5 Things You Should Know About Studying Science at a Liberal Arts School

It’s getting close to the end of senior year, and you’ve got a pile of acceptance letters spread out on the floor around you. The names of the schools range widely, from big universities in Texas to small liberal arts colleges in upstate New York. As a budding physician or scientist, you probably think your best choice is a huge research university – that’s where all the exciting science is going on, right? At the same time, you don’t want to spend most of your college years in huge auditoriums listening to a minimum-wage TA drone on about general chemistry.

Don’t lose heart, pre-collegiette – science and liberal arts colleges aren’t as mutually exclusive as you’d think. In fact, tons of liberal arts colleges have exciting opportunities for undergraduates to excel. We’ve talked to experts and college students on liberal arts campuses all around the country to give you the pros and cons of studying science at these schools. Decide for yourself if this is the college experience you want to have.

1. You’ll get a broad education

As a science major in a liberal arts college, you’ll most likely be required to take a wide range of classes. Every college requires general education courses, however this will be a large part of your curriculum in a liberal arts college. For example, at the University of Notre Dame, there are both university requirements and major requirements to graduate. Everyone at the college is required to complete the university courses along with their personal major requirements. So, as a science student at a liberal arts school, you’ll not only be taking your biology and chemistry classes, but perhaps a few writing and history classes, as well.

A broad-based education has both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, you receive an appreciation for other fields of study and get a break from difficult science classes. It can be rewarding to delve into literature and forget about organic chemistry for a little, trust us. On the other hand, you might feel upset that you’re required to take courses that don’t relate to your career interests. Weigh the pros and cons against your own personal views and make a decision.

Dr. Sally Springer, the co-author of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College notes the benefits of a broad-based education. “A broad-based education is valuable for success in life,” she says. “You can get a broad-based education at a research university, of course, but it is mandatory at a liberal arts college. Students graduate with strong writing and critical thinking skills, as well as an appreciation for fields well outside their area of specialization.”

On the contrary, Rylie O’Meara, a freshman at the University of Notre Dame, describes a few drawbacks of university-wide requirements. “I think one of the main disadvantages of studying science at a liberal arts school is trying to fulfill all the university graduation requirements – especially at Notre Dame where we’re required to take classes like philosophy, theology, literature and history,” she says. “It sometimes seems unfair that we get loaded up with so much science and math work, but are still expected to invest an equal amount of time in humanities classes that don’t apply as much to our majors.”

As an (almost) undergraduate, you only have a few more years to gain a general education. That can be quite rewarding, as the rest of your life you’ll most likely be specializing in your field of interest – just make sure you still have the time to focus on the classes for your major. Choose carefully and keep your future in mind!

2. The faculty will be focused on you

Liberal arts colleges are generally much smaller than research universities. For you, that translates into a smaller faculty-to-student ratio. Instead of sitting in auditorium-like lecture halls with a speck of a professor, you’ll most likely find yourself in classrooms that don’t exceed 30 people. Professors will know both you and your work by name. While that puts pressure on you to perform well, attending class becomes more than a simple letter grade. You’ll really connect with your professors and gain relationships that can aid you in graduate school and beyond. Recommendation letters don’t write themselves, do they?

Beyond that, the faculty are actually invested in your success at a liberal arts college. At research universities, oftentimes professors are myopically focused on their research and don’t feel the need to spend time engaging with undergrads. They already have their hands full with the graduate students in their lab. Your lectures may be taught by TAs more often than your professors themselves.

Dr. Springer agrees, noting that professors at liberal arts schools don’t have the same demanding research expectations as those in research universities. “Classes are generally smaller [in liberal arts colleges] than classes in research universities and faculty are hired because of their interest in teaching undergraduates,” she says. “Faculty at a liberal arts college are expected to be active in research, but not at the same level expected of faculty at research universities.”

Springer adds, “Personal attention and mentoring are the hallmarks of a liberal arts college. Students get to know their faculty well and are not competing with graduate students for a faculty member’s attention.”

If you get to know the faculty at your school well, you’ll gain important references for graduate school. While it’s possible at a research university, you’ll have more opportunities at a liberal arts college. If you want professors to really know you, then the close-knit environment of a liberal arts school might be perfect for you.

3. You’ll stand out among your peers

Would you rather be a little fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a little pond? It’s a cliché saying, but it’s got a lot of truth when comparing a small liberal arts college to a huge research university.

When you go to a large university where every other student is pre-med with near-perfect SAT scores, it can be extremely difficult to stand out when looking for internships. On the other hand, at a small liberal arts school, you’d be the one science major for every ten humanities students. That uniqueness can win you many opportunities on campus.

It’s a rat-race in big universities to find summer internships, scout out labs looking for interns, and even find work opportunities on campus. At a college where you’re in a small pool of science students, it’ll be less competitive to snag those opportunities.

Sydney Hotz, a sophomore majoring in pre-med and statistics at Barnard College, notes how the science community can be at a liberal arts college. “My freshman year, I took a research seminar with about 12 other students for two semesters and it provided me with a close-knit group of friends who I could discuss the latest scientific advances with,” she says. “I’m still very close with about half the class and we are always in the intro pre-med classes together, making a sea of over 100 people much less intimidating.”

By engaging in her school’s science community, Sydney was introduced to the research of professors on campus. “I researched in the chemistry department on an organism known to fix oil spills in bodies of water,” Sydney adds. “The lab was just a few people, and I had the chance to be independent, learn all I could, and put my lectures into real life. While not everyone at Barnard is studying science, the scientific community is extremely supportive.”

Sydney’s experience definitely displays how the science community in a small school can provide you with great opportunities and dedicated support.

Related: 6 Things No One Tells You About Going to a Small College

4. You might not have the course selection you’d like

Despite all the advantages of a small liberal arts college, don’t pack your bags and mail your acceptance letter just yet. There are definitely downsides – and for some students, deal-breakers.

Possibly the biggest disadvantage that can turn students off is, unsurprisingly, the lack of course selection. Small liberal arts college simply don’t have the resources or faculty to provide a wide range of courses. They can’t spread their faculty too thin either, as it would compromise their admirable faculty-to-student ratio as well. It’s a hard bargain, but it’s up to you to decide if the school is still worth it.

Dr. Springer agrees that the lack of course selection can be challenging at a liberal arts college. “The challenge for a student interested in a liberal arts college, as well as a major in science, is making sure that the colleges [he or she] will be applying to have the course offerings and research opportunities that he or she wants,” she says. “The downside [of liberal arts colleges] is that the scale of things is smaller – fewer faculty and fewer courses (or courses that may be offered less frequently). Some of the stronger liberal arts colleges have strong faculty and facilities across the board; others may have older facilities in some fields or fewer faculty. A good fit for a given student will depend on the particular school as well as the student’s interests.”

At big universities, the amount of courses offered can almost seem infinite. Unfortunately, small colleges don’t have that luxury. It’s a good idea to check the course list of the college you’re thinking of attending beforehand.

5. You’ll probably have to look elsewhere for research opportunities

Again, at a liberal arts college, professors don’t have high expectations to be active in research. Instead, they focus on teaching undergraduates. While that’s awesome in the classroom for you, it definitely makes it harder to find research opportunities. If research is a major requirement for you in your college search, a small liberal arts college might not deliver.

Dr. Springer gives a few recommendations in case your school doesn’t have any readily available opportunities. “Research experiences are available at liberal arts colleges, but their scope will vary widely from field to field and from school to school,” she says. “Most schools consider research an important part of the educational experience. If a student finds herself at a school without the opportunities she wants, she will have to seek them elsewhere – through summer programs or other opportunities during the school year that may be available at nearby institutions (a nearby hospital, for example).”

Take Dr. Springer’s advice and don’t just look up the science department at your college ––broaden your search and look for opportunities all around the city where your college is located. Is there a hospital nearby? How about a research university? There are always ways to maneuver around disadvantages the school you’re interested in might present.

If you made it to the end of this article and you’re still decided on majoring in science at a liberal arts college, good for you! If you’re rethinking your decision, that’s totally okay as well. In the end, your college experience is yours and yours alone – follow your gut and choose what you think is best for you. Wherever you go to college, you can always find enriching experiences that will jump-start your career – you just have to actively search for them. Good luck, pre-collegiettes!

Shereen is currently a junior at Florida Atlantic University, majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Literature. As the Life Section Editor and Feature Writer for Her Campus, she loves to read, write and express her opinion. When she's not scribbling away in a notebook, you can find her obsessively playing videogames, procrastinating for her physics final or staying up till 4 AM for no reason whatsoever.

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