Liberal Arts vs. Research Universities for Science Students

By Kate Duey

Kate Duey is a private college counselor serving gifted students. She has worked with students on traditional schooling paths, home schooled students, community college students, and students seeking accelerated or early college entrance. Kate is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. She has a Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA.

ElonIs an aspiring Ph.D. in the sciences better served by an undergraduate education at a liberal arts college or a research university? The vast majority (83%) of Ph.D.’s in science are awarded to students who graduated from research universities. The top ten research universities graduating undergraduates who go on to earn the most Ph.D.’s in the sciences are:

    1. UC Berkeley
    2. University of Michigan
    3. Cornell University
    4. M.I.T.
    5. University of Wisconsin, Madison
    6. Penn State
    7. UCLA
    8. Harvard
    9. University of Minnesota
    10. University of Washington

Liberal arts schools, however, educate roughly 8% of American college students, and from those 8% come 17% of Ph.D.’s in science. Thought of another way, the per capita distribution of science Ph.D.’s is twice as high in a liberal arts college as in a research university. Among the National Academy of Science members, 19% received their undergraduate education at liberal arts schools. The top ten liberal arts colleges graduating undergraduates who per capita go on to earn the most Ph.D.’s in the sciences are:

  1. Swarthmore
  2. Carleton
  3. Haverford
  4. Grinnell
  5. Oberlin
  6. Pomona
  7. Bryn Mawr
  8. Williams
  9. Amherst
  10. Wesleyan

Why are liberal arts colleges more productive at preparing science Ph.D.’s?

Thomas R. Cech, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who led breakthroughs in the catalytic properties of RNA, discusses this in “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?”.

Dr. Cech offers several explanations for the imbalance, including:

Characteristic Liberal Arts Colleges Research Universities
Professorial focus – Teaching undergraduates
– Researching on a small scale
– Access to professors leads to
confidence and self-worth
– Teaching graduate students
– Researching on a large scale
– Publishing
– Applying for research funding
– Building national and international prominence
– Fundraising for the university
– Performing public service in other educational settings
– Working on state-wide economic development programs
– Coordinating intellectual property controls
– Teaching undergraduates
Cross-training – More requirements in multiple
– Seeing conflicting data in multiple fields
– More demands to interpret new information
– More written assignments
– More in-class discussions and presentations
– Fewer requirements in
multiple fields
– Can take more science
Which students gain experience as lab assistants? Juniors or seniors who have distinguished themselves Graduate and Postdoctoral students who are required to work as part of stipend
Lab schedules – Fewer lab users
– Lab assignments can become open-ended
– Less competition for equipment
– Professors typically supervise lab work
– More lab users
– Lab time must be scheduled
– Lab experiments are designed to be straight-forward and predictable to accommodate demands on lab time
– Budget cuts intensify these issues
Professorial Contact – Introductory classes typically have 50 students
– 3rd and 4th year classes typically have 12 students
– Introductory classes typically have 500 students
– 3rd and 4th year classes typically have 100 students
Fellow students – Selectivity means stronger
academic preparedness overall
– Higher performing students
create a culture of academic
– Undergraduates witness higher levels of scholarship and competitiveness of academic research

As Dr. Cech illustrates, it is worth exploring all options available to you when looking for a university science program, including liberal arts universities.

What has your experience been with science programs at liberal arts or research universities? Please share in the comment section below!

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8 responses to “Liberal Arts vs. Research Universities for Science Students

  1. Both Mom and Faculty spouse

    The comparison is a little overly simplistic. There are research universities whose primary mission is undergraduate education, and the undergraduates are NOT an afterthought. Large state universities (even the most prestigious) may have a very different approach than the elite research universities. Those with very large endowments are unlikely to be effected by budget constraints.

    • Thank you for your perspective. While this post is a generalization based on a survey of many schools, each school is absolutely different and requires its own analysis. Our main reason for bringing this research to our readers’ attention is to point out that sometimes the most seemingly obvious college choice is not the best choice. As you point out, however, it is important not to take the argument to the other extreme; a liberal arts college is not always going to be a better fit than a research university. That is not what was intended. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this!

  2. Pingback: The IEA Blog is Turning 2! Top 5 Posts | Institute for Educational Advancement's Blog

  3. The “survey” seems heavily biased towards Liberal Arts Colleges. I came to this site because I have a Junior in Ann Arbor Public Schools whose looking for an alternative to our Home-town Dynamo. Since I just looked at sites listing the “Best Biology/PreMed Universities”, and only saw Large Research Universities in the top 50 or so, I was hoping for a little ray of light here. However, as a Research Laboratory Technician for The University of Michigan, I’m not impressed with the accuracy of this article. We just graduated two Seniors who had been with us for all four years, one wrote an Honors Thesis based on research he did in our lab. I also just hired a new Frosh, who will start doing general lab duties, but move into research surely by this time next year. I’d love our kid to get into a Williams, Middlebury, or Haverford, but the more we look, the more He’s likely to just go for the Big Guns… and MICHIGAN is looking better every day! Of the points made in the survey, only “Professorial Focus” hit the mark, all other points do not apply the U of M Undergraduate Research Opportunities.

    • Thank you for your feedback, David. This is based on the experience of a college counselor who has worked with many gifted students, and the article she cites hit home for her. We’re sorry you found it to be unhelpful and untrue based on your experience. Thank you for sharing your opinion with us.

      • Thanks, I am seriously trying to understand why my kid should pick a Liberal Arts school over a Research University, and I’m just not seeing much solid support for Liberal Arts Colleges. Since my previous post, I was conversing with a Post-Doc at work who knows friends that went to small liberal arts colleges, and they had good experiences at them, reinforcing what the above author said about undergrads having close proximity to research and professors. But I’d like a little more proof that just hearsay and a few mailed promotional flyers.

  4. One more thing.

    I came across this article that does a good job of promoting the attributes of the Liberal Arts colleges, hope you don’t mind…

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