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BYU seventh in the nation for grads that get Ph.D.s

BYU undergrad Patrick Turley is dealing with a very good problem: He can accept only one of the grad school offers he’s received from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Chicago and Cal-Berkeley.

And when he graduates from BYU this week with a degree in economics and mathematics, Patrick won’t be alone in pursuit of a Ph.D.

In the past five years, 1,255 BYU grads have received Ph.D.s. Those figures make BYU seventh in the country as a Ph.D. launching pad, ahead of schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

BYU is primarily an undergraduate institution, so the few hundred BYU grads that embark on the Ph.D. path each year fan out across the country after gaining acceptance to programs at other universities.

Patrick understands precisely how BYU gives him a leg up on grad school admissions. At the National Bureau of Economic Research last summer, many undergraduate interns from Harvard were surprised to hear that Patrick received mentoring from BYU faculty on several of his own research papers each semester.

“Their classes are so large there, they can’t write research papers for each class because their teacher is not going to read 300 of them every semester,” Patrick said. “BYU provides the resources to get students to where they want to go.”

Academic Vice President John S. Tanner says this Ph.D. ranking captures the quality of a BYU education better than many other ways of ranking universities.

"This ranking is pleasing both because it measures something our Board has asked us to be particularly good at – undergraduate education – and because it is based on hard evidence of actual student performance, rather than perception," Tanner said. "We hope to continue to provide a first-rate undergraduate education that is both intellectually and spiritually strengthening and that leads our students to pursue lifelong learning."

So where is Patrick headed?

Patrick’s many grad school offers arrived before the National Science Foundation awarded him a fellowship that would pay his way at the school of his choice.

Facing an April 15 decision deadline, Patrick opted to seek an economics Ph.D. at Harvard. It happens to be the same program his big brother Bob entered two years ago after graduating from BYU. The brothers will likely enjoy a few years together at Harvard as Bob begins his dissertation in earnest.

Finding his field

Economics wasn’t always in the plan for Patrick. As a freshman, he studied both mathematics and physics. That year he researched in a lab with Professor Dallin Durfee where they cooled atoms to less than 1 degree Kelvin by restricting their motion with lasers.

But extreme cold and laser labs couldn’t compete with Patrick’s excitement in a pair of economics classes. He switched his major and enrolled in an urban economics class by Professor Michael Ransom. With Ransom’s help, Patrick examined how a change in local school boundaries impacted the real estate market. His analysis suggests that home prices rose 3 to 6 percent within Timpview High’s boundaries relative to the homes within Provo High’s boundaries.

“I was majoring in math all along,” Patrick said. “Where I was going to use math was the question.”

Ph.D. readiness

Patrick’s grad school grooming was also aided by a university program that awards students $1,500 grants to conduct research with the help of a faculty mentor. Patrick twice applied for and received such funding, known as “ORCA grants” among the student body.

The BYU undergraduate experience hasn’t escaped the notice of the director of admissions for the University of Chicago’s graduate economics program.

“I can honestly say that of all the universities around the world, the top undergraduate economics majors at BYU are consistently at the top of the pile in terms of readiness to matriculate to the University of Chicago,” said John List, also a professor of economics at Chicago. “Give me a few good BYU graduates, and I will have the makings of a wonderful class.”

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