Science Study at the Small College

If you’re a serious science student, one who might want to someday get a PhD, teach, research, become a member of the National Academy of Sciences, or vie for a Nobel Prize, it might best serve your interests to attend a major research university, such as UCLA, USC, Stanford, Northwestern, Yale, or Duke.

Small liberal arts colleges just don’t have the resources available to do meaningful research. Don’t, though, feel too confident in this belief. Just review the resources available to undergraduates at, say, Hamilton College’s Taylor Science Center and the list is enough to dispel the resource limitation concerns: spectrometry instrumentation is cutting edge, x-ray diffraction is available, separators for chromatography are available, computational devises, DNA sequencers, cryostats are all available, and much more.

It can also be argued that small colleges cannot offer a wide range of advanced classes nor do they contain the expertise for all the subjects you might wish to study within a field. Yet, this too might be addressed if the small college were part of a consortium, such as Swarthmore. There you can take classes, use the resources, and access the libraries at Haverford, University of Pennsylvania, or Bryn Mawr.

There are ample reasons to study science at small colleges and many of the best are detailed by Chad Orzel in his 10 April 2015 article in Forbes, Why Small Colleges are great for Science Students. Professor Orzel is the current chair of the Physics Department at Union College, a small Liberal Arts college in upstate New York, the author of How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog,  and a graduate of Williams College: an obvious authority on learning and teaching science in the small college. In his article he brings a number of key reasons to consider the small select liberal arts college for science study including class size, more access to research opportunities and the value of a liberal arts education in the sciences.

Small class size is a distinct advantage. Most of the liberal arts colleges: Williams, Colgate, Hamilton, Pomona, Swarthmore, or Oberlin contain 1,000-2,500 undergraduates with few classes of more than 30 students. Most students will find they receive a lot of attention from the professors. Such interaction encourages professors to recruit students who might show promise and encourage student efforts in class.

At smaller colleges there might be fewer labs, but the research opportunities are often more accessible than at a larger research university where there are throngs of graduate students and postdocs competing for positions in promising research projects. Research conducted at smaller colleges is liable to be much more nurturing as well. Professors design and monitor the research progress themselves, training many of the undergraduate members while helping them cope with the struggles, failures, and problems often encountered when researching new areas of knowledge.      

Then there is the value of the liberal arts curriculum. Liberal arts entails teaching an individual to communicate well and to analyze, organize, synthesize and persuasively articulate an argument. These are crucial skills important in life and in science, and they are a fundamental component incorporated in the coursework of students in a liberal arts college.

To validate the strength of the science offerings in the small liberal arts colleges, consider their production of PhDs in the sciences and engineering per capita. A study tabulated by Thomas Cech of the number of PhDs/100 students enrolled (1991-1995) in his study, Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?indicated of the top 20 institutions on the list, 9 were liberal arts colleges including Swarthmore, Carleton, Reed, Haverford and Oberlin.

When considering where it is you might wish to study the natural sciences as an undergraduate, it’s best not to automatically default into applying to the large research universities. The resources, range of specialized classes, the small nurturing classes, the undergraduate research opportunities, and the focus on the liberal arts that small selective liberal arts colleges offer might be the right mix to get you on the road to the Nobel Prize, or many other prizes just as meaningful.