Matthew Shaffer ‘10

Matthew is pursuing a doctorate in business administration at Harvard Business School, and plans to spend his career as a business school professor.

Question: How does your Humanities major fit into your current career? 

Matt: Today, the social sciences strongly emphasize quantitative tools, and being good at math, statistics, and programming are increasingly important for admission into PhD programs. So when I first considered this career, I worried my Humanities major would be a disadvantage. To make the transition, I had to work hard, taking night classes in math, statistics, and computer science while I was working in my years between Yale and graduate school. But now that I’ve done that, I see several advantages from my Humanities major. 

One advantage of the Yale Humanities major is exposure to the world’s best training in verbal reasoning. While we social scientists emphasize mathematical modeling and statistical inference in the papers we publish, when we generate ideas and refine them, we mostly use verbal reasoning. Good verbal reasoners—people who can make precise and interesting conceptual distinctions and express them clearly—make the best social scientists as a result. Also, the Humanities reveal that some of the most important questions that we debate have no empirical solution.

The humanities debates over the respective merits of freedom vs. authority continue to show up in business and economic theory today—we just call it the question of “optimal firm scope” or “optimal span of control.” The debates from Descartes to Wittgenstein, over whether our minds reflect the world like a mirror or recreate it with distortions, show up too—today we just use the language of “cognitive biases” and “bounded rationality.” Having a grounding in the great books that have grappled with these questions for thousands of years is an invaluable advantage, and helps us think more clearly, creatively, and humbly about these questions.

Question: What would your advice be to current prospective Humanities students thinking about their careers?

Matt: I would encourage them not to think of themselves as facing a stark choice between a meaningful, but useless, education in the Humanities and a practical, but soulless, focus on pre-professional training. I think it’s possible to both fully immerse yourself in the life of the mind while at Yale and also take modest steps to position yourself for a fulfilling career, and that the two can complement each other.

Question: What would you do differently if you were beginning your education all over today?

Matt: For students considering very structured career paths, such as medicine or engineering, I would encourage them not to assume that a passion for the Humanities should debar you from these careers. For the many Humanities students who are not on a structured career path, the truth is that you will almost certainly end up working for or with businesses. It is important to learn the language of business—of how they raise financing, reach customers, navigate their internal politics, evaluate employees, try to figure out a ‘strategy,’ and get things done. These things should be considered when looking at a summer internship. 

In short, I believe in an Aristotelian balance. With a few modest supplements to the Humanities major’s curriculum, you can get the world’s finest education in the artes liberales, and pay your own rent afterwards, too!

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