In a recent EphBlog post, David challenged the conclusion of Eph physicist Chad Orzel ’93 that “Small Colleges are Great for Science Students.” In the post, he asked:

As always, you should think like a statistician. Take 100 high school seniors interested in getting a science Ph.D. Randomly select 50 to attend places like Union/Williams and 50 to attend research universities. Which group will do better in graduate school admissions? Probably (contrary opinions welcome!) the ones who attend research universities…

Sounds terrific. But what if we don’t want to wait half a decade or more for the results? (Just because we can measure the speed of light doesn’t mean every conceivable experiment is a feasible one!).

Let’s look to numbers we do have. Orzel made an effort to do so, highlighting that 1%-1.5% of the attendees at the “research conference in my field” are from Williams. (Question for Orzel: are you submitting those Eph alumni photos you take to the alumni review? Or to EphBlog? We’d love to see them).

According to the Williams College Department of Physics home page, Williams averages about 17 physics and astrophysics majors each year. According to the American Physical Society, the number of undergraduate physics majors in the U.S. since 1980 has averaged somewhere around 5,000 per year. A crude, back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that Ephs are significantly overrepresented at Orzel’s conferences, rather than underrepresented, as David would suppose.

The American Physical Society also gives out an annual award to the two top undergraduate physics students in the United States: the LeRoy Apker Award. In the last two decades, it’s been given to just over 40 students nationwide, 42 in total (in two years, three students received awards). 4 of those 42 were at Williams, including current Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret ’02. Harvard? Only two, and physics is a *strong* department at Harvard in terms of the commitment of faculty to teaching undergraduates (the physics faculty there repeatedly win the College’s award for undergraduate teaching).

Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret '02 as an undergraduate researcher, from the Williams Physics website

Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret '02 as an undergraduate researcher, from the Williams Physics website

Now, the Apker Award doesn’t necessarily speak to the strength of liberal arts students vs. research university students, because the Apker Award rules say:

Two awards may be presented each year, one to a student from a Ph. D. granting institution and one to a student from a non-Ph. D. granting institution.

But it does highlight the advantage of attending a non research university: access to this separate, smaller, pool of candidates for this award. Your odds are better at Williams.

There are other statistics available, that would be great to quantify on a broader scale. For example, the 2013-14 Report of Science at Williams College states that Williams hits well above its weight in National Science Foundation fellowships:

Williams has ranked first among predominantly undergraduate institutions in students receiving NSF pre-doctoral fellowships, averaging about seven per year over the past ten years.

That’s out of approximately 200 math and science majors. In 2015, Harvard had 37 NSF fellowships (data here), and a perusal of Harvard’s data on fields of concentration in its Undergraduate Handbook suggests that’s from a pool of about 1450 science undergraduates. Odds of an NSF Fellowship as a science major at Williams: 30:1. Odds at Harvard: 40:1. Advantage: Williams.

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