Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?

Freshmen Choose Their Concentrations

When freshmen finish filing their plans of study with the Office of the Registrar next Monday, thereby committing themselves to fields of concentration, they will culminate a series of informational meetings, ranging from the Chemistry Department's "Short Speeches and Long Drinks" to a seminar on "Jobs, Careers and Concentrations."

The plans of study also require students to list the courses by which they plan to meet concentration, Gen Ed, foreign language and Expository Writing requirements.

Despite students' agonizing over their decisions and the efforts of departmental representatives, many students change their concentrations--some several times--before graduating from Harvard.

Stephen J. Pepper, administrative assistant in charge of requirements at the Office of the Registrar, said last week that during the summer after freshman year about 25 per cent of the students decide to change their concentration. Over the course of their undergraduate careers, Pepper estimated, possibly 50 per cent of Harvard students switch fields.

One reason so many students change their concentration may be the ease with which they can do so. To switch fields, a student need only complete a new plan of study and have it signed by the appropriate departmental representatives.


Susan W. Lewis, assistant dean of freshmen, said last week she believes most of the people who change their concentrations after making their original choice "are primarily in the social sciences." She added that it is very hard for students to be sure of their choice of concentration if the field is one with which they had no experience in high school.

Even in colleges where students are not required to choose a field of concentration before their sophomore year, Lewis said, many students change their fields after making an initial choice. Having more time to choose "doesn't seem to make a difference," she said. Harvard's current procedure for distributing information on concentrations to students--meetings with representatives from various departments, workshops and informational newsletters--has only been in effect for two years.

Most freshmen who attended the concentrations meetings seemed to find them informative. Carol Baker '81 said, "I think they do a good job. I think most people that I know of have gone about investigating various concentrations." M. Gayle Parsons '81, who attended several of the meetings, said the meetings were "good in general," but added "some of them weren't run well. They should be standardized."

Ruth Taswell '81, however, found the meetings less than useful. "I think the only way to find out what's going on is to talk to a few professors" in a department, she says. Bayna V. Bowen '81 said she found the volume of information she had received on concentrating in economics sufficient but added, "I wish there were perhaps more individual counseling. I guess it could be done more thoroughly."

Kenneth G. Barbeau '81 said he believes the groups providing information on concentrations "inform people as much as they could have with the fields of concentration booklet and the media they have," but feels the end of the freshman year is too early a time for students to choose a concentration.

Patricia P. Wen '80, who changed her field of concentration from History and Science to East Asian Studies, said the decision "was a change in what I wanted to study. I wanted to emphasize Chinese history more than History and Science allowed me." Wen does not believe a lack of information on the different fields of concentration before she made her initial choice was a reason for her change.

Upperclassmen who have not changed their concentration have occasionally been surprised by regulations concerning their field of concentration of which they were unaware when they made their original selection. Kristen L. Manos '80 said, "I think there was more that I should have known about different requirements" in the Economics Department.

Students concentrating in a single field have also discovered interests in other fields after choosing their concentration. Derek McLane '80 said, "As you take other courses you find things you would have liked to have learned about in other areas."

A student who cannot fit his academic interests into any of the 38 regular concentrations may opt to apply for a special concentration. Thirty-three Harvard undergraduates are currently enrolled in special concentrations that include Dance History and Criticism, Political Psychology, and Individual Choice Theory.

In order for a student to concentrate outside of the 38 regular fields, the student must submit an application stating his or her reasons for wanting to concentrate in the field and several letters of recommendation. The request must be approved by the 13-member Standing Committee on Special Concentrations. Students may apply for a special concentration at three times during the year. Carol S. Thorne, secretary of the Committee on Special Concentrations, estimated that about eight to ten students apply for a special concentration at each of the three opportunities. Thorne said students applying for a special concentration generally have about a 75-per-cent acceptance rate, and students who have their applications for a special concentration turned down may reapply.

Tony Pucillo '79, a special concentrator in Political Psychology, said he chose to apply for a special concentration because it was a field that interested him, and because there was no room for the field within the Psychology and Government Departments. Pucillo calls applying for a special concentration "a pretty rigorous process," adding, "They make sure that your concentration cannot fit into a department" that already exists. "If it's a valid concentration and people have a desire to pursue an academic interest that the school doesn't have, it's a great alternative," Pucillo said.

Students who wish to broaden their choice of concentration may also elect to combine two concentrations. To do this, a student must have his or her plan of study approved by both departments. As of November 1977, the most popular field used in combination with other fields was Economics, which 44 students joined with another concentration. Economics was also the most popular field of concentration in general, with 564 concentrators. Biology followed in popularity with 499 concentrators, and Government was third, with 445 concentrators.

The lasting effects of the choice of a field of concentration appear to be intellectual and scholarly, rather than career-related. In a pamphlet entitled "Careers and Concentrations," Martha P. Leape and Robert J. Ginn Jr., of the OCS-OCL, say, "Our observation is that over 50 per cent of Harvard-Radcliffe College alumni are pursuing careers which have no direct connection with their undergraduate field of study. Concentrations at Harvard are not designed to prepare you for a career." Leape said she thinks the main purpose of a concentration is "exploring a central area of knowledge." She added that a study of the relationship between the concentrations of the Class of '71 and the careers they went on to pursue showed very little correlation between concentrations and career decisions.

By 5 p.m. next Monday, one of the annual rites of spring at Harvard will have ended. For some students, this week's decision will be a source of satisfaction throughout their undergraduate careers; for many students it will only continue the agonizing over a choice of fields of concentration that began months ago. And next spring, the entire process will begin anew.