Career Advice from Hal Varian

Michael Giberson

At Freakonomics they have an interview with Hal Varian, lately the chief economist at Google. Many interesting remarks, but students reading Knowledge Problem may be especially interested in his career advice:

Q: Your job sounds extremely interesting. What jobs would you recommend to a young person with an interest, and maybe a bachelors degree, in economics?

A: If you are looking for a career where your services will be in high demand, you should find something where you provide a scarce, complementary service to something that is getting ubiquitous and cheap. So what’s getting ubiquitous and cheap? Data. And what is complementary to data? Analysis. So my recommendation is to take lots of courses about how to manipulate and analyze data: databases, machine learning, econometrics, statistics, visualization, and so on.

Just for example, consider the overwhelming quantity of data that will be accumulated by the installation of advanced electric power metering. That data can be turned into energy savings, business opportunities, cheaper reliability for power systems, and many other useful and cool things, but it will require some creative data manipulation and analysis. Not everyone is suited for such work, but if you are, your skills will almost certainly be in high demand.

(The WSJ Real Time Economics blog ran a shorter interview with Varian last July, when he jumped to Google from UC Berkeley.)