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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 December 31

MIT submission (almost) done

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My son finished the MIT application today—I’ll have to send out the transcript, the school profile, and the counselor’s report tomorrow. Recommendation letters and school reports can’t be provided online (except through Naviance, which home schools have no access to), but only via fax or hard copy mail.  I’ll probably have to go to the Post Office tomorrow, as I don’t think we have enough stamps in the house to mail the transcript.

I’m a little surprised that an tech school like MIT would be willing to have such a clunky piece of old technology as the main view that 18,000 prospective students see of MIT each year.  It isn’t as buggy as the Common App, but it has a distinct early 1990s feel to it. The MIT application is obviously an old piece of legacy code (unless it is deliberately retro)—it doesn’t understand unicode characters (like smart quotes or em-dashes), can’t handle italic, and the PDF preview is rendered in the ugliest monospace font that is available (probably Courier).

Update 2013 Dec 31: School documents taken to Post Office this morning, so MIT application now done.

2013 September 10

MIT tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:53
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Tuesday, we toured MIT, a school I’ve always been impressed by, both for the reputed intensity of its students and the research that comes out of MIT.

Before the tour we attended an information session in room 35-225.  At MIT, everything is given a number, rather than a name (majors, courses, and buildings)—it is part of how MIT creates a culture of insiders and outsiders.  So 35-255 means room 255 in building 35 (we started in the Admissions office, better known as 10-100).  Room 35-255 turned out to be a very run-down lecture hall with paint peeling off the ceiling, and an impressive tangle of power cords and data cables hanging off the back of the podium (including parts that were clearly intended to be fastened to a solid surface, not hanging by a wire).  The lecture hall has a very steep rake, so that everyone can see over the person in front of them, but even from the second row, the speaker looked like he was a long way away, at the bottom of a deep well.  There was a class scheduled in the room right after our information session, so I know that this wasn’t a mothballed room pulled into service for information sessions, but an active classroom.

One thing that MIT did that no other college has done so far was to provide a customized welcome letter for my son, providing information about the three subjects that he had expressed the most interest in when he signed up for the info session.  It was a simple template-based letter, just putting in three paragraphs from the form he filled out, but no other campus has shown that level of care in the recruiting.  This gesture almost made up for the very rundown teaching facilities—but the admissions process doesn’t last long, and the teaching facilities have to be lived with for 4 years.

Another handout they gave us was a “Facts for Freshmen” data sheet, and this one undid the good impression of the customized welcome letter. They used a number of tricks to disguise and distort data:

  • putting 4,384 undergraduate students in a huge font and 6,510 graduate students in a tiny font to make it look like the undergraduates dominate the graduates.
  • having the “area” mistake, where triangles were used to show percentages of students from each geographic area, but the heights of the triangles were proportional to the percentage, rather than the areas being proportional to percentage.  I guess their graphic designer never read any of Tufte’s books.  Oh, wait—Tufte is from Yale, and maybe people from MIT don’t read stuff from Yale.
  • total financial aid is reported as $31,232 per year, but they don’t say on this sheet that loans are included in that figure.  If you take the total scholarships ($8.9M) and divide by the number of students (4,384), you get an average scholarship of $20k—a lot less than the $31k they misleadingly report.

The MIT information session was reasonably informative, though the speaker (an admissions officer) spent far too much time talking about athletics at MIT.  One positive point was the amount of time he talked about the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which students can participate in from the beginning of their MIT careers.  About 85% of students participate and most are paid for their research work (it wasn’t clear whether students coming up with their own projects got paid, or only those working on funded research for faculty).  A lot of really cool research is done at MIT, and being part of one of the better projects may be a wonderful experience.  There is certainly a strong expectation that students will do research and hands-on projects, and not just book learning, matching what is claimed in the MIT motto “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand).

At the end of the session I asked one rather pointed, even rude, question: “I’ve heard a lot about how stressful MIT can be—how does the suicide rate compare with other selective colleges?”  I had a personal reason for concern about this—my best friend from high school committed suicide at MIT in the spring of his sophomore year.  I also have seen some figures suggesting that MIT had a much higher suicide rate than other schools, though those are old figures for 1990–2001, and may no longer be representative.  The answer I got was not very reassuring—they have a lot of support mechanisms in place (though the only ones mentioned were studying together and support services that could be called) and their rate is not really higher than comparable institutions (a claim I’ve not been able to justify or refute online, though what little I’ve been able to find does suggest that the rate has dropped to a more normal 7/100,000/year).  I would have been more reassured if they had said “we had a problem in 2000 and 2001, and took a lot of steps to address it—since then our rate has been x, comparable to a rate of y at other selective schools”.  They are still saying  to the press that male engineering students are more likely to commit suicide than other students (ref), which is not reassuring to the parent of a male student likely to be studying engineering.

Our MIT tour guide was reasonably well-informed and audible, giving us a few factoids we did not previously know (how much the copper roof of Kresge Auditorium weighs and how the car-on-the-roof hack was managed), but we spent far too much time in the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center talking about athletics.  He had some interesting information about the buildings, including the incompetent design of the Green Building by I.M. Pei.  He talked about the good acoustics of the Chapel, but not the abysmal acoustics of the Kresge Auditorium.  He did not, however, talk much about academics at MIT, other than a couple of pro forma speeches about the gen-ed requirements, and a fairly good description of UROP research opportunities.

I looked at the CS requirements for the 6-3 program and combined gen-ed/CS requirements, and it looks like a fairly rigid, formulaic program, with very few electives until senior year (choice of 3 core courses—out of the 3 offered, choice of 3 header courses—out of the 3 offered, and so forth).  The MIT program seems to be guaranteeing quality by making sure that everyone has taken the same courses and not missed anything, with just a little customization in the senior year—rather the opposite of Brown University’s philosophy of every student creating their own unique path.

The population density of MIT seemed reasonable when the sun was shining, but when it started sprinkling, everyone headed inside and the corridors became packed with students and faculty trying to get from one building to another without going outside. It was like the mad scramble to get from one class to another in a big mid-western high school, but with clear rules (explained to us clueless tourists many times) about staying to the right in all corridors. My son has not experienced crowded corridors much before (most California classroom doors open directly to the outside), so the little sprinkle of rain we got today was good for giving him a more representative view of MIT.

At lunch in the CS building (32G), I noticed that a lot of people were eating in groups, but a lot of people were sitting alone, and that no one approached them, even when there were no empty tables left.  It might be hard for a shy person to make friends at MIT, given the general unwillingness to disturb anyone who seemed to be by themselves.

Overall, my son had a reasonably favorable impression of MIT, putting it in an equivalence class with CMU and UCB.  All three are research powerhouses that are somewhat dominated by the grad programs.  Personally, I thought that of the three, MIT did the most to include undergrads in research and UCB did the least, but that the UCB campus was the nicest environment and MIT the least pleasant.  He put all three lower on his list than Harvey Mudd, Stanford, and Brown, though he has not yet articulated exactly why he ranks the schools the way he does.

2012 November 2

Meltdown at MIT

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:50
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There is a very moving blog post by Lydia K., an MIT junior doing a double major in math (course 18) and computer science and molecular biology (course 6-7): Meltdown | MIT Admissions.

She expresses a fairly common feeling for students: “I got very lonely and I started to wonder if I’ll ever retain enough information about the world contribute to our understanding of it.”

She puts it even better later in the post:

I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.

There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.

There’s something to giving everything and always falling short. Eventually we’ll walk out with a deep understanding of our fields, a fantastic tolerance for failure and late nights, and raised expectations for ourselves and for humankind. Someday, we’ll look back on these four years as the best years of our lives and the foundations of the kinds of friendships that can only be formed with some suffering. But right now, IHTFP. Sometimes it feels like MIT drags your self-esteem over a jagged, gravely rockface and stretches your happiness, your mental health, and the passion and energy that brought you here like an old rubber band.

The comments on the posts from students around the country show that this is not just an MIT problem—many students are stressed by their college experiences, and students at elite schools often find themselves particularly stressed.  Most of them have gone from being the best students around to being worse than average or only a little better than average.  That is a very difficult transition to make.

I went to a mediocre undergraduate institution, which had a small group of very good students.  Because we were a small group, we could compete with and challenge each other, while still retaining a strong (perhaps too strong) sense of self-worth by comparing ourselves to the other students around us, who were mainly beer-swilling jocks (going to breakfast on Sunday mornings took a strong stomach, because the dorm hallways, stairwells, and elevators were liberally coated with vomit).

When I went to grad school (at Stanford), I finally encountered substantial numbers of people obviously smarter than me, though I was still close enough to the top that I didn’t suffer from “imposter syndrome”—instead I had the feeling of finally finding a place where I belonged.  I had fellowships that let me stay a grad student at Stanford for eight years.  Only the last year of that was spent on my thesis project (when I was told I had only one more year of funding I had to find an adviser and a project fast).

I participated in many different research projects at Stanford, including several of my own choosing. Although my first published paper has never been cited, and probably was of interest to only two people (the person who made the conjecture that I proved and me), one of my other research projects has had considerable impact (307 citations and 35,000 mentions found by Google).

I enjoyed my time at Stanford immensely—I had good friends, enjoyed challenging courses and projects, and learned a lot.

Only in the past few years, after many fairly successful years as a college professor have I started having the feelings of insecurity that Lydia expresses so well. I don’t have any funding, in a small department that has the highest per-faculty funding on campus.  I can’t bring myself to write grant proposals—there were too many rejections in a row, and after putting three months work into a proposal, finding out that no one is interested in seeing the work done makes it hard for me to continue doing the research, much less rework the proposal to get it rejected again.

For the past couple of years, I haven’t even been able to find enough enthusiasm to write up work that I finished years ago.

I thought that my sabbatical last year would help me clear my backlog of old papers, get me started on new research directions and collaborations, renew my enthusiasm, and get me writing papers again.  It did not accomplish all of that, only some parts.  I did get enthusiastic about a couple of new research questions and I worked on 2 or 3 collaborations, getting a lot of programming done, but I didn’t get out any papers as first author, and I certainly didn’t get any grant proposals started.

I have ideas for new directions, and some code written that gets me preliminary results that I could use in a grant proposal.  But I don’t want to write the proposal, because getting it rejected would kill my enthusiasm for doing the work.  I’d rather do the work by myself in my spare time on my ancient computer than take the chance on getting funding for students and new machines, when there is an 80% or better chance that all the work I would put into the grant would just be rejected, and I would have nothing at all to show for the effort but a bruised ego.  (I’m becoming more and more cynical about federal funding of research—it seems designed to turn the best researchers into incompetent administrators, thus slowing research rather than speeding it.)

I did spend some time on my sabbatical learning things: like filling in the calculus-based physics that I had never taken as a math major, and learning to design printed-circuit boards. I still greatly enjoy learning new skills—I think I would still love being a grad student on a fellowship.

I also spent a lot of my sabbatical time thinking about (and reading about) teaching and pedagogy.  One possible path I’ve been giving more and more serious thought to is becoming primarily a teaching professor, stepping off the grant-writing treadmill and doing research just as a collaborator or as unfunded work by myself.  (The other common path for people who tire of grant-grubbing is to become an administrator, but I would be a terrible manager—my people skills are much weaker than the average academic’s, and most of them make poor managers.)

As my sabbatical ended, I decided to increase my teaching load this year and to tackle one of the major curricular problems of the bioengineering major: that the EE circuits course they were required to take was turning them all off to electronics, rather than enticing a third of them into bioelectronics.  Hence I spent two solid months designing a new course for them.  (The bigger problem of their having to take 6 chemistry courses when there is only really room for 3 in the curriculum remains beyond my skill to fix.)

I’ve enjoyed designing labs for the circuits class and learning (sometimes by making dumb mistakes) enough  practical circuits skills to teach the class.  I’ve been very frustrated, though, with the politics that have gone into trying to get the course offered (did I mention that I lack the people skills to be a good manager?).  The course is on for next quarter, but it has been a stressful time for me, dealing with the on-again, off-again roller coaster ride (and it still doesn’t have permanent approval, just the go-ahead for a prototype run this year).

My students often express appreciation for quick responses to their questions about the homework assignments—they don’t expect answers at 4 in the morning.  I’ve not told them that the reason I’m up at that hour is not because I’m a diligent workaholic, but because I’m so stressed I can’t sleep much most nights.

So, although I’m not an MIT undergrad and haven’t been an undergrad anywhere since 1974, Lydia’s post resonated with me.

2010 July 8

MIT Museum

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 03:48
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I’m in Boston this week for a combination of family vacation and the ISMB conference.  Yesterday, my family did a self-guided tour of the MIT campus and visited the MIT Museum. It was a mercilessly hot day (Boston is having an unusual heat wave), so my family was unwilling to do the usual guided tour, but we did do about half the self-guided tour (concentrating on the air-conditioned buildings, rather than outdoor stuff).

The high point of the day was the exhibit Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson. These mechanical pieces were whimsical, beautifully made, and mesmerizing to watch in action.  Still photos do not do the sculptures justice, but it seems that there are DVDs available from Arthur Ganson’s website.

We had a decent lunch at a combination Thai/Szechuan restaurant across the street from musuem.  I’m not used to the high synchronization of East Coast lunchtimes:  the restaurant was jammed when we got there around 12:30 but suddenly emptied just before 1.

We ended up our MIT visit at the MIT Coop, where we bought a few fantasy books to tide us through the week here. The Coop is a decent college bookstore, though I tend to prefer Stanford’s bookstore.  I get a bit sad when I think about what an awful bookstore my campus has—I guess our students don’t read (or, at least, don’t buy books) and our campus is too isolated to get non-student shoppers.

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