Why Study Classics? Does It Get You Into Med School?

Yesterday way semi-confusing for me … on the one hand, there was this great piece in the Guardian (one of their ‘subject profiles’):

What will I learn?
A degree in the classics will offer you the chance to delve into the ancient past to study the language, history, culture and literature of the two civilisations that led the world for centuries.

The period covered in classics courses begins at the arrival of Greek speakers in mainland Greece around the beginning of the second millennium BC and stretches to the end of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD.

What you study will depend on the degree you pick and the university. Courses are typically divided up into ancient Greek, Latin, classical studies/ civilisation and ancient history, each of which will have a different emphasis. Another option is a combined course with archaeology.

Of course, to fully understand and appreciate this subject, you need to immerse yourself in it, and that means learning the language and paying a visit.

Some universities will make modules in Greek or Latin a compulsory part of the course; for others they may be optional or offered in addition to the regular study areas – either way, learning the language is worth the effort to fully understand the outstanding range of texts that the subject offers.

Universities may also offer the chance to study overseas, in Greece or Italy, to help bring all that theory to life.

What skills will I gain?
Some have argued that there are no practical reasons for studying classics, but they couldn’t be more wrong.

True, you won’t come away with the practical ability to mix chemicals safely, design a house, or understand the workings of the human mind, but you will be able analyse complex information and relate it to the modern world.

You will be able to assess the failings and successes of leaders and political systems. And your subject will include a range of subjects – art, literature, history, science, Jewish, and eastern studies and philosophy – which can all be used to develop understanding of today’s multicultural society.

If you persevere with a language, you’ll also demonstrate commitment and show off your translation skills – not a skill common to other students outside specific language degrees.

And any time abroad is evidence of an independent streak.

What job can I get?
It has been said (usually by classics professors) that a degree in classics will not prepare you for a specific job, but will, in fact, prepare you for life. And there’s some truth in that.

While a career in academia is certainly high up on the list of job options, classics graduates have been known to go into law, medicine, education, science, business, journalism, heritage and the diplomatic service. It’s the invaluable soft skills (commitment, leadership, communication, teamwork) that you will get from this degree that will put you in a good position for just about anything.

What will look good on the CV?
• The understanding of other cultures.
• The ability to extract key elements from data.
• A grasp of language and translation skills.

For the full range of skills you can develop through a degree in classics, click here (pdf).

… the pdf is useful … That said, I was somewhat gobsmacked to follow that one up with something from what-I-thought-was-the-venerable US News:

Students who can read the Hippocratic Oath in the original Greek may be more likely than their peers to get into medical school. At least that’s a claim that appears on websites of classics programs at Georgetown University, Missouri Valley College, Villanova University, and dozens of other colleges and universities across the country.

Many of the Greek and Latin departments at those schools link to The Princeton Review’s website, which quotes the Association of American Medical Colleges as saying that students who major or double-major in classics—the study of the language, culture, and history of ancient Greece and Rome—have “a better success rate getting into medical school than do students who concentrate solely in biology, microbiology, and other branches of science.”

Classics majors’ communications and analytical skills, mastery of grammar, and “breadth of view which few other disciplines can provide,” serves them well, according to The Princeton Review.

However, neither The Princeton Review site nor the dozens of college and university websites direct readers to statistical data. And Henry Sondheimer, AAMC’s senior director of student affairs and student programs, says none of his colleagues has suggested anything of the sort in the four years he’s been working at the AAMC.

The closest thing the AAMC has found, Sondheimer says, is that on average, nonscience majors fare slightly better on the MCATs.

Cynthia Bannon, associate professor of classics at Indiana University—Bloomington, says she doesn’t know of any studies of classics majors and medical school admissions, but if one exists she’d love to see it.

“We do know that our classics majors fare well in the medical school application process, winning acceptance and fellowship support,” Bannon says. “We have been told that a major in Greek or Latin helps the candidate to stand out from the pack.”

IU—Bloomington’s classics program website states that one of the things medical school admissions committees appreciate is “high accomplishment in many academic majors, including classics.” Bannon, who is also director of undergraduate studies at the school, adds that classics programs give students “a portable set of analytical and verbal skills that are useful for studying medicine” and “makes them good at communicating with patients.”

However, one medical school admissions officer says classics majors’ rumored advantages are all Greek to her.

Greek and Latin majors and minors “gain linguistic and analytical skills” that “have proved highly useful” for physicians, among other types of professionals, according to the website of the classics program at University of California—Los Angeles. But Lili Fobert, director of admissions at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, isn’t convinced.

“Medical schools quite often look for students that are well rounded, and maybe that’s what they meant,” she says of classics programs. “Major is irrelevant to us.”

Charles McNelis, assistant professor of classics at Georgetown, sat on a premed committee at the university. “Sorry, I have no data, just anecdotes,” he says. “[O]ne of the things that the scientists [on the committee] lauded about Classics majors was that they understood how to conceptualize larger problems by paying attention to details.”

Classics training can help develop “useful ways of thinking,” McNelis says, though etymologies “are probably not all that significant in helping students.”

Pamela Sklar, chief of the Division of Psychiatric Genomics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, holds a B.A. in classics and philosophy from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md.

Sklar says three classmates out of 70 at St. John’s, which she says is often called “the Great Books School,” also went on to medical school—”a measurable but not huge percentage.”

“I advise people to pursue what they are most driven to do; if that is classics, so be it. Habits of logical, clear thinking are helpful, but there are many ways to develop these skills,” she says. “There are many ways to skin this cat.”

First of all, what the heck would be the impetus to write an article like this in the first place, other than to hit Classics, and hit it exactly at the time when people are applying to universities for the fall? I also don’t like the fact that it criticizes Classics for not presenting links to statistics, then proceeds to write and article which similarly does not appear to have any statistical basis in the other direction. This is really yellow journalism in the ‘Occupy’ era.

That said, is is not time that all the big Classics associations (APA, CAC, CA) got together and funded a major study of what happens to Classics majors upon graduation? How many apply to med school? How many get in? How many go on to graduate degrees? How many go on to other forms of employment? And it would be really useful to look ‘down the road’ a bit and track graduates 5 or 10 years after their degree. In terms of both outreach and protecting programs, this seems to be a really basic thing to do. I used to rant about such things on the Classics list years ago … it still needs to be done and I strongly suspect most Classicists think it should be done.

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4 thoughts on “Why Study Classics? Does It Get You Into Med School?

    • I can’t figure out why someone — in US News — would bother to write something like this. Why go out of your way to attack Classics? Is it because Med schools are among the faculties that produce the 1%? And surely most folks in Classics, no matter how successful, would be part of the 99%, no? Maybe not … I just cannot wrap my head around the motivation for such an article in such a newspaper.

  1. The reason the APA has not done anything in this regard is because they have zero concern for majors who leave the discipline. The APA “Careers for Classicists” guide in almost wholly dedicated to entering the professoriate. There are a few pages on high school Laitn teaching jobs. There is barely 1 page for those who do not fit the two categories above, and it tells them that they should seek out their campus placement office for guidance about what to do with their major.

    We have met the enemy, and he is us!

    • Very true; I suspect they would argue ‘other professional organizations don’t worry about what happens to folks who don’t get a job in their discipline, so why should we?’. But other disciplines don’t depend on those ‘other folks’ to ensure their discipline is high profile enough to ensure its survival. I have never understood why the connection never seems to be made …

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