I was recently invited to write a short piece on my impressions of Harvard for the Irish university blog University Diary. The piece is published today and can be read here
Update; here it is in full
[I’m fast approaching the end of my year as a research fellow at Harvard – what an experience! ‘So what was it like?’, a great many colleagues in Ireland have asked. Actually, Harvard reminded me very much of Trinity College Dublin, where I did my PhD – but on a larger-than-life scale.
First, the main Harvard campus is not unlike Trinity. Although the architecture dates from a different period, the campus consists of one large quadrangle, with other quadrangles branching off. All of these beautiful quads boast fine old buildings that serve as lecture halls, libraries, dining halls and student housing. This centralization gives Harvard a great ‘lived-in’ feeling; in this respect, it is resembles a large version of Trinity, in contrast with the dispersed, collegiate system of Oxford and Cambridge.
However, Harvard is situated in the quiet district of Cambridge, Boston, not Dublin city centre. As a result, it has been able to situate its growing graduate schools in the immediate area surrounding the main campus, unlike Trinity. Indeed, much of the area between the main campus and the Charles river is filled with Harvard buildings, from graduate schools in business, law and government to student housing; the whole area is now known as Harvard Square.
What about the academic side of things? Apart from a high number of staff who are stars in their field, it doesn’t feel all that different from other universities. What strikes one most is the sheer diversity of scholarship. Consider science; as well as world-renowned departments in mathematics and physics, Harvard also boasts a famous centre for astronomy and accompanying observatory. As well as prestigious departments in traditional disciplines such as chemistry, biology and the medical sciences, Harvard has a huge History of Science department and accompanying museum. Not many universities can boast these, or Harvard’s well-known programs in Science, Technology and Society.
Academic standards are sky high, as you might imagine. Although I have my doubts about some university ranking systems, there is no denying Harvard comes in at no.1 or 2 in almost every poll. So while TCD comes in at the top of the Irish rankings, Harvard comes in at the top of the world! For my money, this is not just a question of its ability to attract the very best because of its prestige and massive endowment (and yes, they do buy in top professors). It is also the close proximity of MIT and other Boston colleges that makes for a highly competitive, interactive academic environment, at least in the sciences. This is quite a unique situation; there is a daily level of intervarsity interaction that is far beyond that of Oxford and Cambridge, or Trinity and UCD say. Most physics seminars I attended had an even mix of MIT/Harvard personnel, irrespective of where the seminar took place. Indeed, regularly trotting off to MIT was a great treat; it’s a beautiful college where any scientist feels instantly at home, not to mention the awe-inspiring number of spin-off companies ringed around the college. Indeed, MIT’s success at innovation currently far surpasses that of Harvard. Of the ‘Nobel possibles’ I was made aware of (quite a few of those over here), at least as many were MIT. So there’s not much complacency amongst the Harvard scientists. Given the relatively small size of Dublin, it’s a pity this sort of daily interaction between the colleges doesn’t happen much.
What about undergraduate life at Harvard? Here, there is a huge difference with Trinity, and indeed between the American system and the situation in Ireland and Europe. Undergraduate fees at Harvard are in the region of 40-50 thousand dollars per annum, with few scholarships. This is true of a great many of the top colleges in the US and it has major implications for society. May we never go down this road, however bad the funding situation gets. You can also see how corporate jobs that cover kids’ health insurance and college fees have an urgent appeal.
As regards tuition, class sizes can be large (> 50), but there is a huge diversity of modules offered. Students typically have 2 plenary lectures per week, with smaller sectionals run by teaching assistants. There is great emphasis on continuous assessment, with corrections done by teaching assistants rather than the Prof (nice!). Sitting in on some classes, I couldn’t help noticing that a great many students spend precious class-time fooling around on the web, so I think I will ban internet connections in my lectures when I return home.
At postgraduate level, the financial situation is very different. While competition to get into the Harvard postgraduate program is intense, once accepted, the stipends for postgraduates are quite generous. I found the difference between the undergraduate and postgraduate populations quite noticeable; while the general student population is mainly made up of well-heeled young Americans, the postgraduate population seemed to be comprised mainly of Europeans and Asians. I had plenty of time to observe this in one my favourite venues, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. With its own building, dining hall, library and common room, this was a great place to meet scholars of all nationalities and a wide variety of disciplines. A great idea for any college! But isn’t it interesting that the research output of the great Ivy League colleges may rest on students who have in fact been trained in European and Asian universities? We should remember this before we adopt every fashionable trend in U.S. undergraduate education.
I’ve decided to stay in Boston for the summer, writing up my research before returning to WIT in September. I’ll certainly miss Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a vibrant academic environment. More generally, Cambridge Boston is a great place for a European; a liberal, highly-educated bastion of American society, blessedly free from the right wing ideology so increasing pervasive in the US. Back at home, it’s nice to think that the Irish IoTs may someday play MIT to our universities, but I think we have some way to go. More pragmatically, I find it a great drawback being too far from Dublin/Cork to interact with university colleagues on a daily basis…]