staying on

So, one sometimes hears the statement that a student should not go to graduate school at the same school where s/he  went to undergrad. I’ve heard that at least one top 15 sociology department has a policy against admitting its own students (I’m not sure whether it is just students who were soc majors or all students). I would strongly disagree with such a policy because I believe that, if the argument is that it’s bad for the intellectual development of the student to attend the same place for undergrad and grad school, then this should be up to the student rather than the admitting department.  My dominant metaphor for graduate admissions is “graduate programs are like an employer” and not “graduate programs are like your mom.”

But is this even good advice from the perspective of the student? It feels like the kind of advice that may have made more sense in the past than it does anymore, and it just gets repeated across academic generations. For one thing, perhaps the division between undergraduate and graduate study was less than it is now. It seems to me like grad school is still a whole ‘nuther thing even if you do it at the same place. For another, universities themselves might have been more cloistered from one another in the past than they are now. Certainly, the students are less cloistered, as so many students study abroad, take time off before going to graduate school, and do internships and otherwise do things that take them outside any particular university.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

12 thoughts on “staying on”

  1. I attended Michigan as an undergrad, studying things other than Soc, and am now back here in grad school. At least two other students in the program also went to UM. I think the opportunity to attend a grad program without having to leave all of your social support (friends, family, familiar people and places) is incredibly valuable. For students who attend a university with a large, top department, I can’t see any reason why attending the same place should not be seen as a strength (unless the student has a strong desire to leave). Even if I had been a Soc major, I would have taken classes from only a handful of the current faculty, and the experience would have been almost unrelated. I hope admissions committees do not force this sort of decision in their process.


  2. Personal considerations can override this, but in general I think this is generally good advice that is more important for a small department than a large one and more important the more you have already learned from the professors in your undergraduate institution and more important the lower the turnover rate among the faculty. The logic isn’t about the student’s breadth as a human being, it is about the circulation of ideas, which is considered important in any science. Departments gain breadth from admitting students from elsewhere. If a department has a rule against admitting its own undergrads, perhaps it correctly sees itself as relatively small and insular.


  3. I’m not in Soc, but my department (English) has a requirement that one cannot complete more than two degrees in our department; you can get a BA and a PhD if you get your MA elsewhere, or your BA and MA, or MA and PhD, but not all three. It’s largely explained by the fact that unless you are from an Ivy or the equivalent, having three degrees from a single institution in a single field makes it much more difficult to get a tenure track job once you graduate. Is this issues a factor in soc?


  4. i’m on the fence about this. i’m inclined to agree with olderwoman but i’m not sure if this is just to make myself feel better about my own decisions. i got my BA and PhD at the same institution but picked up an MS elsewhere. i can still see the breadth the MS gave me in my work today and really appreciate it. it served me well to go away for a few years and, oddly, i tend to orient to the field on professional and methodological matters in ways that are much more closely associated with the MS place relative to the PhD place.

    still, the MS institution was a terrible substantive fit for me, i was constantly driving back to my PhD institution to do my ‘real’ work, and the difference in my performance measures and confidence across both institutions is astonishing.

    as with all things, the rule is probably a good one but i’m pretty sure i am the exception to it. a formal policy against this, i’d argue, would be ill-advised (i feel like i’m making an argument similar to ‘abortions should be rare but legal’).


  5. The other reason for this guideline is related to the principle of peer review. It would be one thing if there were a shortage of applicants. But if you are going to pass over another student for one you have trained, you have to worry about your bias in evaluation. For example, how are external students to know that everyone we admit must cite at least three of my articles in their writing sample? It’s not fair. The same problem occurs in hiring your grad students. If you set the standards, and then evaluate people based on those standards, there’s no external check.


  6. Employer? Mom? How about departments are like a comedy club, one with its own stock or regular performers? If that’s a small group, then the undergrad has probably heard nearly everybody’s act. The comedians wonder why anybody would want to hear the same jokes again and again, and they may think that the student would be better off catching other routines.

    But if the department is large, if there’s a split between undergrad and grad faculty, if like Dan, the student hasn’t heard most of the material, why not stay on?

    We like to think that grad programs are a different act even if the performers are the same. But I’m not so sure to what extent it’s true.


  7. My view is this: if the graduate experience is similar to the undergrad, then it’s good to switch and broaden one’s views. It also helps circulate people and reduce insularity of certain departments. In general, I’d lean against “self” admits unless there was a clearly good reason to stay.

    However, in some cases, graduate education is so different than undergraduate education that it’s like going to a different institution. For example, at Berkeley, the soc undegrad major has a lot of huge lecture classes and there’s a lot of theory & cultural sociology. However, at the grad level, it’s all small classes and much more statistics, demography, and whatnot, though you can still do ethnography, culture, and related topics. But it can be a wildly different experience.


  8. Dan’s argument that staying will allow the student to keep their support structure is an interesting one. I both agree and disagree with this as a reason to stay. If the student is emotionally mature, staying on and maintaining the same set of friends and connections (I won’t say family as not everyone goes to school near family) may be a huge benefit. If the student is not emotionally mature however, remaining in those same circles might hinder the maturation process. Even if the program style is similar, there is still a shift that happens between undergrad and grad, and I think changing institutions helps to make this process much more tangible.

    A lot could also be said for expanding your network by switching schools.


  9. I was going to post the same thing as Dave P.

    I went to the same institution as an undergrad and for the PhD. Apples and oranges. Then again, my department is large…


  10. Regardless of direction, I cannot imagine that the causal effect of repeated degrees at the same institution is among the top 50 largest determinants of career success and/or lifetime happiness. If I am correct, it would seem very unwise to develop any rigid policy based on a department’s beliefs about the causal effect’s direction. This seems to be a case of inventing an easy-to-follow rule to tame the admissions process (or make the department feel that its undergraduate program is a powerful socialization experience than it is).

    However, I do see one strategic reason to favor one’s own BA graduates. If you know them and believe that they are more likely to accept an offer of admission, then you reduce the chances that you will end up with unused resources at the end of the admissions process. This is a very serious issue for small departments, where the difference between a cohort of 5 and a cohort of 8 can mean whether there are enough RA/TAs in later years.


  11. I agree with alottaerrata’s assessment that there are risks of staying on for immature students. But I don’t think there should be a policy. Students should be expected to assess their choices for themselves.


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