Landis Stankievech ’08, a mechanical and aerospace engineering concentrator, was all set to apply for the Canadian Rhodes Scholarship by his senior year. He had excelled in his classes, received some academic awards, taught youngsters how to skate, and played on Princeton’s varsity hockey team.
But he was still missing a crucial component — six letters of recommendation. While he was often one of the top students in his courses, they were taught in big lecture halls with dozens of classmates. He racked his brain to think of people who could write strong letters for him.
“There [were] a ton of professors that would say I’m a fantastic student, but not a lot of them got to know me beyond the fact that I’m a good student in their class,” Stankievech told me. He eventually found a few who advocated well enough for him that he won. No engineer from the University since him has become a Rhodes scholar, despite B.S.E. students accounting for one sixth to one quarter of all undergraduates since 2008.
Many academic awards select winners using predetermined criteria. Committees evaluate students’ accomplishments on the same abstract scale. This approach seems egalitarian: everyone plays on the same field. In practice, though, it ignores substantial cultural divides between fields of study that affect class arrangements, study habits, relationships with professors, the amount of free time they have, and how they spend it.
A lack of personality wasn’t the reason why Stankievech had difficulty finding professors to write letters for him. Seminars of 10 students are a better place to do it than lectures of 200 students.
“It is easier to know professors in smaller classes,” said Pyne Prize winner Annabel Barry ’19, an English concentrator. While the depth and pace at which professors get acquainted with their students isn’t measurable, class size is.
Course listings from the 2018–2019 academic year on the Registrar’s website showed that the median size of humanities courses was less than half of that for those in engineering. Neuroscience had the largest median size at 115 students, whereas music had the least at 2. For music, this statistic includes “independent instruction” taken for credit.
Beyond numbers, interviewees said that professors interacted with them in different ways depending upon their field of study.
Marshall Scholar Joani Etskovitz ’17, an English concentrator, mentioned that she would give her adviser a “brief life update” at their meetings. Her professors often attended her concerts, too. Barry added that professors who wrote her letters of recommendation were “willing to hear about other aspects of my life and integrate that into a holistic picture.”
In contrast, interviewees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) felt that professors primarily judged them by their academic skill.
“I often get the impression when talking with my math professors that the absolute only thing that they care about is how good you are at math,” said three-time Class Legacy Prize winner Matthew Tyler ’19, a math concentrator. But he said that he had “tremendous respect” for that mentality.
How well professors know their students influences what’s in the letters of recommendations that they write — and in turn impacts applicants’ chances of winning academic awards.
One long-time member of a prestigious United Kingdom (UK) fellowship’s selection committee — who asked to remain unnamed to avoid angering past recommenders — told me, “The longer, more effusive [letters] come from the humanities faculty. That’s not to say that some of the STEM majors don’t get very, very glowing endorsements. But they tend to be shorter and more focused on the subject matter. That could lead to a certain bias on the part of the reader.”
Rhodes district interviewer Nicholas Allard ’74 said that “peremptory short letter[s]” aren’t helpful. However, the recommendations from Princeton professors that he has read were “unbelievably great,” and he hasn’t seen any overarching trends by discipline.
The Rhodes scholarship currently requires applicants to submit five to eight letters of recommendation, which is the most of any major postgraduate fellowship for study abroad. Princeton asks for eight when making its institutional endorsements.
"In science, it’s harder to build relationships with professors,” said Rhodes finalist Min Seung Choi ’17, a computer science concentrator. “It’s basically not possible to get eight.”
STEM students in particular are in a bind when they consider competing for fellowships like the Rhodes or are nominated for awards like the Pyne Prize. They may not want to turn down lucrative jobs, or they — or their advisers — think that their chances of winning are slim. These students are stuck in a Catch 22 when it comes to representation in certain academic awards. Few apply to them because they see that STEM students rarely win them. Yet they rarely win them partly because few ever apply.
Three-time Class Legacy Prize winner Grace Sommers ’20, a physics concentrator, said that she had the impression that Rhodes scholars “usually” studied the humanities. Math Professor János Kollár agreed: “We also have the feeling that [fellowships] mostly go to people in the humanities, which means it gives even less of an incentive to nominate somebody.”
STEM majors may also be deterred from applying to the Rhodes or the Sachs Scholarship at Worcester College — and opt for the Gates — because Oxford has a longstanding stereotype of being strong in the humanities but weaker in the sciences compared with Cambridge. Both universities have publicly denied these claims.
Another reason STEM students avoid applying for overseas graduate fellowships is that they don’t fit into their career plans.
“If you are at the top of your class in engineering, you could [get] a job that pays [you] a lot more than most other 22-year-olds. That’s hard to walk away from,” said Alexander Helman ’20, a computer science concentrator who interned at a major tech firm last summer.
Sachs Scholarship Chair Matthew Stewart ’85 agreed with Helman to a certain extent. He released statistics suggesting that STEM students may simply not be interested in his scholarship or prefer to study abroad somewhere other than the UK. Thirty-three percent of Sachs Global and 26 percent of Sachs Worcester applicants studied STEM fields over the past three years, compared with 40 percent and 46 percent, respectively, for applicants in the humanities.
“I think that we get fewer STEM applications because the career structures are different. Their career path is a little more clearly laid out and a little more fixed,” Stewart said.
I asked the University Center for Career Development for a breakdown of students’ postgraduate plans by their academic division to see who was more likely to attend graduate school or directly enter the workforce. Senior Associate Director Mike Caddell said that these statistics weren’t available.
Gates Cambridge scholar Yung In Chae ’15, a classics major, described fellowships as a “well-trodden path” in classics, a small department that punches above its weight in UK fellowship competitions. She said that it was common for professors to contact their British colleagues to ask if they would advise Princeton students. Seeing peers winning these prestigious scholarships helps motivate others to apply.
“When a lot of people you know are going to Oxford and Cambridge, it starts to seem possible. It also starts to feel that that’s what you have to do,” she said.
Along with recommendation letters, sustained and significant involvement in extracurricular activities is a requisite for awards that claim to holistically judge applicants. Studies show that STEM and humanities, arts, language, and social science (HALS) students don’t have the same amount of free time to pursue them.
The 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement — of 400,000 undergraduates at nearly 700 colleges — found that engineers studied five hours longer per week on average than their social science classmates. That may not sound like much. But it adds up over time. Social science students have 75 more hours of free time per 15-week semester, which totals to 25 days at the end of their senior year. Engineers were also the group to most frequently report that they attended class without finishing all of their assignments.
“You can’t do [a] 40-hour computer science project and also be part of the Lobster Club,” said Sachs Scholar Hans Hanley ’18, an electrical engineering concentrator, or else, “you’re going to drown in your work.” During his own time at Princeton, he said that he didn’t become very involved with extracurricular activities until his junior year because he was studying all the time as an underclassman.
Hanley observed that engineers mainly stick with one activity when they do join clubs. Some of his peers, though, focused their attention solely on academics. “People who are at the top [in STEM] are like, ‘This is my job. This is the only thing I’m going to do,’” he said.
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HALS and STEM inhabit separate worlds, with a few subjects like economics falling in between. One is nebulous, and the other is concrete. One needs human interaction, and the other — while benefiting from teamwork — can fall into a solitary daily routine. Engineers’ career prospects are generally more pipelined and straightforward than those of classicists. Seminars on literature, religion, and history are small, allowing everyone to debate competing ideas in the pursuit of truth. There’s little to argue about in introductory calculus, whose problems have been solved for the past four centuries.
Although these variations in academic cultures exist, I’d wager that the Princetonians in them aren’t radically different. Drop a physics student in the Spanish department or an economics major in a biology class, and they would do the same things as their peers in studying, asking questions, and going to office hours.
Departments can have a role in bridging disciplinary divides that are present in these awards. STEM, for example, should encourage its students to consider studying abroad — before and after graduation — or it could more often strike up conversations on topics other than problem sets during office hours. The world would benefit from having more scientists who reflect upon their work’s effects on society.
Similarly, HALS departments could learn from STEM by exposing their students to a wider variety of career paths if the impression grows over time that attending overseas graduate schools is their only viable future. Until these differences narrow, selection committees ought to be aware of them when assessing applicants.
One could argue that STEM representation — specifically among fellowship recipients — doesn’t matter because their career prospects are better defined (with higher pay) than their peers in other disciplines. They can be successful without graduate school overseas, so what scarce funds are available should go to those who would most benefit from them to find their careers, namely people who are in the humanities and social sciences.
I’ll concede the point that STEM fields have more and clearer career paths available to them. But the idea that STEM job prospects are always or often this way isn’t always true. Pursuing a future in science related to public service — an aspect that seems to be valued in the selection process — and policymaking is an ambiguous path. The differences between departments make it difficult for them to compete against, say, politics or English majors. Nor does it even mean that a STEM student on a defined career trajectory — perhaps an aspiring civil engineer — wouldn’t benefit from taking a few years off to contemplate his or her life.
There are probably more STEM students out there who are interested in opportunities like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. They just don’t have perfect GPAs or can’t get eight letters of recommendation.
The solution I propose is to expand the application requirements so that they capture a broader swath of talented students.
To give a few concrete suggestions: Don’t expect a laundry list of extracurricular activities from everyone. Sustained involvement in one club by a student who’s in a time-intensive major can be sufficiently impressive. Asking for a submission of a student’s best work — with their professor’s comments — might be helpful.
Awards that require a burdensome number of recommendation letters or asking professors to voluntarily nominate people give the upper hand to HALS subjects. These data and interviews show that STEM students on average simply can’t match their HALS classmates in faculty connections because class sizes simply aren’t in their favor. It would be equally problematic to judge students by the amount of laboratory research they’ve completed. The STEM concentrators would clearly have an advantage.
To increase representation across majors for university-wide awards like the Pyne Prize, require every department to submit a name for consideration. Reach out to people who know the most appealing candidates, as already happens for valedictorian finalists.
No selection process is perfect. But they can at least minimize biases in their criteria. Then, it’s up to the applicants to compete.
This is the fifth article in a series examining the outcomes of academic awards.
Liam O’Connor is a senior geosciences concentrator from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.