Question: Is the Harvard ALM a good fit for me?

I received an email from a prospective Harvard ALM student who had stumbled upon my Harvard Extension School blog posts describing the program. She lives overseas, and wanted some honest opinions about the ALM in History program, from which I graduated in 2008. Here is what I said:

The most important question to ask yourself: Why are you starting this program? It will take years and there are some drawbacks (described below). The reasons many students cite include low cost, interest in a particular field, interest in being challenged, interest in using an ALM as a stepping stone to a PhD program, etc. All are valid reasons … but note there are alternative programs that may be more convenient or superior (depending on the field of study).

I also think there are a lot of prospective students who focus on getting a Harvard degree and don’t really care so much about the academics. This is unfortunate, because I think that’s what makes the program so good!

Here are some other issues you should be aware of (note that this is based on my own experience and what I have heard/read in over the years, but it may have changed):

  • The ALM History program is good for certain fields (e.g. American history, some Asian-focused studies) but less so for others — there are not many courses available, and few potential thesis advisors. I would take a close look at the course offerings to make sure there are topics that really interest you.
  • HES has rapidly increased its online offerings, but not all have Harvard faculty members, and even for those online courses that do have Harvard faculty instructors, many are based on pre-recorded lectures which means there are few opportunities to interact with them or even ask questions (that is the responsibility of TAs).
  • I advise distance students to make an effort to take as many on-campus classes as possible, not only because I believe the quality is better but also it is chance to get to know other students and take advantage of other activities on campus.
  • I urge all students, whether they are on-campus or distance, to take as many classes with Harvard faculty as possible. The non-Harvard faculty are good, but if most of your credits are with non-Harvard faculty, what’s the point of coming to HES? For the same reason, I think the new professional ALM programs such as digital media are a step in the wrong direction — there are no Harvard faculty who teach digital media, which means that most instructors will have no Harvard academic affiliation.
  • Regardless of whether you are a distance or an on-campus student, HES does not make much of an effort to have a true cohort experience. For instance, at [redacted] you had an opportunity to bond with the students starting at the same time, and everyone had to take certain core classes at the same time. This is not the way HES works. I had one close friend who happened to take some of the same classes that I did, but HES did not make any effort to have students feel like they are part of a group going through the program together. There was also no “departmental” feeling. What this means is students (especially distance students) tend to feel isolated, and you are really on your own when it comes to pushing yourself forward. It’s lonely!

I finished off my response with the message that I did not want to scare this prospective Harvard ALM student away from the Extension School program — I would do it again in a heartbeat. But there are some real drawbacks that prospective students should be aware of, particularly those taking distance courses.

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