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 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.
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?