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Fewer than six degrees of separation: the small world of higher education

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category

six degreesSeven months ago, almost on an impulse, I decided I wanted to spend summer 2014 doing research back in Boston (home to my undergrad institution), instead of at Stanford. To this end, I started looking into possible research mentors, and after browsing through the Boston Children’s Hospital website, I found one person whose research interests aligned with my own, sent this person an e-mail and went back to studying for finals. Less than an hour later, I received a response. Two days later, we spoke on the phone. By the end of the week, I was all set for a summer in Boston.

What struck me the most about this entire exchange was not the speed with which it was conducted but the happenstance that accompanied it: I found out during the phone meeting that my now-mentor had actually attended Stanford medical school as well! What, I wondered, were the odds that the single person I chose to e-mail had graduated from the same institution that I now attended?

I thought about this coincidence more in the months that followed, and the more I thought about it, the less it felt like pure luck. Indeed, the past year has shown me just how small the world of higher education can be. Nearly 50 percent of my 102-person med school class comes from four institutions: Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford. One of my closest friends in medical school not only went to college with both the girls I’m living with this summer but also lived with one of my current roommates during a summer in undergrad. One of the other med students with whom I’m working with this summer gave med-school advice to the girlfriend of one of my undergrad buddies and – get this – both this coworker and I, unknowingly, performed at the same dance competition last year.

Moments like these make me feel that the “six degrees of separation” theory would more appropriately be called the “two (or fewer) degrees of separation” theory in the world of higher education. And what I’m wondering is whether or not this is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I love playing the Name Game when I meet someone new (“Hi, I’m Hamsika! Where are you from? Yale? Oh, wait – do you know person X, person Y, or person Z? You know all three! No way!”). But there’s something to be said for diversity, not only in terms of race and culture (the two that seem to receive the most media buzz) but in terms of educational background, as well.

I summarized my thoughts on this “small world of higher education” phenomenon to a Harvard Med friend (incidentally, I met this friend at Stanford Med’s Admit Weekend) a few nights ago, and his response was – “Well, it kind of makes sense. If you go to a school like Harvard for undergrad, you’re probably going to end up at a similarly high-ranked institution for grad school. And,” he added as almost an afterthought, “your parents are probably decently well-off, as well.”

Could it be that we're creating a self-perpetuating cycle in which the world of higher education becomes smaller and smaller and those who miss the “train,” per se, particularly at the “station” of undergrad education, are “derailed”?

I can’t say I know the right answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, as the topic of education – as you might notice from the two-liner at the end of each of my entries – is of particular interest to me. Feel free to add a comment below!

Hamsika Chandrasekar just finished her first year at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics. 

Photo by Beth Kanter

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