Applied Math Ends Thesis Requisite

Specialists in economics may opt for grad-level courses instead

For applied math concentrators specializing in economics, graduating magna cum laude just got easier.

Starting this fall, these students, like their applied math colleagues focusing in the hard sciences or computer science, can take four graduate level courses instead of writing a thesis and still graduate with high honors.

Those aiming to graduate summa cum laude are still required to write a thesis.

The change, adopted in May by the Committee of Undergraduate Studies for Applied Mathematics, will "make the applied math concentration more uniform across its parts," said Berkman Professor of Economics Eric S. Maskin, co-head tutor for applied math. "But we still encourage students to write theses."

Kathleen M. Douglas '99, who is concentrating in applied math with, in the department's parlance, an "application" in economics, said she does not think it should be necessary for applied math concentrators to write a thesis to earn their high honors degrees.

"I think this gives people more choice," Douglas said. "The class requirements for applied math are hard enough that you earn your honors degree" without a thesis.

Maskin said administrators chose to make the concentration requirements uniform by withdrawing the thesis requirement for the economics application rather than asking concentrators in other science applications to write theses.

"There are certain fields [such as math and hard sciences] where the idea of an undergraduate writing a thesis doesn't make sense" because the issues are often too complicated for undergraduate research, Maskin said.

Olivia Verma '99, who studies applied math, said the concentration does not encourage students to write theses.

"I don't feel that the department gears us toward writing a thesis or

advises us [in preparing for the thesis]," Verma said.

In the past, less than one quarter of concentrators have elected to take graduate courses, said Patricia Ryan, an administrator in the applied math office.

But Maskin said he expects the numbers of students taking graduate courses--as well as the numbers of students graduating with high honors--to increase.

In 1998, seven students out of 37 concentrators graduated magna cum laude. One graduated summa cum laude.

Verma said the required undergraduate courses and the classes needed to prepare students for higher level courses leave little room in students' schedules for the extra graduate courses.

At press time, the head tutors of applied math said they were not sure whether the new policy stipulates that the graduate courses be taken in addition to the 16 required courses or whether the policy allows the graduate courses to be substituted for four of the required courses. Students can contact the applied math office for clarification of the new policy.

The changes in applied math requirements are part of an overall restructuring of honors requirements in Harvard departments.

Last fall, the economics department announced that courses in related fields would no longer be considered when calculating a student's concentration GPA for honors.

In the summer of 1997, the English department changed its policy to allow English concentrators to earn cum laude degrees without writing a thesis. Students who achieve honors-level grades in all required courses and take a small group course taught by a departmental faculty member can graduate with honors.

But, in many concentrations--including as the College's two largest, economics and government--each concentrator must still write a thesis to graduate cum laude in the department