Starting at Auckland University

Summary: If you’re not sure what to do, take a BA/BSc. Don’t just do what your parents say and don’t do a BCom. Do, however, spend a lot of time at the business school.

My (now not so) little sister is beginning university next year. Since my attempts at creating rules against growing up have all failed, I thought I’d lay down what I wish someone had told me when I was choosing what to study. This isn’t the normal advice on how to do well at uni. Plenty of people gave me that and I still did whatever the hell I wanted. If you want that kind of advice, Carl Newport’s Blog is the best place to go. Much better than listening to me.

Firstly, university is not career training, so don’t look for the programme that is going to get you the job that you want, because: a) You don’t know what job you want yet, do you. b) The programme you choose probably won’t help you get it anyway

There are exceptions to this of course; architecture, medicine, engineering & law to name a few. But the vast majority of the worlds work isn’t in one of these categories and far fewer of us are suited to being in them than you’d think. It’s also kind of nuts to have to make a call at 18 to jump into one of the above programmes from the out set. Note, you can always change into one of these programmes later so don’t fret.

What do you think I should do?

I think that most people should enrol in a BA/BSc conjoint at the outset. You get to expose yourself to all kinds of interesting topics that you won’t get much of a chance to look at later in life. These are the sorts of things that make you a great thinker, they shape your brain rather than just fill it. Mathematicians, philosophers, physicist and poets approach the world in interesting, creative and useful ways that the world desperately needs in all fields of work.1

This sort of direction gives you so much flexibility; one of the great things about these programmes is they actually have quite a lot of crossover so you can end up with a very ‘Artsy’ BA/BSc, for example majoring in Art History and Psychology, or a very ‘Sciency’ BA/BSc majoring in Mathematics and Physics. And for what’s more, it’s totally okay to drop out of one of the two degrees after a year without it costing you a thing, lots of people do this with all sorts of programs and no one cares, it just shows you’re focussing on something.

If you really thought you’d actually enjoy a lot of the business school curriculum you can do lots of the cool stuff through the arts programme like Management and Economics. This is often enough to sneak you into one of the postgraduate programme later if you are that way inclined. But by sticking with the Arts and Science programme you get to take many more awesome subjects bound to make you more interesting and happy.

But I still want to learn ‘useful’ stuff at uni?

Personally, I think a commercial education is really important for everyone and I think the university is an awesome place to get one. But I don’t think you need to take a BCom in order to achieve this. My sister would never consider it because she finds me so boring, but others of you might.

Instead of applying for a BCom, I think the best way to learn about business is through some of the awesome clubs run out of the business school. Spark and MCC are two that I can attest to being extremely valuable to my business education, contributing at least as much as my academic studies. What’s more, you definitely don’t need to be in a business programme to contribute in these clubs, in fact the most successful people usually come from outside the business school. Go get involved during your first semester, 4 years later you’ll be rocking a board room with the best of them if that’s where you end up.

What about when I go into the workplace?

Most modern job training is done on the job, this is especially true for junior positions. For example, a marketing degree isn’t going to help you be a good assistant product manager (APM) who spend most of their time working back up the supply chain, getting special pricing and managing stock levels and fulfilment for the sales team. It is however the best path to getting a product management role, which by all definitions is a marketing role. But funnily enough, the person most likely to get the APM role, let alone be good at it, usually doesn’t have a marketing degree.

The guy or girl who got awesome at the APM role, did so because they’re good at learning on the job. This mostly looks like absorbing new ideas and figuring out software, processes and people. Being good at those things has little to do with what you studied and a lot to do with how interested you can be in something… that interested part of you will die if you don’t feed it with something at university.

When I was hiring to replace my position at Lee ter Wal design, our final two candidates were a philosophy student and a solutions architect. This was a marketing strategy role, yet these are the type of people who cut it. Likewise, management consulting firms and investment banks have been doing the same for years.2 Focus on building an interesting brain and becoming someone who could learn and rock any role, we’ll teach you what you need to know when you get here.

What if I just want to guarantee employment?

It’s really out of date for parents (I know it’s you) to suggest studying Accounting or Law so that you always have a ‘skill’ to fall back on. All accountants find work one way or another right? Wrong. It’s total bullshit, not only are there swathes of unhappy lawyers and accountants, there are even more who are unemployed or in another industry, much to their chagrin. There are no where near enough jobs to support the number of graduates each year, so don’t be a sucker unless it really is your dream.3

If you want to guarantee work, go study computer science, or don’t even go to university and attend a technical college instead. Or even just self study if you love it enough. There is such high demand for developers in New Zealand among growing technology firms who are doing awesome work; Orion, Xero and TradeMe all have more positions than they can fill. Do you think Deloitte or PriceWaterHouse Coopers are saying the same? If you care, these guys generally pay more as well, you also get to contribute to the New Zealand weightless export economy - thanks for saving the country.


Fortunately I don’t have to worry about my sister much, last I heard she’s going to study a BA at Auckland University in Philosophy, Art History and English Literature, hopefully she’ll throw in some Physics electives since I know she secretly loves that as well. But, as I did, she’s avoiding the BSc to avoid doing too much mathematics.

Further Reading

Paul Graham - What You’ll wish You’d Known
David Brook - It’s Not About You
Carl Newport - Study Hacks Philosophy

  1. My favourite book on this topic is ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Dan Pink. Explores how he nature of modern work lends itself to ‘right hand side of the brain’ thinking.  ↩

  2. Health Science and a Bioinformatics grads becoming traders, philosophy students heading to McKinsey, not too mention the dozens on engineers heading to similar positions. It’s completely normal. Most of these guys and girls study outside of the business school but get enriched by it through clubs.  ↩

  3. Really, you’ve just finished high school and you can’t imagine anything more interesting in the world than being an accountant? I’ve met a few people who freaking love it, but I’ve met far more who think it’s a safe way to earn a good living. The good living part is true, the safe part no longer.  ↩