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Oxford Blues

By Melissa L. Dell and Swati Mylavarapu

To all juniors out there, think twice before attending the Rhodes scholarship information session. That make-up Science A section just might be a better use of your time. Take it from two veterans, the glitter and prestige of big name scholarships may be less appealing under closer inspection.

This admission may be shocking, since to many, being a “Rhodes scholar” foretells a future of success and celebrity. After all, William J. Clinton, Kris Kristofferson, and David H. Souter ’61 are just a few former Rhodes scholars who immediately come to mind. But for those of us who have spent time at Oxford on the renowned scholarship, the title bespeaks a frustrating academic experience.

As enchanting as the university’s ancient spires may seem, Oxford’s outdated academic system is far less charming. The university’s trimester system means students are out of school more than in. In contrast to Harvard professors’ regular office hours, Oxford advisors spend more time avoiding emails than supervising students. Here, where D.Phil. students struggle to have supervisors read their dissertations before submission, poor supervision is the rule, not the exception.

If you’re entertaining pipe dreams of researching something you’re passionate about at Oxford, don’t expect the resources to help you do so. The ancient walls of the Bodleian Library house a less than inspiring collection. Last year, some departmental libraries had to cancel their LexisNexis subscriptions due to budget shortfalls. And if you have visions of debates with famous Nobel Prize winners, expect instead to be taught in a lecture hall by an apathetic post-doc.

Faculty rosters at Oxford face high attrition, as top-notch professors such as Niall Ferguson leave for more lucrative posts in the United States. You will likely spend most of your time in touch with Harvard librarians to access materials not available at Oxford, and you will probably be asking your undergraduate advisor for research funding and advice. There are no breaks for Rhodes scholars; in Oxford, you’ll be a dime per dozen. If you’re a Harvard Rhodes, expect the H-bomb to blow up in your face. Your undergrad alma mater can stigmatize you in your department and Rhodes House alike.

Harry Potter may have been filmed at Oxford, but students at Hogwarts have it much better than the typical student here. With steeply climbing costs and the recent poor performance of the Rhodes endowment—which translates into a lower stipend—just living in one of the Oxford colleges might bust your budget.

Activities you might be engaging in include foraging for edible food and getting berated by customer service representatives, but never after five p.m., when everything—including coffee shops and pharmacies—closes. Don’t expect urban respite from Oxford. London is a two hour bus ride away.

So, given all of these frustrations, why did we decide to study at Oxford? Until we arrived, these issues weren’t even on our radar screen. Before the Rhodes interview, the focus was on winning the scholarship, not on evaluating if Oxford was the right place for us. While some Harvard fellowships tutors might advise on such issues, others do not. And even if the help received from Harvard or elsewhere enables you to win the scholarship, little advice will be available from the University after the night of selection. Harvard’s fellowship advising system is not designed to help those selected. Once you have added the 325th mark on Harvard’s scorecard of Rhodes scholars, don’t expect much more. Harvard leaves its biggest resource untapped: The hundreds of alumni who studied as Rhodes scholars and could easily advise scholarship recipients.

We have taken an exceptionally candid tone about our experiences at Oxford not because we are bitter but rather because these are things we wish we had known three years ago. As you consider pursuing fellowships and applying to Oxford, here are the questions we suggest asking. Do other universities offer the same program that you want to study at Oxford? If so, how do their faculty, library, and financial resources compare? Don’t forget finances; consider how much it would cost to live in the college you are interested in. Think about whether you mind forking out some extra personal resources or taking loans if your stipend won’t cover everything. And get advice from current scholars in residence; Oxford has changed a lot in the past fifty years. The experiences of your older professors are unlikely to bear much resemblance to what Oxford is like today.

Perhaps the larger question is, do you even want to be in an academic setting immediately after turning in that 150-page senior thesis? Our message to those newly minted or aspiring applicants is simple: Beware of the lure of the Rhodes title. Reconsider that year working for an non-governmental organization abroad or writing a novel. Do not apply for the Rhodes unless you are ready to study and live in Oxford.

Melissa L. Dell ’05 and Swati Mylavarapu ’05 are both Rhodes scholars at Oxford University.

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