I was delighted with all the insightful comments that parents sent me this week after they read my last blog post entitled:
I’d urge you to read the post about a high-achieving, future valedictorian from North Carolina, who wants to attend the University of Virginia and has other elite public and private schools on his list including Columbia, MIT and the University of Michigan. And please read the two dozen comments!
Your child doesn’t have to be a braniac to benefit from the advice. As I promised previously, I wanted to weigh in more on this subject.
Attending a Research University
This teen, who wants to major in a STEM field, is focusing on intense research universities. These institutions could represent an excellent choice for him, but he needs to do further research before finalizing his list.
One reader (JimB) noted that I have a bias for liberal arts colleges for undergrads and that is true, but I think a research university can be a smart pick under certain circumstances.
The Mission of a Research University
The No. 1 mission of intensive research universities, such as the ones the teen is looking at, is professor research. Professors are evaluated on the research they produce and the grants they can attract. They don’t get kudos or raises for being good teachers. A professor who is a great researcher and a lousy teacher can get tenure. An awesome teacher and a so-so researcher won’t get tenure.
A professor at one of these universities summed up the reality succinctly when he once told me, “I don’t get paid to teach, I get paid to research.”
At research universities, it’s the graduate students who typically interact the most with the undergrads. The professor will give a lecture in front of hundreds of students and the grad students will serve as the mother hens and take over in the smaller discussion sections.
Some of these largely inaccessible professors can be great assets for ambitious and gifted undergrads who can make a meaningful connection. Doing undergraduate research with a professor at a top research institution, who works in a cutting-edge lab pursuing exciting research, can open future doors and be an amazing experience.
Questions to Ponder
The questions that I think this brilliant child needs to ask include these:
- Are you an extrovert?
- Would you feel comfortable pursuing professors, who more than likely don’t want to be bothered by undergrads?
Last year I asked a friend’s son, who graduated from UCLA with an economics major, whether he had cultivated any relationships with his professors. He said it was extremely difficult to do.
He said that his goal was the same as his friends. They each tried to get a professor to know them well enough so that they could eventually elicit a recommendation from him/her. It was a stressful experience and they felt extremely lucky if they got one professor to know their names.
I’ve heard similar stories from students who attend some of the other top University of California campuses. I am sure that engaging professors isn’t going to be such a difficult proposition at all research universities, but it is something that any student interested in a rich academic experience should investigate.
If a teen can be dogged in trying to develop a relationship with a professor(s) and has the academic acumen to be treated seriously, a research university could be great fit.
Investigate Undergrad Research Experiences
The other question that this teenager should ask is what kind of undergraduate research opportunities are available at potential schools. The answer will vary by department.
A child who wants to advance to graduate school should try to get involved with undergraduate research. The teenager from North Carolina says he wants to pursue multiple PhDs, which does show his naivety. Getting a single PhD is grueling process and typically takes seven years to earn one. I’m going to write a post about the myths of graduate school soon.
I once asked the chairman of the social sciences departments at a leading research university how many undergrads get an opportunity to connect with the social science professors at his school, including doing undergrad research. He estimated 10%.
This is a school that is stuffed with bright students who needed stellar test scores and grades to get in and yet most of them have no chance of getting noticed.
In my next post, I’m going to talk more about 3-2 programs that some of the parents mentioned in their comments, as well as liberal arts colleges. I did some research on 3-2 programs when my son was contemplating this academic possibility and I’ll share what I learned next time.
And, as always, if you’d like to add anything, please use the comment box below.