Liberal Arts Colleges
as Preparation for a Career in Science

Copyright 1998, 2000-2001 by Ronald B. Standler

Table of Contents

Track Record
        My Interpretation of This Record
        Women's Colleges
Value of Liberal Arts Education
        "People Skills"
        Avoid Narrow Education
        Other Views

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Track Record

A study by Kenneth R. Hardy, "Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars," Science, Vol. 185, pp. 497-506, 9 Aug 1974 showed that scholars who earned their doctoral degree during 1950-61 had often earlier earned their bachelor's degree at a small, elite, liberal arts college, such as:
  1. Reed College in Oregon
  2. Swarthmore in Pennsylvania
  3. Oberlin in Ohio
  4. Antioch in Ohio
  5. Haverford in Pennsylvania
  6. Clark in Massachusetts
  7. Grinnell in Iowa
The following women's colleges were also found to be highly productive of graduates who later earned doctoral degrees:
  1. Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania
  2. Radcliffe in Massachusetts
  3. Vassar in New York
  4. Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts
  5. Wellesley in Massachusetts
Hardy's study also showed that California Institute of Technology and MIT were highly productive in granting bachelor's degrees to students who later earned a doctoral degree. One would expect such a result, as these two schools are famous for both their scientific research environment and small student/faculty ratio. Students choose those two schools to obtain an intense education in science or engineering, an education that could well lead to a doctoral degree.

My Interpretation

My interpretation of these results for liberal arts colleges is that:
  1. The quality of teaching is higher at these small liberal arts colleges than at large universities. There are several reasons for this result:
    1. smaller student/faculty ratios give the faculty more time to mentor individual students and grade term papers,
    2. less pressure on faculty to bring in large research contracts, which work distracts faculty from teaching undergraduates, and
    3. involvement of undergraduate students in research programs, which is rare at big universities that have many graduate students.
  2. The admission criteria are higher at these small liberal arts colleges than at large universities. In contrast, most state universities must admit anyone who graduated from a high school in that state, and it is rare to fail more than 10% of the students in an introductory class.
  3. Many of these colleges are located in small towns, so there is nothing to do there except study. <grin>

Women's Colleges

The exceptional productivity of the women's colleges is due to the same factors as for small liberal arts colleges in the preceding paragraph, plus perhaps two other factors that are more controversial. My experience in teaching electrical engineering laboratory courses in the 1980s may give some insight into this phenomena. Because laboratory equipment is expensive, students work together in groups of two or three. Students tend to select their groups so that there is not more than one woman per group, then that woman is assigned the role of secretary: she records the data neatly in the laboratory notebook while the men build, debug, and measure the circuit. When I attempted to intervene and get the women to work alone, or in an all-women group, the women became angry with me, so I quit trying. In a women's college, there would be no male students to relegate them to secretarial roles, so the women would learn more laboratory skills. Furthermore, at a women's college, there may be less social pressure to date men, so that the women can focus on their education and preparation for a career, instead of early marriage and diversion into being a full-time homemaker.


Finally, I strongly believe that a student who intends to earn a doctoral degree should get the strongest possible academic preparation in his/her baccalaureate studies. There are three general ways that such a strong preparation can be achieved.
  1. Enroll in a college with a very selective admissions policy (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, MIT), in which less than 25% of the applicants are accepted. (Further, because of these colleges' reputation, generally only bright students apply to them.)
  2. Enroll in a state university that accepts almost anyone, but which flunks out most of the students during their first two years.
  3. Attend any large university, then enroll in an honors program there, which offers classes with small enrollments and an enriched curriculum to outstanding students.
While such an opinion may be offensive in an egalitarian society, it is nonetheless true that the measure of a quality of a college is in its selectivity.

Value of Liberal Arts Education

Aside from the question about whether to attend (1) a large university where the faculty are primarily engaged in research or (2) a small liberal-arts college, there is an important point to be made about the value of a liberal-arts education for scientists.

Reading novels, listening to music, understanding history, ... is part of our cultural heritage that any educated person should understand. So taking classes in literature, music, history, etc. is properly part of one's education. But, aside from such an idealistic view, there are also practical benefits to such liberal-arts education.


One of the strongest difficulties faced by science and engineering students is visualizing a problem. A typical problem might involve A typical textbook problem in a science or engineering class gives the student the location of various objects or electrical charges, and asks the student to write equation(s) that describe the motion of the objects, or describe the electromagnetic field from the charges. While solving such problems can be difficult for students, an even more difficult task is to find a creative design that attains some goal. For example, one might want to design a machine that achieves some result or function, or one might measure an electric field and want to infer the location of charges that produces such a field. The process of visualizing is inherent in creating a new design, as one mentally "tries" various solutions and "sees" the result.

Where does one learn to visualize?   The answer for me was in reading many hundreds of novels, in which I visualized the characters and scenery in my mind. In school, such an experience is obtained in an English literature class, neither a science class nor engineering class.

As an aside, I note that, in reading a book, one exercises one's imagination by visualizing the characters and scenery and "hearing" sounds. In listening to a baseball game on a radio, one still exercises one's imagination in visualizing the location of the players on the field, but the sound is explicitly conveyed. In contrast to reading and listening to the radio, watching television shows both the action and sound, leaving nothing to exercise the viewer's imagination. The fact that modern children spend more time watching television than reading books may have a disastrous impact on their ability in later life to visualize and be creative.

People Skills

A scientist engaged in research does not encounter purely scientific issues in his/her life. A scientist must continually interact with people in various ways: Such "people skills" are learned in liberal-arts classes (e.g., English literature, rhetoric, foreign languages, history, philosophy, law, etc.), but neither a science class nor an engineering class.

It is traditional in science and engineering classes to have weekly homework exercises, but not a term paper. Adding a term paper to every science or engineering class would increase the students' workload to a burdensome level. But writing term papers is essential preparation for writing a doctoral dissertation, scholarly papers for publication in archival journals, long research proposals, etc. I believe that it is essential that undergraduate science and engineering students take many liberal-arts classes in which a term paper is required.

Because scientific research does not occur in isolation from the remainder of society, scientists should be aware of developments in politics that affect their work, and scientists should be aware of ethical and legal implications of their work.

Avoid Narrow Education

My experience in scientific and engineering research has taught me the value of a broad background. A broad education is desirable because of what might be called "cross-fertilization of ideas". Techniques that are well-known in one field can lead to innovation and progress when applied in a different field. Facts that are well-known in one field can have unexpected relevance in a different field. A person who knows those facts has an advantage over someone who does not know those facts. A narrowly educated person would not even look for relevant information in other fields, because narrow specialists – by definition – don't venture into other fields.

There is an aphorism:
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
That aphorism neatly summarizes the advantage of having a broad knowledge, from which to pull techniques, analogies, etc. for the solution of new problems. One should try to think of more than one solution for a particular problem, then choose the most appropriate solution. People with a narrow expertise will be lucky to find one solution and even luckier if it is a good solution.

During four, or even eight, years of full-time university study, it is impossible to learn everything that one needs to know during the remainder of one's life. But a broad education gives one the best preparation to teach one's self what one needs to know in the future. More thoughts on this theme are contained in my separate essay about the proper goals of a college education.

Other Views

My search on the Internet for "liberal arts education" on 23 May 2001 returned hundreds of essays from college websites and individual professors. Many of these essays can be dismissed as self-serving praise, exalting their generalization in humanities, by using fuzzy – if not actually wrong – logic. For example: I believe the following essays about the value of a liberal arts education rise above the clutter:

this document is at
begun 21 Sep 1998, revised 14 July 2001, links updated 10 Aug 2008

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