Although we both grew up in separate oceans, we both attended a small undergraduate institution in North America before moving on to a large research-intensive university for our doctoral work. We take pride in our work in smaller institutions, but too often we – and others we have worked with – perceive a bias against them in academia.
We are not the only ones to be proud and a little protective of the smaller institutions in which we have been formed. When one of us (DL) tweeted, in 2019, about our experiences, we couldn’t have predicted the huge engagement the tweet would receive. Among the responses were suggestions that finding a niche and achieving a work-life balance may be easier in a small institute, and that coming out of a large establishment allows you to find a place that values the same things as you. .
Countries and ranking matrices have different ways of defining ‘elite’ or ‘research intensive’ institutions. In the United States, they are designated “R1” under the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education – administered by the Indiana University School of Education at Bloomington – on the basis of “very high research activity” . This classification is based on a combination of parameters, including the amount of federal research funds received each year. In the UK, self-selected ‘Russell Group’ universities account for 15% of the country’s higher education institutions, but attract around three-quarters of research funding and often top the rankings established by the UK. Times Higher Education.
Unfortunately, in our opinion, there still seems to be an assumption that scientists from non-elitist institutions are there as “back-up” because they are not good enough for R1s. This bias indirectly sends a message to early-career researchers: unless they come from a top institution or find a job there, they are not good scientists. We and our peers has been upon receipt of this message. Considering that the Carnegie Classification lists some 4,324 higher education institutions in the United States, and only 131 of them are R1s, the bias is absurd and damaging.
The message that small institutions are not good enough takes many forms. One of us (KG) recalls that one of the principal researchers in her doctoral program told her that the program was intended to prepare candidates for research positions; therefore, it did not provide significant teaching experience, which is very important in small establishments.
This bias can also undermine funding allocations. A US National Science Foundation Graduate Scholarship Analysis, Posted in Science in 2019, found that these awards are disproportionately won by students at R1 institutions.
And in Canada, many Federal Research Fellowships for faculty members and graduate students are awarded based on their institution’s track record in securing funding. Some might argue that the ability to attract funding is the result of meritocracy, but the reality is that when an institution’s historical performance and prestige are taken into account, funding simply breeds more funding.
This effectively means that faculty members at smaller institutions To lose, and Wrestle to carry out research programs and train the next generation of scientists. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduates at these institutions to thrive and make meaningful contributions to their field, and could mean they lack training and education. the expertise that faculty members have to offer. Such a bias can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, with highly qualified researchers at all stages of their careers flocking to larger institutions.
We believe that the status quo does not recognize that small institutions can provide excellent research training, not in spite of their size, but because of their size. At large universities, an undergraduate student may work with a graduate student who, in turn, may report primarily to a post-doctoral fellow. This hierarchy can often distance undergraduate students from the professor who runs the lab. In contrast, smaller universities might better allow undergraduates to work directly with faculty members early on and in small groups.
Undergraduates in the KG lab, for example, design and fully implement research projects presented at international conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals; thus, their experiences are very similar to those of graduate students at the beginning of their cycle. In smaller institutions, the faculty mindset pays particular attention to incredible potential budding scientists, to better enable them to grow and prosper. Indeed, this was our experience as undergraduates and we both believe that this environment was fundamental to launching ourselves into careers in neuroscience.
Leading institutions remain privileged places, because reported by The New York Times, among many other media. Studies have documented the ‘hidden’ programs of academia1, easily accessible to relatively privileged students, but less accessible to others. The advantages of small and medium-sized establishments, especially those that are culturally appropriate and have a long history of targeting ethnic minority groups – are obvious, in terms of strengthening social mobility and representation, for example.
Additionally, small institutions can sometimes be the only option for post-docs and students with disabilities, who may not be able to find a replacement elsewhere for the local healthcare team they rely on. Not everyone has the luxury of funding or other support to uproot and relocate. We need to recognize that the ‘lower’ perception of smaller institutions fails to recognize their role in equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as the exceptional training they provide to diverse students entering the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Scientists were born and raised in different ways and in different environments. The mentality that good science only exists in large, research-intensive universities is damaging the field. Small and medium-sized institutions offer invaluable experiences for many. Don’t count them.
The authors declare no competing interests.