kitchen table math, the sequel: STEM careers and the small liberal arts college

Friday, December 2, 2011

STEM careers and the small liberal arts college

I've just come across a passage that is relevant to this exchange between Mark R anonymous. and ChemProf:

Mark anonymous:
With STEM degrees and with physics undergraduate degrees in particular I'd be a little wary of the large research institutions. As an example Cal (UC Berkeley) is the top rated graduate school in chemistry but I sure wouldn't send my kids there as undergraduates with the 500 person classrooms taught by grad students with three weeks of training.

There are a few top notch undergraduate-centered places (Harvey Mudd leaps to mind) but failing getting into there I think there's a lot to be said for finding a strong 2nd tier liberal arts college with one or two solid STEM departments that are actually doing some research as well as teaching. Strong students get lots of attention and opportunities as well as stronger and more personal letters of recommendation.
I was one of those chem grad students at Cal, and we got two days of training. But yeah, for STEM and given the current economic environment, I'd suggest looking at second tier liberal arts colleges and see what scholarship money was out there, as well as which departments have a strong history. It does take a little more searching, but there are some gems. I used to think it was a problem to be the big fish in a little pond, but at least for now, that seems to be a good strategy for students.
from Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities (pdf file):
Liberal arts colleges have produced disproportionate numbers of career scientists, as the surveys conducted by Oberlin and Franklin & Marshall Colleges have shown over the years. This fact alone ought to be grounds for enormous federal investment in small colleges. What has not been as obvious has been the role of less well known liberal arts colleges in meeting the national need for scientists. For example, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania has a biology department that in 1985 consisted of six faculty members and 73 majors. Now it has nine faculty members and 195 majors. Elon University in North Carolina has steadily increased the number of mathematics majors, with two (of 10) majors going to graduate school in math in the year 2000, three (of nine) going to graduate school in 2001, four (of 12) in 2002, and eight (of 12) in 2003. Hendrix College in Arkansas ranks 24th in the nation in the number of its graduates per total enrollment who have received Ph.D.s in chemistry. Most dramatic may be Whitworth College in Washington State, which has increased the number of physics majors by almost 400 percent in five years, from 11 in 1997 to 41 in 2002.
I happen to know about these lesser-known liberal arts colleges that are doing such a good job of producing career scientists because the Council of Independent Colleges has, for the past three years, run a prize program that recognizes outstanding achievement in undergraduate science education. What has been interesting about the applicant pool for these Heuer Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education (as they are called) is that only five out of the 60 institutions that were nominated in 2002 and eight out of the 47 institutions nominated in 2003 had enrollment of over 3,000 students. Almost all of the institutions that have good reason to believe that they are making significant contributions to society’s need for high-quality career scientists are very small.

Richard Ekman, "Selective and Non-Selective Alike: An Argument for the Superior Educational Effectiveness of Smaller Liberal Arts Colleges" in American Council of Learned Societies, ACLS OCCASIONAL PAPER, No. 59.


Anonymous said...

Whether a research university is a good choice for a STEM student or not varies a lot by university and by student. I know that UCSC, a research university with only 10% grad students, involves undergrads in research much more than UCB does.

The research universities offer a lot more research opportunities than the liberal arts colleges, but a lot less support for getting to them. A highly motivated student with the confidence to ask faculty for research projects may do better in a research university. A note-taker and homework-doer who does everything they are told and nothing else will do much more poorly in that environment, as no one will tell them how to go beyond the minimum.

I'm still trying to figure out which will be a better environment for my son who will be going to college in about 2.5 years.

Anonymous said...

The post you have attributed to me was left by some other anonymous (I sign my anonymous posts) :-)

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

I think it depends on whether the student really knows what he/she wants to do. A proper college selection depends on the department and the people; not the college. If you don't know what you want to do, then any college might be a bad fit when you figure it out. I started by commuting to UCONN ($200/semester for tuition) as a clueless physics major. When I figured it out, I transferred to UofM and didn't wait until grad school.

This is probably more important for STEM than for a liberal arts degrees. Just because a college has a department of mechanical engineering doesn't mean that they have people doing research in the area you're interested in. Who wouldn't want to be at the Univeristy of Utah doing computer graphics in the 1970's?

Crimson Wife said...

Do students who study STEM at small, relatively unknown liberal arts colleges like Elizabethtown, Hendrix, or Whitworth (none of which I've ever heard of before) really do as well in the job market as students who attend well-respected tech schools like Stanford, MIT, Cal, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, etc.? Because at the end of the day, that's why parents are spending big bucks for college tuition.

Did I have as good a classroom experience at Stanford as I would have gotten at some small liberal arts college? Probably not. But I've got a piece of paper that has proved very useful in opening up doors in the corporate world (even if I'm not currently using it).

SteveH said...

When I taught math and CS at a small liberal arts college, I could never teach my classes at the same level as what I had at UofMich. A few of the students, however, were quite capable and I'm sure they ended up doing very well. Besides, you can always get your masters degree from fancy pants U and that's what matters. Often, you can get into the grad school at the name colleges more easily than you can get into their undergrad schools.

I think many small liberal arts colleges are underrated. The question is how can you pick them out. I mentioned on the other thread that my brother-in-law looked at the fancy grad programs to see where the students did their undergraduate work.

ChemProf said...

To be clear, I am NOT suggesting paying big bucks for these schools. In the original discussion, we were talking about merit aid. A student who would be competitive (even barely) at an Ivy is very likely to be given a free ride to a second tier private. If you are paying a quarter million either way, Stanford makes more sense. If it is a quarter million for Stanford or nothing for Elizabethtown, I'd give Elizabethtown the edge.

SteveH is also right that for a student who really knows what he or she wants to do, the right department is most important. Also most liberal arts colleges don't offer engineering degrees (although some of my students have gone on to masters degrees in engineering) However, for the more typical case of an 18 year old who is vaguely interested in science, a liberal arts college gives them room to figure out what they want to do. In California at least, this is a real issue. At UC San Diego for example, you get admitted into a major program, and if there isn't room in CS you may be told you can come but that you'll have to major in math instead.

As for how do these students do in the working world, mine have done really well. It can be tougher to get that first job, in part because we don't get companies coming to the career center to hire ten people. But once you are at the interview, it can even make you stand out as long as you are ready to talk about your school. And I haven't seen any disadvantages for students who go on to masters degrees or other postgrad study (heck, my own tiny place has a 90+ admit rate to med school, but that means we've sent 20 out of 21 students there in the last decade).

Catherine Johnson said...

Mark - thanks!

I know you always sign -- and I thought you'd signed that one!

I'll correct now --

Catherine Johnson said...

I need some fast way to keep people's comments FINDABLE....

Especially these comments about jobs & colleges -- is there any other website offering this kind of direct insight and experience? (Possibly, but if so I hvaen't seen it.)

Meanwhile I have two emails from Rudbeckia Hirta that are both fantastically helpful. I think she told me I can post one or both, but now I've forgotten...I don't have a good system for recording these things quickly....

I will mull.

If you all have ideas, let me know.

At this point there is invaluable advice offered on several of the SAT threads and on the STEM thread (and probably on others I've now forgotten).

Some of the advice on the SAT threads is the kind of thing parents here are paying many thousands of dollars for --- and the advice RH has given me about STEM courses at selective colleges for non-STEM students can't be bought at any price as far as I know.

Catherine Johnson said...

gasstation wrote: I'm still trying to figure out which will be a better environment for my son who will be going to college in about 2.5 years.

I hope you'll keep us posted ---

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof - I have a question I'd like to ask off-line -- if you have a moment, and don't feel it would compromise your privacy, could you shoot me an email? cijohn @

Thanks - !

Catherine Johnson said...

I think I have to get moving now, but later on I'll add the 2nd paragraph of that passage -- turns out the authors have some data on how well these students do after college.

Catherine Johnson said...

really do as well in the job market as students who attend well-respected tech schools like Stanford, MIT, Cal, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon

That's another whole area of mystery ---- when and where does the prestige value of your college's name help?

As far as I can tell, a prestige name always helps on Wall Street; it may always help in Hollywood (?)

Doesn't help in teaching....

I don't think it helps in writing, necessarily, though the connections a student might make at an elite East Coast school could help (except writers may not have the personality to a) make those connections or b) use them - )

This represents the sum total of my 'knowledge' about how the name of the college affects job and career prospects.

ChemProf said...

It is also regional -- in my part of California, there are too many UC Berkeley grads for it to count for much. Stanford is worth more, as are MIT and CalTech. Carnegie Mellon? You aren't any better off than at Elizabethtown -- most people don't have a strong opinion about it. But I know that isn't true on the east coast!

lgm said...

The prestige name helps in getting a job if you don't have a contact. HR put me on the interview list for my last job b/c the HR person's hubby was an engineeer and recognized the school. I was slightly out of field for what they were looking for, but the school name tipped me into the interview pile. Tier 3, but second in the nation in my major at the time. Considerably cheaper than #1.

Anonymous said...

"That's another whole area of mystery ---- when and where does the prestige value of your college's name help?"

My guess is that in engineering/tech the college's name helps for the first job and maybe for a few years after that (second job, if the second job comes within five years or so).

A large part of this advantage is that companies have to pick which colleges to target for recruiting, and smaller and 2nd tier colleges don't look quite as appealing.


The less flashy companies may focus on those second tier colleges because they expect to lose out to Google/Facebook/IBM/whatever at the 1st tier schools.

In addition, your college can help when sending is a resume to a random company if you college is named Stanford or MIT. SJSU ... not so much.

But after a few years, the people doing the hiring want to know what you have *done*, not what your potential is. After this point, I expect that the college still can matter a little bit, but only a little bit. When I'm looking at resumes from candidates with experience, I tend not to weight the college very highly compared to the work experience.

Anecdotally, my own career kinda bears this out. Getting my first job was difficult because I had a degree in Chemistry, no programming courses whatsoever, and wanted a job programming computers. You can imagine that getting that first job was difficult :-) After *that*, however, I've had programming work ever since.

Has the lack of a degree in the right field (and maybe from a better school) cost me? Possibly. It is hard to know why one didn't get an interview. But it hasn't prevented me from working as a programmer (and being reasonably well paid doing so).

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Oh, one more bit.

If you are interviewing in Silicon Valley, having a undergraduate degree from an IIT helps at least as much as one from Stanford or MIT. At least such has been my experience.

And, on balance, this bias is well deserved. Those kids average very very smart.

This isn't much practical use when trying to help select a college for an American kid, of course ...

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

uh-oh -- is the recent comments widget broken??

I see only comments from me, and they're old.

Catherine Johnson said...

For what it's worth, I would say that my degree (from Dartmouth) has probably continued to be a help throughout my entire career. The fact that I have a Ph.D. has also been a help, I believe. (I could be wrong, of course, but that's the way it 'feels.')

My sense is that because writers typically don't have an institutional affiliation, the college degree continues to serve in place of 'where I work now' or 'where I worked last.'

Which makes me wonder whether the prestige value of the degree is in general more important to the self-employed. It's possible.

Ed thinks that in a 'lesser depression,' a prestige job is more important than it is than in good times. It seems less wise to borrow/spend a fortune on a name school during a protracted slump --- but in fact it may be less wise to do so during a boom.

Anonymous said...

"For what it's worth, I would say that my degree (from Dartmouth) has probably continued to be a help throughout my entire career."

Of course, you aren't exactly in a STEM field, though, are you? :-)

I'm quite willing to believe that the value of a degree from a more prestigious school can have different "stickyness" for different fields. I'd guess that the value last much longer in lawyer-ing or doctor-ing than in engineering, for example.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm talking about writers!

I write about science, however; that's more or less my category.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'd guess that the value last much longer in lawyer-ing or doctor-ing than in engineering, for example.

I would guess that's not the case for lawyers & doctors (JUST a guess) because they have strong institutional identities.

Certainly with lawyers, out here, there's a whole "Ivy"-like ranking of firms; lawyers instantly rank each other on that basis.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think Ed told me that prestige of undergraduate college isn't a factor in humanities/social science graduate admissions. (I'll check that with him, but I don't think I've got it wrong.) They look at grades and GRE scores, and the letters of recommendation are **very** important.

Anonymous said...

Prestige of the undergrad program matters very little for admission to grad school (in STEM fields), but letters of recommendation describing research work done are crucial. If you have just taken courses and not done research, it is much harder to get into a top grad program.

The prestige of the grad school (and even of the specific research group) can follow an academic for decades. I often hear aged professors introduced as proteges of famous people (which means nothing to me, since I don't remember names well and have never heard of the famous people).

When Mark mentioned IIT, he meant the India Institute of Technology, not the Illinois Institute of Technology, which few people outside of Chicago have heard of (unless they are Mies van der Rohe fans).

Anonymous said...

ChemProf said "At UC San Diego for example, you get admitted into a major program, and if there isn't room in CS you may be told you can come but that you'll have to major in math instead."

In some parts of the UC system, you can tell ahead of time which majors are likely to cause problems, by Googling "impacted majors". For UCSD, computer science is not an impacted major, so students will not be denied entrance just because there isn't room.

K9Sasha said...

Prestige of the undergrad program matters very little for admission to grad school (in STEM fields), but letters of recommendation describing research work done are crucial. If you have just taken courses and not done research, it is much harder to get into a top grad program.

What if the student wants a masters degree in engineering but has no interest in doing research? My son is biased to hands-on technician type work rather than theoretical research type work. He's studying civil engineering at a small private school (not sure of the ranking, but it's okay). He doesn't like his options for a masters at that school and will be looking at other schools' masters programs. He's very interested in transportation engineering. As part of his undergraduate work he'll be spending 6 months as an intern somewhere. Would the internship stand in place of the research your talking about for the graduate programs he applies to?

K9Sasha said...

Darn - you're talking about, not your talking about. Need to proofread better.

ChemProf said...

gsw - sorry, my info was out of date. I knew this happened to a bunch of folks five or six years ago, so CS was the example that leaped to mind.

And K9Sasha, yes an internship will definitely stand in for research in an engineering program. A research internship can do the same for some science areas. The research matters primarily because it leads to good specific letters of recommendation.

When I was at UC Berkeley, one of the students from my first Gen Chem class asked me for a letter for med school. I did my best (and the lead professor was smart and had us write up pages on each student which he kept in a file so I could refresh my memory), but frankly it was sad that I was one of the top three people she thought she could contact. It can just be hard to stand out. When I see a student in two or three classes, and if they also TA for me, then I have a lot more to say.

Anonymous said...

I'm the original Anonymous, above, and interesting enough my work experience mirrors Mark's. Physics degree in my case, went into computer science, had a little trouble convincing people I could program but after that nobody cared. They cared about the companies I'd worked at and if it sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I had one single interviewer ask me my GPA, and it was for… I think my fourth job out of school, and I mentioned it in passing to my headhunter and she apologized for the insult, said she had no idea, and said it would never happen again. The interviewer was a non-technical person in a company that believed in having some people outside the group be part of interviews as a sanity check.

When I was hiring people I have to admit that I'm generally if anything biased *against* some of the name-brand colleges - particularly Stanford - because of some bad experiences interviewing fresh Stanford graduates who clearly had not actually learned anything about programming computers! But I'd always take a serious look at IIT people - they weren't always a fit, but they were always crazy smart and hard working. Basically they were the cream of the crop of a country of a billion people and it showed.

Anonymous said...

The Stanford CS department had some crazy smart grad students and faculty when I was there, but the undergrads were basically ignored. I don't know if it is different now, but a Stanford CS undergrad has to be pretty pushy to get a really good education—Stanford CS classes can be huge.

For an engineering MS degree, an internship is probably better than a research experience, since an engineering MS is not a research degree but the engineer's "working" degree. The recommendations from the internship have to be good, though, and most of the letters we get from industry aren't worth the paper they're printed on. They are generally full of vague CYA mush and tell the reader precisely nothing about the applicant.

Traffic engineering is usually considered a step down from civil engineering, though, as it is a fuzzier field with more politics and less solid engineering. Because my school has neither branch of engineering, I don't have much real knowledge of either field.

le radical galoisien said...

my research school may be huge, but I only see a couple dozen kids around on my floor.

Grace said...

radical - You're saying that in a positive way, right? Large schools often form small communities that mirror the experience of students in small colleges. Reminds me of what is said about NYC's neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

I've posted some information about preparing for a STEM PhD at