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This is a something I'm really concerned about. I am an undergraduate physics major, and I've been in the honors program at my university for a little while now, and that means certain things. I must take at least 1-2 honors courses (or do an honors-contract in a normal course) every semester, I must make a yearly update to a personal portfolio/e-portfolio, I must obtain a sufficient amount of research-group credit hours before I graduate, and I must defend an undergraduate thesis.

I do like all of this, but what starts to bother me is one other requirement, as well as a few things within the program. We must attend at least one 'Honors Student Council' event per semester (not a big deal, but these are ridiculous/stupid most of the time). Also, most of the other students in the program are snobs and stuck-up compared to other non-honors students. I do like the chance to learn a lot more about the material presented in my classes through honors and course-contracted classes, but I'm starting to think that I could just do that on my own - that is, set that up with professors on my own.

However, I don't really know how useful having an 'honors' distinction on a degree will be. Is it very useful? I've been thinking of quiting the honors program, but I wouldn't want to do it if it will drastically hurt me later on. For example, how much of an impact does having an honors distinction have on graduate school/job applications?

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    If you're going to do most of the work anyway, why not also do the one unpleasant thing each semester so that you can get credit for the program? – Bill Barth Dec 1 '14 at 15:38
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    ...and I must defend an undergraduate thesis. Is this only for honor students? If yes and you want to apply later for a MSc or a PHD this is a major advantage. – Alexandros Dec 1 '14 at 16:11
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    @Alexandros You can get a thesis without being in the Honors program where I'm at. However, the Honors program required that or a capstone where I went. – Compass Dec 1 '14 at 16:15
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    I recommend an honors student learn that you don't make plurals with an apostrophe. – Almo Dec 1 '14 at 18:43
  • @ArturoDonJuan I wouldn't quite put it that way... :) – Almo Dec 2 '14 at 0:54
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It depends on your reasons for being in the Honors program.

Are you in it for the extra line or two you have on your CV or diploma, or the learning experience, or the potential opportunities that arise from your undergraduate institution?

Look carefully at how you've "sold" the Honors College to us. A list of requirements, a mention of a waste of time, and pointing out that you can do everything the HC provides to you without assistance. You come across as dissatisfied with the system.

I am going to try and be as objective as possible, given how I also feel dissatisfied with my time in the Honors program, and be as fair as I can about the situation's pro/cons.

In it for the Learning Experience

If you're in for the learning experience, by all means, it is certainly a learning experience. One of my courses in my Honors program, I learned a significant amount about leadership, and drastically improved my writing skills. I certainly would still have been a terrible writer if not for that class, and that's a plus in my book for how Honors helped me. That being said, not all of the Honors courses are that great. I assume that your program may require you to take classes outside your major to fulfill enrichment requirements. I would recommend you find something that isn't only useful, but interesting. I took a class about the Beatles because it fit my schedule, and that probably could have been replaced with something much better.

For the Resume/CV

If you're looking for stuff to put on your resume, there's probably far more time-efficient and cost-efficient methods. Assuming 1 hour a semester for 8 12-week semesters, plus perhaps 4 hours of other Honors-related stuff per semester, that's about 130 hours of time spent to just add the Honors distinction to your degree. May not seem like many hours, but that's equivalent to 10 credits in a 120 credit degree. Add in the possibility of unrelated Honors courses, and it starts turning into 15-20 credits that could have been spent on other courses. I do not believe you have to be in the Honors program to qualify for Honors-related work, and in fact, I would assume non-Honors students can take your classes anyways.

Potential Opportunities in Research

The thesis/capstone projects provided by the Honors program do provide the ability to perform research projects at the undergraduate level and are likely the most high-yield activities you can get as an Honors student. If you capitalize on this, you should be able to do research in a lab at your university and write, present, and possibly even publish a paper. This is probably one of the few things you can benefit from. If you don't use this, it's a wasted opportunity for sure.

The question becomes whether or not the time spent in the Honors program is worth the additional benefits. After finishing the Honors program, no one asked me "Oh, did you go to the Honors program? Tell me about it." They did, however, ask me about stuff I learned through Honors courses. It's nice to see that I have a certificate for it, but apart from that, once you graduate, whether or not you attended the Honors College matters less than how you capitalized on it.

In case it wasn't apparent, I attended an Honors program in college to completion.

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Being an Honors student is a prime example of signaling: you could just as well learn the content by yourself, but having that distinction on your degree signals something to potential employers or grad school admission committees. And those people hope that this signal correlates with something useful, e.g., flexibility in thinking, openness to new ideas, conscientiousness etc. (Yes, being able to sit through boring meetings can be a survival skill in many bureaucratic settings.)

It has been seriously suggested that much of higher education is explained by a signaling model.

So you will need to weigh the current pain of boring meetings and uninteresting people against potential future benefits. Your trade-off will depend on what else you could be doing in the time you could free up by de-Honoring.


I personally have profited from being a member of a similar German institution. When I applied for a job in a (mature) startup, one of the founders, who happened to be a university professor, saw this in my CV, and he explicitly said that this helped me get an interview.

4

Let me add to other answers (this may be a little too long for a comment): depending on what you want to do, you can potentially do things a lot better for your career outside of the honors college. I was in a similar position, and got "kicked out" of my honors college my sophomore or junior year because I refused to take so many honors courses. Instead I spent my time taking a lot of advanced math/CS classes (many graduate level), and the honors college director wouldn't let them more than a couple count as honors credit. (I actually enjoyed most of my honors classes till then, and was friends with a lot of the honors college, including the director.)

I ended up finishing with a dual math/cs degree and a masters in math in 4 years, which I wouldn't have done if I had to spend more of my time taking honors classes. This was much better preparation for grad school (or many industry jobs). So I would say it depends on your situation (other answers mention pros of being in the honors college), but if it prevents you from doing other things you want to do, it's not worth it.

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Noting your comments:

We must attend at least one 'Honors Student Council' event per semester (not a big deal, but these are ridiculous/stupid most of the time). Also, most of the other students in the program are snobs and stuck-up compared to other non-honors students. I do like the chance to learn a lot more about the material presented in my classes through honors and course-contracted classes, but I'm starting to think that I could just do that on my own - that is, set that up with professors on my own.

I can imagine this not fitting well with you but to be honest, 30 years on, I actually feel that learning to do the above will be of HUGE benefit to you because:

  • you'll learn to deal with snobs just like in the working world.
  • you'll learn patience at doing sub-optimal 'ridiculous' tasks. Real world training.
  • you'll learn to to engage, agree, disagree and discuss subjects with other that don't share your opinions.
  • you'll get to engage with others from widely different backgrounds bringing perspectives you may not have thought of.

Apply these lessons quickly now and save yourself a lot of years of learning them slowly. You may feel that these are not the important lessons to learn while in higher education but personally experience has taught me the opposite.

3

I can speak at least for myself in saying that I wouldn't give any extra weight to a resume or graduate school application specifically for going through the Honors program. In an interview, I might learn that some of the specific things you did in your specific honors program do make you more qualified, but I can't really take that for granted just from seeing the line on your transcript or diploma. For example, if you took an interesting/challenging Honors class wherein you demonstrated an exceptionally deep level of understanding in some given concept or demonstrated other useful skills like writing, speaking, teamwork, leadership, etc., telling me about that during an interview would certainly benefit you toward me recommending that you get the position. However, this would be true if you took such a course regardless of whether you completed the whole Honors program or not. The same situation would be true with the undergraduate thesis if you were applying for graduate school. If I read about what you did in your thesis, that would certainly benefit you, but that would again be true regardless of whether you were in the Honors program.

I would also say that this probably varies by field. My field is Computer Science/Software Engineering. My experience in undergrad, at least, was that my university's Honors program was focused much more on humanities than on the sciences or engineering. The vast majority of the Honors courses past the Freshman level were in the liberal arts areas. As such, I imagine that such a program would have been much more useful to someone in those fields than it would have been to me. As far as those who were in engineering, my experience was that the vast majority of the top science and engineering students were not in the Honors program. Among the science and engineering majors, it seemed that being part of the Honors program was much more common among somewhat-above-average students than it was among exceptional students. I can generally tell whether you're above average just by looking at your transcript without regard for whether or not you were in the Honors program, so I don't really gain much information about you just from seeing that line.

You also mentioned that your impression of most of the people in the Honors program at your school were arrogant/stuck-up. This was generally my impression at my school, as well. Since that's obviously not a desirable trait for either an employee or a graduate student, having this on your resume or CV may actually hurt you a bit among those who have had such impressions of Honors programs. On the other hand, it could help you if the person reviewing the resume or CV had a positive impression of the Honors program at their school or of previous candidates who had completed such programs, as Stephan mentioned.

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I must take at least 1-2 honors courses (or do an honors-contract in a normal course) every semester, I must make a yearly update to a personal portfolio/e-portfolio, I must obtain a sufficient amount of research-group credit hours before I graduate, and I must defend an undergraduate thesis.

An important consideration is that the definition of an Honors degree varies tremendously between institutions. Judging by what you have said, your institution requires quite a lot of its Honors students, but every institution is different. (For instance, the university I currently attend is happy to hand out Honors degrees like candy.)

So no one who is not from your institution is necessarily going to know what that phrase "with Honors" on your degree actually means. If their own experience with Honors degrees is from places that take them less seriously, they won't know all of the work you had to do to earn yours.

Is your advanced coursework, portfolio, and undergraduate research experience highly beneficial for your future in physics? Of course. But if you have done all those things, I'm not sure how much additional value the phrase "with Honors" on your diploma will add.

If nothing else, don't expect anyone outside your university to know how much or how little work your Honors degree entailed.

  • Depends on how well known your university is in the area. If your job interviewers are alumni of your school, the "Honors" distinction may carry some weight. But if you're only applying to places far away or places with people who are unfamiliar with your school, then you're absolutely right – Ben Bitdiddle Jan 21 '15 at 8:13
  • Also, it seems that even the phrase "with honors" has some difference in meaning between institutions. In my experience, most institutions use "with honors" (or its Latin equivalent, "cum laude") to mean that your GPA was at or above a certain level, which is unrelated to whether or not you were part of the Honors program. – reirab Apr 24 '15 at 17:58
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I think this has been answered better by the others already, but the Honor's program will open doors and provide opportunities that might not otherwise come your way. I wasn't in an honor's program but I did graduate with Math and Physics degrees, and unless you're already planning a career in academia, you will need those opportunities. Just my two cents. :)

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I've had my older son start in an Honors program only to be annoyed by frivolous and pedantic courses obviously feeding the egos a some Honor professors. It's these fluff classes that make me want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Students can and should take fluff classes of their choosing. Obviously, my older son got out of the honors program; he failed to see the return.

My younger son never entertained the idea - he would manage his own broadening. Choosing not to go the Honors route actually makes my younger son an unwelcome interloper when Honors students are paraded around as 'better'. He's taken advantage of all the research opportunities of the fine university he attends, found his set of advisers, and has been remarkably successful as an undergrad and will pursue his PHD at a world class institution - but no thanks to his Department which still sneers at this non-Honors punk ruining their party.

All the pluses for the Honors programs, the third place to grow mind and soul with peers that my son found in clubs and such to some extent but was really denied because he wasn't in the Honors program underscores why he didn't join the Honors program - the very real cronyism and elitism - is distasteful at best.

The fact that he's a student who should be celebrated but is at best tolerated because his success dampens the Honors parade vividly highlights the sense of entitlement of those RUNNING the Honors programs - they expect their students to get all the awards and such - deserving or not. This isn't a matter of sour grapes - my son landed a dream PHD opportunity where he's been picked up by one the premier scientists in the world in his field. I'm just pissed that he's had to bob and weave his way around these Honors obstacles.

Again I repeat - it is the Honors professors themselves who have the vested interest in their little golden gooses who foist their brand of elitism onto the unlucky 'rest'. People call the Honors programs meritocracies - hogwash. They may compete among themselves but at the end of the day they and their teachers expect that they'll walk to the front of the line - right past the 'rest'.

So, not a fan of your little Honors programs. Honors programs need to understand that they showcase some of the best students NOT all of the best students. Their hubris pisses me off to no end. If you'll note that it is implied by all Honors fans that the best of the best ARE there and if you're not then you're one of the 'rest'. That's not elitist? Until they understand that they're just some of the best or even many of the best, then I think the undermine their own core value of meritocracy.

  • I'm very sorry for this. That said, I suspect your son's experience was unusual. At least it would not have happened in our department, where we eagerly celebrate and support our strong students whether they are enrolled in the Honors program or not. – Anonymous Apr 1 '16 at 14:27
  • Also, let me add (and I think that this is relatively typical) that our Honors program is not administered by our department. There is a university-wide Honors program, and our department's relationship to it is that they give us money. We can use this to run extra courses with small enrollments which would not happen otherwise. The catch is that the Honors College is looking out for their students and imposes hurdles for other students who want to take these courses. Sometimes we can get around these hurdles on behalf of our best students, and sometimes we can't. – Anonymous Apr 1 '16 at 14:32
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At my university the Honors college has a fair amount of money, which supports some additional classes intended for Honors students. In some cases these are only available to students in the Honors college; in others, non-Honors students can take these classes but there is some annoying bureaucracy involved.

If it were me, I would find dealing with this bureaucracy more annoying than sitting through the 'Honors Student Council'. You could always prepare a physics problem in advance and then try to solve it in your head during the meeting.

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