Advice: Want a scientific career? Get your bachelor’s at a liberal arts college.

I got my B.A. (not B.Sc.!) from Williams College, a small liberal arts college. That makes me somewhat unusual. Most professional ecologists went to large universities as undergraduates*, simply because large universities train so many more undergraduates than small liberal arts colleges. I have the impression that many professional ecologists aren’t entirely familiar with liberal arts colleges as a training ground for future PhDs, which is completely understandable. So I decided to do a little “eye opener” post on liberal arts colleges as a training ground for future scientific professionals. Nothing in this post is at all a criticism of big universities. But like I said, I think their undoubted virtues are familiar to everyone in science. The same isn’t true for liberal arts colleges.

Liberal arts colleges aren’t for everyone, and elite ones in particular can be expensive.** But if you think they’re poor preparation for a career in a scientific or technical field (or at least, inferior to big universities), you should think again. On a per-student basis, the institutions most successful at training future Ph.D.s in all fields (except engineering) are mostly liberal arts colleges. Heck, liberal arts college students often go on to advanced degrees in fields they didn’t even major in! And while that’s in part because the most selective liberal arts colleges admit only excellent students who likely would succeed no matter where they went, that’s absolutely not the whole story. As evidenced by comparing per-capita rates of future PhD production between highly selective liberal arts colleges and even more-selective research universities.

Why are liberal arts colleges such good training grounds for future scientific professionals? Well, here’s an oldish but wonderful essay from HHMI investigator (i.e. really high-powered researcher) and Grinnell College alum Thomas Cech comparing science education at liberal arts colleges and research universities. Basically, there’s a lot more to effective undergraduate science education than just the opportunity to do research projects in big labs filled with grad students and postdocs. Everything Cech has to say jives with my own experience.

Again, college is a very personal choice, and the right choice for any student depends on a bazillion considerations. All I’m saying is, don’t write off liberal arts colleges–for yourself, or for anyone asking you for advice–based on an ungrounded, vague, or secondhand view of how good they are at training future scientific professionals. Be aware as well that liberal arts colleges vary a lot, on various axes–don’t think that if you know one, you know them all.

If you’re already a student at a liberal arts college, and thinking of going on in science, don’t worry, your choice of college almost certainly hasn’t closed any doors or set you back. Your undergraduate training will be different in some ways from what you would’ve gotten at a big university–but it won’t be worse. Indeed, in many respects, it’ll probably be better.

And if you’re a prof considering a liberal arts college undergrad as a prospective grad student, give them the same consideration you’d give someone from a big university. You’ll be glad you did.

*Although coincidentally, no one who writes for this blog did…

**At least in terms of “sticker price”; I’m not going to get into a discussion of financial aid packages.

13 thoughts on “Advice: Want a scientific career? Get your bachelor’s at a liberal arts college.

  1. As a tenure-track professor at a liberal arts institution, I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. We do have excellent students, and we focus on them while also focusing on our research. We focus on them in classes, in the lab, in advising and mentoring. I would also strongly recommend these institutions as a place to work for those interested in doing excellent research with undergraduates. You don’t give up research to be at a place like where I am employed. In fact, I have a research expectation built right into my job and it comes with a teaching release.

    • Thanks for your comments George. You’ve raised one among many points that folks who went to big universities often don’t realize: faculty at many, many liberal arts colleges are expected to have active research programs. And the fact that those research programs must, of necessity, be based solely on undergrads obliges faculty to focus a lot of attention on the undergrads and to ask a lot of them, which is very much to the benefit of the undergrads.

  2. Jeremy said, “Most professional ecologists went to large universities as undergraduates*” and
    “*Although coincidentally, no one who writes for this blog did…” Ahem, cough cough, ahem. I went to Cornell, which isn’t as big as some schools, but definitely counts as a large university. 🙂

    I’m actually surprised that, in your experience, people seem to discount liberal arts colleges. It was certainly clear to me as a grad student that a lot of my fellow grad students came from liberal arts colleges.

    • Sorry Meg, but as universities go, Cornell (~14,000 undergrads) is not really large (I’d say it’s medium-sized) 😉 Neither is Harvard (where Brian went; ~6,700 undergrads). Your current employer is large. 😉

      Re: people discounting liberal arts colleges, this post was inspired by a previous (unrelated) post in which a couple of folks discounted liberal arts colleges in the comments. I actually wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how widespread such discounting is. But it seems plausible to me that it might be fairly widespread (though far from universal, I’m sure), so “just in case” I figured I’d do a little post on it.

      • Okay, so if you’re defining things that way, I’m maybe more doubtful of the claim that most professional ecologists went to large universities as undergraduates (if “large” is on the scale of the University of Michigan or University of Texas-Austin). It would be interesting to know. Do you know of data on this?

      • Ok, fair enough. I just meant for this post to be a bit of an eye opener, nothing as formal as a quantitative analysis. No, I don’t have the data you’re asking about.

  3. 1) Is getting a PhD necessarily a measure of success?
    2) Perhaps liberal arts colleges are better in some respects, but are they really $50-100k better?

    • Sorry, both your questions are off topic. The post asks where students who get PhDs get their undergraduate degrees, not where “successful” students get their undergraduate degrees. And as I said in the post, I’m not going to get into financial aid issues. Please stay on topic.

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  8. I know this blog post is about eight years old, but it touches on an issue that I’m currently ruminating on. Perhaps one of the contributing authors of Dynamic Ecology would consider revisiting this topic?
    I’m a grade 12 student in Canada who needs to choose between two programs. One is an EEEB degree at the larger and higher ranked University of Alberta. The other is a Wildlife and Fisheries degree at the smaller, primarily undergraduate University of Northern British Columbia. I prefer the wildlife-focused courses and specialisation offered by UNBC to the more general program breadth of uAlberta, but I’m worried that attending the smaller and less prestigious UNBC would negatively affect any future chances of getting into graduate school. Are there any blog posts that examine how the prestige of an applicant’s undergraduate school affects their chances of getting into Grad school?

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