In the spring of 1771, a young James Madison was about to graduate from Princeton when he made a choice that many seniors today might understand — he asked President John Witherspoon to let him stay one more year, becoming the college’s first grad student.
Regardless of how many graduates may wish for more time on campus as they exit FitzRandolph Gate, few will re-enter as graduate students. Though there is no explicit policy against admitting Princeton undergraduates to the graduate program, there is “a prevailing sense among faculty in many departments that students are better served by experiencing the culture and approach of the field at a different, but comparably distinguished, university for their Ph.D. studies,” said William Russel, dean of the graduate school.
Shira Billet ’08 GS weighed that advice when she was choosing a doctoral program, but decided Princeton was the best fit: “The work that was being done in my subfield in the religion department was the kind of work that I wanted to participate in.”
Last year the graduate school enrolled a total of 64 undergraduate alumni. In the economics department, students are encouraged to go elsewhere for their doctoral degrees, said Professor Bo Honoré, director of graduate admissions. “As a very general statement, wanting to work with one’s undergraduate adviser sounds quite narrow-minded,” he said. No undergraduate alumni have returned for graduate work in English in at least a decade, said department chair William Gleason.
The sense that undergraduates should leave their alma maters to pursue doctoral work is common across many peer institutions, said chemistry professor Michael Hecht, although remaining for a master’s degree is more common. MIT, for instance, welcomes back many of its students to its master of engineering program.
The Woodrow Wilson School offers Princeton’s largest master’s program. John Templeton, associate dean for graduate admissions, said it’s a myth that Princeton undergraduates cannot return for policy school, but only about five apply each year.
The numbers at Princeton may be changing. In September a trustee committee on diversity recommended that the University encourage talented undergraduates to pursue graduate degrees at Princeton. Given efforts to diversify graduate enrollment, said Russel, “a thoughtful process for encouraging more Princeton A.B. and B.S.E. graduates [to apply] may be appropriate.”