Sci got a great email in her little inbox the other day:
Most knowledgeable Dr. Scicurious (for which title much congratulations), this aspiring neuroscientist finds itself at a great turning point in its young life, and in need of guidance from its elders.
I am going to college in the fall to begin my training as a scientist; I am trying to decide whether to attend a large university or a small liberal arts college, and leaning slightly towards the SLAC. My career plans after that are the usual scientist stuff, get my PhD, try to get tenure at an MRU, you know the drill. I am aware that even a blogger as great as you probably cannot give me an easy answer as to which I should attend, but if your busy schedule permits it, I would love to hear your opinion on how the different atmosphere of a SLAC can shape an aspiring scientist.
Your adoring reader,
Isn't that awesome?! Appropriately servile, a good bit of flattery, excellent. 🙂 Sci is pleased. And she thought, might wanna blog it.
After all, Sci did her undergrad at an SLAC of some minor fame. So I can certainly offer some insights into what an SLAC did for me that a much larger school might not have. But this is only my opinion, and my experiences. Your mileage may vary. And Sci would love to hear from some people who went to larger universities (especially those which were med school affiliated) to hear their advice.
So here we go: so you're thinking you might want to go to an SLAC?
Sci will admit she had a GREAT experience at her SLAC. It was pretty small (7,000 ish at the time), appropriately old and mouldy, an academic boot-camp, and appropriately cheap (being in state).
So, the things an SLAC can offer an aspiring young scientist:
1) Good professorial relationships.
Larger universities often have huge classes, and these huge classes are often taught either by TAs or by profs who have better things to do. At an SLAC, teaching is what professors are supposed to spend their time on (though some SLACs are now requiring more researching funding and stuff). This means teaching is something that they are good at (there are exceptions) and that it is something they love. Not something they do because they are required to outside of research.
Professors at SLACs tend to teach smaller classes, particularly at the higher levels, and they are also (in Sci's experience) more open to meeting up after class during office hours (or sometimes even not, I had one prof who used to meet small groups for coffee). Sci's profs at her SLAC were uniformly open to meeting to chat about science, encouraged young scientists professionally, and glad to help with difficult concepts. And sometimes they will even help when you're not in their class.
A personal story:
Sci was in an upper level organic chem class one year, in the one for Biology majors, with a TERRIBLE prof. She was studying her little rear off, and still in serious danger of failing. Sci's roommate (who is awesome) was a Chem major who watched Sci struggle, and, having complete faith in Sci's mental competency, one day dragged her in to see HER Chem prof for the Chem major class. That prof listened to Sci's somewhat tearful story, quizzed her on the concepts, and said "You're really good at this! You just need it taught in a different way." He then let me sit in on his class while taking the other class (Sci breathed chemistry that fall), and worked with Sci every week on the concepts. I literally took two sets of quizzes and tests every week. I spent HOURS with my roommate studying (w00t, K!) and in this guy's office. I wasn't in his class. He had no reason to do it at all, except he saw that I had drive and that I really DID want to learn the material. Sci passed Orgo with flying colors (ok, no I didn't, but I got straight As through the second half of the course, which allowed me to pass the course with a C), and that prof has been bugging her to be a chemist ever since. (*waves* Hi Prof H!! Sci does chemistry all the time now!!! You're the best!!!)
I had another professor in Biology who mentored me through my grad applications, and who sat down and talked science with me all the time. He wasn't my advisor, I was just a kid in his class who liked the material, and he made time for me. I had another professor in Philosophy who was the same way, incredibly inspiring, and always willing for a chat about deep stuff (he also liked to hold his senior classes at the local pub, which was GREAT).
These are the kind of things that SLAC professors will do for you, when you are a hard working kid with an interest in the material. In Sci's opinion, it's the best part of going to an SLAC by far. It's certainly served her very well in the long run. Professors who know you well will write you great references for grad school and beyond.
2) An opportunity to try a little bit of everything.
SLACs can be very small indeed, but they come with lots of opportunities to try things that you might not initially consider. Of course, the broad range of classes you are required to take in the first two years is a part of that (this isn't limited to SLACs, of course). Some people consider this a curse, but Sci considered it a blessing. Not only do these classes have you meet lots of people outside your discipline, they also may get you interested in something you'd never thought of. If it hadn't been for intro Phil 101 with Professor B, Sci would not have a degree in Philosophy today.
There's also something more important here, career-wise. The wide range of classes you are required to take makes you learn how to WRITE. Those small classes, with those picky professors, are great for getting down the basics. Sci had the opportunity to learn, not only how to write, but how to write fast and well (ok, on the blog she doesn't really follow the rules). And some schools even require that you learn to do things like public speaking and presenting, which will DEFINITELY help you in the long run.
And of course there's lots of opportunities as SLACs to try different kinds of research (Sci tried aquatic ecology and it was awesome), different fun things (at SLACs, the music and theater programs have lots of non-majors in them, and the school newspapers and websites take more than just Journalism, English, and Comp Sci majors), and more. Other schools may have this, too, but larger universities often have far more competition for the symphony, the plays, or the newspaper from people who want to make their livelihoods in that area. Yeah, my SLAC didn't put on the greatest productions, but we had SO much fun.
3) Small Research Experience
Since most SLACs are not affiliated with medical schools or big grad programs, you often can't get into neuroscience (or your science of choice) research right off the bat. On the other hand, the research you can do is run by those same amazing profs mentioned above. And that can be a great thing. Some of the profs at my undergrad took their students to conferences and had them present, which is INCREDIBLY valuable experience. Also, since many of these profs don't have grad students, it means when they get published, so do YOU. You can actually be on papers in undergrad, which is a great thing (but see more on that below), and learn how to do writing for scientific papers, which is a very different animal.
Those are the main things, as Sci sees it, that are great about SLACs in terms of your future neuroscience career. Sci could go on about how you have lots of awesome, geeky friends, how you make memories that last forever, but that's just college, you know?
But of course there are some things that an SLAC CAN'T offer you:
1) Big Research Experience.
I'm not saying SLACs offer NO research experience, there is usually research experience for those who want it. But many SLACs are not affiliated with a big medical center or grad program. This means that, though you may be able to get research experience in things like watershed ecology, or circadian rhythm, or basic cell biology, you may not be able to work for a Big-Wig in your field of choice as an undergrad. Now that Sci is at a huge MRU closely affiliated with a medical school, she sees these undergrads coming in and getting research experience that will be closely related to what they want to do right out of the gate. That research experience looks REALLY good when you're applying to grad school. On the other hand, Sci had watershed ecology research experience, and she still got in to a very good grad school. Sometimes it's just knowing that you have PERFORMED research that really makes it.
Not only does biomed research in undergrad LOOK good, it's also a really good idea if you want to go to grad school, to see whether you are suited to research and what kinds of research you enjoy. Some people think they want to do research, then try it, and go running for the haven of medical school. You never know. And doing undergrad research, if you get really involved, can sometimes get you published, which is GREAT for getting in to grad school.
2) Big Wigs
Because SLACs often aren't affiliated with medical schools, they often don't have any association with big name professors which inhabit those schools. This means that you can't do undergrad work for a big name while you're in college. Of course, not all big names take undergrads, but it's a great experience if you can get it.
The thing is, because SLACs require so much teaching from their profs, their profs tend not to be published as much and tend not to have large amounts of funding. This means that they won't really know or be able to plug you in to people who are published and do have funding and with whom you might want to work. That's not to say you won't get to work with those people anyway when you go to grad school, but sometimes that foot in the door can really help.
3) Class variety.
SLACs may not have the variety of classes that you are looking for when you're preparing yourself for grad school. Sci personally found that her basic Biology degree with a hefty dose of Chemistry (please please PLEASE if you want to go to grad school in biomedical science, take chemistry!!! PLEASE!!! You will be using it every day of your life) prepped her very well for grad school classes, but found that people who had degrees in general Psychology, with little Chem or Bio, were far less well-prepared for grad school in Neuroscience. Larger schools may be more likely to have actual undergrad Neuroscience programs, while SLACs may just have a minor or concentration, and not have the resources to devote to an actual program. By the same token, you may not be able to get a real, hardcore human anatomy class at an SLAC, while a larger school might have that available to undergrads (Sci has ALWAYS wanted to take anatomy...sigh...). So if you want something really tailored toward a Neuroscience education, you may want to go for a larger Uni with a wide array of those classes.
So good luck, aspiring undergrad! And remember, wherever you go, if you've got the drive and motivation, you'll do well and find a way to get into grad school. If Sci can, so can you! Anyone else have any points? What do SLACs have in their favor that large Uni's don't, and vice versa?