Students weigh graduate school options

As much of the campus looks to shore up plans for this summer, current seniors have a bigger task on their plates: deciding what to do after they walk across the stage at Commencement. While many students go on to seek employment, engage in volunteer work or focus on research following their time at the College, another significant portion of students aims to continue their education in various graduate programs. In a changing economic climate and with the structure of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) changing in the near future, students shared their rationale on post-graduate education.

Breakdown by program

According to last spring’s senior survey, which is taken every two years, 17.1 percent of the Class of 2010 who responded to the survey said they planned to go directly to graduate school in the fall immediately following graduation.
“The proportion of students who go immediately to graduate school is much less than students who will go eventually,” said Chris Winters, director of institutional research. According to Winters, 68 percent of students attend a graduate program within five years, 84 percent attend within 15 years and 89 percent attend within 25 years.

Winters said that he has no way yet of predicting exactly how many students in the Class of 2011 will go on to graduate school and what programs they will choose, but based on last year’s survey, of those students who said they planned to go on to graduate school at some point in their lives, 33 percent aspire to earn a Ph.D., 12 percent want to be doctors of medicine, 21 percent want to be lawyers and 18 percent want to earn an MBA.

A small 4.4 percent of students planned to enter into an MA program in the fall of 2010 and 18.3 percent planned to enter into an MA program eventually; 0.4 percent planned on entering into an engineering program in the fall of 2010 and 1.7 percent planned to enter into an engineering program eventually; 0.2 percent planned on entering into an MBA program in the fall of 2010 and 17.6 percent planned on entering into an MBA program eventually; 2.7 percent planned on entering into some sort of masters program in the fall of 2010 and 12.9 percent planned on entering into some sort of masters program eventually; 0.2 percent planned on entering into a professional doctorate program in the fall of 2010 and 1.9 percent planned on entering into a professional doctorate program eventually; five percent planned on entering into a Ph.D. program in the fall of 2010 and 25.7 percent planned on entering into a Ph.D. program eventually; one percent planned on entering into a medical school program in the fall and 11.2 percent planned on entering into a medical school program eventually; and 2.1 percent planned on entering into a law school program in the fall, while 18.5 percent planned on entering into a law school program eventually.

The economy’s impact

“The number of students going on to graduate study directly has been remarkably consistent over the past five years, between 17 and 21 percent, generally speaking,” said John Noble, director of the Office of Career Counseling (OCC).

Furthermore, according to Winters, the recent economic situation has seemingly had little effect on the number of students who attend graduate school immediately after their time at the College, even between the time that the financial crisis hit in 2008 and now.

“I would think [the economic climate] would have an impact on the types of graduate programs students would pursue,” Winters said. He added that he suspects that the percentage of students who go on to graduate school – especially those who go on to graduate school eventually – is “probably independent of that.”

Kylie Huckleberry ’11, a psychology, biology and Spanish triple major with a neuroscience concentration, said she considered the idea of working next year instead of going to graduate school, “but I always knew that I wanted to go right in. This is what I love to do, and I wanted to get started as soon as possible.” Her plan is to study neuroscience as a graduate student.

However, she does believe that while the economic climate has not had an impact on her own decision, it has impacted the selectivity of graduate schools.

“For the programs I applied to at least, it is very difficult to get an interview right out of college,” said Huckleberry, who has so far interviewed at UC-Riverside, UCLA, USC, Emory, Yale, Princeton and UT-Austin. She also applied to Stanford and UCSD and has been accepted to UCLA, Emory and Yale thus far. “Whenever I went on interviews, easily around 60 percent of the kids were working,” Huckleberry said. “Schools are expecting much higher qualifications due to restricted funding because of the economy and therefore are focusing much more on things like research experience, publications, et cetera, and I think a lot of people do not realize that until it’s too late.”
Megan Behrend ’12, an English major at the College, is looking into graduate schools now as a junior and, like Huckleberry, does not believe the economic climate can sway her decision.

“I just don’t think there is a job I want upon graduation that I wouldn’t need additional education to get,” Behrend said. “I’m really excited about academia right now. A lot of Williams students say that they want to take a year or two off because they feel burnt out after four years here. I feel like I’m getting burnt out from partying and from extracurricular activities, but not from doing intellectual work.”

Behrend, who is particularly enthused about medieval English literature, said she feels that she should “run with this feeling and apply to graduate school now instead of taking time off, during which I might lose steam or become cynical about education or something along those lines.”

Preparation through liberal arts

According to Noble, prospective graduate students are typically advised by faculty in their respective departments. This connection, as well as their undergraduate courses, are key in preparing post-graduate students for future study.

“I would definitely say that Williams has prepared me [for graduate school], but to a certain extent I had to go out and find the people who could help me with the process and had to take the initiative to get myself into a lab,” Huckleberry said.

Mary Freeman ’11, an art and history double major, has applied to several Ph.D. programs in American history and was accepted to Columbia, where she plans on studying the 19th century and the Civil War. She has found the history faculty to be very supportive of students applying to graduate school.

Freeman said that her academic discipline of choice was “something that you can study at most colleges and universities, but I think it was helpful for me to have the reputation of Williams as an elite liberal arts college behind me when applying to graduate programs.” She also added that small class sizes, close relationships with professors and the tutorial system “can provide students with the opportunity to explore a subject in depth more independently than in a giant lecture class.”

“The liberal arts has taught me to ask questions and think critically,” said Liz Zhu ’11, an economics and religion double major who was accepted into the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Humanities and Medicine program, which does not require physics, organic chemistry or the MCAT. Its students must major in the humanities during their undergraduate study.

“While rooted in the sciences, medicine is also a complex art. Williams has prepared me to look for nuanced answers to complicated questions, which is exactly what doctors try to do,” Zhu said. “Typically, medical schools require a year of biology, two years of chemistry, a year of physics and an English course. Pre-med, then, can really be anything. Since I completed the chemistry requirements, I’m … atypical [for Mount Sinai].”

Jess Harris ’11, a Chinese major who was also accepted into the Mount Sinai medical program, said that her liberal arts education at the College allowed her to confirm her interests in science while also exploring and discovering her academic interest in the humanities, such as Chinese.

“Because of the program I’m attending … I have not had the typical pre-med experience at Williams,” Harris said. She explained that because the program requires that students major in a humanities subject while still having taken a limited number of biology, physics and chemistry classes, “Williams, as a liberal arts school, has prepared me very well for the program,” Harris said.

Ville Satopaa ’11, a math and computer science double major, said that he had decided he wanted to go to graduate school during his sophomore year.
“Even though Williams does not have a statistics major, I was able to plan ahead and take a lot of courses that would prepare me for graduate school in statistics,” he said. “Being a mathematics and computer science double major at Williams prepares you very well for a statistics Ph.D.”

Candace Gibson ’11, a literature and history double major who said she will most likely attend the University of Arizona next year to enter into the school’s Near Eastern Studies program, said that the College has provided her useful and meaningful opportunities to pursue and even adapt her interests.

“I actually entered Williams thinking I would double major in psychology and English,” Gibson said. “But I decided to take a history course on the Middle East during my freshman year and thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter.”

Gibson has taken plenty of history and literature courses with a focus on the Middle East, has taken up Arabic and has even traveled to Morocco and Jerusalem.

“The independent research I conducted in Morocco this past summer via a Williams summer travel fellowship has actually served as the base of my application to and desire for attending graduate school,” Gibson said.

Prim Songkaeo ’11, an Asian studies and French double major who has been accepted to USC and UT-Austin, is planning on earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature following graduation from the College. She said she is leaning toward attending UT-Austin, where she will most likely teach undergraduates as a language TA in French.

“Basically, I just wanted to study languages for the rest of my life,” Songkaeo cited as one reason for her interest in studying comparative literature. She is also fluent in five languages: English, French, Japanese, Korean and Thai, her native language.

“Comp. lit. is the kind of program that allows you – in fact forces you – to be proficient in all these languages,” Songkaeo said, adding that Ph.D. programs in comparative literature require fluency in five languages. “This environment supports room for that kind of thought,” she said.

The revised GRE

As of August 2011, the GRE, an exam taken by all students planning to enter into graduate programs, will see several changes.

According to the website for the Educational Testing Service, creator of the GRE general test, the verbal section of the test will see a greater emphasis on “higher cognitive skills,” while the quantitative reasoning section will “measure the same basic mathematical concepts” but will emphasize data interpretation and scenarios applicable to real life. The analytical writing section will ask test-takers to “provide more focused responses to questions” in order to demonstrate their skills in responding directly to the prompts presented.

Additionally, the exam will include new features that allow test-takers to change answers and skip questions, “giving them the freedom to use their own personal test-taking strategies.” The revised test will also be scored according to a new scale that reports the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning sections on a 130 to 170-point spectrum measured in one-point increments, instead of a 200 to 800-point spectrum measured in 10-point increments.

“Considering the nature of these changes, I think that I will perform better on the old test,” Behrend said. “In particular, the inclusion of questions for which you are expected to identify multiple correct answers seems completely contradictory to our years of training to take multiple-choice standardized tests. I’m so used to test strategies like process of elimination that I think I would be thrown off by the format of the new test even if I was familiar with the content.”

In light of these changes, Behrend said that she plans on taking the GRE early. She originally planned on taking the test this June, but discovered too late that all of the test centers near her home in Florida were already full.

“So I had to man up and sign up to take the exam over spring break, and have been studying a bit every week ever since,” Behrend said.