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The GAO Report: The Paths Less Taken

As I exited Encina Hall last Friday, I was trying to convince a ProFro about the superiority of our political science department, since she was deciding between Harvard and Stanford. She was unsure what she wanted to study, but was adamant that she wanted to go to law school.

There is something admirable about people knowing exactly what they want. As Stanford students, we are privileged to be able to choose among many options, for classes, internships and post-graduation plans. Choosing seems to be the most difficult part. However, many undergraduates have already made a decision regarding their post-Stanford destination before arriving freshman year. Those wanting to attend law school strategically shape a college plan that will succeed in the law school admissions’ numbers game. Some immerse themselves in entrepreneurship and direct their energies in branding themselves as future business leaders.

For others, the process of discovering one’s identity can be painstaking, but perhaps a more multifaceted and rewarding journey. Exploration is an integral part of college. Undergraduate years are a time to take advantage of all the academic and extracurricular opportunities to explore our intellectual interests and facets of our personality. On this path of twists and turns, what questions we are interested in, and how best to pursue those questions, may evolve.

For some, it might be a class that sparks a moment of realization, a professor who ignites our passions or a research project that triggers new ideas. Then, there are those who engage in self-initiated contemplation and introspection, a conscious process of information gathering and decision-making regarding how to best craft a trajectory to meet one’s interests and aspirations. Particularly within the humanities and social sciences, where tremendous freedom is offered, it takes energy and will to formulate a coherent plan for our time at Stanford.

The process of planning requires good information and guidance. Freshman advising, like social security and immigration policy, is one of those areas that always needs to be reformed but never is. Less noticeable, however, is the dearth of resources available to students seeking to pursue advanced degrees in the humanities, arts, sciences or engineering. Compared to the resources available in law, business or medical schools advising, the contrast is quite stark. In addition to UAR advisors, there are active student groups dedicated to providing support for students preparing to enter the professional fields. Hardly does a week go by without multiple e-mails being sent advertising LSAT prep courses or networking mixers with industry leaders.

Perhaps the correlation between supply and demand suggests the status quo is a reflection of the needs of Stanford students. There is not a strong culture of attending non-professional graduate school or entering into academia among my peers. Upon reflection, this is unsurprising, considering the pragmatic spirit that seems to dominate the campus. However, there is the increasing possibility of reconciling the tension between thought and action, transitioning between public and private sectors and applying pioneering research to solving the world’s problems in modern academia.

The danger in Stanford’s undergraduate intellectual milieu is that some might even not consider PhD programs due to the lack of discourse regarding it as a possibility. This is particularly problematic for students who are the first generation to attend college or those from non-academic family backgrounds.

Since advanced degrees involve specialization, departments should be the focal points for strengthening advising in their fields. Individual departments in humanities and social sciences should devote greater efforts towards developing a systematic and comprehensive structure of graduate school advising, for example, organizing information sessions or creating a mentorship program. From my experience, most graduate students are gracious and eager to offer honest advice regarding their career choices. While faculty members may be useful in clarifying our intellectual interests, current students are the best sources for questions about the lifestyle and challenge of balancing research, teaching and coursework.

Each department has the potential to serve an incredibly important and necessary role as a bridge between the graduate and undergraduate communities. The two groups operate in very different spheres academically, socially and residentially, resulting in an entrenched divide. Undergraduates tend to have no interaction with the graduate population except with their TAs in discussion sections or peers in certain student activities. Although this may be more of an issue in humanities and social sciences than natural sciences, where lab work demands collaboration with postdocs, for the majority of undergrads, it is easy to go for weeks without interacting with any of the 8000 grads on campus.

While academia is not for everyone, having more opportunities to gather information is critical for helping those students still in the process of self-discovery find their way. Often, it is the unexpected conversations that have the most impact.

Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly about campus issues. Contact Shelley: sxgao@stanford.edu

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