Harvard vs Trinity College: guest blog by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh

This post was written by Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, lecturer in Physics at Waterford Institute of Technology

I’m fast approaching the end of my year as a research fellow at Harvard – what an experience! ‘So what was it like?’, a great many colleagues in Ireland have asked. Actually, Harvard reminded me very much of Trinity College Dublin, where I did my PhD – but on a larger-than-life scale.

First, the main Harvard campus is not unlike Trinity. Although the architecture dates from a different period, the campus consists of one large quadrangle, with other quadrangles branching off. All of these beautiful quads boast fine old buildings that serve as lecture halls, libraries, dining halls and student housing. This centralization gives Harvard a great ‘lived-in’ feeling; in this respect, it is resembles a large version of Trinity, in contrast with the dispersed, collegiate system of Oxford and Cambridge.

However, Harvard is situated in the quiet district of Cambridge, Boston, not Dublin city centre. As a result, it has been able to situate its growing graduate schools in the immediate area surrounding the main campus, unlike Trinity. Indeed, much of the area between the main campus and the Charles river is filled with Harvard buildings, from graduate schools in business, law and government to student housing; the whole area is now known as Harvard Square.

What about the academic side of things? Apart from a high number of staff who are stars in their field, it doesn’t feel all that different from other universities. What strikes one most is the sheer diversity of scholarship. Consider science; as well as world-renowned departments in mathematics and physics, Harvard also boasts a famous centre for astronomy and accompanying observatory. As well as prestigious departments in traditional disciplines such as chemistry, biology and the medical sciences, Harvard has a huge History of Science department and accompanying museum. Not many universities can boast these, or Harvard’s well-known programs in Science, Technology and Society.

Academic standards are sky high, as you might imagine. Although I have my doubts about some university ranking systems, there is no denying Harvard comes in at no.1 or 2 in almost every poll. So while TCD comes in at the top of the Irish rankings, Harvard comes in at the top of the world! For my money, this is not just a question of its ability to attract the very best because of its prestige and massive endowment (and yes, they do buy in top professors). It is also the close proximity of MIT and other Boston colleges that makes for a highly competitive, interactive academic environment, at least in the sciences. This is quite a unique situation; there is a daily level of intervarsity interaction that is far beyond that of Oxford and Cambridge, or Trinity and UCD say. Most physics seminars I attended had an even mix of MIT/Harvard personnel, irrespective of where the seminar took place. Indeed, regularly trotting off to MIT was a great treat; it’s a beautiful college where any scientist feels instantly at home, not to mention the awe-inspiring number of spin-off companies ringed around the college. Indeed, MIT’s success at innovation currently far surpasses that of Harvard. Of the ‘Nobel possibles’ I was made aware of (quite a few of those over here), at least as many were MIT. So there’s not much complacency amongst the Harvard scientists. Given the relatively small size of Dublin, it’s a pity this sort of daily interaction between the colleges doesn’t happen much.

What about undergraduate life at Harvard? Here, there is a huge difference with Trinity, and indeed between the American system and the situation in Ireland and Europe. Undergraduate fees at Harvard are in the region of 40-50 thousand dollars per annum, with few scholarships. This is true of a great many of the top colleges in the US and it has major implications for society. May we never go down this road, however bad the funding situation gets. You can also see how corporate jobs that cover kids’ health insurance and college fees have an urgent appeal.

As regards tuition, class sizes can be large (> 50), but there is a huge diversity of modules offered. Students typically have 2 plenary lectures per week, with smaller sectionals run by teaching assistants. There is great emphasis on continuous assessment, with corrections done by teaching assistants rather than the Prof (nice!). Sitting in on some classes, I couldn’t help noticing that a great many students spend precious class-time fooling around on the web, so I think I will ban internet connections in my lectures when I return home.

At postgraduate level, the financial situation is very different. While competition to get into the Harvard postgraduate program is intense, once accepted, the stipends for postgraduates are quite generous. I found the difference between the undergraduate and postgraduate populations quite noticeable; while the general student population is mainly made up of well-heeled young Americans, the postgraduate population seemed to be comprised mainly of Europeans and Asians. I had plenty of time to observe this in one my favourite venues, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. With its own building, dining hall, library and common room, this was a great place to meet scholars of all nationalities and a wide variety of disciplines. A great idea for any college! But isn’t it interesting that the research output of the great Ivy League colleges may rest on students who have in fact been trained in European and Asian universities? We should remember this before we adopt every fashionable trend in U.S. undergraduate education.

I’ve decided to stay in Boston for the summer, writing up my research before returning to WIT in September. I’ll certainly miss Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a vibrant academic environment. More generally, Cambridge Boston is a great place for a European; a liberal, highly-educated bastion of American society, blessedly free from the right wing ideology so increasing pervasive in the US. Back at home, it’s nice to think that the Irish IoTs may someday play MIT to our universities, but I think we have some way to go. More pragmatically, I find it a great drawback being too far from Dublin/Cork to interact with university colleagues on a daily basis…

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8 Comments on “Harvard vs Trinity College: guest blog by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Hi Cormac – thanks for this, it was a fascinating insight into life at Harvard! Some of it I already knew, or thought I knew, but some of it was news, especially the size of the undergraduate classes. I did read somewhere a few years ago that Harvard in particular had realised that it was possible for an undergraduate to complete their entire degree without having enough contact with a full professor for that professor to be in a position to write them a reference. May we never go down that road either, much as I too would love teaching assistants to do my marking!

    Still, clearly an inspiring place for any scholar. Glad you enjoyed your year.

  2. Alan Fekete Says:

    I disagree with the comment that there are “few scholarships” unless one interpretes this narrowly. For US nationals, Harvard operates “need-blind” admission; this means that if a student is accepted, Harvard will provide financial aid (loans, tuition-waiver, or whatever) to bring the cost down to what (in Harvard’s calculations) can be affordable for the student’s family. 70% of students get such aid. See http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/financial_aid/faq.html

    For undergraduate tuition, one needs to distinguish between the introductory or breadth-requirement subjects compared to the “upper-division” specialist subjects that a student takes in their chosen major. The intro classes are often taught in really huge lectures (almost every student takes the intro economics subject, “Ec10”, so there are about 1000 students per semester) and of course, aside from listening to the big-name teacher, and asking questions after class if bold enough, most of the interaction will be with PhD students acting as “teaching assistants” leading recitations/discussions [or problem-solving sessions in science subjects]. However, by the later years, in subjects from the students chosen major, the classes will be smaller, and interaction with the professor much easier. Then, almost all Harvard undergrads do a “senior thesis” research project in their final year. This is one-on-one interaction with a professor.

    Finally, it is important to know that “the stipends for postgraduates are quite generous” applies in the sciences but not usually in the humanities! Many PhD students in humanities are paying for their tuition and living costs, either through previous earnings, loans, or from the income earned by marking and teaching.

  3. Araç Takip Says:

    Great post but I have to agree with Alan on this one.

  4. cormac Says:

    Apologies guys, that’s great news , i was unaware of the need-blind scheme!

  5. Anonymous Harvard recent PhD Says:

    Just a few thoughts on the finances: it’s true that most Harvard students don’t pay full tuition. But I’m not sure educational loans count as real “fellowships” — they are money that needs to be paid back. And they are one of the worst categories of debt in the United States, one of the only ones that cannot be even excused by total bankruptcy. Be not mistaken: Harvard is extremely expensive unless you are in the relatively small categories of people so poor as to pay nothing.

    My experience in the humanities was that most Ph.D. students were not paying for tuition. In G1-2 there is a $30K tuition that is usually part of the financial aid package. In G3-4 there is a reduced tuition ($9K) which in my program was part of financial aid. In G5+ there is a facilities fee ($2K) which is out of pocket. That’s still pretty rough when your income is entirely derived from teaching, and you are expected to be doing your own work on top of things, but it’s not bad. Harvard’s postgraduate funding is extremely good — top 5 in the US or so. (Not always #1; in my field, at least, Princeton was always notoriously better funded. Sometimes a question of how you calculate funding matters, too — some people think having to do a teaching fellowship is a burden, some think it is really important for getting a job.)

    Grad students are a sorry lot at every school, but they’re much better off at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc., than they are practically anywhere else, especially given the volume of them. (If you want to meet truly poor grad students, talk to people at Berkeley — that’s where you find the Ph.D. students who are taking out massive loans just to get a degree that nobody expects to pay very much.)

  6. cormac Says:

    Thanks, AHRPhd – both those comments match my impressions over here

  7. maura connell Says:

    Hi Cormac,
    My son is in his final year in TCD studying Philosophy and Political Science. He would love to do a masters in Harvard or Yale. Is it difficult to go about doing this, is there any funding available for this. I’d really appreciate any information you might have.


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