I teach at one of the smallest universities in Canada (and certainly at the smallest one in my province). We have about 1200 full time students in our whole school. A big department like mine, has five faculty members. (To put that in some perspective, the lab I was in while doing my PhD had five members). I know my students are getting a good education, I have evidence of that. Heck, we even recently hired one of our former students (once she went off and got a PhD) in our department. Each year we send off a few students to grad school in psychology, but also to law school, med school etc.
Why do I mention these things? Well, there is a perception out there that one is somehow at a disadvantage if one’s degree is from a small school when applying for graduate work. I can tell you that, in my experience, this is completely and utterly untrue.
What do graduate admissions committees care about? They care about grades, GRE scores, experience, cover letters (or personal statements) and letters of recommendation. The letters of recommendation are key. (I have been on graduate admissions committees before, and at a big university). You will get a much more insightful letter if the prof knows you. He or she will know you pretty darned well if you have taken 5 classes over your undergrad career with him or her. What do they want to see in these letters? Well it varies, but most of us would like to see words like ‘maturity’ and ‘independence’ and such. Well, at a small school someone will easily see those things in you.
Once you get to a grad program, your work at a smaller university will stand you in good stead. You see, graduate seminars and classes tend to be small, but you have been in small classes since day one of your undergrad career. The idea of speaking your mind is a lot easier if you have been doing it already for a few years.
I have heard many students of mine say that they are concerned when they apply to grad school that ‘nobody will have ever heard of our school’ or ‘they think we are some small time place’. I did my PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but, when I look at the faculty, and where they did their undergrad degrees, I can see that many went to small schools ‘nobody has ever heard of’.
In our fourth year capstone seminar course on the last day I tell my students this:
‘If anyone ever tells you that your education here was second rate, or that your degree is somehow worth less than theirs, feel free to tell them to go to hell, and tell them that was from me.’
Dr. Dave Brodbeck is an experimental psychologist at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie ON, Canada where he teaches and studies the evolution of cognition. Dave can be found talking science, video games, sports, politics etc at davebrodbeck.com or on twitter @dbrodbeck. All of his lectures are podcasted and available on iTunes.