Science in the Liberal Arts

Associate Professor, Advisor, Physics Department Chair, Manhattan College

The choice of an undergraduate major is a real challenge for most college-bound students. While some seem to know exactly what they will do for the rest of their lives, most struggle with this decision. Parents, teachers, relatives, and friends all offer advice, but often this just makes the process of deciding more confusing. And today, most students are primarily worried about having a good paying job at the end of their four years of study.

Ample research has shown that the specific choice of a college major is not the deciding factor for future success, job security, or personal fulfillment. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study of people who have worked for a long time suggests that they will change jobs over 10 times during their working lifetime. This can mean a change of career, as well. Choosing a major does not commit someone to a specific career or determine what a person will do for the rest of their life. In fact, according to James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, in a statement on the University’s admission website, “the benefits of particular majors to long-term job performance or security are hard to discover.” He noted that professional schools and graduate programs also have students come from many different walks of life, as they prefer undergraduates with a broad base of knowledge. “They want students who can think analytically, look at life as a whole . . . ”

This is not to say that the choice of a major is unimportant—quite the contrary. What it suggests is that students need to prepare for a lifetime of learning. This means it is crucial during one’s college years to develop critical skills such as flexibility in thinking, preparing and presenting analysis, facility with current technologies, and, most importantly, problem solving. These skills are necessary for success and transferrable to any profession.

A major in one of the disciplines of science will provide a student with all of those skills and more. Moreover, one will be surrounded with peers that are intelligent, hard working, and challenging. Science majors can be found in every field and profession. Science students become researchers, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, CEOs, and even rock musicians. There are no limits to what a person can do with a degree in science. There is a continuing need for professionals with technical abilities. Indeed, to meet the increasing technological demands of our country, President Obama has committed billions of dollars to science education. By the year 2020, the increase in technical jobs will far outpace all other fields.

The philosophy of science and the liberal arts

Once students decide on a science major, they often debate whether to attend a liberal arts college or a research-based university. Thomas R. Cech. Ph.D., Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, and former President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, earned his B.A. in chemistry from Grinnell College in 1970. He wrote a piece, “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?” in which he used athletes as an image to make his educational point.

“Athletes often incorporate a variety of exercises not directly related to their sport to improve their overall strength and conditioning,” he wrote, pointing to swimmers and soccer players who cross-train by lifting weights. “The cross-training may exercise key muscle groups more effectively than spending the same amount of time working out in the sport of interest. Analogously, a liberal arts education encourages scientists to improve their ‘competitive edge’ by cross-training in the humanities or arts.”

Dr. Cech, who went on to study for his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “Such academic cross-training develops a student’s ability to collect and organize facts and opinions, to analyze them and weigh their value, and to articulate an argument, and it may develop these skills more effectively than writing yet another lab report.”

Liberal arts colleges also often offer smaller class sizes and more interaction with faculty than large universities. Dr. Cech explained that the benefits of working closely with a professor are immeasurable. “The personal attention given by the professor often leads to an intense and highly focused research experience in a liberal arts college,” he wrote in the same article. “Those who have had such an experience prize it greatly and consider it to have been highly influential in their development as scientists.”

He acknowledged that research universities are known for their scientific contributions but pointed to the “personal one-on-one interactions between students and faculty mentors” at liberal arts colleges, as more than compensating for that.

“Reinforced by these features, the liberal arts college science education is highly valued by its graduates and contributes to the nation’s strength in science at a level disproportionate to its size,” Dr. Cech concluded.

If a graduating senior has an interest in science, he or she would be well served by seriously considering a liberal arts college. They will find small classes, bright and caring professors, a supportive community, and a path to success. And they may just decide that smaller is better.

Applying scientific examination to your college search

Examine this: scientific specialties

Types of programs science majors should consider at a liberal arts college:

  • Biological and health sciences
  • Chemistry and biochemistry
  • Computer science
  • Environmental Science
  • Mathematics
  • Physics

Examine this: liberal arts schools

What every science major should look for in a liberal arts college:

  • Low student-faculty ratio—small classes sizes mean that you are not just a number; true learning takes place every day and you will get to know your professors.
  • Academic support—this means that the college is committed to your success; you will not fall through the cracks.
  • Science faculty research and undergraduate involvement—this points to the opportunity for undergraduates to truly participate in research.
  • Grants and support for science faculty—this points to the depth and importance of the research the faculty are conducting, as well as their professional reputation.
  • The careers of former science majors—statistics point to liberal arts graduates succeeding in the sciences and earning their Ph.D.s from top research universities, as well as becoming physicians, attorneys, and other high-income, prestigious professions.

Examine this: common myths

Myths about pursuing a degree in science at a liberal arts college:

  • You have to make a decision, right now, that will determine what you will do for the rest of your life—a science major will challenge you, teach you how to think, and prepare you to make decisions. This will put you in control of your future and your career.
  • The top research schools offer the best opportunities—while research universities are engaged in state-of-the-art studies, the best liberal arts colleges offer a broad experience with a wide range of activities, including scientific research, community service, the performing arts, sports, and cultural and academic clubs.
  • You will be trapped in a lab for four years—at a liberal arts college, you will take courses in many disciplines, including science, the humanities, the arts, and mathematics. You will meet and make friends with students of all backgrounds and interests.
  • You will be stuck in a major that you might not really like—at a liberal arts college the faculty and staff are committed to your success; they want you to have a rewarding college experience. They will help you find your path, whatever that may be and whenever that may happen.
  • You won’t get a job when you graduate—you will. But you may decide to enhance your education with further study. And never underestimate the importance of experiential education (i.e., internships, cooperative education, even volunteering) in gaining skills needed in a competitive job market.

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