In a Liberal Arts College, Students Find Their Own Pre-professional Tracks

By Sarah A. Dolgonos

and Claire A. Pasternack

Cary P. McClelland ’02 knows the Loeb Drama Center better than any other building on campus.

The former Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) president regularly worked in his room from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to plan out evening rehearsals. He would then head to the Loeb, which houses a professional theater troupe and hosts student shows, where he would spend the rest of the night directing. During last spring’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Great God Brown,” McClelland spent 15 hours each day in the Loeb for three straight weeks.

This semester, McClelland took only two classes and must take two more this summer in order to fulfill his graduation requirement.

McClelland, who will attend Columbia University’s School of the Arts next fall to receive a graduate degree in directing, says he would never have been admitted had he not invested most of his time at Harvard in theater.

“I could never have gotten into Columbia if I had been a student at Harvard,” he says. “The extraordinary energy I had to put into theater had to be taken from somewhere else.”

As a liberal arts college, Harvard is a school that looks down on pre-professional training. Undergraduates are not offered concentrations in journalism, accounting or theater production, for example.

“We aren’t a professional school,” writes Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 in an e-mail. “We offer an ‘arts and sciences’ curriculum. I think students realize that when they apply here.”

But for students like McClelland, future careers depend on amassing credentials in their chosen fields.

And despite attending a liberal arts college that has no desire to be anything else, these students have created their own pre-professional tracks.

The Extracurricular Industry

Like students who want to pursue a career in theater, those who aim to make it big in journalism or in the business world have also created pre-professional training just outside the Yard.

Since Harvard does not offer classes in journalism, aspiring reporters often forsake their academics for work on one of Harvard’s many student publications.

Similarly, the College’s economics department does not offer any classes in accounting, finance or business management.

“Harvard is a liberal arts school, we’re not a business school,” says Bob Cohen, a business career counselor with the Office of Career Services. “Business schools generally provide a narrow focus. Liberal arts students are deep in the experience of extracurriculars that make up who they are.”

In contrast, the University of Pennsylvania has a number of pre-professional schools that work in coordination with their graduate schools to train undergraduates in specific careers. The Wharton School, for instance, allows students to train for careers in business, choosing concentrations that range from accounting to decision processes to insurance and risk management.

Wharton students say this training gives them an edge over other college graduates.

Aaron E. Shapiro, a rising senior at the Wharton School, says his pre-professional education has been useful in teaching him to work in groups and manage his time. And Shapiro speculates his training will make his transcript more attractive to future employers.

“A lot of my friends at the college don’t have jobs, but all of my friends at Wharton do,” Shapiro says of his counterparts at Pennsylvania’s liberal arts college. “Employers don’t necessarily want to train you, if they don’t have to.”

Although Harvard’s economics department takes a theoretical approach to economics, students say they find it anyway through an ever-growing number of pre-business organizations.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of career-oriented student organizations, including the Advertising Club, Women in Business and the Financial Analyst Club.

Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) is the largest student business organization on campus. Founded in 1957 as an umbrella organization for disparate student businesses (some of which were run out of students’ dorm rooms), HSA has grown into an independent corporation with a gross revenue of more than $5 million annually.

Through HSA, current President Bradley J. Olson ’03 has carved out a pre-professional track for himself, logging up to 30 hours each week at HSA, a student-run business that includes a dry-cleaning service, a publishing company and a bartending course.

“It’s my life,” he says.

Olson says the time he spends in HSA makes up for the lack of pre-professional training in the Harvard curriculum.

He meets weekly with each of the managers for HSA’s programs, runs meetings for the board of directors, analyzes the company’s financial status, works on the budget and develops strategies for HSA’s presence online.

“I really feel like the experience I’m getting at HSA is much more valuable than anything I could get in a business class,” he says.

Jeffrey W. Helfrich ’03, an economics concentrator who plans to work in mutual funds, says his work as president of the Financial Analyst Club provides him valuable pre-professional experience.

“Economics doesn’t really prepare you for a job in finance in the real world so the whole idea of the club is to bring in people who have real world experience to teach people real world analysis,” he says.

The Best of Both Worlds?

And some students say the professional tracks they have created serve to supplement Harvard’s academic program, giving them both a vocational and a purely intellectual education—even if it does force them to compromise their academics.

Cohen says he is not concerned that students lose out on career opportunities because of the lack of pre-professional training in Harvard’s classrooms.

“A student’s portfolio is based on their interests, and they choose their industry also based on their interests,” he says. “That’s how they end up selling themselves, and not necessarily on their course work.”

Angelo Melino, a visiting professor in the economics department from the University of Toronto, says a business program does not necessarily offer students anything better than a liberal arts education.

“One of the great things about the liberal arts education is that it teaches students principles they wouldn’t otherwise pick up, and allows them to readily pick up the applied skills when they begin to work in the business world,” he says.

Nicolaus C. Petri ’02, who will work next fall at a private equity firm, concentrated in philosophy and says Harvard’s lack of pre-professional training did not hold him back in his professional aspirations.

Petri did not find his training in HSA or a similar organization—instead, he says he learned what he needed from simple interaction with other students.

He cites what he says is a common slogan among business employers: “They’re not looking for good baseball players, they’re looking for good athletes.”

In the Wings

But students who want a career in theater say they have no choice but to forgo Harvard’s course offerings for their extracurricular pursuits.

These students say they live in the Loeb, spending hours standing in the wings of the main stage, rehearsing the same lines dozens of times and venturing out only for brief dinner breaks.

“There is sort of a common theme with people who do theater that they’re there to do theater and they do their schoolwork as sort of an extracurricular,” says Jeremy R. Funke ’04, an HRDC board member.

Although OCS provides an arts counselor and a webpage for students interested in the arts, former HRDC president McClelland and others say the lack of resources leads students to rely completely on their own devices.

The Loeb, they say, is a sort of professional world in itself that takes the place of what students describe as an inadequate advising system.

“Harvard needs to pay attention to the fact that going off into the world to do the arts requires a different set of advisors,” McClelland says. “[OCS] wouldn’t have known what to say to me.”

McClelland credits his acceptance to Columbia’s graduate school primarily to his rise through HRDC’s ranks. For students who do not become as involved in the pre-professional theater world, success breaking into the theater world will prove more difficult, McClelland says.

Nicole C. Ruiz ’02, who will give a shot at producing film in Hollywood next year, says OCS offered her only a shelf of arts directories and a database of alumni in the arts. Ruiz says she worries about a friend who is deciding whether to pursue acting or apply to law school next year.

“I don’t think there’s anyone out there giving him much help or feedback,” she says.

So without guidance from the College, students who want to go into theater upon graduation throw themselves headlong into the pre-professional world they have created. While the College does offer them more in the way of advising, those planning to enter business or journalism do the same. And often, they say, this is simply a more attractive option than Harvard’s course offerings.

“The extracurricular scene is so active and so alive that in a sense the extracurricular is the education,” Funke says.

—Staff writer Sarah A. Dolgonos can be reached at dolgonos@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Claire A. Pasternack can be reached at cpastern@fas.harvard.edu.