become cynical about the attempts on other South African campuses to reform higher education when Fort Hare, a beacon of hope for many black scholars in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa during apartheid’s darkest days, is withering away. Just imagine, some would say, what the response would have been had a UCT or Stellenbosch or Wits registrar called for violence against students!

Instead, we find a deafening silence. No resignation. No national twitter campaign ostracizing the individual or institution. No call to appear before Parliament’s Higher Education Portfolio Committee. (To be sure, UFH was due to appear on the 23rd of September to explain the charges of fraud, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely.)

Those of us who care deeply about the state of higher education in South Africa are left bewildered. What will it take to transform Fort Hare (and many of the other formerly black universities) into a national asset that can deliver minds that can contribute to a more prosperous South Africa? Funding? Management? Student activism? I don’t know, but the many brilliant minds that go there – I know, one of my own PhD students is a former graduate – deserve better.

I don’t want to belittle the legitimate demands for transformation at South Africa’s top universities. But the number of classrooms and lecturers at these universities are simply too few to provide a quality education to all who want it. If we want to improve South Africa, we – the government, yes, but also civil society like the campus movements pushing for change – need to shine a light on all places that can provide quality education for thousands of students who won’t find places at (or cannot afford) the top universities. That includes Fort Hare.

This is currently not happening, which means that the financial mismanagement and the utterances of a registrar is not delivering on Fort Hare’s vision of In lumine tuo videbimus lumen (In Thy Light We See Light), a vision that had inspired the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

We need to #LightUpFortHare. Their future students (and the legends of the past) deserve nothing less.

Written by Johan Fourie

September 30, 2015 at 07:33

What can you do with only matric?

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Of the 1 252 071 South African students who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 150 752 (or 12%) matriculated with access to a Bachelors degree at university. That single statistic encapsulates the sad reality of the South African education system. Even worse, a large proportion of the 12% won’t ever make it to university, either because they have alternative plans or, more likely, because they cannot afford it. Those who make a success of their university education will go on to find well-paying jobs; those without access (or who fail) will have to compete with the 88% remaining 18-year old’s for a job in a country with a broad unemployment rate of close to 40%. The severe income inequality in South Africa today is perpetuated by the inequality of our education system.

In addition, fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are being created. Mechanisation and computerisation mean that robots are increasingly doing the jobs of unskilled workers; walk into a motor vehicle assembly plant, or visit a maize farm, or go to a supermarket in a developed country and you can easily see how robots and machines are replacing human labour. I even get phone calls from electronic telemarketers (surely, those can’t be successful?). So, given the large supply of unskilled labour in South Africa and the dearth of demand for such workers, what can those matriculants without access to university do?

A lot. Although there are many jobs that are becoming redundant because machines can perform them better, technological innovation can also be complimentary to unskilled labour, i.e. robots can also create jobs for poor people. In contrast to the first phase of industrialisation – when poor, unskilled (blue collar) workers worked on farms or in mines and (manu)factories and rich, skilled (white collar) workers had cosy desk jobs in the services industries like banking and insurance – the trend is reversing: the highest paying jobs are now building and programming the robots who do all the farming and mining and manufacturing, while poorer, less-qualified workers work in the services industries. Yes, some service industries, like lawyers and accountants and dentists, are still incredibly well paid, but other service industries that provide work for unskilled labourers are also flourishing.

Consider cellphone repair shops in townships. A decade ago, only fixed-line pay phones were available in poor areas, and they were serviced by technicians of Telkom. Now, with a little bit of ingenuity and experience, anyone can be a cellphone (or laptop) repair man (or woman). Smart phones are not only connecting companies with clients, but also with a work force they would never have had access to. As The Economist writes this week, the future of work will increasingly be outsourced. That is true both for skilled occupations, like lawyers and HR and management consultants, but also for unskilled labourers. Consider Uber, a car service which was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and which already operates in 53 countries including South Africa. Technology allows anyone with a decent car to act like a taxi service, creating jobs for people that only need a drivers license. It will certainly injure the existing taxi services. But it is generating far more new jobs than it is destroying, simply because far more people will use the new (cheaper and more efficient) service. (Unfortunately, government regulations are very slow to adapt to new technologies, and it is incredibly disappointing that Uber cars are now being pulled off Cape Town roads simply because government officials are unwilling, or unable, to understand the immense benefits of the new service, killing jobs for those who need it most.) Or consider Handy, a company where you can find someone to clean your house, or do small plumbing jobs, or paint, or fix the paintings to the wall. Technology (such as smart phone apps) now allow the providers of such services to be matched to the suppliers of such services at very low cost, creating jobs for the unskilled.

What can be done to encourage more of this behaviour? Governments could ease regulation to make such exchanges legal and less complicated. Entrepreneurs should build apps that allow people to match their needs (dog sitters, electricians, massage therapists, tattooists, midwives, house cleaners, snake catchers, whatever) to those who can provide it. What we need is a Gumtree for the service industry, with an interface like Uber.

But kids leaving school can help themselves too. They can start by acquiring basic skills that will be needed in a future where robots are our friends. A drivers license can still get you a job (especially working for yourself through Uber), but perhaps Google’s self-driving car will make that obsolete in ten years’ time. So here is my advice: think about what services cannot be done by machines. Sport coaches. Au pair services. Beauticians. Chefs. Wedding planners. Gardeners. Music teachers. Barbers. Paramedics. The best thing is that none of these require a university education. And these jobs will be in-demand for a long time to come; in fact, chances are you are more likely to find a job qualified in one of these professions than if you were to leave university with only a Bachelors degree. Often they will require extremely hard work and long hours, but in most cases you will be able to work for yourself, which means you determine the lifestyle you want.

Robots are not the evil things that will destroy the jobs of the poor. They may destroy some jobs, yes, but they will create far more jobs in other places; in fact, they may be the saving grace for our faltering education system. To identify the opportunities new technologies offer, matriculants without a university access will have to innovate, experiment, be entrepreneurial and dedicated. They will also have to learn to work with robots, not against them.

*If you want more advice on what to study, click here. If you want more advice on what to do when you get to university, this might help.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 11, 2015 at 07:08

A guide to your first year at university

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Thousands of students will arrive at campuses across South Africa in the next few weeks. It’s an exciting time for most: out of reach of over-protective parents and the disciplines of high school, the lure of freedom can be an academic and social nirvana. But it is also a time when tough decisions with telling consequences must be made: Should I study literature or engineering? Should I play cricket or join the student newspaper? How will I balance the many demands on my budget? Many students struggle to cope with such hefty decisions. These decisions cannot be avoided; ignoring to answer them immediately is also a decision, and probably the worst one. So I’ve decided to put together a short list of simple things first-year students can do to make their lives much easier, and give their future careers a jump start. You’re more than welcome to add suggestions in the comments section:

1. Consider your options

A university degree is not for everyone. Less than a third of students enrolling at South African universities this year will graduate by the end of 2016, and less than half will actually ever earn a degree. Don’t enrol because 1) your parents force you to, 2) all your friends do it or, worse, 3) you feel as though you don’t have alternatives. To study is expensive; to fail is even more expensive. If you are uncommitted, the costs of failure are severe, not only in financial terms but also psychologically.

Consider your options. There are several excellent training colleges around South Africa that specialise in a variety of trades such as gastronomy, carpentry, fashion design, nursing, welding, and graphic design. It’s not uncommon for students qualified in these fields to find jobs more easily than for students who leave university with the bare minimum. And if you have no idea what you’d like to do after school, why not take a gap year? Find a part-time job. If you can afford to, travel. It’s far better to use this year productively than to suffer the consequences of a rushed decision to enrol at university at all cost.

2. Do your homework (no, not that homework)

There is a famous story of a first-year student who arrived at the registration officer (when this was still done manually in the admin offices) on registration day. When asked what he intended to study, his reply was brief but memorable: ‘What do you have available?’ That’s not how you should make one of the biggest decisions in your life. Do your homework about what you want to study. There are many ways to do this, but often students (and their parents) go to great lengths gathering information that is at best trivial. Career councillors can provide helpful advice, but their advice can sometimes be very basic; they can help you distinguish broadly between medicine, engineering, or languages, but they’re not necessarily the best experts on subject choice and combinations. Instead, why not visit the university open day, talk to the university recruitment officers, or even make an appointment with a lecturer in the two or three programmes that interest you (see next point)? Another option is to have a beer with students that have just completed their studies, and ask them about their experiences. Or someone who has just entered the job market. Google and Wikipedia can help too. So too can blog posts, like my own one here. I’ve heard too many stories of students’ decisions being influenced by friends or family who later regret they didn’t spend more time asking advice from experts. I’d value the advice of a couple of lecturers and university administrators, or recent graduates, much higher than your well-intentioned father or friend who’s heard something from someone somewhere and whose opinion may be biased by their own experiences or priorities.

Oh, and after a few months, if you realise that another programme fits your interests and abilities better, make the switch. It is far better to take an extra year to finish something that you will enjoy doing for the rest of your life, than to force yourself to finish a programme only to please a parent.

3. Don’t follow the crowd

There are certain programmes where your choices are strictly limited: medicine, accounting or engineering, for various reasons, have a fixed course list with little room left in the programme for extra subjects. But in most other programmes, you will have a range of subjects to choose from. My advice is to not follow the crowd. Choose a combination that works for you, but that also challenges your comfort zone: if you’re studying B.Comm, why not enrol for Philosophy or History or Ethics? Or if you are a Physics major, why not also do Economics, or Geography or Spanish? If it’s not available within your programme, consider taking it as an extra subject. There are several reasons for doing this: 1) it’s fun to do something that challenges a different part of your brain, 2) the subjects can often be complimentary, and lead to deeper insights in your primary areas of interest, 3) you get to meet new people in different networks (see bullet 7), and 4) most importantly, after three years, you, together with hundreds of your fellow students will (hopefully) walk away from university with the same piece of paper. Except, yours will show that you’ve invested more, and have obtained a different skill set that distinguishes you from your peers. An employer would be far more likely to appoint someone that has shown initiative to expand their horizons and to think outside the box.

4. Go to class (and ask questions)

Usually a week before exams start, students begin to arrive at my door. It’s often the first time I see these students outside class and although I’m happy to help, I am hesitant to repeat things I had emphasised in my lectures. More shockingly, for some of them, it is the first time they see me, having not attended one single lecture throughout the semester. That’s not the way to make a success of your academic life. Class attendance is critical; studies undertaken in our department show that students who attend class regularly attain significantly better marks than their compatriots who don’t (controlling for observable things like high-school marks, degree choice, type of accommodation, etc.). Think of it this way next time your alarm goes off and you’re too lazy to get out of bed: every class you miss knocks about 1.5 percentage points off your final mark. Miss 10 of them, and instead of earning an honourable 65, you may struggle to pass.

Once you’ve made the effort to attend class, participate. Universities are places of inquiry. Thus, inquire. Your lecturers are not there to repeat what’s in the textbook, but to expand your horizons. And the only way you can expand help them to do so is to push them to the edge of it. Ask questions until you have the answers.

5. Meet the profs

But you can do more than to simply know who your lecturers are. I still remember the few students who, after our first class, have come up to me, introduced themselves and said that they look forward to a semester of interesting lectures. I also remember many of their names (and I’m bad with names). It just makes an excellent impression, and I would be very happy to help them should they need assistance later in the course. I’m not saying you should become BFFs. But a friendly introduction and a casual chat every now and then with your lecturer will show you (disappointingly, perhaps) that they are not as formidable or fearsome as they appear in class. And that they sometimes have interesting ideas (outside of the textbook). And that, surprisingly, they are also interested in your interesting ideas. Also remember that after three years you will probably be required to obtain reference letters for things like job, bursary or graduate study applications. It helps if your referee can actually identify you when a recruitment company calls.

6. Become a lecturer

What? Yes, you – give a lecture. We all have different ways of studying, and that is a good thing. But in my experience, there is no better way to learn than to teach the stuff yourself. Find a roommate, an imaginary friend, a distant relative or a pet, put them in front of a computer screen, open PowerPoint, and walk them through your lectures or old exam questions. Even if you cannot find a willing helper, one of the best ways to learn is to say your answers out loud (don’t do this in the library: you’ll get some unwelcome glares). Do the same with essays; there is no better way to identify your own bad writing than to read it aloud. More formally, university’s often offer tutor programmes where students can help mentor younger students. This is a great way to relearn what you’ve forgotten, and earn some extra money.

7. Build your networks

There is truth in the saying that it’s not really what you know, but whom you know. Universities are wonderful places to meet interesting and talented people, and there is never a better time to meet them than in your first year. In fact, nearly all social activities are designed to make it easier for you to do so. Take advantage of this, but be warned: not all networks are ‘good’ networks. We live in all kinds of social networks: close and extended family, friends you grew up with or went to school with, girl- or boyfriends, friends within your new university living quarters (in your hostel, apartment or even carpool), classmates, team mates, and drinking buddies. All of these can be ‘good’ in the sense that they broaden your horizons, exposing you to other individuals that share your passions and preferences. But it is also quite easy to get sucked into one of these networks, where all your time, energy and resources are devoted to a single group. Networks established at university can be extremely useful later in life. It’s best, therefore, to nurture wide networks, especially during your first year. As you grow older – and hopefully grow wiser – those networks that particularly appeal will become denser, and your friendships will grow deeper.

For some, meeting a lot of new people in a short space of time is the easiest thing in the world. Some of us are extroverts and find comfort in large social gatherings. Others will find this a frightening prospect; introverts would often rather enjoy the company of two or three intimate friends. For introverts, linking up to one or two extroverted friends can be a useful strategy to expose yourself to new networks. For extroverts, if you want lifelong friends, be nice to the introverts. (For a discussion on the varying roles of these two personality types, read Susan Cain’s Quiet – or listen to her TED talk here.)

8. Explore the neighbourhood and connect with its people

Don’t be afraid to explore parts of campus that are ‘off your beaten track’. I’ve heard of students who spend their entire university life in one of three buildings: their residence, the lecture room, and the study centre. Yet universities offer much much more. I’ve visited most South African campuses, and on each there have been wonderful museums, art galleries, architecture, boutique shops and sports infrastructure to explore. And go further: In Stellenbosch, where I teach, the town centre is about a 5 minute walk from campus, yet few undergraduate students ever take the trouble to explore its hidden gems (beyond the bars).

Getting to know your surroundings is an important first step, but I’d like to encourage you to also get to know the people in your new community. It is easy to live your years at university in a perfect bubble, isolated and blissfully unaware of what is happening on the ‘outside’. While this isolation is not always a bad thing – sometimes we need quiet to gain focus – it is vitally important to engage with the ‘real world’. Somewhere during the three years, you will have to confront the question: Why am I doing this? Why did I decide to study Political Science, or Geography, or Chemistry? It is difficult to answer these questions from within the bubble, because that world is radically different from the real one. Engaging regularly with life outside university allows you to maintain perspective.

But more than that, community engagement tends to have a positive influence on your studies. At the end of my first year, I joined a society that helped build houses around Cape Town. These experiences gave me new insights into the South African situation beyond the Economics textbook of the day; when every second person in the township would stop to ask for a manual labour job, I suddenly understood what a 25% unemployment rate meant. In fact, I’m pretty sure that these experiences influenced my decision to study Economics at the graduate level, and to select development economics as my initial area of focus.

There are many formal and informal ways to become involved in the community. Explore campus or the neighbourhood on your own or with a group of friends. (A pub crawl is a good start, but you can do more.) And join a residence project, or a church group, or a university society that is actively involved in the local community. There are many of these on all South African campuses, and it’s a great way to build a new network, have fun, and make a difference.

9. Travel

You will never again have the long, unfettered holidays that you will have as an undergraduate student. Use them. Travel.

Do it at least once a year. And I’m not thinking of a Contiki tour of Western Europe (although they can be fun too, if you can afford them). Instead, head north across the Limpopo and see more of the continent. Go ultra-cheap and use public transport (you can do a four-week holiday with less than R2000). Swim in Lake Malawi, safari in South Luangwa National Park, scuba in Mozambique, or trade in the markets of Dar es Salaam. (Cheap flights to Dar have recently been introduced, so if you’re really fussy about public transport, there are alternatives.) Or why not find a part-time job in Angola, Kenya or Ghana? South African companies eyeing African markets are increasingly in search of employees who have ‘African’ experience.

Or explore our diverse country. Get a group of friends together and take a road trip to Namaqualand, Nkandla, Newtown (Johannesburg) and Naboomspruit. I don’t remember much from my second-year, but I do remember an epic road trip with four friends through the Northern Cape. (Read more about why I travel.)

Universities across South Africa increasingly offer international exchanges, often for third-year or graduate students. Try to do at least one of them. Not only will they distinguish you from the crowd (see point 3), but you will return a more inspired and patriotic South African.

10.  Leave a legacy

As a student, you will have ample time to devote to meaningless things. Don’t just spend it watching series or playing games. Instead, start something new. Why not start a movement, a novel, a new tradition, a trend?

Or a business? The close proximity of like-minded individuals with exceptional skills makes universities a hotbed of innovation. Find these people, tap into their knowledge and networks, and do something great together. It is no coincidence that many of the fastest growing companies of the last two decades were founded by undergraduate university students ‘wasting time’ together. Some of my friends are now working in very successful start-ups that they founded when they were in residence together. Not all ventures last, of course. But the fresh ideas and touch naivety of a first-year can be a powerful antidote to the hubris of the real world. Take chances. Fail. Adapt. Learn.

Nearly everyone that qualifies for university has the ability to graduate within three years. That should be your primary goal. But by itself, that little piece of paper you receive at the end of your labours is really just that: a sign that you have achieved the minimum of what is required. To really benefit, you need to extract more from what universities have to offer academically and socially. See your first year as the foundation of your future, and build it as strong as possible. Don’t waste chances to connect wider, to investigate deeper, to explore further. It’s an exhilarating ride. Make it a meaningful one too.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 6, 2014 at 09:31