I used to be a firm believer that only your final degree matters—if you get a PhD from a prestigious department, it doesn’t matter where you did your undergrad work. My own history has lead me to believe this, as my Stanford PhD has been useful in opening doors that I don’t believe a Michigan State degree (my BS institution) would have. But recently I’ve had cause to rethink this a little—where you do your BS does affect whether you go on to grad school, your chance of getting into a prestigious grad school, your chance of getting a fellowship to stay there, and maybe even your probability of finishing the PhD in a timely fashion. I got lucky in that my non-prestigious BS did not interfere with my getting into Stanford or getting graduate fellowships, but if I’d known then what I know now …
The Computing Research Association has recently released a report about where the CS PhDs in the US did their undergraduate work (thanks to Mark Guzdial for pointing me to it), and it is more lopsided than I thought:
Only one institution (MIT) had an annual average production of 15 or more undergraduates. Three other institutions (Berkeley, CMU, and Cornell) had an average production of more than 10 but less than 15. Together, these four baccalaureate institutions accounted for over 10% of all Ph.D.’s awarded to domestic students. The next 10% of all Ph.D.’s in that period came from only eight other baccalaureate institutions (Harvard, Brigham Young, Stanford, UT Austin, UIUC, Princeton, University of Michigan, and UCLA). In total, 54 (6.7%) of the 801 baccalaureate institutions accounted for 50% of the total Ph.D. production.
Of course, the top three institutions are the top three institutions in computer science by almost any measure (including size), so it is not too surprising that they produce a large number of BS students who go on to get PhDs. Unfortunately, the report does not provide the rate of alumni going on to get PhDs in computer science by institution, but only in aggregate:
It is clear that the research institutions send far more of their graduates on to get PhDs, but whether this reflects a difference in the goals of their students, the advising they get, or the quality of the education is unknown.
The report tries to get a proxy for quality by looking at how many students from an institution got NSF fellowships or honorable mentions in computer science. Of course, this may reflect advising as much as it does educational quality, as many eligible students never apply for NSF fellowships. The tilt towards research institutions is even stronger by this measure:
Approximately 80-90% of all awards were made to students who completed their undergraduate studies at research universities, which is somewhat higher than their representation (76%) in graduate programs overall. Over the last ten years, students from four-year colleges received 10% of the GRF fellowships (they represent about 11% of students receiving a Ph.D.). Students from master’s institutions received fewer than 6% even though they represent about 15% of the Ph.D.’s and 40% of all undergraduate degrees.
The report lists the top 22 institutions by number of NSF fellowships their alumni got in computer science (covering 51% of awardees). Not surprisingly, the top 4 are MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, and UC Berkeley (Cornell which was 4th in number going on to get PhDs was 11th in number getting NSF Fellowships—is that bad advising about applying for fellowships, or too theoretical an orientation for NSF?). Interestingly, there is one 4-year school that makes it into the top 22 list for NSF Fellowships: Harvey Mudd, which beats out bigger schools like UC San Diego and UC Irvine (the only other UCs besides Berkeley to make it onto the top 22 list—UCLA doesn’t make the list). A few other 4-year schools do respectably (Olin College of Engineering, Swarthmore, and Williams College), but most get just one or two students going on to get NSF fellowships in CS.
My son is currently a junior in high school and has expressed a desire to go to grad school in computer science, so we need to choose colleges to visit. I don’t think we’ll have the time or energy to visit 22 colleges, but I think we should probably concentrate our visits on the colleges and universities that are sending kids on to grad school in large numbers and getting NSF fellowships for them—he is more likely to have the peer groups and advising he needs at such institutions. Looking at the named institutions in the top 12 for production and in the top 22 for NSF, I get a pretty short list—only 10: MIT, Berkeley, CMU, Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, UT Austin, UIUC, Princeton, and University of Michigan. We might want to add in some more West Coast institutions from the top 22: University of Washington, Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, UCSD.
I don’t think we’ll visit all 14 campuses (Cornell is damned hard to get to—even worse than when I taught there 26 years ago, and UIUC is not much better), but at least this list is shorter than the other ones we’ve tried to compile, and we have prior evidence that these schools are good at getting many students on the path that he currently wants. Harvey Mudd is the only small school on the list, and I wonder if we should add a couple of other small schools—Olin College of Engineering and Swarthmore, for example. Of course, I don’t know when he or I will have time to visit colleges—we both have pretty full schedules this year. He may have to apply to some without visiting them, and only visit if they accept him.