The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Not A Joke August 14, 2011

Filed under: rankings,undergrad — excitablescientist @ 7:12 pm

I’ve written about the phenomenon of field-snobbery before, and today I wanted to address another of my pet peeves: looking down on small universities.  This post was sparked by a recent conversation with a group of friends, during which one person remarked that a particular university’s medical school “is a joke”, largely based upon one piece of anecdotal evidence.


I think this is a common sentiment: small universities (which in Canada, can simply mean being the only university in a sparsely populated province) have poor quality education, lacklustre research facilities, and inferior reseachers.  The relative obscurity of a university leads many to conclude that its training programs, and therefore graduates, are inferior to those at large universities.


Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The stigma associated with attending/working at a small university drives the best and brightest students and researchers away, which then gets used as “proof” of the low quality of education.


I disagree with the practice of judging universities based on the nebulous quality of reputation, because this hugely biases the playing field towards large universities with correspondingly large public relations budgets.  Of course, there are various rankings that try to assign a numerical value to the relative prestige of different schools, supposedly in an objective way, but those values are meaningless without knowledge of the detailed criteria used to establish the rankings (which are never published).


I’m not at all convinced that lots of research funding equates to excellence in undergraduate education; I think it is great for undergrads to have access to top-notch labs if they wish to get involved in research, but this matters to a minority of students.  Anecdotally, I have observed no correlation between a scientist’s research success and their teaching ability.  At my school, many of the most successful scientists do not teach any classes, so the value of being at their institution is a moot point if you are an undergrad, unless you happen to join their particular lab.  Large schools do tend to have larger class sizes, however, and this is seen as a significant negative by the majority of students.


When considering grad education, I think it is far more important to consider the strength of the department you would join, than the reputation of the university as a whole.  I thought I wanted to apply to an MD/PhD program at an Old and Historic university, before I realized it had virtually zero labs in the field I am interested in.  Small schools may not have the breadth of research found in large universities, but they can have stellar researchers in a few fields; or even pioneers who are just starting to build research capacity a particular area.  Comparing scientists who produce a similar calibre of results, I am more impressed by those start from square one and manage to thrive in a barren environment, than those who have access to sophisticated facilities and an intricate network of colleagues/collaborators at their fingertips.


This recent conversation also brought back a high school memory: one of my classmates expressed surprise/disgust that one of her friends was applying to Canadian (!) schools.  She viewed Canada as a backup plan, an option you only pursue if you are not accepted by a decent university in the US.  Her opinion was based on the observation that top Canadian universities, on average, have lower admission averages, lower tuition fees, and smaller endowments, than highly ranked schools in the US; clearly, the quality of the education, and the students, in Canada must be substandard.  I doubt that most Canadian students would be comfortable with this conclusion, even though it follows from the logic used by many to conclude that small universities within Canada are inferior.


I am very happy with my own choice of undergrad university, which happens to be large and heavily focused on research, but I have yet to see compelling evidence that small schools should be dismissed solely based on their size and/or obscurity.


3 Responses to “Not A Joke”

  1. Em Says:

    Excellent article. To address the second to last paragraph: personally, I think that Canadian schools are better off without the people who judge Canadian schools and think US ones are superior. They are clearly missing out on what’s important- not the school reputation, but the quality of education. And the quality of an undergraduate education in particular and even a post-undergraduate education at a top notch US school is often either of the same quality or sometimes even slightly worse than what you get at a Canadian school. I think people forget that pursuing an undergraduate degree in the US is sometimes actually the really un-smart decision- after all, you’re paying 4x the tuition to receive exactly the same education as you would here (unless you’re attending some highly specialized program in the US that’s not available at any institution in Canada). Mostly, big schools with big names are just another example of how the public buys into designer brands. Jeans are better of they’re Versace, you couldn’t possibly get an engagement ring that’s not from Tiffany’s, and you can’t possibly succeed in life unless you attend Harvard/Yale/Oxford/etc. In my experience, the smartest people I knew in both high school and at UBC all chose to attend Canadian universities. They recognized that the education they would receive would be the same or better quality, and that it was financially the smartest decision. So really, I think that the people who buy into the big name ultimately end up only harming themselves and I personally think that places like UBC are better off without them 🙂

  2. Em! Great to hear from you! And I totally agree that universities are much better off without people who don’t want to be there. I think there are lots of things to consider when applying to school in the US; the exorbitant tuition fees (for the same quality of education) you mentioned, plus practical points like the availability of health insurance for students, and the fact that it can be very difficult to immigrate even if you studied there (this was a huge consideration for me as an international student). I think there are many good reasons to attend school, especially grad school, in the US, but I think people should make informed decisions based on their own interests and circumstances rather than blindly following the rankings.

    I also love that you drew the parallel between designer clothing brands and university branding! Not many people see the similarity.

  3. Jeet Says:

    Though I agree with the general principle of the article, we must move away from generalizations on the other end of this spectrum. It IS a simple fact of life that larger universities with larger endowments do have more money to build more sophisticated and elaborate facilities and attract more prestigious faculty. Of course, there is no denying that certain small universities specialize in one field and are known for it and if that is your interest, you should prefer it to larger universities. The naive opinion of friends aside, professionals in the field know which university programs are of quality and this will reflect in job interviews etc. However, such small universities are rare and on average, a smaller university will be of lower quality than a larger university- quality defined in terms of no. of research papers, original thesis topics, average job placement, experience of professors, etc. etc. Students go to Harvard/Yale/Princeton because they study with the next Bill Gates/Einstein/Jeffrey Sachs of the world and are probably taught by some of the current leaders in respective fields (this of course is at the grad level, though not exclusively). In most departments, Harvard is significantly better than UBC not to mention smaller colleges. I find it a little of a hyperbole to say that education at a large university somehow “harms students in the long run”

    Also, unless your interest is a rarefied field which falls within one of these smaller universities’ range, generally students, on average, are exposed to a wider variety of curricula at a larger university, undergraduate and graduate level, than at a smaller university. This effect is even further enhanced for students not interested in research. Thus, unless you are a student who has chosen a specialized field within a subject within a sphere of academics (and most students are not- though this reduces at the grad level), you will be better off in a large school.

    You say that you are more impressed by researchers who thrive in a barren environment. Firstly, that kind of flies in the face of the entire argument about some smaller universities having excelled research facilities, which some do. But, research must be evaluated in terms of objective results, not subjective evaluations of methods. And you will find that researchers at large, well-funded universities, usually and I repeat usually, have better equipment, better research to consult, better colleagues to discuss with, more funding to continue research, better living conditions in order to focus on their research, and thus more of them succeed in getting results. There are definitely successes in smaller universities but these seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

    We must not dismiss small universities because of their apparent obscurity but we must also not elevate them to pedestals which, a lot of the time, they won’t deserve.

    I don’t know how I stumbled on this article and I shall end here haha.

    P.S. most designer jeans are of significantly higher quality than a rip off brand made in a home workshop- though maybe not to the extent that their brand marketers would have us believe.

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