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Harvard GSAS Dean Says Students Should Pursue Grad Degrees for ‘Love of the Discipline,’ Not Professorship

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Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench said students should pursue graduate degrees out of passion for their research rather than a desire for professorship during a Tuesday interview with The Crimson.

Dench also discussed the newly instated requirement for personal statements in graduate admissions, a change that followed the Supreme Court’s effective strike down of affirmative action last summer.

Despite a report by GSAS faculty last fall finding that over half of science and engineering postdoctoral fellows do not enter tenure-track positions, Dench implored students to keep open minds towards alternative careers within academia.

“I think it’s great to not have a fixed idea that ‘I’m doing this in order to be a professor’, which I just think was always too narrow a view,” Dench said.

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“I would advise going in with eyes open and thinking, ‘I’m doing this for the love of the discipline because I think it’s really important because I want to do research that gets to places nobody’s been before,’” she added.

Dench also highlighted the broad range of job opportunities available to students out of graduate school.

“We all need to be very realistic about the prospects of our students and get excited,” Dench said. “Over GSAS as a whole, about pretty much 50 percent of our graduates are going to not end up in academia, and they’re going to do everything else and there’s a whole lot of brilliant options that are available to them.”

During the last graduate school admissions cycle, GSAS also instituted a new requirement mandating all prospective students to submit a personal essay in addition to a statement of intent.

The new policy marks a move away from prior application cycles, during which the personal statement was recommended but not required.

The change, Dench said, came following the fall of affirmative action last summer.

“We worked a lot with faculty to move forward without the consideration of race,” Dench said. “We did a lot of work on really being thoughtful around questions that we think are relevant to a student’s journey to apply for GSAS and what some of the perspectives that they can bring to the school in terms of socioeconomic disadvantage.”

During the interview, Dench also highlighted a new GSAS “advising recommendations” system to be piloted in the fall semester to distribute advising loads more evenly amongst faculty members, a focus she committed to at the beginning of her tenure in 2018.

The new advising recommendations system, Dench said, involves a mutual exchange of information between the administration and six selected programs.

“We will share data and the programs will answer questions and share data on their side, such as the advising record, who’s advising whom,” she said. “Then, we’ll all put our information and our heads together and have a good conversation and work with the department so that they can make the improvements that will maximize the quality of education for the students.”

“The key to the advising relationship is just the necessity of focusing on students as individuals,” she said, “really fostering the well-being and the academic growth of students.”

—Staff writer Adina R. Lippman can be reached at adina.lippman@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Angelina J. Parker can be reached at angelina.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @angelinajparker.

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