Ask Scicurious: Do you want to go to an SLAC?

Apr 19 2010 Published by under Academia

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,
Wannabe Neuroscientist

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?

17 responses so far

  • Kevin H says:

    I went to a SLAC and was able to get some good research experience. We had a 32 channel EEG system that was free for anyone students to use after the underwent some training. For my senior year I designed and ran my own little study on face perception. Nothing publishable, but certainly a great introduction and practice for grad school. So, I guess I would say that SLACs can be very good if you really take it upon yourself to maximize the benefit you get from the smaller schools flexibility.
    However, sci's point #2 is huge. Like it or not, science is a social endevor, and networking is huge. Getting a recommendation from or publication with an established lab can start the dominoes falling in your favor.

  • Lumberjack says:

    I'm at a SLAC-type state college, Humboldt State University, and can confirm what Scicurious said. We do have a couple of neuroscience labs, however! One of the PIs is going on sabbatical next year. We probably don't have the full range of equipment, but the PI mentioned above definitely takes his students to conferences. My PI doesn't do conferences much, but I've gone on my own, and both have published papers with undergrad co-authors... even in J Neurosci. We definitely have the "gets you into Med School" prof who personally mentors students into medical, dental, vet, pharm, or PhD schools.

  • Tybo says:

    I'm finishing my undergraduate at a MRU this semester, but did a lot of my entry-level courses at a CC (community college). I can't complain with that decision at all; having O-Chem lecture with only 24 other people is much better than O-Chem lecture with 240 other people. (The CC didn't have the labs, though, so I had to do O-Chem lab at MRU.) I guess I'm lucky to be in an area where work transfers between the two, though.
    But yes, the Med-and-Pharm-affiliated-MRU is great for undergraduate research. I've been working with an ERP Big Wig for the past semester, and it's been a wonderful experience. Having a name on something that may be leaving the country for presentation is really awesome, even if it is seventh name. YMMV.
    Also interesting about the MRU is the amazing lecturers that (at least at mine) that tend to come in for multidisciplinary work. I've gone to see quite a few Big Wigs talk about connectome projects, neuroimaging, and lots of Cog Sci stuff.
    Regarding Psych people going into Neuroscience, though... I know at least at my MRU, Psych didn't require much Neurosci, although they did offer a few biologically-flavored classes in the Psych department. Nothing required Chem, though. And if you want to take Psych-flavored stuff but not be a Psych major... This seems to be a problem unique to MRUs, because there's just so many Psych majors: I... umm.... Well, apparently Biology majors aren't supposed to be allowed to enroll in the core curriculum Psych courses at my MRU. (I kind of cheated the system here, actually. I would not recommend declaring the minor, then dropping it, but still continuing to enroll in courses in the department. Or, at least, if you do, don't tell the professor that you did such.)

  • Seth says:

    I was a Biology major at a SLAC, and am now working on a phd in molecular genetics at a MRU. One benefit I have come to appreciate after being exposed to current and former undergrads at my current university, is the wide range of courses you are essentially forced to take at a SLAC. As an undergrad I was in the Biology department. There was 1 professor for genetics, 1 for biochemistry (1 in the bio dept and 1 in chem), 1 for neurobiology (Hi, Dr. Olberg), etc. So you took the one course they offered, and if you liked the topic you had to figure out your own way (with their help) to get more of it.
    At my current school I would have been in the department of molecular and cell biology within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As a graduate student I am in a specific degree program within that department, 1 of 9 or 10 choices. Degree requirements at a MRU are going to constrain the diversity of science courses you're going to take. I would have liked to have taken more than 1 genetics course as an undergrad, but there was just the 1. So I took botany, conservation biology, ecology, cell motility, etc. I do not use all of that stuff in my research today, but I was exposed to a great range of topics.
    With all this edumacation stuff in mind, don't forget that you will be living at your college of choice. My undergrad was small, maybe 2400 students. Now I am at a school where the total undergrad enrollment passes 22k. For some people these numbers are irrelevant. Still they do impact more than just class size, and whether or not a TA runs your lab versus a faculty member.

  • Cnonymous Aoward says:

    Cut a scientist some SLAC here. The first time I read this, I wondered why would a liberal arts student want to study at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center? 🙂

  • becca says:

    I went to a rather large (40,000+) flagship state university for my second part of undergrad (I started at a CC). I had great opportunities for a *variety* of undergrad research, and at the time I was very focused on trying things and learning new techniques so I took advantage of that. In retrospect, it would have advanced my career more to have picked one and gotten involved and published.
    I hated the gen-ed requirements because they felt so restrictive. Which can be a problem at a large or small school. However, there are several courses I never would have taken without those requirements that really served me well, and having a really wide selection did make the whole thing more bearable.
    Also, if you want to take Mandarin, you can't beat a university that has shockingly dedicated native speaker TAs.

  • Sonia says:

    I'm graduating from a SLAC and headed off to grad school next year. All the profs I've talked to so far have been super happy with my application and credentials because I've gotten to do things like present at conferences, help write up a scientific paper, and mentor younger students in the lab. As one prof said, I've "already been a graduate student." They LOVED that.
    At a SLAC, you won't be competing with grad students in labs for the best research opportunities. If someone's going to be leading a project, it'll be you, if someone's going to be designing an experiment, it'll be you, and if someone's going to write that up for publication, it'll be you. I've spoken at great length with the postdoc in my lab on this topic: She says that at a big university, undergraduate "research" can often just mean "cleaning the fly tanks." So there is a big difference, I hear, in the type of research experience you get.
    I also wouldn't put too much stock into big wigs at this point in your life because people tend to change their minds during those four years of college. You might think you want to do sleep research, spend a whole long time getting a position and some clout in a sleep research lab, and then find out you really want to do psychophysics instead. Also consider that big wigs can be VERY polarizing figures. Just try to work for a computationalist after being trained in your undergrad by a famous dynamical systems cognitive scientist ... I dare ya.
    You want to make sure you have as many options as possible *and explore them.* SLACs are great for that; you can get involved in lots of different labs over your four years and (at least at my SLAC) the profs will encourage you rather than be disappointed. "Neuroscience" is a big huge field. The best way to know what you want to study in it is to sample a bit!

  • Dr Becca says:

    I just want to reiterate Sci's comment that if you think you'll eventually want to go to grad school in the biomedical sciences, TAKE CHEMISTRY. I was a psychology major at an MRU (but with a relatively small undergrad population-- ~8,000) and avoided basic science classes in favor of all kinds of fun liberal artsy subjects, only to decide senior year that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Let me tell you, it was (and sometimes still is) ROUGH having to pick everything up along the way--I think I cried almost every day the first couple of months of grad school because I felt so lost.
    Best of luck, Wannabe Neuroscientist!

  • Aaron says:

    My personal inclination is that wannabe should go to a MRU. This is 100% based on the fact that s/he intends to go into professional academics/science. If you plan on spending your professional life in a certain setting, you should probably get exposed to it as soon possible. Additionally, seeing how proactive wannabe is about education, s/he would probably be just the sort of student to take advantage of the opportunities available at MRUs.
    SLACs often have the advantage of better personal relationships, and generally not letting students fall through the cracks. For the motivated student, however, these aren't really issues at MRUs. If you go the MRU route, you'll quickly find that professors aren't disinterested, they're just a little jaded. They've taught a ton of classes filled with people that are there for just as many reasons. They're used to both extremes of students: those that just don't care about the class, and those that HAVE to get As. Outwardly, they sometimes seem unfriendly, and honestly, this is somewhat justifiable for aforementioned reasons. If you go talk to these profs, however, you'll quickly see them light up if you express an interest in their research. Introduce yourself as "I work in so-and-so's lab, and you're instantly on the inside and welcomed. You just have to take that extra step of separating yourself from the riff-raff.
    Opportunity abounds at MRUs, and the proactive student will find them a veritable academic playground. One of the best parts is that you won't play alone. There will be other people doing the same thing, and you'll challenge and learn from each other.
    My caution would be that this setting can be intimidating to some, and that the education offered might not be as broad. To the first issue I say, "this is science, get used to it." To the second, I once again refer to the proactive part of proactive student. You can certainly get a broad education, but it might be a little harder to navigate course requirements, or even figure out what's available and good to take. Done successfully, you can really get a unique and fantastic education that will make the next steps in your career an absolute breeze.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    If you really, really know you want to be a neuroscientist, go to an MRU that's tops in that. If there is even the slightest doubt and you want to, you know, enjoy an actual college education a SLAC is your best bet.
    my favorite SLAC pumps out an unending stream of neuroscienc-y grads who go into some of the top national graduate programs and then faculty slots. so it is not an inevitable handicap to not attend a MRU

  • AP says:

    I'm not in neuroscience, but I did graduate from a VSLAC (VERY small liberal arts college with less than 500 students) and I am now in graduate school. Regarding research opportunities, I would encourage you to look into REU-type of programs (Research Experience for Undergraduates). You go to a big university for the summer and get paid to do research. This can help greatly in the networking arena as well as figuring out if research is really the life for you.

  • Katharine says:

    Speaking from experience as a current undergrad:
    Big U = Can be BAD for undergrads. It is easy to get lost there. In my experience, at least, they are more geared toward grad students.
    I'd suggest, if you want to toe the line between variety of classes and availability of Big Names (which you probably won't even see much of until grad school and I don't even know if they matter for undergrad research experience; they probably don't) and a school where you'll get more personal attention and be able to interact more with your professors, go to a mid-sized to smallish but larger than an SLAC university/college.

  • Katharine says:

    "SLACs often have the advantage of better personal relationships, and generally not letting students fall through the cracks. For the motivated student, however, these aren't really issues at MRUs. If you go the MRU route, you'll quickly find that professors aren't disinterested, they're just a little jaded. They've taught a ton of classes filled with people that are there for just as many reasons. They're used to both extremes of students: those that just don't care about the class, and those that HAVE to get As. Outwardly, they sometimes seem unfriendly, and honestly, this is somewhat justifiable for aforementioned reasons. If you go talk to these profs, however, you'll quickly see them light up if you express an interest in their research. Introduce yourself as "I work in so-and-so's lab, and you're instantly on the inside and welcomed. You just have to take that extra step of separating yourself from the riff-raff."
    This generally wasn't my experience. It's less about motivation than having to keep your head above water because you are one person in a class of 3453265345634354353 people at a university that contains 32456340697340987350936732094573098573409583740593 students and it confuses me how anyone survives at a university that large without at least one mental breakdown.

  • Katharine says:

    At the undergraduate level, anyway.

  • Katharine says:

    "If you go talk to these profs, however, you'll quickly see them light up if you express an interest in their research. Introduce yourself as "I work in so-and-so's lab, and you're instantly on the inside and welcomed. You just have to take that extra step of separating yourself from the riff-raff."
    Oh. Also, you have to be able to get in the door first. You have to get to the "I work in so-and-so's lab" before you can introduce yourself as "I work in so-and-so's lab".

  • Katharine says:

    Also, keep in mind there are also usually eleventy bajillion other students in an MRU department who want to work in The Same Freaking Lab.
    They all have better GPAs and more lab experience than you.

  • Cedar Riener says:

    I am partial to the SLAC (maybe because I teach cognitive and perceptual psychology at a SLAC) for all the above reasons.
    A few more to consider:
    As a business (and this metaphor only goes so far) the SLAC actually depends on you, the undergraduate. They need to get enough to choose them, and then make them happy enough to donate later. The MRU actually does not rely financially on undergraduates (I know, bizarre, but true).
    Second, there two classes of factors differences between MRU professors and SLAC. First, there is self-selection. Those who go to SLAC's tend to be much more interested in teaching undergraduates, and less interested in research achievement and progress. Which is not to say that all MRU's are bad teachers, just that they tend to be less interested in improving their teaching. Second, the incentives and resources (i.e. tenure, raises, etc) are pretty much all linked to research at MRU's, and mostly teaching and mentoring at the SLAC's (although it depends on the SLAC).
    Anyways, but I can't argue with the logic that if you absolutely know you want neuroscience, you might be better served by going to an MRU and getting big name recommendation and a few published articles and advanced classes and labwork.
    Good luck.