NSF Study Shows New Mexico Tech Produces Doctoral Students At Impressive Rate
SOCORRO, N.M. June 22, 2010 – New Mexico Tech is at the top of another national ranking. The research university in Socorro makes the grade for awarding the highest percentage of doctoral degrees among all the nation’s public universities.
|Physics senior Eric Peterson reviews his research project with professor Dr. Ken Minschwaner. About a dozen undergraduate students are working on paid research assignments this summer in the physics department.|
Physics Department Has History Of Success Preparing Undergraduates for Doctoral Studies
The physics department is heavily represented in the bachelor’s-to-doctorate statistics. From 1990 to 1999, New Mexico Tech awarded 141 bachelor’s degrees in physics. Of those students, 29 have earned Ph.D’s – or 20.1 percent.
“I say this with a great deal of pride – we are a department that is keeping that number high,” Department chair Dr. Dave Westpfahl said. “What this study shows is that Tech students are well prepared for doctoral programs and research.”
Westpfahl said he and his colleagues have gone the extra mile to prepare undergraduates for doctoral research and lifelong learning and to create a nurturing and positive environment. The third floor of Workman – homebase for the Physics Department – has a cozy lounge with a well-equipped kitchenette. The office of department secretary Gina Chavez is well-supplied with candy, snacks, tissues and other amenities of home.
“That is by design,” Westpfahl. “We want students in Gina’s office every day. If a student is struggling, we’ll find out about it early.” The Physics Department’s success is also about instruction, curriculum and academic engagement.
All sophomores take a lab course taught by lab manager Barry Sabol (another Tech graduate). Each student has his or her own oscilloscope and multimeter. The sophomore lab has room for eight students.
“If we have 24 students, we schedule three sections,” Westpfahl said. “This is unusual … but we want sophomores to come to the department. We want to see them and get to know them.”
Even during summer months, the third floor of Workman is abuzz with activity. Nearly a dozen students are conducting directed research with professors. Each physics professor has ongoing research projects – typically funded by a federal agency or the National Science Foundation – and students are hired to help on every project.
“Our goal is to involve half of our students in research projects,” Westpfahl. “We have consistently met that goal.”
New Mexico Tech has some distinct advantages in facilities over nearly all other physics departments in the nation. A world-class radio astronomy facility is on campus – the NRAO. The Magdalena Ridge Observatory operates a 2.4-meter telescope and is building a Rolls Royce interferometer. Langmuir Lab is the world’s only facility dedicated to lightning research. The Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center is another one-of-a-kind test center. The student-run Etscorn Observatory provides accessible and available instruments. In addition, the department includes nearly a dozen labs and custom instruments – often built and/or designed by students – that give students a wide range of opportunities to learn how to be a career researcher at the side of the experts.
“We are preparing students for their doctoral program,” Westpfahl said. “The physics curriculum is fully trained for that.”
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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech
New Mexico Tech is 15th in the nation and No. 1 among public universities for the percentage of bachelor’s students who later complete a Ph.D.
The National Science Foundation examined doctoral degrees awarded at all U.S. universities from 1997-2006. During that period, 118 students who earned bachelor’s degrees at New Mexico Tech were awarded Ph.Ds. In other words, 8.7 percent of Tech graduates went on to complete a doctoral degree during that decade.
“People who end up getting a doctoral degree – where did they get their bachelor’s?” said Dr. Van Romero, Vice President of Research. “The idea is that students need a good foundation to get a Ph.D. What schools do that? By this measure, our students get the best undergraduate education of any public school.”
Dr. Peter Gerity, Vice President of Academic Affairs, said the NSF study is proof that New Mexico Tech instructors prepare students to be leaders in their fields.
“This shows the high level of productivity of our faculty,” Gerity said. “It’s a real distinction to be listed in the top three, along with Cal-Berkeley and William and Mary, which are both well respected in their fields. To be placed in that triangle is an exceptional opportunity for us to gain more visibility for our academic programs.”
“Our faculty works hard to prepare our students,” Gerity said. “They are more academically mature and ready to go to graduate school than a typical student. That is really the key to their success.”
He said Tech has always strived to keep high quality faculty and to maintain high quality curriculum.
“When I came here 10 years ago, my first feelings were that I needed to maintain those standards because the reputation of this institution hangs on that,” he said. “Whether you call it difficult or challenging, Tech’s all-around quality of education is our hallmark.”
Romero said Tech’s research-based education lends itself toward producing highly-qualified doctoral candidates.
“If you get a Ph.D., you have to be research-oriented,” he said. “Tech students get exposed to that in their undergrad career. This study shows that our undergraduate program is the best among public institutions in science and engineering.”
For decades, the overriding academic ethos at New Mexico Tech has been to create research opportunities for all students, Romero said.
Romero is among the Tech graduates who earned a bachelor’s in Socorro, then earned a doctorate. The Tech faculty includes several other professors who matriculated in Socorro, left to earn a doctorate, then returned to Tech to teach. They include physics professors Sharon Sessions, Ken Eack and Paul Arendt, petroleum engineering professor Tom Engler, mineral engineering professor Navid Mojtabai and chemical engineering professor Michaelann Tartis.
Tech is one of only three public institutions in the top 50. The University of California-Berkeley is 39th on the list, issuing 5.7 Ph.D.’s per 100 bachelors. The College of William in Mary (Va.) is 45th on the list, issuing 5.1 Ph.D.’s per 100 bachelors.
The top three schools in the study are Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd College and M.I.T. The rest of the top 15 includes Ivy League schools and the top private (and expensive) universities in the nation.
“A bachelor’s of science degree from Tech means something,” Dr. Engler said. “Whether it’s practical for starting a career or continuing on to grad school. The undergrad program here is very strong and rigorous in the basics and fundamentals. Tech grads are very good at understanding.”
Engler earned his bachelor’s and master’s at Tech, before earning his doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. He said Tech’s small size helps it maintain its academic prowess.
“You can’t fake your way here,” he said. “And recruiters know that. I have had recruiters come to me and say that a ‘C’ average at Tech is equivalent to a ‘B’ anywhere else. They have a sense of our rigors and our reputation.”
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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech