When preparing for a career, a career-specific major might not be the best option, some administrators say.
Students intending to go to a professional graduate school generally complete both the requirements for one of Duke’s traditional major options as well as a set of courses recommended for their intended professional path. There are no pre-professional majors such as pre-health, pre-law or pre-business. Students who intend to be pre-health, for example, have a list of over a dozen courses that are recommended either for medical school applications or MCAT preparations.
“The liberal arts tradition has been around for about 100 years,” said Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs for the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. “[In the United States], we normally don’t have undergraduate degrees that lead to medicine or to law.”
Although other countries have gone down the path of training undergraduates for specific professions, many colleges and universities in the United States are designed to give students a wide range of skills applicable across many different careers, Baker said. As a result, many U.S. educational institutions, especially elite ones, have shied away from “pre-health” or “pre-law” majors.
“In Britain you can do an undergraduate degree in law [or medicine],” said Baker. “But America for over a century has not gone down that road because we’ve had medical schools and law schools.”
Baker said that Duke’s liberal arts curriculum emphasizes depth in an area of knowledge because it allows for innovative thinking and communication with others in a specialized field. As a result, Duke students will generally spend one-third of their courses in a particular field, one-third fulfilling general education requirements and one-third how they like.
“We train people to write persuasively, think logically, really argue and understand a field to the point where they are really literate and conversant in it,” Baker said.
Luke Maier, a sophomore interested in attending law school, argued that the purpose of an undergraduate education is to create well-rounded individuals, rather than train someone for professional school.
“Pre-professional majors are useless,” he said in a Chronicle request for feedback on Facebook. “A pre-professional major could not walk out of Duke and say ‘I am educated’ because that student’s education relies on graduate school. Undergraduate education provides a stand-alone preparation for life.”
Other students felt that Duke already has enough of a pre-professional culture without having specific pre-professional majors.
“I personally think we don’t need more pre-professionalism on campus,” said sophomore Daniel Park in the Facebook feedback request. “Econ, math, stat and compsci pretty much cover the standard ‘finance’ or pre-business track. Pre-med varies but a lot are bio, BME and neuroscience.”
The list of recommended courses for professional graduate schools can be extensive, especially in the case of medical schools. Some students feel that this list of courses gives students as much depth as any major would. It also sometimes deprives them, however, of the ability to choose electives as other students would.
“Though Duke may not have outlined pre-professional majors, it certainly promotes classes that would nevertheless fall under such a major,” said freshman Miguel Guevara in the Facebook feedback request. “The only think lacking is the ‘pre-‘ name.”
Guevara pointed out that the set of chemistry and organic chemistry courses recommended for Duke pre-health students is essentially equivalent to the set of courses a designated pre-health major at another school would complete.
Baker acknowledged that pre-health students do face more constraints than most other students would, but he also said that Duke is thinking of new ways to incorporate pre-health requirements into its curriculum for those who are interested. He pointed to Duke’s global health major, which can be taken in conjunction with another major, as an example of this.
At the end of the day, however, Baker emphasized that Duke wants to give students a more powerful skill set even if they are certain of their future profession.
“We’re not training journalists to go be journalists,” he said. “We’re training really smart students to go do something which has not been invented yet… We’re not training students just to go to grad school.”