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.