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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.

2013 January 22

Where you get your BS in CS matters

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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:

Fraction of BS awardees getting PhDs in computer science within 6 years, by type of baccalaureate institution. [figure copied from]

Fraction of bachelor’s graduates getting PhDs in computer science within 6 years, by type of baccalaureate institution. [figure copied from]

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.

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