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Small College and Science

Chad Orzel writes in Forbes:

Today is the first of several Accepted Students Days at Union College, where I’m a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy (and, for my sins, the current department chair…). As such, I’m thinking a bit about how to sell the school to students, which is something I’ve written about before on my original blog, but not yet here.

At first glance, a small liberal arts college may seem like an odd place for a professional scientist. And, in fact, when I took this job, I occasionally had to explain to colleagues that no, I wasn’t just settling for a small college, I had actively sought this out. There’s a strong perception in academia that only second-raters accept jobs at anything less than a major Research I university.

By “perception,” Orzel means “truth.” Take all the people getting a physics Ph.D. in the US this year. Have a committee rank them on their research quality. The vast majority of folks in the top X% (who take jobs in academia) will be taking them at “major Research I university.” Orzel might cover his blushes by noting the saving word “only,” but there is no doubt that, given a choice between Union/Williams and a major research university, the vast, vast majority of new science graduates will pick the latter.

But contrary to that impression, small colleges are a great training ground for future scientists.

True, but highly misleading. Does Williams do a wonderful job in science? Of course! The physics majors I talk to love the physics department. But that isn’t right way to phrase the question, especially if you are a high school senior choosing between Union/Williams and a research university. The right question is: How will this decision affect my chances in graduate school admissions and future professional success?

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, because (among other reasons) the professors who write their recommendation letters will be more well-known to graduate admissions committees. Also, they will have the chance to take graduate level courses as undergraduates.

Of course, you should still choose Williams over Harvard! First, you probably shouldn’t get a science Ph.D. in the first place and, second, there is a lot more to college than its effect on your graduate school admissions.

The country’s liberal arts colleges serve only a tiny fraction of the total college-age population, but are probably over-represented in science grad schools

D’uh! This is because lots of geniuses attend places like Williams, not because Williams does a better job than Harvard of training future physicists. Orzel weakens his overall pro-LAC position — with which I agree — by peppering his argument with such howlers.

On the other hand, the largest intro courses we teach in physics at Union are capped at 18 students per section (we teach a lot of sections…), and the largest in any of the other sciences are 30-ish. That allows for a lot more interaction, which in turn lets faculty pick out students with potential who might otherwise disappear into a mass with similar grades. We can encourage students who aren’t working up to their potential, and deliver the occasional kick in the ass as needed– as I can personally testify, having had my academic career turned around by one of my physics professors junior year.

Good stuff! First, Williams should copy Union and decrease the maximum size of all classes. Second, how about a shout out to the Williams physics professor who helped Orzel? Let us praise his name!

Read the whole thing. Orzel makes many interesting points and the good things he reports about Union or also true at Williams.


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