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How much of a con (if at all) is a tiny department in one's likely major?

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Looking ahead to the next couple of months when DS hears back from all the places he applied....he mostly applied to small (or smallish) liberal arts colleges, and is most likely to major in math or possibly physics (I'd be somewhat surprised if math isn't in the mix somewhere). He'll probably be deciding between some schools with fairly big and well reputed math departments and some with tiny departments (one has only 4 math professors) and few people who major in math every year. How much should he take this into account when he makes a decision? He'll be coming in with two college classes beyond calculus 2 already (linear algebra and intro to logic, set theory, and proofs); is running out of math classes to take a legitimate concern at schools with very small departments? On one hand, it seems foolish to put TOO much emphasis on math departments, given that he's not even sure he'll major in math....on the other hand I don't want him to get to school and realize he definitely wants to major in math (and possibly to go to grad school after) and find his options limited. 

I can see pros of a small department, too, of course. If those 4 professors are great, then he's REALLY going to get to know them well so that could be a good thing. His best option financially is also looking like it will probably be at a school with a very small math department. 

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The biggest issue would be with the frequency of courses offered and limited class sections.  I would go through course catalogs and see. Even in a decently-sized dept, course section conflicts when only single sections are offered can be an issue. In a small dept, courses might only be offered every other yr. 

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I think the problem would likely be in how many courses are being offered each term, and whether there are enough courses being offered so that time conflicts are minimised. One of mine is at a small liberal arts school and takes a language. Because the department is small, the courses she needs are only offered in one time slot each semester, making it easy for conflicts to arise with other classes. Also whether professors are going to be on leave -- if one of four is away for a semester or year, that's a significant percentage of the department. It might be worth checking also whether the professors are tenured and less likely to leave permanently. 

If you can look at the course catalog for the last few years, that should give you a sense of whether there will be enough classes offered at the level your DS needs.

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Just now, 8FillTheHeart said:

The biggest issue would be with the frequency of courses offered and limited class sections.  I would go through course catalogs and see. Even in a decently-sized dept, course section conflicts when only single sections are offered can be an issue. In a small dept, courses might only be offered every other yr. 

Snap.

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What research areas do they have, and how does the school support undergraduate research? Many of the programs DD is looking st have relatively small bio departments, but have professors that are explicitly working in areas of interest to her and who strongly support undergrad research. Also, look at related fields. In DD’s case, a moderate bio but big agricultural program often actually has more of interest to her, and in many cases, she can take classes in ag and apply them to a bio degree without any problems whatsoever. 

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1 minute ago, saw said:

Snap.

LOL. 🙂

Another issue is offering enough courses to actually allow for growth/challenge. Our ds eliminated all schools without access grad courses. Even with the ability to take grad spcourses, he still took a couple independent study. 

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I think it can vary by college. The only experience I have with this sort of thing is at my ds' school. It is a tiny non-competitive liberal arts college and his girlfriend is the only physics major at the school (I think, definitely the only one in her class level). The school is in Atlanta and she is able to take necessary courses not offered over at Emory or GaTech. She had an REU at a major university summer after sophomore year and has an internship at a national lab set up for this summer (after jr year). I never would have steered a dc of mine to a tiny school with such a limited department but it really has worked for her. The college is committed to getting her taken care of whether it is getting her in at another university or teaching a class just for her. 

I still don't know how I would feel about my own dc taking this route but it has been great for this particular young woman. 

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This is when it becomes important to visit the school and ask questions directly. Several years ago we visited Ursinus. Ds wanted Physics. There were only 4 or 5 profs and a small group of students.Yet at visitation day we met every single one( except a couple kids). They explained that there would be zero problems graduating within 4 years, they explained their classes, and said because it was so tiny, they had great rapport with the students. There were a couple topics that they did specifically have that they knew would be needed for grad school, so had outside groups for their kids that needed it. They amazed us with all of that. I was ready to leave Walt with them that day, and was almost heartbroken when he chose elsewhere.

 

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I would dig deep. Goucher eliminated some majors this year (including math and physics IIRC) with a statement saying that there were not enough students in those majors to keep the status quo. I think that kids who were already enrolled in those majors will continue, but I would be mighty unhappy if that happened to me midstream.

Edited by Penguin

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A department this tiny is a problem because the course sequence and variety will be severely limited. With only 4 profs that have to do the service teaching for the other departments (i.e. the calc sequence for the entire campus) AND the upper level requirements AND the electives, courses will come around only infrequently and he will be on a very restricted schedule, especially since in math, many courses are prerequisites for other courses and have to be taken in sequence. I would definitely want to find out whether their majors can graduate in four years, and whether they get to take challenging upper level electives.

Also, a student who is already bringing in credits may run out of classes in the major during his senior year. That is really bad if he considers grad school. He can get around it by taking some grad level classes at another institution as a senior, but that is not idea.

Lastly, if four profs have to do all the teaching, how active are they in research? If their teaching loads are very high, the research will suffer or be non existent. Which means students don't have opportunities to get involved in undergraduate research. This would be a definite con.

Edited by regentrude
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Oh, pick me! My son is having this issue with math.* Part of the issue as outlined above is limited sections and courses not being offered as often as listed in the catalog. He has had undergraduate research opportunities during the summer and independent studies are offered every semester.  His latest challenge has seemingly to do with department politics. Courses supposed to be offered next year may or may not happen, leaving the only upper level math courses in an area ds has no interest in studying. It's his final  year and he's not happy as he had his schedule planned with certain courses in mind. 

My own personal opinion is that the department hasn't had a strong chair which has led to power struggles in the department. 

Would I cross it off my list, not necessarily. I'd be visiting the department if possible and, like mentioned above, ask very pointed questions. 

 

*disclaimer: My BA was obtained in a tiny history department at the same university. I did not have the challenges ds is having because of the way history classes are structured and the department operates. I had such a great experience with my department, it irritates me to see ds struggle with this. 

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I think others can probably answer this better than I can.  But in my limited experience, first -- yes, the frequency of classes can become an issue.  You'll need to keep a close watch on this from the very beginning to make sure it all lines up.

Then, it can depend on the career goal.  Sometimes, a school with a big name department will make a difference, and that usually means a bigger department.

But sometimes a small department can have its own benefits.  Two of my dd's went to schools with tiny departments, and because of that, and because the professors were very good, they had an excellent education and really got to know their teachers well.  And, the teachers were able to provide some remarkable opportunities for them (since they got to know each other so well), which I imagine would have been more difficult in a big department with more competition. 

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There is a difference between a big name dept and a decent-sized dept. 4 profs supporting the math needs of every single major requiring math pre-reqs is vastly different from even your avg U.  Fwiw, my kids have all attend public Us. I think Bama has something like 35,000 students, but ds had excellent relationships within his dept and great mentors.

I think that flagships often get a bad rap as being impersonal. That has not been my kids' experience. 

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IIRC but could be wrong, isn't Williams on your list? If so, feel free to PM me re maths there. DD is at Williams. 

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Thanks everyone! Lots to think about and some things I hadn't really considered much before. Like I'd thought a lot about how many different courses are offered but not as much about potential scheduling problems with how often certain courses are offered. And areas of research....not going to be a whole lot of variety there with only 4 professors (although, to be fair, I rechecked the website of the college I was referencing, and there are actually FIVE whole math professors....plus one instructor 🙂 ). Of course, tricky thing is he has no idea what area of math he's going to end up most interested in--he could make some guesses based on what he's liked so far (although I remember when I got to grad school (English; very much not math), one of the profs talking about how they make admissions decisions and saying they don't pay much attention to what potential students say they're most interested in because they assume it's likely just whatever field their most charismatic undergraduate professor taught and very likely to change). If he could see into the future and know exactly what he's doing and wants to be doing 4 years from now, this would be much easier! 

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8 hours ago, saw said:

IIRC but could be wrong, isn't Williams on your list? If so, feel free to PM me re maths there. DD is at Williams. 

yep--Williams is probably in his top 2 or 3 right now....it's not one where we're worried about the department being too small, though (although even with Williams, which is known for math, the first thing the math professor we met with last summer said was, "if you know you want to do math and nothing but math, don't come to Williams." But he wants to do math AND other stuff!) If he gets in, I will definitely PM you! 

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IMHO a smaller math dept. would be less of an issue for someone interested in applied math than theoretical (or "pure") math. And a smaller dept. is less of an issue if someone's not planning on going to graduate school in math. But if your DS thinks he might want to go into theoretical math in graduate school, a small department could get to be an issue in the last two years, especially with the number of courses he's already taken.  For example, if he should become interested in modern algebra research, will there even be someone in the dept. that could guide him in the area, or would there just be someone with background in analysis and someone in applied math?  I think that theoretical math presents more of a challenge than some other fields.  (Of course, a prof with broad interests and experiences can help with a lot.)  Or if the college has another college in town, or is in a larger city with access to other mentors, that could work.  If DS is more interested in applications, and not primarily interested in proving theorems, I don't it as a big issue.  Even if the specific applications covered in coursework or independent study aren't the top interest, the breadth of experience is more important.

Edited by Brad S
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I see it as a potential problem for various possible issues that might come up: A teacher is out sick. A teacher takes a year off to write a book or travel.  Etc. Etc.

If one of 4 teachers does that, they are down to 3.

Looking back to last year, when my DD applied for the Math Camp at Texas A&M University that was sponsored by two (2) of their Math Professors,  and their resumes and what they had done, and others in that department, I would suggest that if there is a possibility of a Math Major that it happens in a school with a large Math Department.

Good luck!

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Going to a big school is great if you are outstanding enough to stand out in the crowd. Otherwise, you're better off with the individual attention at a smaller school (assuming you get along with the small faculty, which is really hard to tell as a high school junior/senior on a college visit!)

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9 hours ago, JanetC said:

Going to a big school is great if you are outstanding enough to stand out in the crowd. Otherwise, you're better off with the individual attention at a smaller school (assuming you get along with the small faculty, which is really hard to tell as a high school junior/senior on a college visit!)

Everybody brought up great points of how to decide if a department is too small. And how small departments can work with students to get them what they need.) 

This post brings up what went through my mind when I read the original post; you need to think about your student's personality in determining how he will fit in a small (or big) department. 

My current hs senior has a Big personality that people love or hate. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. A small department would never work, because there is no way to know how the faculty will react to that Personality day-in/day-out for four years. (in fact, this kid only had one school to apply in major, because the second closest was a tiny program/school.) 

Unlike my hs senior, my oldest never wants to be center of attention, and never was interested in a small school after going to a large, high-performing public school. Despite being a "wallflower/worker-bee personality," this student had no problem being hired to do on-campus research starting sophomore year, finding professors to write recommendations for a REU during freshman year and for internships/scholarships/conferences throughout college. This student had a job offer before senior year started, so not being a stand out on campus wasn't a hindrance to landing a dream job. Also was able to approach professors out of class with questions, for an exception to a study-abroad requirement (which was granted), etc.  If this student had been interested in grad school, she would have made the connections needed to guide that process, because she is very goal oriented and would have known that was necessary. 

Good luck to your son in making his decision. 

 

 

 

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10 hours ago, JanetC said:

Going to a big school is great if you are outstanding enough to stand out in the crowd. Otherwise, you're better off with the individual attention at a smaller school (assuming you get along with the small faculty, which is really hard to tell as a high school junior/senior on a college visit!)

I guess I would want to know how many students are actually majoring in math at any given school.  I know that there were something like 10  chemE grads in my ds's graduating class. This roster shows the enrollment of physics majors across US universities: https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/rosters/physrost17.1.pdf (The yr ds was a sr, there were only 33 physics majors in his dept and that would include those double majoring.) I am not sure if there is a similar roster for math depts.  

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To be clear, it's not likely to come down to a choice between a big university and a small school. He does have one (or a couple, depending on acceptances next month) big university he could go to, but he's definitely leaning toward choosing a smaller LAC--but some of them on his list are ones that are known for being strong in math and having a lot of math majors and relatively big math departments and at others math is one of the smaller departments at an already small school.

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