About this time last year, I asked advice about where a high school senior should consider for college engineering. At the back of my mind, I was figuring that this is a pretty smart kid and both of his parents have PhDs, so finding a place that might get him fired up enough to consider education beyond the bachelor’s degree would be a good idea. But what places really have an environment that inspires students to go on to still-higher education? While I had thought a smaller school would be a good choice, I also bought into the argument that students are inspired by top-notch research around them, arguing for a larger research-oriented institution.
The NSF has done a study on this, and is listing the undergraduate programs whose students are most likely to go on to get a PhD in a science or engineering field. Thanks to Laura McLay for pointing to this article on the subject. Here is the table that lists the top 50 schools in terms of fraction of students who go on to get a science and engineering doctorate:
The results are pretty stunning for a lot of reasons:
- The list is dominated by private schools, with only three public schools in the top 50.
- About half the schools are “Research – Very High”, denoting the most active research institutions (there are three levels of research activity in the Carnegie Classification), with the other half being small undergraduate-oriented colleges.
- The effect is significant, with a factor of seven difference between number 1 and number 50 on the list. The average “Research – High” university has a value of 1.5 (1.5% go on to doctorates), so the lift for number 50 is more than 3, while that for Cal Tech is 23 (a graduate of Cal Tech is 23 times more likely to go on for a science and engineering doctorate than a graduate of an average research university).
- Berkeley (who also has the largest number of graduates with PhDs) is the only large public university on the list. No Michigan (who has the second third largest number of graduates with PhDs) , Georgia Tech, or other large public university is to be seen.
Now this sort of study has limitations. In retrospect, it is not surprising that a school that graduates lots of, say, accountants will naturally have a lower fraction who go on to get doctorates. Most big public universities have honors programs or other structures to nurture those with further educational aspirations, and I am sure that the results for those in these specialized programs look like the results for the schools in the table above.
But if you want to be surrounded by those likely to go on to get doctorates in science and engineering, you should either go to one of the very top private research schools or go to a small private liberal arts college. Carnegie Mellon or Oberlin (or, particularly, Cal Tech), that is the question!