A couple of current American Rhodes Scholars ruffled a few feathers today after writing an unabashedly critical account of their Oxford experiences for their undergraduate alma mater’s paper, The Harvard Crimson. Melissa Dell and Swati Mylavarapu write:
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As enchanting as the university’s ancient spires may seem, Oxford’s outdated academic system is far less charming.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 DPhil students struggle to have supervisors read their dissertations before submission, poor supervision is the rule, not the exception.
Not surprisingly, the article set off a firestorm within the Rhodes community. This was due more to its unpalatable tone of Harvard entitlement and complete omission of the many positive aspects of studying at Oxford than to its specific content. In fact, many Rhodes Scholars, including myself, would agree–to an extent–with several of their complaints. What the article fails to mention is that the benefits of an American Rhodes Scholarship (and, I’ll just focus on the American experience here, even though only roughly one-third of Rhodes Scholarships are allocated to the US) are by and large not academic. The opportunities to step out of the isolated comfort of America for a couple of years, to live in a country from which most of the world becomes much more accessible, and to be a part of a community of young budding intellectuals and leaders (and to do so on someone else’s dime) are reasons enough to enjoy the experience. The fact that one also gets to pursue a degree at one of the world’s most prestigious (although still often disappointing) universities should not be taken in stride either.
With that said, Oxford still leaves much to be desired on a variety of academic fronts. Instead of listing them all here, I’ll just focus on one that gets very little attention despite its ominous implications. It certainly isn’t a problem restricted to Rhodes Scholars, though, and it isn’t even specific to Oxford. It’s the UK’s continued acceptance of three year PhD programs (or “DPhil” programs in Oxford and a couple of other universities). I’ve spoken briefly on this problem before:
When a student begins working on a D.Phil. (Oxford’s equivalent to the Ph.D.) in biochemistry here, he or she hits the ground running in the lab that he or she is going to spend the next three or more years in. There’s no coursework and no laboratory rotations. Instead, there’s just a singular focus on the eventual writing of a dissertation. As biochemistry and its related fields grow and mature, individual scientists by necessity focus on increasingly specific areas of research, risking losing sight of the big picture. A graduate student in biochemistry spends his or her entire career at Oxford focused on a subject that only forms a drop in the ocean of the life sciences. It’s no wonder, then, that someone defending a dissertation in X-ray crystallography of cytoskeletal proteins might know almost nothing about the genetics of cell division.
Contrast this to the U.S., where students generally take two years of courses while also rotating through different research laboratories, conducting a small project in each, before finally settling into his or her final lab. The downside is that a Ph.D. is the U.S. takes much longer to complete. On the other hand, these students probably graduate with a more developed global perspective on biochemistry and the life science. Although one could argue that truly motivated students should seek out this knowledge on their own, it’s unfortunate that no institutional structures exist at Oxford to encourage this academic growth.
To put it bluntly, three years is not enough time to complete a PhD. Even here in Oxford, where the standards are arguably less stringent than in major US universities, it’s a kind of running joke that nobody finishes a DPhil in three years. It might be a funny, if it weren’t true. In fact, only a very small minority of students finish in three years. I wouldn’t consider this a particularly dire problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the funding bodies still consider a PhD or DPhil a three year program. That’s not a bad motivator to finish up as quickly as you can, although that goal is still rarely realized. There’s certainly no motivation to explore multiple areas, learn as much as you can about broad areas of science, or take on risky projects when you’re counting the days until your funding runs out.
Oxford still calls the DPhil a three year program, so the funding bodies offer funding for three years of study. The funding bodies only fund students for three years, so Oxford insists that students should finish a DPhil in that short window of time. You get the picture.
Even if one does accomplish the rare feat of finishing in three years, what has he or she accomplished? Probably enough to pass a thesis viva, but not much else. This quick finisher has likely published few–if any–scientific papers, and he or she can all but write off any hopes of a future academic career. Sure, there are exceptions, but this scenario is all too common. Should we be surprised that so few graduates in the basic sciences in my department, biochemistry, go on to pursue postdoctoral fellowships? I’m sure they’re lured by the prospects of making buckets of money in consultancy or investment banking, but their CVs probably can’t compete with someone from a longer and more comprehensive PhD program. They just haven’t had enough time.
Although this is a problem for all of Oxford and the UK, the Rhodes Scholarship is particularly dismal in this area. Many scholarships do provide the opportunity for students to apply for a fourth year of funding, but the Rhodes cuts off at the end of the third year, with no available funding for the fourth year. I brought up this issue with Sir Colin Lucas, the current Warden of Rhodes House (the person who administers the scholarship in Oxford), and I was told that this issue “isn’t even on the radar.” I do know, however, that others on the Board of Trustees are in favor of fourth year funding, so I can only hope that these more sympathetic voices will win out in the end. I don’t expect that I would ever see funding for my fourth year in Oxford from the Rhodes Trust, but I do fear the Rhodes Scholarship becoming increasingly unattractive to those in the basic sciences.
With that said, though, the Rhodes experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues chose to air their personal complaints in such a public forum and in such a nonconstructive way. Regardless, prestigious institutions like Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship need constant prodding to keep from relying on name and reputation alone. Certainly, then, the Warden and others can expect to hear much more from me regarding fourth year funding.