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2014 September 1

Where PhDs get their Bachelors’ degrees

Last year I wrote about a study that looked at where CS PhD students got their bachelors’ degrees. Now Reed College has extended that question to other fields as well: Doctoral Degree Productivity.  Their point was to show how high Reed ranked on the standard they chose: the number of students who went on to get PhDs divided by the number of students getting bachelor’s degrees.  I quote the tables and accompanying text below, but I take no credit or blame for the data—this is directly from Reed’s site:

Undergraduate Origins of Doctoral Degrees

Percentage ranking of doctorates, by academic field, conferred upon graduates of listed institutions.

Rank All Disciplines Science and Math Social Sciences Humanities and Arts
1 Calif. Inst. of Tech. Calif. Inst. of Tech. Swarthmore New England Conserv. of Music
2 Harvey Mudd Harvey Mudd Grinnell Curtis Institute of Music
3 Swarthmore Reed Reed Juilliard
4 Reed MIT Bryn Mawr Cleveland Inst. of Music
5 Carleton NM Institute Mining & Tech. Spelman St. John’s College
6 MIT Carleton Oberlin Reed
7 Grinnell Wabash Wesleyan Hellenic College-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Sch. of Theology
8 Princeton Rice St. Joseph Seminary Swarthmore
9 Harvard Univ. of Chicago Harvard Oberlin
10 Oberlin Grinnell Pomona Amherst

Percentage Ranking by Specific Fields of Study

Rank Life Sciences Physical Sciences Psychology Other Social Sciences* Humanities
1 Calif. Inst. of Tech. Calif. Inst. of Tech. Univ. Puerto Rico – Aguadilla Swarthmore St. John’s, MD
2 Reed Harvey Mudd Wellesley Reed Reed
3 Swarthmore Reed Vassar Harvard Amherst
4 Carleton MIT Hendrix Grinnell Swarthmore
5 Grinnell NM Institute Mining/Tech. Pontifical Coll. Josephinum Univ. of Chicago Carleton
6 Harvey Mudd Carleton Grinnell Bryn Mawr Yale
7 Univ. of Chicago Wabash Swarthmore Thomas More College of Lib. Arts Thomas More College of Lib. Arts
8 Haverford Rice Barnard Oberlin Bryn Mawr
9 MIT Univ. of Chicago St. Joseph Seminary Coll. Bard College at Simon’s Rock St. John’s, NM
10 Earlham Grinnell Pomona Wesleyan Wesleyan
11 Harvard Haverford Reed Amherst Princeton
12 Cornell Univ. Swarthmore Wesleyan Pomona Bard College at Simon’s Rock

*Does not include psychology, education, or communications and librarianship.

Source: National Science Foundation and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The listing shows the top institutions in the nation ranked by estimated percentage of graduates who went on to earn a doctoral degree in selected disciplines between 2001-2010.

All the schools listed are private schools except Univ. Puerto Rico—Aguadilla and NM Institute Mining/Tech., but seeing dominance by expensive private schools is not very surprising—grad school is expensive, and students who can afford expensive private schools are more likely to be able to afford expensive grad school and are less likely to need to work immediately after getting their B.S. or B.A. A PhD is not a working-class degree—it is prepares one for only a small number of jobs, mainly in academia or national labs, so for many it is just an elite status symbol.  What is more surprising is how poorly the Ivy League schools do on this list—perhaps those who get their elite status conferred by their bachelor’s institution see no need to continue on to get higher degrees.

Reed does not report numbers directly comparable with the ones in the Computing Research Association report, which reports only on computer science PhDs, where

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). 

Note that five of the top producers of bachelor’s in CS who went on to get PhDs were public schools.  The CRA does not report PhD/BS numbers for individual institutions, probably because the numbers are too small to be meaningful for most colleges—you have to aggregate either across many colleges or across many fields before the denominators are big enough to avoid just reporting noise.  Reed did the aggregating across fields, while the CRA report aggregated across colleges, finding that research universities sent about 2.5% of their CS graduates on to get PhDs, 4-year colleges about 0.9% and masters-granting institutions about 0.6%.  They did have one finding that supports Reed’s analysis:

The top 25 liberal arts colleges (using the U.S. News and World Reports ranking) collectively enroll slightly less than 50,000 students per year in all majors and were the origins of 190 Ph.D. degrees between 2000 and 2010, collectively ranking ahead of any single research university.

Reed’s findings are also consistent with the NSF report that put the “Oberlin 50” colleges highest at over 5% of their science and engineering graduates going on to get PhDs, compared to about 3% for research universities.  The NSF report supports somewhat the analysis that socio-economic status is important in determining who goes on to grad school—private research universities match the Oberlin 50, but public research universities have only about half as large a fraction of their graduates go on to grad school.

I found out about this site from The Colleges Where PhD’s Get Their Start, which has a copy of the tables that probably came from an earlier, buggy  version of the site, because Lynn O’Shaughnessy wrote

I bet most families assume that attending a public flagship university or a nationally known private research university is the best ticket to graduate school. If you look at the following lists of the most successful PhD feeder schools for different majors, you will see a somewhat different story. Not a single public university makes any of the lists. The entire Cal State system, however, is considered the No. 1 producer of humanities PhD’s.

I could believe that the Cal State system had the largest raw numbers of students going on to get PhDs in humanities, as they are a huge 4-year college, enrolling about 438,000 students [], with about 76,000 bachelor’s degrees per year []. Are there any other colleges in the US graduating so many BS or BA students per year? But the fact remains that Cal State is not the flagship university of California, and the University of California probably has a much higher percentage of its alumni go on to get PhDs.

In fact, one of the big problems with these lists is the question of scale—most of the colleges that come up high on Reed’s lists (which means high on NSF’s lists) do so by having very small denominators—they don’t graduate many students, though a high percentage of those go on to get PhDs.  In terms of raw numbers of students who go on to get PhDs, the public research universities produce many more than the private research universities, and the liberal arts schools are just a drop in the bucket. Of the top 25 schools in terms of raw numbers who go on to get PhDs in science and engineering, 19 are public research universities and 6 are private research universities—of the top 50 only 17 are private research universities.

When you are looking for a cohort of similarly minded students, you get slightly higher enrichment at some very selective private schools, but there are actually more peers at a large public research university—if you can find them.


  1. I thought the most interesting thing in the Computing Research News study of the origins of PhD students was Figure 4, showing the BS production over time. You can clearly see the time lag between choosing a major in Field with Lots of Jobs and finishing the degree. The peak is 4 to 5 years after the dot com bubble burst. The decline is faster than the enrollment growth, but it still took another 4 years or so before students got the message that it really had burst.

    I see the Reed analysis as marketing to the elite students they wish to recruit away from other schools on that list, because there is a lot of selection bias in those numbers. Are applicants to Reed or Cal Tech more likely to have a career goal of earning a PhD than applicants to a state R1? That is really all it takes to explain a modest difference in small numbers (only 1 or 2 percent more of those with a BS going on to a PhD) turned into a very large difference in ranked order. How many students choose Harvey Mudd because they plan to be a civil engineer in private practice in their home state compared to those at a much larger state R1?

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 September 6 @ 10:19 | Reply

    • I agree that differences in aspirations make a big part of the difference in numbers going on to PhD. I think that there are also big differences in social class and wealth, which probably makes an even bigger difference. But the cultural differences between schools does matter to students—if they are looking for a school that will encourage them to go on to grad school, they are more likely to find that in schools on the NSF list reported by Reed than in schools where comparatively few go on to grad schools. Where few go on to grad schools, the guidance will probably be more career-directed.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 September 6 @ 14:35 | Reply

      • Some truth to that, but they are talking about 5% earning a PhD as a high rate. That means 95% of the students at the elite schools need “career” counseling that addresses whether paid internships and experience are worth more than a masters degree in each particular field. Not significantly different from 97 or 98% needing that kind of advice.

        Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 September 9 @ 21:59 | Reply

        • True, the majority of career guidance should be for employment not for PhD students (a major failing of most science departments, particularly biology, which over-produces at both the BS and PhD level). In engineering both the BS and the MS are working degrees, though for somewhat different levels of specialization. I advise students to either get a job with a BS and come back to college for an MS when they want to specialize or update their knowledge, or to go directly for an MS if they know what they want to do and what they need to learn to do it.

          The one exception is the biomolecular concentration of the bioengineering BS—they are competing with the huge horde of MCD bio graduates for a fairly small pool of jobs. They should either take a low-level job or continue on immediately for a PhD (where there is still a lot of competition for a fairly small pool of jobs). I’ve nver understood why the STEM field with the worst job prospects (bio) has the largest number of students.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 September 10 @ 09:05 | Reply

          • Thanks for the useful advising info, which is particularly interesting as it comes from a different coast.

            I know some students who didn’t like being either a bio or chemistry major after a semester or so at the junior level, but could do physics and shifted to biomedical engineering which has the prerequisites (they had had organic). It is a fairly low cost major change, as those things go. In one case I know it was seen as a win-win where she could work in a branch of medicine (mechanical devices) if she didn’t get into medical school from the engineering major pathway.

            My only insight on bio as a whole is that students in our region are only mandated to take biology and chemistry, so they often take AP bio (and sometimes chem) if they liked what they saw. Sort of a first-love with biology itself, and doubly so if taught well.

            Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 September 10 @ 17:56 | Reply

  2. […] Where PhDs get their Bachelors’ degrees […]

    Pingback by Blog stats for 2017 | Gas station without pumps — 2018 January 1 @ 11:47 | Reply

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