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Top College for a Chemistry Degree

written by: Faith Oh•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 7/31/2010

Rankings of undergraduate, graduate and professional programs are so popular these days that almost everybody planning on applying to any school looks at them. Are they really helpful? What if you are interested in a bachelor's degree in chemistry? How do you decide which school is best for you?

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    When choosing a college or university most people start their research by looking at college rankings. One of the most popular is done by U.S. News and World Report and it is often considered a bible in the college application process. While U.S. News and World Report has several rankings including the best engineering and business programs, it does not have a ranking for undergraduate chemistry programs. Other rankings exist for chemistry programs like that of the National Research Council (NRC) or Science Watch, which ranks programs based on their published scholarly articles. Bear in mind that these rankings are for graduate study of chemistry, which is a completely different experience from undergraduate study and therefore with a completely different set of requirements.

    Since there is so much confusing information out there how do we figure out the top chemistry college? This article will highlight some of the various rankings and some of their merits, demerits and surrounding controversies, as well as provide an alternative approach to deciding what college to attend if you are interested in getting a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

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    Criteria and Available Rankings for the Top Chemistry Programs

    One of the most popular and widely respected rankings for chemistry programs is done by the National Research Council, which ranks all research doctoral programs in the U.S. and publishes its rankings every 10 years. The current ranking was done in 1995 (the 2006 report is delayed and yet to be published) and these are the top 10 chemistry graduate programs:

    1. University of California Berkeley
    2. California Institute of Technology
    3. Stanford
    4. Harvard
    5. MIT
    6. Cornell
    7. Columbia
    8. University of Illinois
    9. University of Wisconsin
    10. UCLA

    Some may argue that the best chemistry graduate programs will also have the best chemistry undergraduate programs. While this ranking gives you the best schools with the best research teams in the country (albeit 15 years old), it is not a good measure of a successful undergraduate chemistry program. This is largely because undergraduate and graduate students typically have different needs. The best chemistry graduate programs are usually at large research universities, with many undergraduate students, where it is possible for an individual undergraduate student to feel lost. The graduate programs on the other hand are usually smaller and the students get personal attention. Therefore, it is more prudent that as an undergraduate you attend a smaller school or a school with a much smaller program. You will get the personal attention you need to develop your skills and understanding of chemistry at such a school and you may end up in one of the graduate programs on this list, should you decide to pursue a doctorate degree.

    Another popular, although more controversial, ranking of chemistry programs is done by Dr. Jack Gourman, who publishes the Gourman Report, a ranking of undergraduate programs. Here is the 1993 ranking of undergraduate chemistry programs in the sixth edition of the Gourman Report.

    1. Harvard University
    2. University of California – Berkeley
    3. California Institute of Technology (CalTech)
    4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
    5. Columbia University
    6. Stanford University
    7. University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
    8. University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA)
    9. University of Chicago
    10. Cornell University

    While the Gourman Report is popular among high school seniors and their college counselors, it has been criticized for its many shortfalls, including the fact that Dr. Gourman does not disclose his method for arriving at his results. The published reports are difficult to come by and are quite expensive. The original reports are not available on the web.

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    The top college for chemistry is really the best university or college where you as an individual can thrive while learning all you can about chemistry. At the end of four years you should graduate with the confidence and readiness to either enter the workforce as a chemist or pursue graduate study.
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    The Best Undergraduate Chemistry Program for You

    The best approach to deciding the best chemistry program for you, which in itself is a very personal process, is to use all of these rankings as guides but not as a set of rules to follow. There are still many intangibles that you need to pay attention to that all add up to a successful undergraduate experience. Things like whether you feel at home and a sense of community at a particular school. What kind of support outside of the classroom will you get? Will you be nurtured and will your research be encouraged? Will you get to build personal one-on-one mentoring relationships with faculty?

    Another ranking that will help in this regard is the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the best schools for undergraduate research. At these schools students work on their own research or creative projects while being mentored by a faculty member. The result is often a scholarly paper or public presentation of their research. Here is the 2010 ranking showing the top 10 schools in this category.

    1. Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
    2. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA
    3. Carleton College, Northfield, MN
    4. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
    5. College of Wooster, Wooster, OH
    6. Cooper Union, New York, NY
    7. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
    8. Creighton University, Omaha, NE
    9. Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
    10. Davidson College, Davidson, NC

    If you care so much about chemistry, chances are that you will want to go beyond the bachelor's degree. There is no better way to demonstrate to graduate school admissions committees that you are ready for research than doing your own undergraduate research.

    Another list worthy of consideration is that of top chemistry colleges profiled in former New York Times education editor Loren Pope's famous book Colleges that Change Lives. Pope wrote of these schools: "The secret of these 40 colleges' magic is not in what they do, for they do many different things. It is in how they do it..."

    Once you have these various lists, create a short list based on geography or other intangibles that may be important to you and then start looking at the research of the chemistry faculty at the various schools and the work of the chemistry departments in general. Visit and talk to other students. By so doing, you will arrive at the school(s) that will be ideal for you. Chances are you do not need to go to MIT now to get a degree in Chemistry, but if a Ph.D. in chemistry from MIT is your long-term goal, you will probably make your journey toward that goal much easier if you are in an undergraduate chemistry program that is just right for you, even if it does not have name recognition. And the 'right' program is different for everyone.

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    Science Watch:

    National Research Council:

    Gourman Report:

    U.S. News and World Report:

    Colleges that Change Lives: