Should I choose a big or a small university - title

Should I choose a big or a small university?

Choosing the right place for a position as a PhD student, postdoc, or professor is always a critical career decision. Spontaneous advice from colleagues mostly tends towards big universities. However, there are good arguments for choosing small universities.

“Critical mass” at big universities

The strongest argument for a big university is always the so-called “critical mass.” This rather vague term refers to the higher number of researchers at a research institution.

When there are more researchers, there are – in principle – more possibilities for research collaborations, more high-tech instruments are available, and more intellectually stimulating interactions may happen. However, there are some caveats – see below.

The better reputation of big universities – but …

Often, the “fame” of a big university that has existed since the Early Middle Ages may be a strong argument for such an institution. Some big universities may even intentionally try to damage the reputation of small universities to compete for grants or students from the same area. 

However, the fame and number of Nobel prize winners of an institution do not substantially impact a scientist’s career and happiness when the working environment is terrible. 

The working conditions can be excellent or terrible in a big or in a small institution. For the next job in academia, your personal performance (e.g., publications, attracted grants, management experiences) is much more relevant. 

Nobody will hire a mediocre scientist who comes from a great university.

Thus, consider very carefully whether it is the right choice for you to go to a ‘famous’ university.

Better a big fish in a small pond …

Big and small fish representing better a big fish in a small pond

The strongest argument for small universities is the much higher growth potential for staff members. In small institutions, the number of staff members is limited. 

Thus, younger staff members are more quickly asked to take over responsibilities and higher functions in the hierarchy because there is less competition compared to big universities. 

Quite often, there are simply not enough senior staff members to take over all the critical functions. This may even lead to the paradoxical situation that a well-intended gender policy impairs the careers of young female staff members because they have to take over too many functions.

The faster the younger staff members take over relevant functions, the faster they can grow into these new responsibilities and gain expertise. This is already true at the PhD and postdoc levels because fewer persons compete for interesting functions.

Less competition at small universities

For many scientists, the lower level of competition is experienced as a less stressful working environment. By definition, most scientists are “just average” and may even be happy with it. 

A less competitive environment is better to combine a healthy family life with a successful scientific career. It is possible to become a professor without Nature and Science papers. 

These are significant advantages for many scientists. The price is that scientific excellence is more challenging to reach because technology and infrastructure are less advanced.

More scientific excellence at big universities

The increased competition is partly a result of more scientific excellence. Excellent scientists tend to be hired by big universities, which can pay higher salaries or provide more technicians, funding of fancy technology, and excellent infrastructure. 

Small universities often cannot compete and sometimes lose their best staff members who get hired away by the big universities.

More psychopaths at big universities

Big universities are very attractive to psychopaths who have difficult times in small universities. In small universities, intentional isolation is challenging to live, while in big institutions, there are many niches for psychopaths to hide. 

Since a considerable percentage of the population has psychiatric disorders, the absolute number of psychiatric characters is much higher at big institutions – also at the management level. Do not blame the messenger. That is pure statistics.

More intramural funding at big universities

Typically, more money is distributed in big institutions, and ambitious persons can grow faster. Intramural funding also supports significant investments in fancy technologies such as high-tech imaging facilities, high-class infrastructures such as huge animal facilities with numerous mouse lines, and internal technology development and support. 

Most scientists profit from the more advanced working environment. This is a huge advantage. Small institutions can only partially compensate for this by providing more personal support to students, postdocs, and staff members.

More personal support at small universities

In small universities, the ratio between professors and students is much better and students profit from small group sizes compared to mass universities where students feel lost among hundreds of other students. 

At the PhD, postdoc, and tenure-track levels, the interactions are often much more personal. Similarly, interactions with technical and administrative staff members are often much more friendly and personal.

More flexibility and faster decision-making at small universities

A significant advantage of small universities is the fast communication because most people know each other personally, and general strategies can be discussed and implemented quickly. 

This also opens the door for experimental approaches in teaching, research, or administration, which are often not possible in big institutions because 14 commissions have to agree, and often ‘experiments’ are blocked by a member of an opposing ‘clan.’

More systematic staff development at big universities

Since small universities usually have less money, the possibility of profiting from a systematic staff development program (e.g., courses in transferable or technical skills) is better than that of big universities.

More exposure to international scientists on campus at big universities

Especially for younger researchers, it is very attractive to be exposed to many local research seminars and scientific meetings on their local campus instead of finding funding for trips to scientific meetings.

Higher chances to participate in extensive networks at big universities

A network representing the networking chances at bigger universities

When applying for international or European grants, the university’s reputation is relevant because there is a tendency to discriminate against small universities

A bigger university is often the first choice when looking for international partners because of better infrastructure, better technologies, more excellent researchers, etc. 

Thus, it is much easier to participate in extensive networks when affiliated with a big institution.

More freedom?

The degree of freedom is difficult to judge in both environments since working conditions vary dramatically in the same institution. For example, in a big university, it is easier to disappear from the mass of other scientists and live a life in a niche. 

On the other hand, in a small university, there is more freedom to grow because there is less competition, and new initiatives from younger staff members are appreciated.

More collaborations?

There is debate about whether the collaboration potential is higher in smaller or bigger institutions. 

In big universities, many more scientists and technological possibilities are available. 

However, scientists are often surprised to realize that in the lab next door, fantastic technologies, expertise, and scientific excellence have been available for many years without their knowledge. 

In small universities, intensive and more personal communication between scientists may support more intense and complex interactions because everybody knows pretty well what is happening. 

Most people know what the research interests and skills of the other scientists are. Furthermore, small universities are very open to external collaborations because they have to. As a result, they tend to have broad expertise – particularly in regional collaborations and intersectoral mobility.

Quite often, big universities have two or more campuses very far from each other, reducing the ease of intramural collaborations. Thus, travel times between campuses can be as long as between two smaller institutions in different cities.

Touristic attractiveness, culture, and nightlife in big cities

Castle representing tourist attractions near bigger universities

In my personal experience, it is much easier to attract a lot of promising young scientists to a significant capital like Berlin than to a small city in the east of Belgium. 

The cultural activities and the nightlife are critical extra-curricular arguments for many young researchers. 

I received about five times more international applications in Berlin for every vacancy than in Hasselt. This reduces the number of promissing job candidates and may impair the performance of young group leaders. 

Recruitment in small universities must focus on excellent candidates who want to stay in the area. With increasing age or increasing numbers of children, a quieter life appears more attractive to some people.


I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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