Sean Carroll is offering more unsolicted advice (though it is in response to a comment, which makes it borderline solicited…), this time about choosing an undergraduate school. He breaks the options down into four categories, with two small errors that I’ll correct in copying the list over here:
- Liberal-Arts College (LAC), such as Williams or Union.
- Specialized Technical School (STS), such as MIT or Caltech.
- Elite Private University (EPU), such as Harvard or Stanford.
- Large State School (LSS), such as UCLA or Michigan.
There. That’s much better.
I should note two things up front: the first is that Sean’s advice is specific to the sciences, as is my response; the second, and more important of the two, is that in personal-fulfillment terms, it really doesn’t matter. As a society, we place far too much emphasis on the choice of college as a defining moment, leading to far too many sleepless nights for high-school students and their parents. Given a choice among comparable institutions, it is possible for any given student to be happy and successful at either of them.
As noted earlier, I feel very strongly about my time at Williams, and the school played a big part in getting me where I am, and making me who I am. But had I gone to a different college– Swarthmore, say, which was the other school on my final list– I would be a different person today, but I don’t think I would be any less happy with my college experience, or with the course of whatever career I ended up in.
With the disclaimers out of the way, I’ll talk up the advantages of one of these four categories below the fold, and you can almost certainly guess which one…
Sean writes of liberal arts colleges:
At an LAC or STS, you will be forced to learn a lot, like it or not. I’m a big fan of LAC’s; the professors are typically talented and dedicated to teaching, and students get invaluable up-close-and-personal time with the faculty. But for people who want to go to grad school, they face something of a disadvantage because the these schools typically won’t have graduate programs. That means (1) you can’t take any grad classes, and (2) you can’t buttonhole grad students about advice for the next step. I went to one, and received a great education, but keenly felt those disadvantages.
Those are true statements– small colleges by definition do not have graduate programs. I don’t really see those disadvantages as being all that significant compared to the advantages, though. You can’t ask grad students for their advice, true, but a good college will keep tabs on its alumni, and you can always ask recent graduates for their advice. And the closer interaction with faculty means that you can talk to them about what you should do, and expect them to know you well enough to give useful advice.
As for the lack of graduate classes, that’s really only a factor for those students who manage to burn through the regular curriculum quickly enough to be able to take graduate classes. I’m not sure those students are numerous enough to be the basis for a general rule.
I would say, though, that there are a couple of curricular disadvantages to small liberal arts colleges, chief among them being that they simply can’t offer the same breadth of advanced courses that a larger institution will. We require students to take one upper-level elective (such as the quantum optics class I taught last spring), and we try to offer two such classes a year. That means that a very good student has the chance to take at most four upper-level classes beyond the core curriculum, and an exceptional student might get a shot at six. We have to rotate through topics, though, and some years we only offer one, which means that students can graduate without ever taking an advanced course in statistical mechanics, or condensed matter physics, or nuclear physics. That does put liberal arts college students at something of a disadvantage when it comes to graduate school.
The weakness in class work is more than compensated for (in my opinion) by the advantages offered by small schools when it comes to research experience. Sean notes later in his article that research experience is a big help, and I would add that the sort of research experience you get at a small school is better in many ways that what you can get at a bigger university.
Somewhat ironically, the key difference is the lack of graduate students. At big schools, most of the work is done by graduate students and post-docs, which means that an undergraduate is coming into a situation where somebody else owns the project, and has responsibility for its day-to-day operation and direction. Undergraduates in these labs often get shuffled off onto side projects, or stuck with the drudge work that even the junior graduate students don’t want to do. I once asked a summer undergraduate student at NIST to make some BNC cables for me, and his response was “Awww… That’s what they made me do at MIT!”
As an undergraduate researcher at a small school, you’re it. There are no grad students, just you and a faculty member, and during the academic year, the faculty are mostly too busy to be in the lab. The person responsible for the day-to-day operation of the project is you. You get to make all the decisions that are made by grad students and post-docs at the larger schools, and you get to be involved in every phase of the project. It’s a lot of responsibility, but there’s no better way to learn what research is really like, and whether you really want to be doing this.
(I should note that I write this as an experimentalist, and my focus is always on experimental research. These issues may be less prominent in theory– I don’t know what the theory equivalent of making cables is.)
You won’t be working with the same resources at a small college as you would at a bigger school, and progress will be much slower (as a rule of thumb, a bright undergraduate counts for half a grad student– not because they’re any less talented, but because they have other classes and activities taking up their time), but you end up with a more in-depth research experience at a small school, and that can stand you in good stead down the road.
I’m a big fan of liberal arts colleges in general– obviously, or I wouldn’t be working at one– and I think they’re an excellent path to a career in science. They’re not just for “liberal arts twinks” (hey to Mike Kozlowski)– some of the very best scientists I know are liberal-arts college graduates, including at least one Nobel laureate in Physics. Sean’s other categories offer their own advantages, but if you’re interested in science, and like the other advantages that small schools offer, there’s no reason to go anywhere else.