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Want a PhD in Science or Engineering? Go to a Liberal Arts College!

High school students and parents usually assume that an academically talented student who aspires to attain a doctorate in the sciences or in engineering should attend a major research university.  The assumption is that students in research universities will have greater opportunities to pursue research as an undergraduate and to make the academic connections necessary to succeed in their fields.

While it is true that Carnegie I research universities do churn out a high number of students who later go on to earn doctorates, many small liberal arts colleges actually churn out equal numbers of such students. In fact, given their small size, these small, liberal arts colleges prepare a disproportionate number of future doctoral candidates.

And if you don’t believe me, you can ask the National Science Foundation, which keeps track of such things. Here’s a snipped from an InfoBrief that summarizes a more detailed report on the academic origins of doctoral recipients in the United States.

Baccalaureate colleges graduate relatively small numbers of undergraduate degree holders compared to doctorate- and master’s-granting institutions. How- ever, when normalized by the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded, the baccalaureate colleges as a group yield more future S&E doctorates per hundred bachelor’s awarded than other types of institutions, except research universities (figure 1). A group of 50 small, private baccalaureate schools (the Oberlin 50) was studied in the mid-1980s and was found at that time to contribute greatly to producing future S&E doctorates.  These schools have long outproduced (by yield) even the research universities. Over the 1997–2006 decade, the yield ratios of all of these types of institutions and the differences among types of institutions varied little, with slight drops in yield through 2002 reflecting de- clining numbers of S&E doctorates awarded.

The reason for this disproportionate number of future PhDs produced by liberal arts colleges are hard to discern, but here are my general hypotheses:

  • Selective liberal arts colleges attract very intellectually capable and curious students, many of whom enjoy scientific inquiry and are excited by pursuing science as a profession.
  • Liberal arts colleges are teaching institutions, focused on the undergraduate, where students can more easily develop strong personal and professional relationships with faculty mentors.
  • Many science professors at liberal arts colleges were themselves educated at liberal arts colleges, reinforcing and modeling the idea that liberal arts grads can pursue research degrees upon graduation.
  • Undergrads at liberal arts colleges  may actually have more opportunity to do substantive research than their peers at research universities.  Professors at liberal arts colleges do not have armies of graduate students to assist them with their own research: rather, these professors much employ undergraduates to help them in their labs.  Often the work undergrads perform at these teaching institutions  is more substantive than that which undergrads at Carnegie I institutions may perform.

The bottom line is that the assumption that one must attend a research university as an undergraduate in order to prepare for a scientific career is false.  Of course, you may prefer to attend a Carnegie I institution as an undergraduate for other reasons.  But if you hanker for a future in scientific research, you will be just as well-prepared if you attend a selective liberal arts college–especially those who are members of the Oberlin Group.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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