Tuesday, February 26, 2008


A few years back, I had a discussion with one of the ALM administrators about the graduation rate for the ALM program. He revealed that the all-time graduation rate was just 52% for the liberal arts concentrators (i.e., excluding the IT and professional ALMs such as journalism, biotechnology, management, and museum studies, which are not liberal arts degrees).

There are a couple of issues raised by this figure. First, while the graduation rate may seem unusually low, it's in line with the national average for graduate programs, says the Extension School. Second, it does not include the many people who take lots of graduate-level classes at the Extension School with the intention of officially entering the ALM program, but never matriculate, either because the proseminar is too difficult or they move away/stop classes before they have a chance to matriculate.

Of those students who do matriculate, but still don't graduate, there's an additional factor that comes into play: ABT status. They've completed all of the required coursework, including the proseminar, field courses, writing-intensive classes, and electives, and only have one hurdle to go: The thesis. Until they get that out of the way, they are "A.B.T.", or "all but thesis" (not to be confused with A.B.D., which refers to doctoral candidates who haven't completed their dissertations).

The thesis is what makes the master's program at the Extension School so special. It entails serious research that can take years to complete, and lets students work closely with some of the top academic experts in the world in their respective fields of study -- Harvard professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, the Kennedy School of Government, the Medical School, etc. The thesis goes beyond what many "traditional," full-time masters' programs require, including those at Harvard's other graduate schools (for instance, this Master of Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education only requires eight classes; there is no thesis). Approved ALM theses have been turned into journal articles, have been used as stepping stones for advanced degrees (at Harvard and elsewhere) and careers in academia.

As I've discussed many times on this blog, the ALM thesis is a huge challenge -- not just an intellectual challenge, but also a management challenge that requires tremendous organizational skills and lots of time.

It's also mostly self-directed. Students have to conduct the initial research inquiries, choose topics, and compose thesis proposals on their own, and follow the guidance of the research advisor and thesis director in terms of conducting additional research and developing the thesis itself. If a student procrastinates, fails to complete a certain step, or doesn't hear back from his or her TD in a timely manner, the thesis will die -- no one is going to do the work for the student, or constantly nag the professor on his or her behalf.

It therefore doesn't surprise me that so many ALM candidates fail to receive their degrees. Moving away or stopping classes are possible reasons, but I think the thesis requirement is a tough hurdle for many people. If a student is ABT for too long, his or her ALM candidacy will come to an end. Not only is there a five-year requirement for completing the degree, but also there is a nine-month window to write the thesis itself.

I've known two people who matriculated into the ALM program but never finished. Both were ABTs. The first was a Literature and Creative Writing concentrator who finished all of her coursework, and couldn't decide on a thesis topic. After a few years, she didn't really feel interested anymore. Later, she took another Harvard Extension School class relating to legal issues, and decided that this topic area was more intellectually rewarding. However, she moved away before she could take any more law or government classes, and the five-year limit eventually expired. The other ABT has also fought procrastination, but has an incredibly demanding job that places very real limits on the amount of time and effort that can be devoted to thesis research.

I can relate to both situations. If I had lost my passion for Chinese history, media, and computer-aided research, getting started on my thesis would have been difficult, and completing it would have been nearly impossible. And if I had my current job -- a new position that requires 10-hour workdays and frequent travel -- when I started my thesis research back in 2005, it's highly unlikely I could have completed it, without burning myself out or putting serious strains on my family.


Rodney Wilson said...

Thank you, Ian, for this nice essay on the thesis. I definitely can see how easily it would be to complete all course work and never get around to the thesis. I hope to have all course work done by the end of the summer. I hope, too, that this A.B.T. gets his stuff together and completes the thesis as quickly as possible! One question: The 52% rate is of those accepted into the ALM program, right?

I Lamont said...

Although not specifically stated, it's my understanding that the 52% figure applies to matriculated students (i.e., officially admitted into the program).

Good luck with the thesis ...

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Ian! Two thoughts: 1) indeed, doing the thesis work is mostly self-directed (almost an understatement). This fundamental element of the experience is something everyone must contend with so I recommend developing a strategy to deal with it sooner rather than later. Aside from one's intellectual capabilities, if you are not able to motivate yourself (over and over again); develop confidence that you are on the right track; learn how to do what's necessary at each stage of the thesis; and, learn to live with ambiguity, that solitary status can undermine your ultimate success. It is very hard to motivate and direct oneself during the periods in the process where you feel a bit lost or overwhelmed (both normal occurrences). I intentionally sought out a couple of more seasoned graduate students early on to give me feedback and support. They also help me “think out loud” and talk through my ideas -- for an extrovert in what is an introverted exercise that makes my updates and finished work much better. It's not realistic to depend on Dr. O or even the thesis writers' group for on-going support beyond a minimal level. Dr. O is very busy and the group doesn't meet often enough to create that deeper connection.

Second point, I am skeptical of the graduation rate. If you peel back the data, you may find that it isn't as 'rosy' as 52%. That percentage isn't the story, however, it's the *reasons* why people don't finish. If the ALM had more resources and institutional support, I bet the grad. rate would be somewhat higher. It's very hard for working adults, some with kids and/or other responsibilities, to get through the *whole* degree.

Anonymous said...

Ian, interesting post. I always wondered what the completion rate was.

As someone who started taking courses at HES and summer school for my ALM in the summer of 2001, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease (a serious chronic illness)in 2002, finished all the course work by 2003, moved away in 2004, completed an completely different Masters program at another school (SDSU), and is now in the final weeks of my thesis revisions, I am surprised that as many as 52% of matriculated students finish! I also agree with you and others that the student must take full control of the thesis process for it to be accomplished. It even got to the point where I felt as though the school was almost working against my efforts to finish (which I don't think they really were, it just felt that way at the time)...it was frustrating at times. So, as long as nothing catastrophic happens, and my thesis director doesn't have a student change of heart, I'll be there to get my Harvard diploma; 7 years, 4 moves (from Boston, to New Mexico, to San Diego, to San Antonio, to Washington DC), 2 children (now 4 and 1.5) and one disease diagnosis later! I envision myself being one happy camper come June 5.

I Lamont said...

Thanks, Chris, for the response here and also on your blog. Other readers may want to check out what Chris wrote on this topic, the link is here. I'd like to draw attention to one of your thoughts here:

"So each of us who is in the thesis pipeline is working out there alone, w/little or no campus interaction (going to Widener doesn’t count, still a solo effort), no opportunities for mixing with fellow students through TA/RA work, no regular student activities to participate in or lounge to hang out in. I recognize some of the problem is lack of time on ALM students’ part (we are all busy outside of school) but there’s little outreach from the school on this count either ... The thesis writers’ group is good but not frequent enough or attended consistently to make real connections through it. It takes time to develop trust, to feel comfortable enough to discuss vulnerabilities and concerns. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a fellow ALM admit, “I’m lost in the weeds, can you help me out?”. Who’s going to say that at Harvard and when you haven’t developed a rapport?"

That's why the online connections are so important. Email, discussion forums, Facebook, blogs, etc. are information resources and support networks that can help make up for the lack of face-to-face contact. It's not the same, but it's better than nothing at all.

I Lamont said...

Anonymous, great story! Hope to see you at Commencement!