On Bidding

By Alsherif Wahdan

Alsherif Wahdan, a Mid-Career MPA student and an investment banker from Egypt, opines on the bidding system at HKS. While voicing support for the mechanism, he also offers his intriguing insights on how it can be adjusted and, therefore, be improved.

The Louvre Syndrome is when excited tourists leave the famous museum in Paris very tired, unhappy and frustrated, despite having had the chance to see a lot of wonderful paintings and artwork. Why? Because there is still so much more to see and there is so little time!

So, here we are again at the beginning of the Fall semester at HKS after surviving a stressful bidding process.  I am here to argue that bidding is actually good for you, as a student, despite the unintended consequences of stress or feelings of “loss” in the event you do not get the course(s) you wanted. I agreed that the system can be improved, but I also think that bidding should stay. Here is why.

Before we get into bidding, we need to discuss an element of the dismal science, economics, and scarcity of resources. And by that, I mean your time. You, the student, are here at Harvard, for a very limited period and then you are off to do all the great things you will be doing (no pressure intended). That means that whether you are at HKS, the College, or another graduate school in this fine institution, the likelihood that you are bombarded, continuously, with great classes, fantastic events, and awesome insights, is massive. Actually, in HKS and other graduate schools at Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Brown, there are hundreds of courses available, which means that if you want to sit for all of them, you need to invest a decade of no sleep working your way 24/7, and even that might not be enough. No wonder students across Harvard share the feeling that they must have not made the optimal choices. Simply put, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and the menu is both DELICIOUS and HUGE. The rational thing to do? We should realize that we cannot cover it all, realize that we will be fine, and we should start choosing carefully, on a best use of your time basis.

The issue at hand is that some of the courses are simply popular. So popular that you have to bid for them. I will not go through the details and bidding strategies that we all know off by heart. But here is the scoop: Some popular courses in themes of security, leadership, communication (including writing and public speaking), negotiation etc. are getting a lot of attention from students. The rationale of HKS administration for a bidding system is to give the students the chance to secure an oversubscribed course by bidding all your points on it. The problem starts when students start dividing their points, hoping to secure two courses (guilty as charged, I admit.) you will be very lucky if you do not lose both (which I did). Moral of the story: do not be greedy, take the chance, and secure the one course that you really want.

There are ways to reform the system. One way is to do without bidding altogether and start a lottery system, as is the case in HLS and HBS. But do we really want that? Or do we want to have the right to secure the course we really prefer, albeit for, maybe, only particular course?

On the other hand, the administration has to be aware of the plight of the students. The courses that go to bidding, to a great extent, are not redundant. On the contrary, they are very much complements and also fundamental.  I am quite surprised that negotiation and leadership are not core courses regardless of your program at HKS. These are two sets of skills that are imperative for any HKS graduate to succeed in higher ranks. The communication packages should be equally mandatory. I would argue that there should not be a graduate from HKS who has not passed through a rigorous writing program or workshop. Of course, there should be exceptions based on experience from previous education.

What should we do then? First the administration should make the course information easier to extract from the Knet and easier to connect with one’s career objectives. The Office Of Career Advancement has come up with a wonderful document on careers in public finance where it clearly shows which courses you should consider for that career. This effort should be extended to include more career paths and relevant course. Second, perhaps bidding on a bundle would serve everyone better. Say if one is looking for a career in finance then they can bid for a finance bundle that includes writing, negotiation and leadership. This gives the student a chance not to miss out on the whole skill set and get at least one star professor (though I actually take the view that they are all stars.) Thirdly, to Professor Heifetz and Professor Mandel: besides fall, spring is also a fantastic season to teach in Cambridge, don’t you think so?

A final word for my fellow students: You will be OK, regardless. Actually, you will be more than OK. So enjoy it, while it lasts.

Good luck!

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