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2011 December 9

Where do successful PhD students come from?

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About 3 years ago, NSF published a report that examined where science and engineering PhDs had done their bachelor’s work: NCSES Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients – US National Science Foundation (NSF).

There are two particularly interesting tables:

  • Table 2 lists the top 50 colleges by what fraction of the students finishing a bachelor’s degree there later finish a science or engineering PhD.  This number gives you an idea how well the college prepares students for a PhD in these fields as well as what fraction of the undergrads are in STEM fields. This measure favors small schools that specialize in technical subjects.  The list is dominated by highly-ranked small colleges—only 20 of the 50 are considered research institutions in the Carnegie classification of colleges.
  • Table 3 lists the top 50 colleges by the total number of students with bachelor’s degrees from the college who then finish a science or engineering PhD. This favors large schools, but also measures how much they encourage students to continue into grad school.  All 50 are research universities, and 48 of the 50 have very high levels of research funding.

From the standpoint of a student trying to choose a college (or a parent), Table 2 may be the more interesting one, as it gives a better indication of how focused the eduction will be on getting to a STEM PhD.  But from a public policy standpoint, Table 3 may be more important, as the number of PhDs that have bachelor’s degrees from colleges on Table 2 but not Table 3 is relatively small.  There are 12 institutions that are on both lists: producing large numbers of bachelors who go on to STEM PhDs in both absolute and relative terms:

rank in PhD/BS name 1997–2006 PhDs   PhDs/100 BS 9 years earlier
39 UC, Berkeley 3199 5.7
 22  Cornell  2536  7.6
 3 MIT  1867 16.6
 11  Harvard  1775  9.9
 19  Stanford  1351  8.1
 10  Princeton  1135  10.3
 17  Yale  1087  8.4
 25  Brown  1076  7.4
 30  Duke  1050  6.8
 7  Univ. of Chicago  873 10.8
 1  Caltech  713  35.2
 45  College of William and Mary  698  5.6

From the standpoint of a well-rounded education, it is hard to say whether the small schools or the large ones do a better job.  The small schools generally offer more personal interactions and social support, while the large ones offer more opportunities for research (though a much smaller percentage of students may avail themselves of these opportunities).

I’m going to urge my son to consider all 88 of these schools as possible schools to attend, looking at them from the more specific standpoint of the subjects he is most interested in studying (currently computer science and theater).  He has heard us mention some of them (Caltech, MIT, Harvey Mudd, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell), but we have not made any systematic study of which would be appropriate for him.

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