Monday, November 26, 2012

BA or BS?

The daughter of a friend called me up for college application advice and I thought that this might be useful information for other kids as well.  Ack!  College applications are due this week!

Her parents met at a selective liberal arts school and then went together to UC Berkeley for grad school in physics and history.  She's inclined towards the liberal arts, too.  However,  mindful of job prospects for purely liberal arts majors, she's considering combining a major in English or Journalism with a minor in Chemistry.  Her mom told her to call the family friend who likes to write about science and holds both a Bachelor of Arts AND a Bachelor of Science.

Actually, I earned my BA, BS and MRS at UC Berkeley (to a PhD and MIT alum).  Sing Harvey and Sheila along with me.  ;-)

Most liberal arts schools only award Bachelor of Arts, even for science and engineering majors. Some schools, like William and Mary, don't even offer engineering degrees and some of their physics majors actually studied more engineering than straight physics.

UC Berkeley is somewhat unusual because they offer BOTH BA and BS in certain majors, most notably in Chemistry and Computer Science.  They also offer minors.  Why would someone choose one over the others?

Read the course catalogs.  The details vary from school to school (and may have changed since I was at Cal).  In general:

  • A BS requires more math and science coursework.  
  • A BA requires more writing, foreign language, humanities and social science coursework.  
  • A minor may require almost as much as a BA so it may be worth summer school or loading up with a heavy course load to stretch for a double major.
  • If double majoring with a social science or humanities discipline, it's much more difficult to fit in all the required coursework for a BS.  Those long laboratory sessions will kill your schedule. (This also applies to art and architecture studio classes.)
  • The more you take in high school, the less you need to take in college.  You can take the more advanced math or foreign language if you place out of the introductory stuff.  This saves you so much time and let's you take the good stuff that you can only find at college!
For instance, Chemistry BS majors were required to take 4 semesters of mathematics (a year of Calculus followed by a year of Linear Algebra/Differential Equations/Multivariate Calculus).  BA students only needed to take the Calculus.

If you want to be a science/investigative journalist that exposes environmental crimes, then a BA in Chemistry with significant coursework in history, sociology, rhetoric, English and a foreign language or two would be more useful than that extra year of physical science laboratory.  (Not that I'm dissing lab.  If you can squeeze in those courses and graduate on time, go for it!  It's a thrill to replicate the Millikan oil drop experiment to measure the charge of an electron and to measure the rovibrational constants of HCl using quantum mechanics and an FTIR.)

Much as I like Coursera and EdX, online classes are no substitute for the campus experience.  It's not just the professors.  You want to hang with the smartest cohort of students that will let you in (and still treat you nicely and share your non-academic interests).  I know that I pat my own back frequently for the good fortune of having friends like your parents.  ;-)

Can readers chime in on whether they went the BA or BS route and how that worked out for them?


  1. This is a very interesting question. I attended Berkeley and, at first, planned to get a BS in computer science. I changed my mind (largely because I found I did not care for all of the physics) and got a BA in computer science. A colleague of mine got a BS in computer science from Berkeley. We now both do the same job - technical writers. :) So there was no difference in that regard.

    I have a serious interest in the humanities, so getting the BA afforded me an opportunity to take many interesting classes on the side that I couldn't have afforded to take with the BS program. Linguistics, literature, child develoment, psychology, those were some of my most interesting, most remembered, most enriching classes. Those are the classes I still draw on today raising my own kids.

    So, in my case, I would say it made no difference at all, career wise. I started out as a programmer and no one cared if it was a BS in computer science or a BA. It was a non-issue.

    So I think it's a very personal decision.

  2. First of all - thanks for highlighting William and Mary as a proper place to start engineering career! :) Indeed we do have a noticeable fraction of our seniors continuing in engineering grad schools without any problems.
    I don't know about BA vs BS in the real world job market (haven't been there, heard it is a scary place), but from the graduate school admission prospective it does not make any difference as long as you have right classes and decent grades (and GRE and all other stuff). At least this is true in William and Mary :)

  3. Both of your comments remind me that offering more BA programs could help raise the representation of women in STEM.

    A major reason why women drop out of STEM majors is because the long laundry list of technical coursework doesn't allow time for many humanities courses. Women tend to value (or voice that they crave) those classes.

    As long as a BA includes the same rigorous classwork (but fewer of them) as the BS, it's an excellent preparation for both life and a career.

  4. If I could like your comment, badmom, I would. :)

  5. I have a BS in biochemistry from the University of Chicago. (And then went on and got a PhD, but that is irrelevant here...)

    U of C did not offer a BA in biochem, but the chemistry major did have a BA option as well as a BS option. The difference was the the BS required one or two more classes, I think.

    My BS in biochem was a BS in chem with three extra classes required, plus I had to take the bio for major sequence (everyone at U of C takes a bio sequence, but not surprisingly only bio and biochem majors must take the bio for majors sequence).

    Everyone at the U of C takes a year each of humanities, social sciences, and civilizations (aka history), so we all had quite a few writing classes.

    I agree with your point about the the extra classes for a BS squeezing out the electives. I definitely felt that, particularly with my decision to do biochem instead of chem. Biochem was the major with the most class requirements at the U of C and between that and the "common core" requirements (quite extensive at the U of C, but also really good and something I am very glad I did) I had only 3 or 4 true electives, which shows. I managed to graduate from the U of C, one of the best economics schools in the country, with zero economics courses, for instance.

    In terms of what I'd tell an undergrad- as a hiring manager, I don't care if someone got a BA or BS. Not one little bit. I don't know if graduate programs care when deciding entrance, but I'd guess that letters of recommendation and other such things are more important.


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