The top 10 list of natural resources schools (is completely rubbish)

by Brandon Peoples

Late this summer, an interesting link popped up on my Facebook feed: “The 10 best colleges for studying natural resources and conservation”. The list was put together by College Factual, a website dedicated to helping people find college programs that will improve their employment possibilities after graduation.

I threw the list of the top 42 (yeah, 42) universities into a word cloud, and added a few I thought should be included

I clicked the link, and was instantly surprised with a large photo of the most notable building on Virginia Tech’s campus—my campus! In the moments of frenzied reading and clicking that followed, I became more excited to learn I had earned a MS and PhD at the top-ranked natural resources program in the U.S. I watched over the next few days as dozens of my colleagues and students from VT proudly shared the article. Who could blame us?

But my excitement faded nearly as quickly as it came. I immediately began to scroll though the list looking for Arkansas Tech, the small public university where I earned by BS. I’m just as proud of my undergraduate experience at ATU as I am of my graduate experience at VT, and I hold both programs in equal esteem.

I was fairly dejected by the time I reached the end list; my alma mater was no place to be found. I read further and discovered that College Factual actually uses an in-depth composite of multiple metrics to rank programs. This wasn’t just some arbitrary list based on somebody’s opinion; it was based on cold, hard numbers.

Then I thought of all the successful biologists I know who have graduated from ATU with either a BS or MS. There were too many to count, even from the group I knew during my four years there. The ranking must have been wrong. I wanted to cry foul.

But then I realized there is a certain intangible aspect of an education in fisheries science (or natural resources, or… really anything) that will predict your success after college much better than your university pedigree.


That’s right. Your success after college depends directly on what you make of your undergraduate experience, regardless of where you got your degree. It’s your responsibility to take ownership of your own education—to get research and work experience, make professional contacts, and gain the skills you need to be successful. I’ve known plenty students from high-ranking programs who phoned it in for four years, only to find themselves unemployable after graduation. I can also think of plenty more students who went above-and-beyond at lower-ranking programs and are now first-rate biologists.

Uncle Sam

So, to all you undergrads in “high-ranked” programs: Don’t get cocky. Your program probably offers more in the way of coursework and research technician opportunities. But you’re sadly mistaken if you think that your school’s reputation will get you into grad school if you have a mediocre GPA, can’t ID fish, and think “R” is simply a pirate’s favorite letter (it’s actually the “C”, but that’s beside the point). Unless you take advantage of those large-program advantages, you’ll be sorely surprised when some scrappy student from the School-You’ve-Never-Heard-Of lands the position you were banking on.

And to the undergrads whose programs were further down (or off) the list: Don’t be intimidated. Your major may not offer relevant coursework in eight departments or employ an army of grad students to hire you for the summer. But you can use this as an advantage. Apply for those internships in other states. Find creative ways to do undergraduate research projects. Go to AFS meetings. Shake hands. Meet people. Fill your résumé with volunteer and work experience. Then when it comes time to apply to jobs and grad school, you’ll look that much better because you have, in large part, made your own way.

Your education is what you make of it, folks. What will you turn it into?

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ed says:

    That article should not be given much credibility. The highest-weighted rankings are average salary within 5 years of graduation with a BS and the overall ranking of the whole school.

    Salary is absolutely not an indicator of either success or ability in natural resources. Considering that a great majority of Bachelor’s-holding natural science people immediately either take seasonal technician positions (very low-paying for the most part) or go to graduate school (Pay? HA!!), the average person with a BS in natural resources is probably at or below the poverty level. Salary in the natural resources world usually doesn’t get close to that of similarly-educated professions until a good 10 years into the field. So in short, some of the best-trained, most prolific and successful scientists are still not even making a bump in the statistic. Especially when you consider that against the salaries of an engineering graduate. This is a completely bogus measure of the strength of the program.

    As for having the standing of the entire university weight the “value” of your natural sciences BS, that’s a completely bogus measure as well. Some of the smaller universities in the country (or plenty of the larger ones that didn’t make the list) are home to some of the best-known and longest-standing scientists and professors in the field. We all know the strength of a lot of our relationships forged with our mentors and the intensely personal context that we learn in. Overall status of the university in the national rankings is completely irrelevant when you’ve learned from the people who literally are writing the books on the science. Consider Colorado State University for a moment. CSU didn’t even make the top 40, yet is home to names like Kurt Fausch and Robert Behnke, two of the best-known fish biologists of our time. I doubt any student of theirs would ever agree that their degree means any less because the CSU program didn’t make a top ten listicle.

    You can get an excellent education and a degree to be proud of at a ton of schools. A bunch of technically correct but factually useless statistics won’t change the value of your degree in any way.

    1. Excellent comment! More than anything else education is what the student makes of it.

  2. John says:

    Do you think this also holds true for graduate programs? Does where you get your master’s matter as much as the quality of work you produce?

    1. bkpeoples says:

      Great comment, John. There’s a reason I wrote this about undergraduate education. I think the core idea holds true, but I also think there’s a great deal of meaningful separation. At a larger R1 school, there are many more opportunities in terms of courses, research facilities, perspectives from the sheer number of potential collaborators, etc–opportunities you just can’t find at smaller schools. This makes sense, though, because heavy research is rarely a mission of smaller schools anyway; it’s up to the student to know this ahead of time. This isn’t to downplay a graduate degree from a “lower-tiered” university (at least not in natural resources). I know plenty of top-notch biologists who went that route…and I’ve seen plenty of people bungle a grad degree from R1 schools. However, I am thankful that I got my BS from a smaller school and my graduate degrees from an R1.

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