Three things sure to make a newly-minted Ph.D. drool. And while this may sound like post-doctoral paradise, it’s a reality for 42 junior fellows in Harvard’s Society of Fellows.
Though at it’s most basic level the Society of Fellows is like any other post-doctoral fellowship (Princeton, Michigan, and Columbia have similar programs of the same name), it’s unique in its generosity and lack of requirements.
Forced to choose from about 400 nominees at the top of their respective Ph.D. programs, the Society has an admit rate roughly comparable to the College’s. In an anemic academic job market, being a junior fellow offers some measure of security for those aspiring to land a tenure track position at a top university. Indeed, many choose the fellowship over tenure track job offers from other universities. In short, it’s a safe bet for professional success.
If the Society of Fellows seems like a vestige of Old Harvard, that’s because, in many ways, it is. Founded in 1933 almost entirely on the initiative of University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, the Fellowship is modeled on Cambridge University’s Prize Fellowship.
The Society was also, at its outset, almost entirely funded by Lowell. After the Rockefeller Foundation declined to offer a sponsorship, Lowell stepped up and, as he frequently told friends, poured “every penny” he had into creating a $1 million endowed fund for the Society in memory of his late wife, Anna Parker Lowell.
Lowell’s intent was to create an alternative academic capstone to the Ph.D., a program that Lowell felt was too specialized. Lowell, who famously valued men “who know a little of everything and something well,” wanted to staff the Society with an academically diverse group of scholars. The Society, to the surprise of few, did not replace the Ph.D., and today sits at the top of the heap of post-doctoral programs..
Enshrined in the founding of the Society, in addition to the aforementioned weekly dinner and twice-weekly lunches amongst the junior fellows, was an unconventional selection process still used today.
Aspiring fellows must be nominated by a Ph.D. adviser to apply. Though any academic institution can send in nominations, the Society actively solicits nominations from a limited number of programs. The senior fellows, today a group of 16 voting members (one of whom is on leave) and three ex-officio members (University President Drew G. Faust, Provost Alan M. Garber ‘76, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith), review the nominees and bring about 40 of them in for interviews with all of the voting senior fellows.
Peter L. McMurray ’05, a first-year Junior Fellow doing research in Musicology and Sound Studies, was rejected from the Society before earning a place this year.
The Senior Fellows surround the interviewee in a horseshoe and embark on what McMurray calls a “combination of absolute hot seat and this wonderful conversation with really engaging people who know a lot about everything.”
Those lucky enough to be chosen from the interview pool embark on three years of fully-funded unstructured scholarship, following in the footsteps of Noam Chomsky, B.F. Skinner, Daniel Ellsberg ’52, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. ’38, as well as scores of tenured professors at the top universities in the country.
BEWILDERING AND EXCITING
With three years of complete academic freedom, many Fellows take time not just for research and publishing, but also to plumb the depths of a new discipline or hone an old talent.
Junior fellow Rowan Dorin ’07, for instance, is working on a book on the idea of banishment throughout European history. In his spare time, however, he’s re-teaching himself the piano.
McMurray is taking advantage of his full access to Harvard resources and classes. He only had time to meet briefly before an Arabic class that he’s taking from the College. Though he already readily uses three to five languages for his daily research, at this point, when he encounters a new language he “can sort of learn to get through things if [I] absolutely need to.”
Used to the teaching requirements of his graduate program, McMurray is shocked at how much time has freed up during his Fellowship.
“That freedom is both bewildering and really exciting,” McMurray says.
The Society of Fellows makes only three claims on their junior fellows’ time, and they are all meals. Junior fellows are expected to show up at two junior fellow lunches a week and one dinner, a formal affair attended by both junior and senior Fellows.
The dinners are lavish Monday-night banquets in a private Eliot House Dining Hall used predominantly for the Society. According to several junior fellows, the combination of scintillating conversation, what McMurray called “copious amounts” of wine, and a sumptuous meal (complete with chocolate and cheese courses) means that Monday-night dinners can last from six to seven hours, the most resolute conversationalists sometimes leaving as late as one in the morning. According to McMurray, conversation runs the gamut from celebrity gossip to nuclear physics.
FOR WHO’S A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW?
While McMurray acknowledges that he still doesn’t know much about the Society (his three-year term just started this past July), he remembers he was surprised to find the society populated by “a lot of people who look like me.”
Many junior fellows say that the makeup of their program is plagued by the same lack of diversity that exists on a larger scale in academia. Although it has at least one member, Isaiah Andrews, who identifies as black, Andrews believes that he is the only black Fellow, Junior or Senior, “unless there is a [black] junior fellow who is technically still enrolled and not coming to things.”
According to Program Administrator Kelly R. Katz, who declined to comment on the racial background of the junior fellows, the Society does not keep official statistics on the racial makeup of the junior fellows. Further, the listing of junior fellows on the Society’s web page shows that an Oxbridge or Ivy League degree of some sort is practically a requirement.
Three of this year’s junior fellows, Dorin, Kevin Holden ‘05, and Daniel Williams ‘06, were undergraduates at Harvard at the same time and all took a Masters of Philosophy at Cambridge.
All three were members of the Signet Society, which occupies a pale yellow house on Mount Auburn Street right next door to one of the Society’s office buildings.
According to third-year junior fellow Ya-Wen Lei, among others, having some sort of Harvard connection is the norm for a junior fellow.
“Many of the junior fellows have spent 10 years at Harvard as undergrads and Ph.D. students, and post-docs and also as faculty members,” Lei says. “Very few people don’t have that kind of [Harvard] connection and I think I’m one of the few that doesn’t.”
While junior fellows note that there is representation amongst East Asians and South Asians, the Society is still largely white. Senior fellows attribute these imbalances to a number of factors.
On the question of racial representation, senior fellows noted that the Society is limited by the demographics of who graduates from a Ph.D. program. Post-doctoral programs see an applicant pool that has already passed through a number of bottlenecks (resource inequity in primary and secondary education, college admissions, graduate school admissions, etc.) that many believe contribute to minority underrepresentation.
Some members of the Society believe the nomination process inherently allows for unconscious racial bias, as individual advisors subjectively choose who to nominate from their program.
“Essentially because who advisers decide to recommend has a lot to do with their judgments of people, …it seems plausible that that might be an area where there’s particularly large room for bias,” Andrews says.
Junior and Senior Fellows also suggest that the system of nomination, rather than application, keeps the field of fellows mostly limited to those who have attended Oxbridge and Ivy League institutions. While technically nominees may come from any University, just a select few are actively encouraged to submit names and, some say, that group is treated preferentially—perhaps unconsciously so—during the selection process.
Sen says that in order to address the racial imbalance, the society should consider soliciting nominations from a wider group of programs.
“Of course [the selections] are skewed,” says senior fellow Andrew Strominger ’77 of the ubiquitous Harvard and Oxbridge connections amongst Junior Fellows. “I mean, everyone has biases in their selection procedure... Of course, we strive to minimize the amount by which things are skewed.”
Strominger mentioned that “there has been some discussion” about disqualifying Harvard graduate students from winning the fellowship—a practice that Princeton’s Society of Fellows has adopted. The senior fellows ultimately decided they didn’t want to miss out on talented candidates from Harvard graduate schools.
According to Dorin, the Harvard skew is natural when senior fellows have to look through so many applications.
“When you’re trying to choose people on the very speculative grounds of who is doing the most promising and innovative work, when anybody who’s being nominated is doing innovative and exciting and promising work, having some point of reference and having a connection obviously helps,” Dorin says.
Though there have been efforts to solicit nominations from a broader range of schools, the fact that each candidate’s nomination materials must be read by two senior fellows creates a cap on the number of nominations the Society can physically process. The Society already sends out 4,000 nomination solicitations per year, and Sen, by his own estimates, spends 12 to 14 hours every week reviewing nominations when they start coming in.
And there are certain ways in which the Society is incredibly diverse. Though most junior fellows hold a doctorate from an American university, senior fellow Elaine Scarry estimates that about half of the fellows were born in a foreign country.
AN ACADEMIC KINGMAKER
Today’s junior fellows are tomorrow’s academic elite. One need only Google a few of the former fellows to find that they occupy some of the top academic positions in the country. Four of the nine fellows at the Society between 1986 and 1989, to take a particularly successful term, are now tenured Harvard professors.
The world of post-doctoral fellowships is, understandably, far less scrutinized than the soul-crushing, multi-million-dollar industry that is undergraduate admissions. Indeed, in the constant media theatrics around Harvard, the Society has done exceedingly well at staying out of the spotlight. Still, it is an organization with a long history at Harvard and an important impact on campus culture.
Post-docs, after all, become full faculty. Though the governance of the modern university does often rest with non-academic administrators, faculty still exercise a remarkable degree of control over every aspect of university life. The selection of today’s senior fellows will to a large extent determine the academic landscape for decades to come. Perhaps, in between the cheese course and the after-dinner drinks, it’s worth thinking about whether the selection process that President Lowell, no lover of diversity, devised back in 1933 is still well-equipped for the modern academy.