So You Want To Be an Engineer – Consider This


Just finished a terrific book from Malcolm Gladwell called David and Goliath.  Here’s one of many counterintuitive inferences drawn in the book.

If you wanted to get a degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), would you be better off going to Harvard University, or Hartwick Collect, a small liberal arts school in NY?  It’s pretty obvious, right?

Or maybe not.

In an incredibly thought provoking discussion of relative deprivation, Gladwell argues (quite persuasively) that “It’s not just how smart you are.  It’s how smart you feel relative to other people in your classroom.”  And that it is far easier to feel like a big fish in a small pond like Hartwick than it is to get by at Harvard.

Is he right?  Let’s look at the data.

First we’ll look at the average math SAT scores for students entering Hartwick College in STEM majors, segmented into three groups: top third, middle third, and bottom third.  The results are: 569, 472, and 407 respectively.  So, the best students at Hartwick have average math SAT scores around 570 (out of a perfect 800).

Next, let’s map the distribution of the school’s science & engineering degrees across those three groups. The results: 55.0%, 27.1%, and 17.8%.  So, the top group earned over half of the school’s STEM degrees.  And obviously large numbers of the students who were in the bottom third dropped out of STEM majors at Hartwick.  No surprise there.

How about Harvard?

Let’s do the same grouping into top, middle, and bottom third, and then look at math SAT scores for students in STEM majors.  Here is the data: 753, 674, and 581 respectively.  Clearly these scores are far, far better than Hartwick.  The top third in Harvard nearly averaged a perfect score on the math SAT!  And even the bottom third at Harvard have average SAT scores that are higher than the best students at Hartwick.

No doubt all the STEM students at Harvard should earn science degrees, right?

Wrong.  By a long shot.

Looking at the distribution of Harvard’s STEM degrees across those three groups, here are the results: 53.4%, 31.2%, and 15.4%.  Nearly identical results as Hartwick.  Amazing!

In Gladwell’s words, “The students in the bottom third of the Harvard class drop out of math and science just as much as their counterparts in upstate New York.”

The research goes on to suggest that for every 10-point increase in the average math SAT score the likelihood of dropping out of a science major increases by 2%.

How can that be?  These Harvard students in “group 3” are better than even the best at Hartwick.  Why are they dropping out in droves?

Because of relative deprivation.  A student with decent math SAT scores will likely do quite well in a school like Hartwick, achieving her dream of earning a STEM degree and working in an engineering or science field.  But at Harvard, even if you are very, very good at math, so is everyone else around you.  So much so that you are likely relegated to average at best.  And what happens when you are no longer near or at the top – with countless others are surpassing you, and in many cases blowing right past you?  You begin to lose your self-esteem and question whether this field is right for you.  It’s just a small step from there until you drop out of an engineering or science degree into another major like liberal arts.

In Gladwell’s words, “The smarter your peers, the dumber you feel; the dumber you feel, the more likely you are to drop out of science.”  In the case of choosing Harvard over Hartwick, your chances of graduating with a science degree are reduced by nearly 40 percent!

Thought provoking indeed.

Now let’s look at what happens after graduation.  Looking at the field of economics and one small measure of “success” – how often scholarly articles are accepted into prestigious publications.  Surely even the middle-of-the-road Harvard PhD students should get their articles accepted into the crème-de-la-crème journals far more than their peers from “no-name” schools, right?  Wrong again.

Turns out the very best students at the “lesser” schools easily beat out everyone but the very best at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and Chicago.  As Gladwell comments, “Are you better off hiring a Big Fish from a Tiny, Tiny Pond than even a Middle-Sized Fish from a Big Pond?  Absolutely.”

In my own experience as a hiring manager when I spent a lot of time interviewing prospective engineering graduates, I focused much more on their skills and talents over the school they were attending.  Once hired, I found the top kids – regardless of their school – consistently performed the best work.

Indeed, the Big Fish from the Small Ponds certainly trump the Small (and even Middle) Sized fish from the Big Ponds.