Secondary Fields Befuddle Students

Requirements trip up seniors while interdisciplinary studies impose restrictions

As of last Thursday, Harvard seniors could add a minor to their transcript with just a few clicks and a trip to the Registrar’s Office. But kinks remain in the secondary field program, creating bureaucratic hurdles for many undergraduates who want to take advantage of the initiative.

Transfer students and students who studied abroad have a hard time counting classes taken elsewhere toward secondary field requirements. Students in multidisciplinary concentrations such as molecular and cellular biology and Social Studies cannot pursue secondary fields in any of the departments that overlap with their concentrations.

Cassandra L. Forsyth ’08 transferred to Harvard from New Zealand’s University of Auckland in the spring of her sophomore year. An economics concentrator, she hoped to pursue a secondary field in government, but the department would not accept credits from her old school in New Zealand.

“They said it just wouldn’t be an option,” Forsyth said.

Government Chair Nancy L. Rosenblum said her department chose not to count classes taken elsewhere toward secondary fields because professors wanted students “to have exposure to our great teachers and our great classes.”

Policies vary across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The departments of government and economics, the two largest undergraduate concentrations, do not count credit earned elsewhere toward secondary fields, though they grant transfer credit to primary concentrators. But most secondary fields do accept a limited number of credits from other universities on a case-by-case basis.

With 300 concentrators, the economics department’s advising resources are already spread thin, and reviewing syllabi from classes taught elsewhere would be an added burden, Undergraduate Program Administrator Emily R. Neill said.

“I just don’t think it would be possible,” she said.

Currently, only one credit from a secondary field can double-count toward anything else: a concentration credit, a Core requirement, or a language citation. This means that students in multidisciplinary concentrations cannot get secondary field credit in any overlapping department. For example, Social Studies concentrators cannot apply to receive a secondary field in government, economics, sociology, history, or philosophy, even if they have taken the requisite set of courses.

The Education Policy Committee (EPC), the group of faculty members charged with implementing secondary fields and reviewing departmental proposals, will look into the question of double-counting credits again early next fall, according to Assistant Dean of the College Stephanie H. Kenen.

“We are very unhappy with that,” Rosenblum said when asked about Social Studies concentrators’ being barred from Government secondary fields.

The Social Studies director of studies, Anya Bernstein, said the secondary fields program was a work in progress.

“We are waiting to get direction from the EPC about whether we should develop a mechanism to allow students to petition us to not count groups of courses that are distinct from their focus area in Social Studies,” Bernstein wrote in an e-mailed statement. She declined to be interviewed over the phone.

Sussan Lee ’09 would be two courses away from a secondary field in economics if she were not a Social Studies concentrator.

“If I were concentrating in Government or East Asian Studies and then was able to get a secondary field in Econ, I guess that might look better on a resume or something, but I really like Social Studies so I don’t have any regrets,” she said.

Joint concentrators can currently declare a secondary field, but Kenen said that policy is subject to change.

To date, 49 secondary fields in 33 departments have been approved. Several non-departmental fields, like Mind Brain and Behavior, are under discussion.

A handful of new secondary fields are expected to be approved in the coming weeks, according Kenen, who is coordinating the approval process.

—Madeline M.G. Haas contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Carolyn F. Gaebler can be reached at