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.