College senior Warrick MacMillan really wants to make a substantial contribution to society.

To do so, he has begun the process of applying to Ph.D. programs in applied mathematics, a decision that took awhile for MacMillan – who is currently double-majoring in physics and applied math – to make.

He briefly considered foregoing graduate school due to a desire for financial independence as well as fear that he would become stuck in academia. However, after a series of interviews for jobs at investment banks and consulting firms, MacMillan acknowledged that immediately pursuing a career may not be the best step for him.

After talking to people with doctoral degrees, he believes that a graduate degree will make him successful in an academic sense. In addition, he said that he sees a significant amount of his peers also choosing graduate school.

At Emory, the trend that MacMillan described has caused a steady enrollment growth at the Laney Graduate School (LGS) in particular for the past five years, according to Dean Lisa Tedesco. This increase in LGS enrollment has come even as graduate school enrollment across the nation falls – declining for the second consecutive year, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

CGS is the only national organization in the United States that advances graduate education and research through policy advocacy and research.

As the nation’s graduate schools say no to students more and more, Emory presents a different pattern.

“These trends were not as pronounced for us at Emory,” Tedesco wrote in an email to the Wheel. “Over the last few years, we see slight increases in natural and life science and social science enrollments.”

A Contrasting Nationwide Decline

Despite increases in the LGS enrollment, the nation showcases a different story.

From the fall of 2010 to the fall of 2011, nationwide enrollment in master’s and doctoral programs (except law and other professional degrees like M.D.’s) dropped by 1.7 percent while overall graduate applications rose by 4.3 percent, according to a Sept. 28 article in The New York Times. This is the sixth consecutive year that application volume has increased, the article said. However, from 2007 to 2011, graduate admission rates have dropped from 44.6 percent to 40.8 percent.

Graduate degrees in education across the nation had the largest decline, with a 8.8 percent plunge, while degrees in the arts and sciences witnessed a 5.4 percent decrease, according to the article.

As an exception to the overall trend, enrollment in health sciences doctoral programs increased as new graduate students studying fields related to health care rose 6.4 percent as well. Moreover, business was up by 2.6 percent and mathematics and computer science were up by 1.6 percent.

Tedesco attributes the overall nationwide decline to most graduate programs to state and federal budget cuts that have limited aid for graduate education at various universities. In addition, the recent withdrawal of the deferral of student loans interest and graduate’s reluctance to leave already established careers in the present economy for graduate school amplify the movement away from graduate school.

The Educational Emphasis at Emory

Although Emory’s graduate schools do not match the trends across the nation, the increase in application volume from Emory College does.

In particular, Whitney Pennington – a student in one of Emory’s joint undergraduate and graduate degree programs – says she does not sense any decline in interest amongst undergraduates for postgraduate school, at least in public health.

She is in her fourth year in the five-year BS/MPH program through Emory College and the Rollins School of Public Health which provides a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Health in Environmental and Occupational Health.

“I would say at Emory [there is not a decrease] because it is an elite school,” Pennington said. “The people who are choosing to come here are the people who would want to go to graduate school no matter what.”

Pennington explained that she chose to attend graduate school because of her love for learning, adding that she saw graduate degrees as standard for many careers.

For the last five years, Tedesco wrote, the LGS enrollment has totaled between 1,800 to 1,900 students annually.

This marks what she calls a “slow growth” from previous years during the last decade and a half – such as 2003 when the school enrolled 1,600 students and 1996 with 1,450 students.

LGS does not include the Goizueta Graduate Business School (MBA), School of Law, School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Rollins School of Public Health or the Candler School of Theology.

This fall, LGS accepted 530 new students out of 4,400 applicants. Of those accepted, 360 students enrolled, according to Tedesco.
According to demographic information on the University website, Emory’s various graduate and professional schools and programs have become home to 6,580 new students this fall. The MBA program has 337 full-time enrolled students and 308 part-time enrolled students,  according to U.S. News and Report.

An Alternative Route

While many Emory students are set on continuing academics beyond their undergraduate years, not all College students feel the same way.

College senior and interdisciplinary studies major Joseph Shea decided not to apply to graduate schools because he is ready for a non-academic setting.

“Though I’ve appreciated my time at Emory and am glad to have had the opportunity to learn in such an eminent department here, I’m looking forward to working on something that will translate to more than a simple letter grade based on how successful the project is,” Shea wrote in an email to the Wheel.

He admitted that graduate school had been an attractive option for him, but he knew that he could find other avenues to explore his interest in sustainable initiatives. However, Shea thought that some undergraduates at Emory may choose to pursue graduate schools for less optimal reasons.

“Many students here seem to view Emory as more of a means to an end, with the end being one of these professional graduate training opportunities than an education in itself,” Shea wrote, adding that he feels that there seems to exist a University-wide trend whereby many undergraduate students follow pre-professional tracks, particularly in medicine, business and law.

The prominence of pre-professional tracks may lead many students to pursue graduate educations in these fields instead of participating in what he wrote were “other styles of intellectual engagement.”

Attributing this pattern to what he called “Emory’s disinterested stance on liberal arts opportunities, both at the undergraduate and the graduate level,” he cited the recent cuts in the Spanish, economics, and the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) doctoral programs.
He remarked that these changes indicate a shift in how the University perceives education in general.

“Emory is becoming more and more a college of science and pre-professionalism and less and less of a college of arts and sciences by eliminating the small departments which harbor students like me who are enamored with the liberal arts and an education of the mind that does not lend itself to just one job or set of jobs, but rather opens possibilities in many areas,” Shea wrote.

This “clear message,” according to Shea, causes an atmosphere that stresses pre-professionalism and pushes small departments which harbor students like him to the side.

Why graduate school?

While Shea analyzes how the Emory educational environment influences student attitudes on graduate school, many other undergraduates have cemented plans for their post-graduate lives.

Some current Emory students have known that they would pursue doctoral degree despite having not yet finished their undergraduate years. For example, College senior Susanna Brantley is in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs in Cell Biology.

She is majoring in biology in the BS/MS degree program – a four year biology program that ends with a master’s and bachelor’s degree.

“Graduate studies will provide an arena for continuing education and learning as well as prepare me to be a professor,” Brantley wrote in an email to the Wheel. “The job I want [a biology professor] is competitive, and I am not qualified to enter the workforce in the field that I want.”

Though emphasizing her certainty in her own decision to attend graduate school, Brantley says that she sees many of her peers struggling to plan for their post-commencement lives. She noted that they hesitate to specialize in one particular subject, making the idea of a graduate degree in a specific area unattractive. She speculated that many students simply do not have time to balance undergraduate courses with applying to graduate schools.

“Almost everyone I talk to seems to be taking a ‘gap year’ to apply to graduate school or to do something to make themselves more qualified for the graduate program they wish to enter,” Brantley wrote. “I think that students are tired of the university system after four years of intense education … and taking some time off from school is appealing.”

Although Brantley sees students take gap years before graduate school, University of Pittsburgh Developmental Psychology Ph.D. student and alumna Emma Satlof (’11C) wrote in an email to the Wheel. she did not see the value in taking gap years before graduate school. She knew without a doubt that an advanced degree would enable her to do her desired research.

“At Emory, most of my friends were applying to graduate school of some sort, be it Ph.D. or master’s programs or business/law/medical school,” Satlof said. “Some of my friends did not do this and applied to jobs straight out of school, but a majority of my friends went to graduate school.”

The majority that Satlof specifies with regards to Emory students also demonstrates a distinct nationwide trend: despite steadily decreasing enrollment rates at many schools across the country, more and more students are applying to graduate programs.
For MacMillan, the next step is clear.

“I feel like my best option to do anything I want is through getting a Ph.D.,” he said.

– By Karishma Mehrotra

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The Emory Wheel was founded in 1919 and is currently the only independent, student-run newspaper of Emory University. The Wheel publishes weekly on Wednesdays during the academic year, except during University holidays and scheduled publication intermissions.

The Wheel is financially and editorially independent from the University. All of its content is generated by the Wheel’s more than 100 student staff members and contributing writers, and its printing costs are covered by profits from self-generated advertising sales.