Why I left Harvard early

April 2015

Last July, I finalized my decision to go on leave of absence for my senior year at Harvard. Thanks to my advanced-placement credits, I’d still be able to graduate with the class of ‘15, but I wouldn’t spend the fourth year on campus.


At that point I had just finished my junior year. I had noticed that it was getting very hard for me to find courses that were both interesting, relevant to my long-term goals, and that I actually needed an instructor/homework to learn. In fact, even getting two out of three got challenging–and I was forced to waste a quarter of my courseload on classes that achieved zero out of three.

That’s not even to mention that I didn’t really have a great idea of what my long-term goals were, because I had so little experience compared to the number of paths that were open to me–I’d essentially only ever done academics and a bit of software work. Without a more specific vision, I felt like it wouldn’t really move me forward to stay on campus making vague attempts to do things that would be relevant later.

To be sure, a lot of this problem was on me. If I had done a better job of choosing courses, I might have been more confident that I could find another set of six valuable ones the next year. If I had found the right interesting internships, I might have been more aware of what kinds of things would actually be high-impact to learn. If I had had a good experience doing research for a professor, it might have granted more purpose to my choices.

But it’s not like I didn’t try to do these things, either. Reading course reviews and shopping courses didn’t help me find any interesting humanities courses (and I know they were out there–I took tens in high school). The internships I did were generally well-reviewed. I tried twice to help professors with research, but both times I got stuck with uninteresting code-monkeying. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that I knew how to program!) Combine this with Harvard’s mostly-useless advising1 and I suspect I wasn’t alone in finding it hard to get my bearings.


By my junior spring, I had an inkling that my opportunities might be better elsewhere. So I put extra effort into finding an exciting internship that summer, reaching out to a bunch of folks I knew in the Bay Area and elsewhere. I ended up at Theorem, doing machine learning.

Theorem worked better than college for me, for a few reasons:

After working at Theorem for a couple months and realizing that I was developing skills faster there than at college, I decided that another year at Harvard probably wasn’t worth the large opportunity cost.


There are things I miss about Harvard, of course. The biggest is the social environment.

While I was at Harvard, I griped a lot about the dominant social environment. And I stand by those gripes.2 But even if most of the students weren’t my kind of people, Harvard still gave me an unparallelled group of interesting, talented, smart, and ambitious classmates. I probably learned more from them than from my professors for the last two years.

That kind of environment turns out to be difficult for me to replicate outside college, where I no longer get to live with eight roommates and a stone’s throw from so many other awesome folks, and I only get the same three coworkers every day instead of rotating groups of 30. I think I can overcome these obstacles, but it’ll take some time and effort.


I could see myself going back for grad school eventually. Notwithstanding my worries about the relevance of what I learned, I know lots of academics doing important, high-impact work. The problem for me is that I’d need to have enough vision to understand what kind of research will be high-impact. If I were more confident in my ideas about what’s important, then I’d be more willing to commit to working on the same slice of the same field for five or ten years.

So for me personally, I think graduating early was the right choice. If I’d done a fourth year–and even more so if I’d gone straight from there to graduate school–I would have flailed around without very much understanding and probably wasted a lot of my time on things that weren’t very important. As I develop a bit more grounding in the real world (and a bit more personal agency than I had as a college student), my view of the most effective path might change, but right now, I’m happy to be outside the academy for a few years.


  1. Until I declared a math concentration and got an adviser who was actually a math professor, my assigned “advisers” seemed to think they had basically one job, which was to make sure I didn’t take too many hard courses. Unfortunately, none of them had any idea which courses were hard. My sophomore adviser, a graduate student in education, tried to convince me that an introductory statistics course would be too much work; it was my easiest course of the semester even though I never attended lecture. 

  2. Harvard’s dominant typical social tone is superficial, inane, and too frequently alcohol-drenched to be interesting. It actively thwarts any attempts to escape this atmosphere, by assigning groups of students to dorms randomly–thus guaranteeing all students a more-or-less uniformly superficial, inane and alcohol-drenched experience. (Needless to say, Harvard’s attempts to foster “dorm spirit” for its randomly-assigned dorms were wasted on me.) If I’d stayed on for my senior year, I probably would have moved from the dorms to a co-op near campus. 

Enjoyed this post? Get notified of new ones via email or RSS. Or comment:

Public (as ) submit ⤇

William Eden

This reminds me a lot of the post I wrote to current undergrads about optimizing college. I will share it here in case other college students might benefit:

http://becomingeden.com/what-i-wish-i-knew-in-college/

I’m glad you’re making a conscious choice, and wish you the best of luck! Let me know if I can be of any help.

John

As a freshman at Purdue right now, thanks for the link, and thanks to the original author for this article. I feel the same way just as a freshman! The superficial and alcohol based atmosphere of college is frustrating, the the piece of paper at the end is needed to get most decent jobs. I wish I wouldn’t have to stick it out, but c’est la vie.


Ben

@Will (and future comment-thread readers): yeah, that post is really awesome! I totally lucked into a good social group in college, and I bet with more deliberation I could have made it even better.

Maybe I would agree more with more experience, but I’m not sure how helpful it would have been for me to do the kind of planning you recommend, though. I don’t think seventeen-year-old Ben would have come up with a very good plan or goals.

In terms of good outcomes, I think it was more important for me to do things that preserved option value, e.g. by majoring in math but taking a lot of technical elective courses in different fields. This meant that I had a bigger field of opportunities available, which seemed to be a pretty important factor in becoming more awesome.

(Maybe this means I should get better at planning, but I’ve found the algorithm of “do a bunch of stuff and climb the gradient of awesome” to work better than “formulate a long-range plan and try to get there.”)